A Short History of English Liberalism/III

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Three great events, or series of events, combined to produce the process of individual emancipation, which is the subject of this book. The first was the economic transformation, called the Industrial Revolution, which began about 1760 and ended about 1830. The second was the American Rebellion, which ended in the recognition of the independence of the United States in 1783. The third was the French Revolution, in part at least a consequence of the American Rebellion, which ended in the establishment of a Republic in 1793.[1] The first operated to change the conditions of life of the English people. The second and third operated to communicate to them ideas for which their new conditions of life had made them ready. Revolutions are never the product of circumstances alone, or of speculation alone. They are begotten by speculation acting upon circumstances. New ideas falling upon a people who have no reason to seek change bring forth little fruit. New ideas falling upon a people who have cause for discontent may bring forth fruit a hundredfold. England, at the end of the eighteenth century, was a society in a state of rapid economic change, which produced a disposition in the mass of the community to alter institutions adapted for more stable conditions. From America and from France came the preaching of the right of the individual to control his own life, which precisely suited the case of those whom swift alterations of the economic structure exposed to injury.

For the purposes of this work it is not necessary to examine the industrial changes in detail. They had four leading features: the discovery of new processes of manufacture, the invention of machinery, the application of power, and the improvement of communications. The application of coal, instead of wood, to the smelting of iron, and the introduction of powerful machinery in the cotton and woollen industries, enormously increased the production of goods, and with that the demand for workpeople and the size of towns. In 1761 Brindley and the Duke of Bridgewater began constructing canals, which enabled goods to be carried about the country in greater bulk and with more speed than was ever possible with packhorses and carts. James Watt obtained his first patent for the steam-engine in 1769, and by the end of the century it was established in almost every industry of importance. All these changes combined to increase to an enormous extent the quantity of manufactured articles. But they did much more. They altered the distribution of population, and they altered the whole system upon which industry was based. Two things were of vital importance for the working of the new inventions. The iron industry had formerly been situated in the South of England, where the forests of Sussex provided ample fuel. The coal-beds lay in South Wales and the North of England, and the iron mines lay conveniently beside them. The iron industry accordingly disappeared entirely from Sussex, and was re-established in the other districts. The coal and iron industries determined the situation of the industries which required steam power and machinery. The cotton industry found another of its necessities in the climate of Lancashire. The woollen industry was transferred from Norfolk, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Somersetshire, and Devonshire to the West Riding of Yorkshire. These geographical redistributions of industry, in the course of half a century, shifted the bulk of the population to the Midlands and the North.

The change was not merely geographical. Machinery required additional capital expenditure, and steam power must be used on a large scale if it was to be profitable. For the old manufacturer, a workman managing tools or a hand machine in his own cottage, was substituted the new manufacturer, a capitalist employing large numbers of artisans in his factory, managing his large machines, which were operated by his steam power. The old system was a system of small and scattered master workmen, producing and selling their own goods. The new system was a system of closely aggregated wage-earners, producing goods for a common employer, who provided the machinery, the power, and the superintendence, and sold the product of their labour for his own profit. This feature of the Industrial Revolution was as important as its redistribution of industry. It meant a considerable loss of independence among the working class, and it meant the birth of an entirely new class, the employers of labour, whose wealth and importance were destined to rival and eventually to surpass that of the landed gentry.

The most obvious consequence of these economic changes was the conversion of the rustic cottager into the town-dwelling artisan, and the growth of the towns presented difficulties and created grievances of which previous generations had had little experience. The towns were designed at hazard, with little adaptation to the needs of the present, and with no view to the needs of the future. They were hastily planned and hastily built. The problem of the slum, previously recognized only in London and a few seaports and country towns, was now to be found in every little factory town which sprang up in the potteries, the textile districts, and the coal and iron districts. Narrow streets, dark courts, houses built back to back, inadequate sanitary appliances, deficient water-supply, bad drainage, every evil thing which to-day stares at the sad eyes of progress, was planted at a thousand spots where before there had at least been open country and fresh air. Factory and housing legislation were unknown. Men toiled twelve or fourteen hours a day in bad air, in excessive heat or cold, and with insufficient light. Women, who had been accustomed to weave, and spin, and bake, and brew in their own cottage homes, followed their industries into the factories. Some of them toiled underground in coalpits. A child of six might be worked for fourteen hours a day in a mine, as a chimney sweep, at a potter's oven, or in a cotton mill. Pauper children were farmed out to employers under conditions which were no better than slavery. Wages, in the absence of any real combination among the workpeople, were at the discretion of the employers, and naturally fell to the lowest possible level. Some trades were better than others, and some employers were better than others. But the evidence collected by different Parliamentary Committees between 1800 and 1840 is overwhelming proof of general, if not universal, degradation. The managing class seems to have believed that leisure was dangerous, even for little children, and the poor were made slaves, lest they should become dissolute.

The conditions of life and labour, bad as they were, were often made worse by the precarious nature of employment. At the present day, invention seldom inflicts great shocks upon labour. Improvements are constant but gradual. In the hurry of the Industrial Revolution, invention proceeded at an accelerating pace, and the introduction of some new appliance into a single industry might reduce the demand for labour by a quarter, or a half, or even three-quarters, and almost depopulate a town at a single blow. Some trades were more fortunate than others in this respect, but almost all suffered. All alike were injured by the constant wars in which the country was involved. These wasted capital, increased the taxation of the necessaries of life, and, by disturbing foreign trade, made profits speculative, and so made it difficult for the most benevolent manufacturer to establish his business upon the basis of high and steady wages for his workfolk. The country was never actually invaded, so that industry was never ruined, as it was ruined in Germany and other parts of Europe. Even Napoleon clothed his troops in Yorkshire woollens when he set out to conquer Russia. But the production of wealth, which so increased in spite of war, was chiefly for the benefit of the employing and investing classes. The share of the working class was undoubtedly much less in proportion than their share under the old system. But their lot was made harder still by high prices, and especially by the high price of corn. The growth of population had, by the end of the eighteenth century, made it impossible for the country to supply all the wheat required for domestic consumption. The war checked imports, bad harvests reduced the home supply, and a vicious protective tariff completed the work of natural causes. Between 1785 and 1794 the average price of a quarter of wheat was about 50s. Between 1795 and 1801 it was about 87s., and at a later date it rose to a still greater height. The industrial population was thus distressed by bad conditions of life, fluctuations of employment, long hours, low wages, and high prices. When we recollect that this society was composed very largely of ignorant men, we are not surprised to find many of them disaffected and even turbulent. The man who knows, or thinks that he knows a remedy for his misery is often dangerous. But he is never so dangerous as the man who knows nothing of causes and effects, has never pondered over a question of economics, and, as he has never sought an explanation for the present, can have little idea of how he can most wisely direct the future. The progress of the Industrial Revolution was thus accompanied by suffering and discontent among the labouring population.

These economic changes led directly to psychological changes, and the new thinking was not merely the expression of unreasoning discomfort. An entirely new class appeared in society. The employers of labour were added to the other elements of the middle class, the merchants and shipowners, the barristers and doctors, and the better sort of clergy and attorneys. The new class, larger and more wealthy than any of the others, was dominated by no traditions, either for good or evil, and it depended for its existence and growth upon qualities of enterprise and adaptability, which territorial wealth neither required from nor fostered in its owners. The rise of the capitalist employers meant a great increase in the Liberal spirit, and their influence eventually broke down the Toryism of the old landed interest. The manufacturers were perhaps more Liberal than they knew, and their unconscious influence on political habits of mind was as great as their deliberate expression of new ideas. The whole atmosphere in which they lived was fatal to Conservatism, and new ideas moved more rapidly among them than among those who were surrounded by the stereotyped forms and persisting influences of a feudal land system. Manufacture, by its constantly changing processes, accustoms those who engage in it to the idea of continual adaptation and improvement. Its organizers are never afraid of change in itself, and they always refer established things to standards of utility. They are intolerant of any thing which appears to subject convenience to forms. The early capitalists were therefore little disposed to set much store by the distinctions of sects and orders. They were wealthy, and were naturally not inspired by zeal for the wider distribution of wealth. They were employers of labour, and were naturally not anxious to strengthen labour in its demand for higher wages and better conditions. But they were ready to accept, not manhood suffrage, but the reform of rotten boroughs; not the disestablishment of the Church, but the removal of the disabilities of Dissenters and Catholics; not social reform, but the abolition of the protective tariff; not State education, but the mitigation of the ferocities of the criminal law; not the appropriation of the unearned increment of land, but the destruction of the antiquated ceremonies which made its transfer difficult and expensive. The general effect of the rise of this class was to strengthen Liberalism, not so much by a direct assault upon Toryism as by overbearing Conservatism. One positive piece of Liberal work is due to them. Their whole industrial system was built up in free and open competition. They hated the interference of the State, and it was they who, in a subsequent generation, abolished Protection. But at the time with which this chapter is concerned, their chief value lay in that they had none of the aristocratic Tory's antipathy to new ideas as such. They had no love of political monopolies which were not their own.

The effect of the Industrial Revolution upon the minds of the working class was infinitely more acute. The employers had no aversion to change. The employed had every reason to seek for it. While they became, as dwellers in towns, more exposed to the infection of new ideas, they encountered new hardships, which made them more sensitive. Political doctrines, which hardly stirred the mind of a cottager, dividing his time between manufacturing and tilling a small plot of ground in open country, sounded loudly in the ears of an artisan, quickened by contact with machinery and constant intercourse with his fellows in the factory or in the street, cramped by living in a sunless court in a crowded town, earning a bare subsistence by exhausting labour, or thrown out of work by the introduction of a new machine or the bankruptcy of his employer. Even in the absence of systematic education, there is a kind of intellectual development which is inevitable in industrial society. Friendly societies, Trade Unions, crowded workshops, closely packed dwellings, all tend to stimulate the exchange of ideas, and however clumsy the industrial organization of the period may have been, it inevitably produced a new quickness of thinking. The character of that thinking was determined by the conditions of life.

Political disability may have nothing, it cannot have much, to do directly with economic distresses. But no people in a state of bodily misery was ever yet persuaded by the most logical argument that the one is not connected indissolubly with the other. They are wretched. They cannot control their circumstances. Does it not follow that if they could control their own circumstances they would cease to be wretched? Economic discontent invariably produces political discontent, and that whether the sufferer has a voice in his government or not. It is always to the advantage of society that he should have such a voice. If he has a vote he may overturn a Government. But he will not overturn all government. He may expel a party. He will not subvert the State. Whether a trade depression will produce a revolution or only a General Election depends on whether the bulk of the working people are enfranchised or not. In the one case the party system provides discontent with an alternative. In the other there is no hope of constitutional change. Probably only the excitement of the war with France saved England from violent internal disturbances at the end of the eighteenth century. The sense of national power is a good anodyne for personal misery, as governing classes have always been aware. But if there was no great disaster, there was grave unrest. All circumstances combined to make the preaching of new social principles popular and their application to the existing state of society fierce.

It was not merely a vague and general suffering which stimulated political discussion among the working classes at this time. They had definite grievances, which were obviously produced by their disfranchisement and could only be removed by their admission to political power. When the Industrial Revolution began, there was still on the Statute Book the Act of Elizabeth, which allowed the magistrates to fix wages in proportion to the prevailing local price of corn. It is doubtful whether this method of establishing a minimum wage based on the standard of bare subsistence could have been used successfully in the new conditions. Country gentlemen might have been able to make an accurate guess at a fair wage when industry was stable and competition not acute. They would certainly be incompetent in the age of machinery, of violent fluctuations of trade, and of intense competition between employers. The only people who can ever fix minimum wages are the employers and workmen themselves, acting through representatives. But the Act offered at least the opportunity of experiment, and any attempt to preserve a decent standard of life among the workpeople would have been better than the alternative of leaving the standard to the discretion of the employer, who would naturally be disposed to make it low. The agricultural labourers made several attempts to get their wages fixed in this way.[2] For various reasons the Act was not enforced, and in 1795 the magistrates began to adopt the alternative of granting poor relief regulated by the price of corn. This was the fatal Speenhamland policy, which, by securing a subsistence to all labourers, irrespective of their work, degraded their character by making up wages to the subsistence level, whatever their amount, induced employers to reduce wages for pauper labourers and independent labourers alike, and, by enormously increasing the burden of rates, seriously injured the whole agricultural industry.

A similar experience befell many of the artisans, especially the cotton weavers. In 1795 Whitbread introduced a Bill, which proposed to apply the principles of the Elizabethan Act to the workers in towns. It was read a second time without opposition, but got no farther. Thirteen years later a second Bill was defeated by the Economists and laissez faire. It was honestly believed by theorists and by the few practical politicians who, like Pitt, were beginning to study political economy, that wages could only be fixed by bargaining between employers and employed, and depended upon the extent of the wages fund, the amount left after the employers had paid the rent of their land, the interest on their capital, and their own profits. This fund was always assumed to be fixed. Any attempt to increase it meant a reduction of profits, and a reduction of profits meant a less inducement to employers to establish industries, and consequently a reduction of employment. To some extent the argument was sound. During the rapid transition from hand labour to machinery, it might have been worth an employer's while to employ large numbers of men at low wages rather than a small number of men with expensive machinery. A slight increase of the average wage might have turned the balance in favour of the machinery. But the argument as a whole ignored two facts. The first was that the inducement offered to the employers was excessive, and that they might still have established as many factories, even if their profits had been somewhat less. The second was that an increase in wages would have been followed by increased efficiency and an increased production of wealth, leaving larger sums to be given to employers and employed alike. These considerations did not weigh with the early economists. Wages were left to what was called free bargaining, in which the comparatively wealthy employer got the better of his comparatively poor workmen.

This refusal of redress by legislation was the more exasperating because it was accompanied by a prohibition of redress by combination. Parliament would neither help the workmen nor allow them to help themselves. Attempts to organize Trade Unions were discouraged or actively suppressed. In 1799 and 1800 two Combination Acts were passed, which made illegal all contracts between workmen for obtaining an advance in wages, for reducing hours of employment, for preventing employers from employing any particular workman, or for controlling any person in the management of his business. Breach of the Acts was made a criminal offence, punishable by fine and imprisonment.[3] Combinations of employers were nominally prohibited in precisely the same way, but in the political circumstances of the time the law was enforced only against the men. Trade Unions, in fact, continued to exist, and in many trades they succeeded in arranging wages with the masters. So long as the relations of employers and employed were friendly, the Acts were left alone. But when a strike began they were brought into operation, and the workpeople were forcibly reminded of the consequences of political impotence. Large numbers of them were thus reduced to the same state as the agricultural labourers, and lived on scanty wages, eked out by charity and the Poor Law.

The Industrial Revolution thus gradually transformed society, and created what were substantially two new classes of people, of which the first was by nature averse to Conservatism, and the second was by circumstances made restless and eager for change. The successive events of the American Rebellion and the French Revolution fell upon this changing society like flame upon stubble. But a few years before the dispute with the Colonies came to a head, there took place a sort of preliminary demonstration of the principles which that controversy forced into prominence. Speculation had brought a small body of Englishmen to definite support of manhood suffrage, annual Parliaments, and the substitution of pledged delegates for representatives with freedom of action. These principles were simply the logical extreme of Liberalism. If every man is to be regarded as equal with every other, then every man must have a vote. If every man ought to have a vote, he must be allowed to exercise it as soon as he becomes entitled to it, and therefore Parliament must be dissolved every year in order to permit the new voters to express their wishes. If every man ought to have a vote, he must be allowed to vote not merely on general principles of policy, but on details, and his representative must be instructed to vote for or against without using his own discretion. This abstract reasoning had not affected any large proportion of the population. The Duke of Richmond was the most distinguished of these speculators; John Cartwright, a naval officer, who afterwards became a major in the militia, was the most voluminous of their writers; their most effective workers were men like the clerical Horne Tooke and Wyvil; and their largest following was in the county of Yorkshire. As a political force they counted for nothing at all. But the affair of Wilkes and the Middlesex election brought the whole subject of representative government vividly into the public eye, and the political philosophers found their doctrines for a short time popular.

Between 1768 and 1770 there was a distinct tendency in politics towards the reform of Parliament, the reduction of the number of rotten boroughs, and the restriction of the influence of the Crown. This was produced by bad harvests and industrial depression. The expulsion of John Wilkes from the House of Commons in 1770 brought this discontent to a head, and provoked not only dangerous riots in London, but also violent discussion of political principles. Wilkes was a disreputable person, though not more disreputable than some men who enjoyed the confidence of the Crown and Parliament. He was obnoxious to the Government of the day, and after twice beating the Tory candidate for Middlesex, was twice expelled from the House. The Government and the House thus asserted their right to refuse to accept the chosen representative of the electors, and, in effect, to dictate to them what representative they should choose. It did not require any pedantic process of reasoning to show that this was the negation of representative government, even of the qualified representative government of that time. The right of election is nothing unless it is the right to elect whom the electors please. Within the metropolitan area the House of Commons was fiercely attacked, and there was more than one conflict between the Courts of Law and the Executive. The main question was whether the House of Commons was to be a private assembly of gentlemen, managing public affairs as irresponsibly as they managed their own estates, or whether it was to be a public assembly, chosen by the community and responsible to it. "What were the relations between the House of Commons and the constituencies? Could the House dictate to the constituencies whom they should elect? If it could, did it not follow that members were neither representatives nor delegates, but an absolute oligarchy?" From this the public proceeded to inquire not only whether the House was right in expelling an elected member, but by what title those who voted in favour of expulsion held their own seats. The scandals of the existing system were obvious. Even at that day, before the growth of the great towns, the distribution of seats bore no relation to the figures of the population. The county of Cornwall returned as many members as the whole of Scotland. London, Westminster, and Middlesex, the most densely populated part of the kingdom, returned only eight members, while Cornwall returned forty-four. Out of 513 English and Welsh members, 254 were returned by only 11,500 voters, and six constituencies had less than four voters each. Bribery and corruption was thus made an easy task. Boroughs were bought and sold like landed estates, and Lord Chesterfield complained in 1767 that the Indian adventurers had so raised prices that mere inherited wealth could not compete with them.[4] The expenses of elections were enormous, and in some cases reached £30,000 or £40,000.[5] Inside the House, members, who had thus acquired their seats either by nomination or by purchase, had nothing to fear from their constituents, and many of them could be bought by the Crown with little difficulty. In 1770 no less than 192 of them held offices under the Crown, and were directly under its influence.[6] A House of this sort could only be endured without complaint while it acted in harmony with public opinion. So long as politics were no more than a business for gentlemen, it mattered little how gentlemen acquired their interest in it, or how they employed their interest when they had got it. But the disputes about Wilkes made people think that politics concerned the electors as well as the legislators, and when the voters of Middlesex found that the gentlemen in the House refused to accept their representative, they, and other voters like them, began to inquire fiercely into the whole system.

Wilkes actually made use of some of the logical Liberal or Radical terms of speech for his own purposes. In No. 19 of the North Briton, he wrote of the right of the people "to resume the power they have delegated, and to punish their servants who have abused it," and he invited his constituents to give him their "instructions." Whether Wilkes honestly held the Radical faith or not, he preached it with great popularity and success, and he stood for much more than he was. He was unquestionably a scoundrel. But he was expelled from the House because he was a demagogue. Persecution converted him from a blackguard into a standard of battle, and "Wilkes and Liberty" became the cry of all who valued free government. Liberty has always owed as much to the folly and extravagance of its enemies as to the wisdom and devotion of its friends.

The contest ended in the victory of Wilkes and the electors of Middlesex, and the popular ardour was quickly cooled. But two permanent marks were left upon English politics. The first was of infinite importance, as indicating a breach in the aristocratic monopoly of public affairs. The public meeting became a regular means of expressing opinion and of influencing Parliament. In August, 1769, a meeting was held in Westminster Hall at which seven thousand people were said to be present.[7] Many meetings were also held of the freehold voters of the different counties, who were at this time almost the only independent voters in the country. These passed resolutions, sent instructions to their members, and approved petitions.[8] The second permanent change effected by the Wilkes controversy was the establishment of the Society of the Supporters of the Bill of Rights. This was founded in 1769 to assist Wilkes, the prime mover being Horne Tooke, the Vicar of Brentford.[9] The fundamental principles of this Society were Radical, and it proposed to test every candidate for Parliament by inviting him to pledge himself to equal distribution of seats, annual Parliaments, and the exclusion of placemen from the Commons, and to take an oath against bribery. The Society was soon superseded by the Constitutional Society, which maintained the same principles, and from this time political associations outside Parliament have remained a permanent feature of English life.

When the immediate controversy had subsided, the course of domestic politics remained uneventful for a few years. The King and Lord North were slowly buying up the House of Commons, and establishing a practical despotism which proved far more dangerous to the public than the more obvious tyranny of the Stuarts. The Rockingham Whigs looked with jealous eyes upon this revival of their ancient enemy, the power of the Crown. Even as it stood, Parliament was better than Monarchy. Parliament acted according to law, the Crown at its discretion or caprice. Parliament was responsible in some measure to the people it governed, the Crown was not responsible at all. Parliament was an instrument which could be wielded, however clumsily, by the nation; the Crown was an active and independent agent, which could only be expelled for misbehaviour, after the mischief had been done. If the Crown were allowed to overcome the resistance of Parliament, the last check on its power would be gone. This small body of Whigs therefore laboured, though with little success, to maintain the purity and independence of the Commons by the exclusion of placemen and the reduction of sinecures. The American War brought the whole question of government to an issue, and the struggle, which had seemed to end in the English Revolution of 1688, was fought out again across the Atlantic. The dispute between England and the Colonies was simply whether the Colonies were to be governed despotically or in accordance with their own wishes. The stamp duty and the tea duty, which figured so largely in the quarrel, imposed no real burden on the Americans, and would not, by themselves, have caused any difficulty. Even the elaborate commercial restrictions, which used the Colonies for the interest of the Mother Country in the same way as they used Ireland, had produced little ill-feeling. What really happened in the first fifteen years of George III's reign was that a community of civilized men, united by their common geographical situation and common interest, and sundered from an older civilization by some thousands of miles of ocean, became resolved no longer to be governed in accordance with the ideas of that older civilization. The Americans, in a word, had acquired a nationality of their own. While the French held Canada, the danger of invasion from the North kept the colonists eager for the British connection. The expulsion of the French in 1763 left the colonists free from external menace, and without this pressure towards union, the essential differences of the two societies made themselves felt. The dispute about taxation would undoubtedly be settled by all modern lawyers in favour of England. Parliament had the legal right to impose taxes on the Americans, nor was there anything morally wrong in asking them to contribute to the cost of their own defence. But the proposal to tax was only evidence of a persisting habit of disposition. The Americans were not interested in the affairs of Europe. They preferred to manage their own business. The English Government made the fatal error of first irritating them by arbitrary interference, and then alienating them by force. In 1783 George III acknowledged the independence of the United States of America.

The war produced a direct conflict between Liberalism and Toryism. Did the Colonies exist for the benefit of the Mother Country or for their own? Had or had not one section of the Anglo-Saxon race the right to compel another section? Was a homogeneous society two thousand miles away to be governed by an English Government in a way of which it disapproved? Subsequent generations have settled the Empire upon Liberal principles, and have decided to treat a colony of white men as an independent nationality. The Tories of the American Rebellion decided otherwise, with disastrous results. But in losing the American Colonies, England escaped a greater disaster. It was a choice between losing the Colonies and losing domestic liberty. Never was the relation between foreign and domestic policy more vividly displayed. Never was it more clearly demonstrated that a political philosophy is one and indivisible. The Tories could only conquer in America by principles which would enable them to conquer in England also. This was always present to the minds of the Whigs, who had no doubt that in fighting for the Americans they were fighting their old enemy of the Revolution. Liberalism and Conservatism were in this case identified. The Whigs, in maintaining the principle of representative government, were defending an established institution. The Tories, in endeavouring to destroy local self-government by principles which struck at the root of domestic self-government, were revolutionaries rushing headlong into reaction. "I deny," said one of their champions, "that there is any such thing as Representation at all in our Constitution, but that the Commons are taken out of the people, as the democratic part of the Government, not elected as representatives of the people, but commissioned by them in like manner as the Lords are commissioned or appointed by the Crown. If the Commons were the representatives of the people, the people might control them, and the instructions of the electors would be binding upon the members."[10] The Whig doctrine, opposed to this negation of Parliament, was stated most forcibly by Burke, in his Address to the King. In this manifesto he said: "To leave any real freedom to Parliament, freedom must be left to the Colonies. A military government is the only substitute for civil liberty. That the establishment of such a power in America will utterly ruin our finances (though its certain effect) is the smallest part of our concern. It will become an apt, powerful, and certain engine for the destruction of our freedom here. Great bodies of armed men, trained to a contempt of popular assemblies representative of an English people; kept up for the purpose of exacting impositions without their consent and maintained by that exaction; instruments in subverting, without any process of law, great ancient establishments and respected forms of government; set free from, and therefore above, the ordinary English tribunals where they serve,—these men cannot so transform themselves, merely by crossing the sea, as to behold with love and reverence, and submit with profound obedience to the very same things in Great Britain which in America they had been taught to despise, and had been accustomed to awe and humble.... We deprecate the effect of the doctrines which must support and countenance the government over conquered Englishmen."[11]

The matter was indeed worse than a mere corruption of the army. The people who used the army would be as much demoralized as the army itself, and every Tory civilian would be converted into an active enemy of his own freedom. Burke, whose speeches on this subject are a treasure-house of political wisdom, saw straight into the heart of the matter. "There are many whose whole scheme of freedom is made up of pride, perverseness, and insolence. They feel themselves in a state of thraldom, they imagine that their souls are cooped and cabined in unless they have some man, or some body of men, dependent on their mercy. This desire of having some one below them descends to those who are the very lowest of all, and a Protestant cobbler, debased by his poverty, but exalted by his share of the ruling Church, feels a pride in knowing it is by his generosity alone that the peer, whose footman's instep he measures, is able to keep his chaplain from a jail. This disposition is the true source of the passion which many men in very humble life have taken to the American war. Our subjects in America; our colonies; our dependants."[12] It was not argument, but a habit of mind, which Burke encountered. Even without a victory in America, the corruption of the Tory mind was bad enough. It was precisely in the temper of the American War that Tory statesmen, after the French Revolution, afflicted their own countrymen. But from the utter loss of the temper of independence England was saved by the loss of the Colonies. The power of the Crown seemed to be strong even after the war. But a train of events in the mind had been started which could not be stopped, and in feet, when George III abandoned his hold over the Americans, he abandoned also his hold over the English.

This victory was decisive, and it is difficult to see in what other quarter it could ever have been won. There was no country in Europe where such a definite assertion of the right of a people to control their government was likely to be made. Even France, where a few years later the assertion came with ten times greater vigour, owed much to the American rising. The French Government, which allied itself with the Americans to injure its old enemy England, by that very act destroyed itself. The final result of its exertions was precisely the opposite of what it intended, and what, at first sight, it achieved. Apparently, it humiliated England and elevated itself. Actually, it saved England and destroyed itself. Its subjects were exposed in America to the fatal contagion of liberty. They brought it back to their own country, and in ten years the French Government had perished, and the whole of Europe was infected.

It cannot safely be asserted that the Revolution in Europe would have been so successful but for the American Rebellion. The general ignorance and apathy of the poorer classes, and the general acceptance of established things which prevailed among the others, were weights which few Europeans would have tried to lift, or could have lifted if they had tried. In the American Colonies were gathered people of a different complexion. The Rebellion was not that purely noble and disinterested thing which lovers of liberty would have wished it to be. But the people concerned were such as made certain their maintenance of a noble principle, even from bad motives. The stocks from which they sprang were among the most vigorous of the English race. The lives which most of them lived made them hard and self-reliant. The distance which they lived from the Mother Country weakened the influences of tradition. Their institutions were in some districts reminiscent of the English. But in general it would be fair to say that they had no aristocracy and no privileged Church, land was free to all, the women were trained to vigour and independence no less than the men. Except in a few of the older settlements every circumstance tended to foster individuality, and left a man free to raise himself by his own exertions to positions of dignity and power. As Tom Paine put it in the Second Part of his Rights of Man, "So deeply rooted were all the Governments of the old world, and so effectually had the tyranny and the antiquity of habit established itself over the mind, that no beginning could be made in Asia, Africa, or Europe, to reform the political condition of man. Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think." The significance of this great event could hardly be exaggerated. One of the oldest and most powerful monarchies had been humiliated by a people who proclaimed, as the foundation of their new State, the equality of all individuals within it. The presence of the United States was a perpetual reminder to the discontented and the suffering among the older peoples that successful revolt was possible, and that constitutions might stand fast which did not confer privileges upon any class in the community. It would be absurd to pretend that the American people have not often fallen short of their own ideals. But the ideals were at least established. It was no small thing that a State should have come into being whose founders proclaimed in their Declaration of Independence that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that to secure these rights Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." There are not less than five historical or logical errors in that sonorous passage. But it acted on the old world like the voice of God among the dry bones.


Opinion in England seems to have been generally favourable to the war. Opposition was most marked among the commercial classes, whose trade was seriously injured by the loss of the colonial market and the destruction of shipping. Such as it was, it encouraged the organization of public opinion outside Parliament, which had been previously practised in the affair of Wilkes. The attack was properly directed against the Crown. The City of London led the way in December, 1779, by resolving "that the various measures which have brought the landed and mercantile interest of this country into its present reduced and deplorable situation could not have been pursued to their actual extremity, had it not been for the abuse of the present increased, enormous, and undue influence of the Crown." There followed a meeting of the freeholders of Yorkshire. This assembly protested against the multiplication of sinecures and pensions "from whence the Crown had acquired a great and unconstitutional influence, which, if not checked, might soon prove fatal to the liberties of this country," and a committee was appointed to prepare a plan for an association to promote economic reform and restore the freedom of Parliament. Great excitement was caused at this meeting by the indiscreet remarks of a gentleman called Smelt, who had been one of the tutors of the Prince of Wales. He appears to have argued that the King's influence was too little rather than too great, and the indignation produced by his remarks shows how widely independent opinion dissented from the servility of Parliament.[13] Similar meetings were held in nearly thirty different counties and boroughs, and in most of them committees of correspondence were appointed. Deputies from some of these committees met in London in March, under the chairmanship of Wyvil, the Yorkshire clergyman. The deputies published a memorial which described the state of government as "a despotic system," declared that "the whole capacity of popular freedom had been struck at," and referred in plain terms to the "venal majority" in the House of Commons. The memorial demanded that one hundred new members should be sent to Westminster to represent the counties.[14]

This external pressure produced some effect even upon Parliament, corrupt though it was. In April the House of Commons resolved by a majority of eighteen "that the influence of the Crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished." Resolutions in favour of economical reforms were passed without divisions, and Burke introduced a Bill for reducing expenditure by about £200,000 a year and for abolishing some of the worst of the sinecures. But the tide soon ceased to flow in Parliament. The Gordon Riots in June, 1780, gave the Tories a very useful weapon against popular agitation. The Duke of Richmond actually introduced a Bill for manhood suffrage and annual Parliaments on the very day when the Protestant mob began the work of plunder and arson. But any attempt at political reform was at this time hopeless. There was no unanimity among the reformers. The Duke of Richmond was a logical Radical. Fox supported annual Parliaments and opposed manhood suffrage. Burke, who was active in proposals to suppress corruption, would not accept even triennial Parliaments, and though he had no objection to slight changes in the distribution of seats, hated equally all drastic changes in the franchise and in the composition of the House of Commons. A dissolution of Parliament and an election, at which the King spent nearly £50,000 in buying votes, strengthened the Tory Government, and even Burke's plans for economical reforms were generally defeated.

The campaign in the country persisted, and in May, 1782, William Pitt revived the question of political reform in the House of Commons. There can be no doubt that Pitt was then and for some time afterwards in favour of considerable changes, and but for the accident of the French Revolution, he would probably have abolished many of the rotten boroughs and extended the franchise by the end of the eighteenth century. His speech of 1782 was hardly less vigorous in its denunciations of royal and aristocratic influence than were the speeches of Fox in the House and those of the country meetings outside it. But he was at this time only a new member, with none of that mastery of the assembly which he afterwards acquired. His motion for a Special Committee was beaten by 161 votes to 141, and fifty years elapsed before the cause received such powerful support again. Pitt did indeed introduce a Bill in 1785 which provided for the purchase of a certain number of rotten boroughs and the transfer of their members to the counties and London, and for the establishment of a permanent compensation fund which should be applied to similar objects in future years, as the population passed to the unrepresented industrial towns of the North. But in this scheme he acted without his colleagues. By 248 votes to 174 the House refused him leave to introduce the Bill, and he never made a second attempt. Five years later the French Revolution made him a determined opponent of the cause which he had once supported.


So far as Parliament was concerned, the Liberal movement for political reform made no headway. In other channels the Liberal tide moved quietly but steadily. In 1778 relief was obtained by the Roman Catholics from some of their worst disabilities. In that year Sir George Savile's Bill abolishing the penalties upon priests and Jesuits who were found teaching in schools, and the infamous rule which dispossessed a Papist owner of real property in favour of the next Protestant heir, was passed in both Houses without opposition. But even this slight measure of justice aroused great hostility in the country, and two years later the Gordon Riots showed that the persecuting zeal of Protestantism was not yet dead. The Dissenters were the next to move, but in their case Conservatism was too powerful. In 1787, dissatisfied with the annual Acts of Indemnity, which preserved the stigma of inferiority while relieving them of its legal penalties, the Presbyterians, Independents, and Baptists attempted to procure the repeal of the Test Act and the Corporation Act. Their case was presented in the House of Commons by a Churchman named Beaufoy in 1787 and again in 1789. North opposed him on the grounds that abolition would endanger the Established Church, which was an essential part of the British Constitution. Fox took the true Liberal view, declared that no Church should be Established which was not the Church of the majority of the people, and went so far as to say that "if the majority of the people of England should ever be for the abolition of the Established Church, in such a case the abolition ought immediately to follow." Pitt was no bigot, but consulted the Archbishop of Canterbury. A meeting of the Bishops decided against abolition by ten votes to two.[15] Pitt, therefore spoke against the motion, which was defeated.[16] But the cause was not hopeless. The voting in 1787 was 178 against 100. In 1789 it was 122 against 102. But in 1792, when a similar motion was made by Fox, the conditions were altered. The French Revolution had broken out. The property of the French Church had been confiscated. Dr. Priestley, the most copious of the Dissenting writers, had expressed his desire to disestablish the English Church. Dr. Price, the most popular of the Dissenting preachers, had praised the acts of the French revolutionaries. All the fears of reaction rallied to support the Establishment, and the motion was beaten by 296 votes to 105. It was not brought forward again for nearly forty years.


The right of free discussion, so essential to the maintenance of political and religious liberty, gained some additional protection in 1791, when Fox's Libel Act was passed. Prior to that date juries had been confined in libel cases to answering two questions: was the document published? and what did its words mean? The judge then decided whether the meaning put upon the words by the jury constituted a libel or not. This system gave a great advantage to the Government in all cases of seditious or blasphemous libel, and prosecutions of printers and journalists were very common. The judge was a lawyer, and probably Tory in his opinions. He was connected with Government, with the propertied classes, and with the Established Church. Any attack on existing political, proprietary, or religious institutions was therefore tested by a man who was probably prejudiced in favour of all three, and might actually have defended in the House of Lords the policy which had been attacked by the prisoner at the bar. Judges like Lord Mansfield and Lord Camden had shown themselves, during the Wilkes controversy, to be honourable and upright. But the danger existed, and even if the judge's power was not consciously abused, it was always liable to be affected by class prejudice.[17] Fox's Libel Act gave to the jury the right to decide whether a publication was libellous or not. After the outbreak of the French Revolution, when the middle classes showed themselves as bigoted as the upper, even trial by jury was but a poor protection to an avowed Republican or atheist. But the new principle was safer than the old, and it was something even to have asserted that a man's political opinions should be judged by his fellow-subjects, and not by a member of the governing class. The Act implied, in the minds of those who voted for it, a reversal of the old conception of State and subject. So long as the supremacy of the State was assumed, criticism of government was inevitably regarded as improper. It was, in effect, the servant rebuking the master. On the other hand, when the right of the subject to control the State becomes the basis of political reasoning, criticism of government is no more than the master rebuking the servant. The passing of Fox's Libel Act is a proof that political minds were in a state of transition, and suggests, no less than Pitt's proposals for reform, that but for the French Revolution political estimates might have been revised, and political institutions readjusted, at a much earlier date than they were.


One other transaction of this period is of importance in the history of Liberalism. In 1785 the House of Commons resolved that Warren Hastings should be impeached for his conduct of affairs in India. Hastings had been Governor-General under the East India Company, whose territory and influence had been enormously increased since the victories of Clive and the expulsion of the French twenty years before. The prime mover in the impeachment was Burke, who devoted to the preparation of the charges and the conduct of the trial enormous industry, and an eloquence so tremendous that to this day no man can read his speeches without shaking with horror and indignation. The Company had been guilty of every vice which the disposing mind displays when it is brought into contact with weaker peoples. It had developed the art of exploitation to perfection. Its agents were in the country to make money for their shareholders, and in pursuing the interest of their shareholders they did not forget their own. The natives were exposed to a double confiscation, and every consideration of good government was not seldom subordinated to this universal rapacity. The agents bribed and forged, they abused judicial process, they broke treaties and sold their allies, they made war upon those peoples whom it was convenient to treat as their enemies, and when they wanted an excuse for a campaign of their own they hired out British soldiers to a native destroyer, and entrusted to him the work of massacre and pillage which they were unwilling to undertake themselves. The inhabitants of India were not at that time acquainted with the classics. Had they been, they might more than once have quoted with grim justice against the British those words which the Latin historian put into the mouth of one of their own ancestors: "Slaughter and plunder are in their vocabulary synonymous with Empire, and when they have made a desert they call it peace."[18]

Hastings was in fact incomparably better than his predecessors, and after the trial had dragged on for more than seven years he was acquitted by the Lords. But the proceedings had established the great principle that morality is to be observed by white races in dealing with black, and that even though forms of government may be different, the objects of government are the same in all parts of the world, the happiness of the governed and not the enrichment of the governor. The impeachment cost Burke fourteen years of unremitting labour. But though he failed in his immediate object, and though the improvement in the methods of Indian government was slow, the permanent effects of his work remained. Burke's speeches were often overcharged, and if Hastings had been as bad as Burke believed him to be, he would have been supernaturally bad. But indignation on behalf of an alien race is not so common that we can afford to spare even its excess. A later generation of Englishmen, reading some of the sorry pages in the history of our modern Empire, may regret the absence from us of Burke's imagination, sympathy, and inexhaustible wrath. Acts of Parliament passed in 1772 and 1784 gave the Crown political control over the East India Company, and the complete transfer of the Company's rights in 1858 established the government of India upon a political and no longer upon a commercial basis. Blemishes there are still, but there are few systems of government in the world which are less influenced by the desire to promote the selfish ends of the governors. The transformation of English opinion with regard to India began with Burke.


On the eve of the French Revolution there seemed to be a very good prospect of reforms in the English Constitution. The Catholics had made an actual advance. The Dissenters had every reason to be hopeful. The Tory leader himself had shown sympathy with free election and the enfranchisement of the new industrial districts. But the fate of English liberties lay in the hands of the French Government. If Turgot and the French reformers had had their way, the Revolution might have been averted, or at least mitigated. The triumph of the French privileged classes made reform impossible, and made it certain that revolution would be violent and universal. In May, 1776, Louis XVI, impelled by faction and his bad wife, dismissed the one statesman who could have made absolute monarchy tolerable to the French people. By the end of 1793 he and the Queen had perished on the scaffold, the nobility were dead or in exile, and a French Republic was proclaiming with even greater emphasis than the American the doctrines of individuality and natural right. The shock to established things was terrific. This was not a matter of a handful of colonists in a remote part of the world. It was a whole nation, and that in the heart of Europe, which had not only risen against monarchy but had destroyed it, and with it aristocracy and the Church. Every institution upon which political society was based had vanished in the flood, and the French people, not content with establishing new principles at home, were calling upon the common people abroad to do the like, and were announcing their intention of carrying help wherever it was required. It is difficult to imagine in these days with what feelings those who believed in class distinctions and privileges and the aristocratic monopoly of government witnessed the triumph of an assembly which issued this Declaration of Rights.

"I. Men are born, and always continue, free and equal in respect of their rights. Civil distinctions, therefore, can be founded only on public utility.

"II. The end of all political associations is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man; and these rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.

"III. The nation is essentially the source of all sovereignty; nor can any individual or any body of men be entitled to any authority which is not expressly derived from it."

The Declaration affords as ample material for criticism on logical and historical grounds as the American Declaration of Independence. But its plain meaning was the same: that the subordination of the individual to the institution was at an end, and that everything in politics was to be tested in future by its effect upon human beings, irrespective of their rank, wealth, creed, or occupation, or sex. In a word, it was the source of modern Liberalism.

In England the Revolution was at first regarded with general approbation, or at least indifferent curiosity. To Whigs like Fox and Mackintosh, as well as to Radicals like Price and Cartwright, it was a matter of exultation to see the end of absolute monarchy in France. Even a Tory might view with equanimity the summoning of a French Assembly which bore some resemblance to the English. Even a lawyer might rejoice at the fall of the Bastille, the symbol of arbitrary government, and the negation of the English rule of law. But as the Revolution swept beyond the constitutional forms, when the mob broke loose in Paris, when the King's head was cut off, when the heads of men and women who were noble in character as well as rank were carried through the streets on pikes, when the property of the Church was confiscated, and when members of the old nobility of the most splendid nation in Europe exhibited their destitution in every town of England, the bulk of the English people hurried into reaction. If anything beyond the mere excesses of the Revolution was required to turn a timid friend into a frantic enemy, it was the Assembly's proclamation of its intention to help all other peoples to follow its example. There is no people which hates political bloodshed more than the English. There is no people which more stubbornly resents foreign interference in its domestic affairs. Both these national characteristics were offended by the Revolution, and their offence was the opportunity of Toryism. Burke's Reflections on the Late Revolution in France was published in 1791, and gave voice to the national dislike of violent political changes. The book, with its deep reading of human nature, its insistence on the continuity of national growth, and its contempt for those who thought to alter a political society by reasoning in the abstract, was the wisest book which the Revolution produced on either side. But it was full of errors of fact, and it made no allowances for the horrible suffering which the old system had imposed upon the common people of France. If it expressed the opinions of a wise Conservatism, it was also made the textbook of selfishness and monopoly. Every person who owned property or privilege was roused by it into hatred of any change which threatened to extend the political rights of the majority. The governing class marshalled itself to defend its own. From the moment when Burke published his book to the end of the first quarter of the nineteenth century, hardly a single Liberal measure was passed into law. The fate of the Dissenters has already been described. Parliamentary Reform fared no better. In 1792, 1793, and 1795 Charles Grey, afterwards Earl Grey, brought the subject before the House of Commons. In 1782 Pitt had been beaten by 161 votes to 141. In 1793 Grey was beaten by 282 to 41, and in 1793 by 258 to 63. The Dissenters were not admitted to public offices till 1828. The Catholics had to wait till 1829. Parliament was not reformed till 1832. Nor was the Tory spirit displayed simply in neglect. It was active and vicious. During the long interval between the beginning of the Revolution and the triumph of the Whigs in 1831, the Press was gagged, political associations were broken up, combinations of workmen were prohibited, the Habeas Corpus Act was suspended, public meetings were forbidden or violently dispersed, and large numbers of worthy and respectable men were transported or kept in prison, in many cases without trial. Free institutions endured, but they ceased to operate. Liberty was kept, but in chains.

The man who determined the course of this reaction was William Pitt, and though much of its evil must be ascribed to the state of general opinion, his personal responsibility was very great. He seems to have assumed that failure would follow every attempt at change, and though he was in favour of the Reform of Parliament, of Catholic Emancipation, of Free Trade, and of the Abolition of the Slave Trade, and was not hostile to the removal of the disabilities of Dissenters, he abated every one of his principles without seriously attempting to put them into practice. He was one of the greatest politicians and one of the worst statesmen England has ever had. He managed Parliament with astonishing success, and hardly ever used it for a good purpose. His failure to reform the House of Commons increased discontent and made government more difficult. His failure to emancipate the Catholics before the Union with Ireland was the final and decisive cause of the Rebellion of 1798, and his failure to emancipate them after the Union was the chief reason why that measure did nothing to improve the condition of Ireland or its relations with England. His failure to abolish the Slave Trade, when even Tories like Windham were against it, prolonged for twenty years a system of human misery and degradation such as had never been known in any civilized part of the world. His system of finance burdened the country with an unnecessary load of debt. His failure to adjust the customs tariff to the new conditions of a population which was no longer self-sufficing increased distress and discontent with it. His chief enterprise, the war with France, was begun in folly and conducted with incompetence, and it was not until after his death that it was efficiently conducted to a successful issue. The one thing which he did was to maintain a strong central government in the United Kingdom. But to this maintenance of government he sacrificed almost everything for which government exists. "The Pilot who weathered the storm" flung all the cargo out of the ship, and steered her from the high seas into dangerous shallows, from some of which she has not yet escaped.

  1. M. Halévy suggests that the Wesleyan revival, which began in the middle of the eighteenth century, was largely if not wholly responsible for the social changes. But, except in so far as it increased dissent in religion, the liberating influence of Wesleyanism was small. The Wesleyans are, to this day, the most conservative of Nonconformists, and their mystical piety was utterly opposed to the rationalistic freethinking of the Revolution.
  2. Arthur Young's Annals, xxv. passim.
  3. 39 Geo. III, c. 81; 39 & 40 Geo. III, c. 106.
  4. Letters to his Son, 19th December, 1767.
  5. Walpole's George III, iii. 197; Chesterfield's Letters, 12th April, 1768.
  6. Annual Register, 1770, 72.
  7. Annual Register, 1769, 125.
  8. Annual Register, 1769, 197 et seq.
  9. Stephen's Memoirs of Horne Tooke, passim.
  10. William Knox, in a letter to Grenville, Grenville Papers, iv. 336. Knox wrote the pamphlet State of the Nation, to which Burke replied in his celebrated Observations.
  11. For the views of Fox, see Lord Russell's Correspondence of C. J. Fox, I. 146; Walpole's Last Journals, ii. 241; and for those of the elder Pitt, Chatham Correspondence, ii. 367. The Duke of Richmond set up a claim to an old French peerage, by way of preparing an asylum for himself when George III had finally established his despotism. Burke's Correspondence, ii. 112.
  12. Speech at Bristol previous to the Election (1780). The union between English reformers and American rebels was marked by deeds as well as words. In 1770 the Assembly of South Carolina subscribed £1,500 to the Society of the Friends of the Bill of Rights. A. R. 1770, 224.
  13. A. R. 1780, 51. See also Sir George Savile's Address to the Freeholders of York, 169.
  14. A. R. 1780, 55.
  15. Watson's Anecdotes of His Own Time.
  16. Parl. Hist., xxix. 509.
  17. See, for instance, Luxford's case, mentioned by Fox in Parl. Hist., xxix. 557, and contrast the judge and the juries in William Hone's trials (1817).
  18. See the speech of Calcagus to the British, in Tacitus' Agricola, c. 30.