Imágenes de páginas
PDF
EPUB
[ocr errors]

called upon to meet. If you have, as I believe you have, the fortitude and constancy of which you have been set the example, you will not consent with folded arms to view the annual growth of this mighty evil. You will not adopt the miserable expedient of adding, during peace, and in the midst of these indications of wealth and increasing prosperity, to the burdens which posterity will be called upon to bear.

“ Your conduct will be contrasted with the conduct of your fathers under difficulties infinitely less pressing than yours. Your conduct will be contrasted with that of your fathers, who, with a mutiny at the Nore, a rebellion in Ireland, and disaster abroad, yet submitted with buoyant vigor and universal applause (with the funds as low as 52) to a property tax of ten per cent. I believe that you will not subject yourself to an injurious or an unworthy contrast.

“My confident hope and belief is, that now, when I devolve the responsibility upon you, you will prove yourselves worthy of your mission - worthy to be the representatives of a mighty people. You will not tarnish the fame which it is your duty to cherish as the most glorious inheritance. You will not impair the character for fortitude, for good faith, which, in proportion as the empire of opinion supersedes and predominates over the empire of physical force, constitutes for every people, but above all for England, the main instrument by which to repel hostile aggressions and maintain extended empire."

The Houses thought and felt with the minister, who honored them by trusting to their integrity; the great party that marched under Sir Robert Peel's leadership accepted the burden which he laid upon them, and order was re-established in the public finances.

At the outset, and in appearance, the second of the measures proposed by the new minister was less serious: it consisted in the revision of the tariff. Twelve hundred articles were

[ocr errors]

comprised in the new list; the duties were reduced on seven hundred and fifty articles, and these reductions added to the reduced duties on coffee and on timber for building would, it was calculated, entail a loss of one million and forty thousand pounds on the exchequer.

“ Many gentlemen, who are strong advocates of free trade," said Sir Robert Peel, “may consider that I have not gone far enough. I believe that on the general principle of free trade there is now no great difference of opinion, and that all agree in the general rule that we should purchase in the cheapest market, and sell in the dearest;

but it is impossible, in dealing with such immense and extensive interests, to proceed always by a strict application of the general principle. I believe that the true friends to the general principle will argue that it is not expedient or proper to propose such a change as to cause general complaint and excite a strong sympathy.

We have proceeded with such care and caution as to produce as small an amount of individual suffering as was compatible with the end in view.

I sincerely hope that the general result of this and the other measures will be ample compensation for any individual suffering that may be inflicted ; and that they will increase the demand for the employment of industry, and thus increase the means of the people to command the comforts and necessaries of life. We have made this proposal at a time of very considerable financial embarrassment; but in doing so we have set an example to Europe, we have declared that we will not seek to improve our finances by increasing the duties on imports; we have trusted to other means for replenishing our exchequer.”

Sir Robert Peel had judged correctly in thinking that the advocates of free trade would find his reforms insufficient; they directed their attacks against the modifications made by the Tory minister in respect to the legislation on corn. He had

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

maintained the principle of the sliding-scale of duties on the importation of foreign corn, modifying it in the liberal direction. The Whigs, with Lord John Russell as their spokesman, proposed the substitution of a fixed duty for the sliding-scale; Mr. Villiers, Mr. Cobden, and the radicals demanded the complete abolition of all duties upon corn. Mr. Christopher, in the name of the ardent partisans of protection, required that at every step of the sliding-scale the rates should be raised. Sir Robert Peel firmly supported the propositions of the ministry. Without vehement confidence, without self-deception, without charlatanry, he proposed his plan as the most equitable compromise between the conflicting interests, but promised neither to himself nor to others the final reconciling of these interests, or the cessation of the distress of the working classes in certain parts of the country.

He was evidently perplexed, although resolute, and extremely harassed in his mind between his ardent desire to ameliorate the condition of the working classes, and the consideration that he owed, not only as a matter of parliamentary prudence, but also in justice and permanent necessity, to the landed interest and the national agriculture. These perplexities created embarrassments for him among the members of his Cabinet; as soon as he manifested his intention to reduce the protective duties of the sliding-scale, the Duke of Buckingham, to whom he had given office as the most devoted representative of the agricultural interest, resigned, and the Tory party divided in the vote upon the amendment. Lord Palmerston took a malicious pleasure in calling attention to these difficulties of the Conservative party, suddenly abandoned, he said, by the leader to whom they had given their confidence. Sir Robert Peel haughtily vindicated his right to freedom of thought and action. “You told me last year,” he exclaimed, replying in the House of Commons to Lord Palmerston, “that I must be an instrument in the hands of others, and that the power was denied me of enforcing my own principles. I declared then, as I declare now, that I consider office, its power, its distinction, its privileges, as nothing worth, except as the instrument of effecting public good. If it is to be held by sufferance, if it can be retained only on the condition of abandoning my own opinions and obeying the dictates of others, it will not be held by me. My reward for all the sacrifices it entails is the prospect of that honorable fame which can only be attained by steadily pursuing the course which, according to the best conclusions of our fallible judgment, we honestly believe to be for the welfare of the country.

It is not by subserviency to the will of others, it is not by the hope of conciliating the temporary favor of majorities, that such fame can be acquired ; and in spite of all the noble lord has said, in spite of the rumors he has heard of concealed dissatisfaction among our supporters, we have the proud satisfaction of knowing that we retain their confidence while we claim for ourselves the privilege of acting on our own opinions. From the commencement of the session to its close, we have received that generous support which has enabled us to overcome every difficulty, to carry triumphantly every measure we have proposed. There may have been shades of difference, there may have been occasional dissatisfaction and complaint; but I have the firm belief that our conduct in office has not abated one jot of that confidence on the part of our friends which cheered and encouraged us in the blank regions of opposition; and next to the approval of our own consciences and to the hope of future fame, the highest reward we can receive for public labors is their cordial support and their personal esteem."

The confidence of Sir Robert Peel in his adherents was sincere and, to a certain extent, well-founded. In spite of evident differences of opinion and manifestations of ill-temper, the main body of the party had remained, and did remain, faithful to him; necessary to one another, agreeing in the fundamental principles of government, the leader and the majority of his army marched together, without asking questions; they made no attempt to deceive one another, but they avoided undeceiving each other, and covered their dissensions and their disappointments with concessions or with silence. At the same time, useful as was this patient moderation, the situation was a false one, and could not last without becoming worse as it became more manifest. In Parliament the peril was beginning to appear; in the nation, two important facts, the Anti-Corn-Law League and the condition of Ireland, now hastened the march of events, and forced Sir Robert Peel to move more rapidly down the slope upon which he had entered.

Bolton, in the county of Lancaster, not far from Manchester, a second-rate manufacturing town, having, however, fifty thousand inhabitants, had been plunged by the commercial crisis into the severest distress. Disorder and crime, as well as suffering, went on increasing with frightful rapidity in this unhappy town. Nearly one-fourth of the houses stood empty, and the prisons were crowded with inmates. Parliament instituted inquiry into the extent and cause of this distress. Bolton was at this time represented in the House of Commons by Dr. Bowring, a political economist, enthusiastic, intelligent, indefatigable, ardently devoted to the cause of free trade, and supported in his philanthropic zeal by his gratification at notoriety. The evil remained, and no remedy for it appeared. In August, 1838, an old physician, Dr. Birney, gave notice that he would deliver a lecture in the theatre in Bolton, on the Corn-Law and its effects. A crowd filled the building, but the speaker, seized with sudden embarrassment, was unable to proceed. Disappointment and displeasure, in an audience already so disheartened, soon changed to anger. A riot seemed about to begin, when a young surgeon, Mr. Paulton, sprang upon the platform, and began to pour forth

« AnteriorContinuar »