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The Reform ministry after the Reform Act: a government defence

Taken from Norman Gash, The Age of Peel (London, Edward Arnold, 1973), with the kind permission of Professor Gash. Copyright of this document, of course, remains with him.

The wide and sometimes unrealistic expectations caused by the Reform Act were disappointed once the ministry settled down to the task of governing the country. Although the general election of 1832, the first under the new act, had produced an overwhelming 'Reform' majority, the government early realised that it was not a party pledged to its support and that criticism and opposition were as much to be expected from the reformers as from the official opposition. At the end of the first session of the reform parliament the ministry took the unusual step of publishing a pamphlet in defence of their administrative and legislative record. It was edited by D. Le Marchant, private secretary to the Lord Chancellor, Lord Brougham, with contributions from various departmental ministers. Appearing in September soon after prorogation, it had an immediate success and ran through four editions in a fortnight.

Pamphlet: The Reform Ministry and the Reformed Parliament (1833)

It is the fortune of the present Government to be encountered by two hostile factions, the Tories and the Radicals, who appear to agree in no principle either of preservation or destruction, and have no object common to both, except that of endeavouring to persuade the people of the imbecility of the Ministers.…

But it must be remembered that the present Ministers are invested with the highest trust which it ever fell to the lot of men to execute. Their junction with either of the adverse parties must be fatal to the quiet of the country, and defeat, for a long period, all the good we have obtained, or may expect.

They must trust to the good sense of the great body of their fellow-citizens, to permit them gradually and steadily to repair the injuries which the country has sustained by a misgovernment of nearly fifty years, and claim a confidence for integrity for the future, by an impartial review of what has already passed.

The present Ministry wisely commenced the work of general reform by a reform in the constituency of the House of Commons. And surely, in effecting this great measure, no party can accuse them of want of integrity, or courage. They demolished by this blow the groundwork which had supported all preceding administrations. - All that, for which former parties contended, and for which they sought to be in place. - With this reform, patronage, the main lever of former politicians, inevitably perished, and has left the present Ministers, as it will leave all future administrations, dependent solely on the support of the people. Their enemies did not then accuse them of doing nothing. The Tories announced the value of the measure by their terror, and the Radicals by their joy. As compared with the great measure of Reform, all others appear subordinate. The impression it created, the excitement it produced, still agitates the public mind. Its magnitude conceals the importance of all other political measures. Every step which has followed it appears diminutive, when compared with this mighty stride. it renders men dissatisfied with the delay required for the details of inferior changes, with which the welfare of large masses of the community is interwoven, and which cannot be carried into execution without great precaution or great injustice.…

That the present is a strong administration, no one can doubt who looks at its overwhelming majorities; if it have been too humble in the exercise of its strength, if it have paid an undue degree of attention to the suggestions of friends or even of enemies, it has been guilty of an error which may be easily pardoned, since experience shows that it is likely to be repeated. But we do not believe that any such error one not has been committed. We believe that such a reproach can be made only by those who do not understand the times in which they live, and who apply to the present constitution the traditions of one that has ceased to exist. When the House of Commons consisted of partisans, when every speech and vote was part of a system, when measures were introduced not because they were useful but because they were plausible, and opposed not because they were likely to do harm to the country, but lest they should do good to their proposers, - it might be the duty of a Government living in such an atmosphere of selfishness and insincerity, to form its plans in silence, and to carry them through with obstinacy, well knowing that what was good would be most likely to be attacked, and that whatever was proposed as an amendment was probably designed to be mischievous.

To get rid of this wretched system was the great object of the Reform Bill: and it has been got rid of. A majority of the Members of the House of Commons are partisans not of the Ministry or of the Opposition, but of good government. - And ought their warnings to be regarded? Ought the voice of those who speak in the name of the whole people to have no more weight than if they were a body of mere nominees? Or laying aside what ought to be done, can this be done? Who doubts that it cannot? Who doubts that the willingness with which the present administration has listened to suggestions, the earnestness with which it has sought, in every quarter, and by every means, for information, the frankness with which it has not only allowed but forwarded every inquiry, must be imitated, and it cannot well be surpassed, by all who succeed them in the high office of presiding over the deliberations of a Reformed House of Commons?

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