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Parties and politics: a Whig view (1837)

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.

In the general election of 1837 Lord John Russell and his Whig colleague, G. Poulett Scrope, standing for re-election in the west-country clothing town of Stroud, were returned with large majorities over a Conservative candidate. On 28 July, at a banquet given to celebrate the victory, Russell made a speech which soon became famous. It was later reprinted and issued as a pamphlet, and attacked by J. W. Croker in the Tory Quarterly Review. The following extracts from the speech as reported in The Times differ slightly from the subsequent edited version.

The Times, 31 July 1837

Lord J. Russell, in returning thanks on the part of himself and his colleagues, said, that as there were many present from different parts of the country who had not attended the nomination, he thought this now a fit time to state what had been the acts of the present Administration, and of that under Earl Grey.

[He prefaced his remarks with an attack on the fifty years of 'Tory administration' from the time of the younger Pitt and a description of the state of the country on the death of George IV in 1830.]

When the Tories left the country in such a state, it was no wonder that they now wished to give up the name of 'Tory', and to assume some title which would not be so much associated with their former acts. (Cheers) Yet now the country was called upon to pay to the successors of those Tories all possible respect under their newly assumed name of Conservatives (cheers and laughter), which, after all, was only an alias for the name of Tory. (Cheers) They were, however, entitled to the name of Conservatives on this ground - that they were Conservative of all abuses. If they chose to abolish the old name of Tory and Whig, he had no objection to be distinguished from the new name of Conservative, and to be called a Reformer. (Cheers) The Reformers had the testimony of history in their favour. Luther was a Reformer; Leo X., who opposed him, was a Conservative; Galileo, who had made so many important discoveries in science, was a Reformer; the Inquisition, who persecuted him, was Conservative. (Cheers) The early Christians who had willingly laid down their lives in that sacred cause were Reformers; Nero, who put so many of them to torture and to death, was a Conservative. (Cheers) If then they wished to change old names into new, he was ready to be called a Reformer (cheers), as one not wishing to be known as a Conservative, but as one wishing to see the progress of improvement - to see the country advance in all that was good, and generous, and enlightened. (Cheers) He was unwilling to see the country go back or stand still in her great institutions. He was an advocate for reform in the truest sense of the word, and he would do all in his power to promote those measures of reform of which he was the avowed advocate. If other measures of reform were proposed, he was ready to discuss them, and if they could be shown to be good, in God's name let them have them (cheers); but let them not be deterred by any bugbear from boldly and fearlessly arguing them in the first instance, and if right from adopting them. (Cheers) The noble lord then took a review of the leading acts of the governments of Lord Grey and Viscount Melbourne, and observed, that when they considered the subjects of reform of the criminal law, the abolition of slavery, and the Municipal Corporation Act, they would believe that those Governments had not been idle in their respective periods of power. (Cheers) In the opening of the China trade, the weight of the East India Company was opposed to them. In putting an end to slavery, they had the opposition of all the West India interest. In all great reforms they had to oppose some powerful body. In the municipal corporations they had to oppose many large bodies. In the church reforms they were opposed by the deans and chapters. (Cheers) They were also in other reforms opposed by the prejudices of large portions of the people. For instance, in the amendment of the poor laws, the Government had to encounter the great opposition of large bodies of the poor, who had been supported in idleness at the expense of the hard-working and industrious. To such an extent had this gone, that in one county in which a near relation of his resided, the farmers had to sit up in turn to protect their property from the acts of the incendiary. Such was the extent of that evil, that the Minister of that day, while he admitted it, also declared that he had not the means of meeting it. A reform Government alone had had the courage to grapple with the evil, and to place the poor laws on that footing which would tend to promote the comfort of the really industrious classes. Speaking of Ireland, the noble lord said that it was not a question of supporting Catholic or Protestant, but they rather went on Protestant principle of leaving matters open to discussion, for the present Ministry went upon the true Protestant principle of not subjecting any man to persecution on account of his religious opinions. The Ministers would bring in such measures as they thought right, leaving it to the country to pronounce an opinion upon those subjects. As to other topics - the duration of Parliament, vote by ballot, and universal suffrage, he would say, that when the Reform Act was proposed he had proposed to disfranchise 50 of the smaller boroughs, and to deprive 50 of the next smaller of one member. It was proposed to limit Parliaments to five years, and if the ballot were to be used, and Parliaments shortened, it was proposed that the right of voting should be raised from £10 to £20, but the £10 franchise was at length adopted without any change in the duration of Parliaments. The bill was passed, and though there were parts of it which were open for discussion, still he must say that the less frequently such a measure as the Reform Act was discussed the better, and the more stable the law would become.…

After noticing the great additions that had from time to time been made to the House of Lords of persons of the same political Party, and the effects which had resulted from it, the noble lord went on to observe, that he was sure that whenever the opinions of the people were unequivocally declared, the Lords would know their station, and would not oppose the wishes of the country. At all events, he was not for making a change in the great institutions of the country. Let those who would try the experiment take its consequences; he would never be a party to it, for he was sure the prosperity of the country depended on the due maintenance of all its institutions in that state in which they had been recognized by the constitution.… The country had flourished in the greatest prosperity, under the reigns of female sovereigns. He hoped that the present reign would be also distinguished, but in a higher degree. The reigns of Elizabeth and of Anne had been distinguished for great victories over foreign foes. He hoped that the present reign would have all the vigour and all the prosperity of that of Elizabeth without its tyranny, and of that of Anne without the necessity of its foreign battles.

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