LORD GEORGE BENTINCK
A POLITICAL BIOGRAPHY
By Benjamin Disraeli
'He left us the legacy of heroes: the memory of his great name and the inspiration of his great example.'
LORD HENRY BENTINCK,
This Political Biography
ONE FOR WHOM HE ENTERTAINED A DEEP AFFECTION,
AND WHOSE TALENTS AND VIRTUES
LORD GEORGE BENTINCK
A POLITICAL BIOGRAPHY
THE political career of Lord George Bentinck was peculiar. He had, to use his own expression, 'sate in eight Parliaments without having taken part in any great debate,' when remarkable events suddenly impelled him to advance and occupy not only a considerable but a leading position in our public affairs. During three years, under circumstances of great difficulty, he displayed some of the highest qualities of political life: courage and a lofty spirit; a mastery of details which experience usually alone confers; a quick apprehension and a clear intelligence; indomitable firmness; promptness, punctuality, and perseverance which never failed; an energy seldom surpassed; and a capacity for labour which was perhaps never equalled. At the very moment when he had overcome many contrarieties and prejudices; when he had been most successful in the House of Commons, and, sustained only by his own resources, had considerably modified the legislation of the government which he opposed on a measure of paramount importance; when the nation, which had long watched him with interest, began to congratulate itself on the devotion of such a man to the business of the country, he was in an instant taken from us. Then it was that, the memory of the past and the hope of the future blending together, all men seemed to mourn over this untimely end, and there was that pang in the public heart which accompanies the unexpected disappearance of a strong character.
What manner of man this was, who thus on a sudden in the middle term of life relinquished all the ease and pleasure of a patrician existence to work often eighteen hours daily, not for a vain and brilliant notoriety, which was foreign alike both to his tastes and his turn of mind, but for the advancement of principles, the advocacy of which in the chief scene of his efforts was sure to obtain for him only contention and unkindly feelings; what were his motives, purposes and opinions; how and why did he labour; what were the whole scope and tendency of this original, vigorous, and self-schooled intelligence; these would appear to be subjects not unworthy of contemplation, and especially not uninteresting to a free and political community.
The difficulty of treating cotemporary characters and events has been ever acknowledged; but it may be doubted whether the difficulty is diminished when we would commemorate the men and things that have preceded us. The cloud of passion in the first instance, or in the other the mist of time, may render it equally hard and perplexing to discriminate.
It should not be forgotten that the most authentic and interesting histories are those which have been composed by actors in the transactions which they record. The cotemporary writer who is personally familiar with his theme has unquestionably a great advantage; but it is assumed that his pen can scarcely escape the bias of private friendship or political connection. Yet truth, after all, is the sovereign passion of mankind; nor is the writer of these pages prepared to relinquish his conviction that it is possible to combine the accuracy of the present with the impartiality of the future.
Lord George Bentinck had sat for eighteen years in Parliament, and, before he entered it, had been for three years private secretary to Mr. Canning, who had married the sister of the Duchess of Portland. Such a post would seem a happy commencement of a public career; but whether it were the untimely death of his distinguished relative, or a natural indisposition, Lord George—though he retained the seat for King's Lynn, in which he had succeeded his uncle, the late governor-general of India—directed his energies to other than parliamentary pursuits. For some time he had followed his profession, which was that of arms, but of late years he had become absorbed in the pastime and fortunes of the turf, in which his whole being seemed engrossed, and which he pursued on a scale that perhaps has never been equalled.
Lord George had withdrawn his support from the government of the Duke of Wellington, when the friends of Mr. Canning quitted that administration; and when in time they formed not the least considerable portion of the cabinet of Lord Grey, he resumed his seat on the ministerial benches. On that occasion an administrative post was offered him and declined; and on subsequent occasions similar requests to him to take office were equally in vain. Lord George, therefore, was an original and hearty supporter of the Reform Bill, and he continued to uphold the Whigs in all their policy until the secession of Lord Stanley, between whom and himself there subsisted warm personal as well as political sympathies. Although he was not only a friend to religious liberty, as we shall have occasion afterwards to remark, but always viewed with great sympathy the condition of the Roman Catholic portion of the Irish population, he shrank from the taint of the ultra-montane intrigue. Accompanying Lord Stanley, he became in due time a member of the great Conservative opposition, and, as he never did anything by halves, became one of the most earnest, as he certainly was one of the most enlightened, supporters of Sir Robert Peel. His trust in that minister was indeed absolute, and he has subsequently stated in conversation that when, towards the end of the session of '45, a member of the Tory party ventured to predict and denounce the impending defection of the minister, there was no member of the Conservative party who more violently condemned the unfounded attack, or more readily impugned the motives of the assailant.
He was not a very frequent attendant in the House. He might be counted on for a party division, and when, towards the termination of the Melbourne ministry, the forces were very nearly balanced, and the struggle became very close, he might have been observed, on more than one occasion, entering the House at a late hour, clad in a white great-coat, which softened, but did not conceal, the scarlet hunting-coat.
Although he took no part in debate, and attended the House rather as a club than as a senate, he possessed a great and peculiar influence in it. He was viewed with interest, and often with extraordinary regard, by every sporting man in the House. With almost all of these he was acquainted; some of them, on either side, were his intimate companions and confederates.
His eager and energetic disposition; his quick perception, clear judgment, and prompt decision; the tenacity with which he clung to his opinions; his frankness and love of truth; his daring and speculative spirit; his lofty bearing, blended as it was with a simplicity of manner very remarkable; the ardour of his friendships, even the fierceness of his hates and prejudices—all combined to form one of those strong characters who, whatever may be their pursuit, must always direct and lead.
Nature had clothed this vehement spirit with a material form which was in perfect harmony with its noble and commanding character. He was tall and remarkable for his presence; his countenance almost a model of manly beauty; the face oval, the complexion clear and mantling; the forehead lofty and white; the nose aquiline and delicately moulded; the upper lip short. But it was in the dark-brown eye, which flashed with piercing scrutiny, that all the character of the man came forth: a brilliant glance, not soft, but ardent, acute, imperious, incapable of deception or of being deceived.
Although he had not much sustained his literary culture, and of late years, at any rate, had not given his mind to political study, he had in the course of his life seen and heard a great deal, and with profit. Nothing escaped his observation; he forgot nothing and always thought. So it was that on all the great political questions of the day he had arrived at conclusions which guided him. He always took large views and had no prejudices about things, whatever he might indulge in as to persons. He was always singularly anxious to acquire the truth, and would spare no pains for that purpose; but when once his mind was made up, it was impossible to influence him.
In politics, he was a Whig of 1688, which became him, modified, however, by all the experience of the present age. He wished to see our society founded on a broad basis of civil and religious liberty. He retained much of the old jealousy of the court, but had none of popular franchises. He was for the Established Church, but for nothing more, and was very repugnant to priestly domination. As for the industrial question, he was sincerely opposed to the Manchester scheme, because he thought that its full development would impair and might subvert our territorial constitution, which he held to be the real security of our freedom, and because he believed that it would greatly injure Ireland, and certainly dissolve our colonial empire.
He had a great respect for merchants, though he looked with some degree of jealousy on the development of our merely foreign trade. His knowledge of character qualified him in a great degree to govern men. and if some drawbacks from this influence might be experienced in his too rigid tenacity of opinion, and in some quickness of temper, which, however, always sprang from a too sensitive heart, great compensation might be found in the fact that there probably never was a human being so entirely devoid of conceit and so completely exempt from selfishness. Nothing delighted him more than to assist and advance others. All the fruits of his laborious investigations were always at the service of his friends without reserve or self-consideration. He encouraged them by making occasions for their exertions, and would relinquish his own opportunity without a moment's hesitation, if he thought the abandonment might aid a better man.
The Protection Problem
THERE was at this time a metropolitan society for the protection of agriculture, of which the Duke of Richmond was chairman, and which had been established to counteract the proceedings of the Manchester confederation. It was in communication with the local Protection societies throughout the country; and although the adhesion to its service by the parliamentary members of the old Conservative party had been more limited than might have been expected, nevertheless many county members were enrolled in its ranks, and a few of the most eminent were actively engaged in its management. In this they were assisted by an equal number of the most considerable tenant-farmers. In the present state of affairs, the council of the Protection Society afforded the earliest and readiest means to collect opinion and methodize action; and it was therefore resolved among its managers to invite all members of Parliament who sympathized with their purpose, though they might not be members of their society, to attend their meeting and aid them at the present crisis with their counsel.
A compliance with this request occasioned the first public appearance of Lord George Bentinck, as one of the organizers of a political party,—for he aspired to no more. The question was, whether a third political party could be created and sustained,—a result at all times and under any circumstances difficult to achieve, and which had failed even under the auspices of accomplished and experienced statesmen. In the present emergency, was there that degree of outraged public feeling in the country, which would overcome all obstacles and submit to any inconveniences, in order to ensure its representation in the House of Commons? It was the opinion of Lord George Bentinck that such was the case; that if for the moment that feeling was inert and latent, it was an apathy which arose from the sudden shock of public confidence, and the despair which under such circumstances takes possession of men; that if it could be shown to the country, that the great bulk of the Conservative party were true to their faith, and were not afraid, even against the fearful odds which they would have to encounter, to proclaim it, the confidence and the courage of the country would rally, and the party in the House of Commons would find external sympathy and support.
With these views it became of paramount importance that the discussion on the government measure should be sustained on the part of the Protectionists with their utmost powers. They must prove to the country, that they could represent their cause in debate, and to this end all their energies must be directed. It would be fatal to them if the discussion were confined to one or two nights, and they overborne by the leading and habitual speakers. They must bring forward new men; they must encourage the efforts of those now unrecognized and comparatively unknown; they must overcome all reserve and false shame, and act as became men called upon to a critical and leading part, not by their arrogance or ambition, but by the desertion and treachery of those to whose abilities they had bowed without impatience and reluctance. There was a probability of several vacancies immediately taking place in counties where the seats were filled by converts, but men of too scrupulous an honour to retain the charge which they had sought and accepted as the professors of opinions contrary to those which now received their mournful adhesion. The result of these elections would greatly depend upon the spirit and figure of the party in the House of Commons, in their first encounter with the enemy.
These views, so just and so spirited, advanced with high-bred earnestness by one rarely met in political turmoils, and enforced with a freshness and an affable simplicity which were very winning, wonderfully encouraged those to whom they were addressed. All seemed touched by the flame which burned in the breast of that man, so lofty in his thoughts but so humble in his ambition, who counselled ever the highest deeds, and was himself ever prepared to undertake the humblest duties.
The business of this day was notable. Calculations were made of those who might be fairly counted on to take a part in debate; some discussion even ensued as to who should venture to reply late at night to the minister; a committee was appointed to communicate with all members on either side supposed to be favourable to the principle of Protection to the labour of the country; a parliamentary staff was organized, not only to secure the attendance of members, but to guard over the elections; finally, the form of the amendment to the government measure was discussed and settled, and it was agreed that, if possible, it should be moved by Mr. Philip Miles, the member for the city of Bristol, and who had the ear of the House not merely from the importance of his constituency, and seconded by Sir William Heathcote, the member for the county of Hampshire, a country gentleman of great accomplishments, and so highly considered by both sides that he was very generally spoken of as a probable successor to the chair.
All was furnished by this lately forlorn party except a leader, and even then many eyes were turned and some hopeful murmurs addressed towards Lord George Bentinck, who in the course of this morning had given such various proofs of his fitness and such evidence of his resource. But he shook his head with a sort of suppressed smile, a faint blush, and an air of proud humility that was natural to him: 'I think,' he said, 'we have had enough of leaders; it is not in my way; I shall remain the last of the rank and file.'
So little desirous, originally, was Lord George Bentinck to interfere actively in that great controversy in which ultimately he took so leading a part, that before the meeting of Parliament in 1846 he begged a gentleman whom he greatly esteemed, a member of the legal profession, and since raised to its highest honours, to call upon him at Harcourt House, when he said that he had taken great pains to master the case of the protective system; that he was convinced its abrogation would ultimately be very injurious to this country; but although, both in point of argument and materials, he feared no opponent, he felt constitutionally so incapable of ever making a speech, that he wished to induce some eminent lawyer to enter the House of Commons, and avail himself of his views and materials, which he had, with that object, reduced to writing. He begged, therefore, that his friend, although a free-trader, would assist him, by suggesting a fitting person for this office.
Accordingly, the name of a distinguished member of the bar, who had already published a work of merit, impugning the principles of the new commercial system, was mentioned, and this learned gentleman was applied to, and was not indisposed to accept the task. A mere accident prevented this arrangement being accomplished. Lord George then requested his friend to make some other selection; but his adviser very sensibly replied, that although the House of Commons would have listened with respect to a gentleman who had given evidence of the sincerity of his convictions by the publication of a work which had no reference to Parliament, they would not endure the instance of a lawyer brought into the House merely to speak from his brief; and that the attempt would be utterly fruitless. He earnestly counselled Lord George himself to make the effort; but Lord George, with characteristic tenacity, clung for some time to his project, though his efforts to accomplish it were fortunately not successful.
Some of the friends of Lord George Bentinck, remembering his inexperience in debate, aware of the great length at which he must necessarily treat the theme, and mindful that he was not physically well-qualified for controlling popular assemblies, not having a strong voice, or, naturally, a very fluent manner, were anxious that he should not postpone his speech until an hour so late; that an audience, jaded by twelve nights' discussion, would be ill-attuned to statistical arguments and economical details. But still clinging to the hope that some accident might yet again postpone the division, so that the Protectionists might gain the vote of Mr. Hildyard, who had been returned that day for South Notts, having defeated a cabinet minister, Lord George remained motionless until long past midnight. Mr. Cobden having spoken on the part of the confederation, the closing of the debate was felt to be inevitable. Even then, by inducing a Protectionist to solicit the Speaker's eye, Lord George attempted to avert the division; but no supporter of the government measure, of any colour, advancing to reply to this volunteer, Bentinck was obliged to rise. He came out like a lion forced from his lair. And so it happened, that after all his labours of body and mind, after all his research and unwearied application and singular vigilance, after having been at his post for a month, never leaving the House, even for refreshment, he had to undertake the most difficult enterprise in which a man can well embark, with a concurrence of every disadvantage which could ensure failure and defeat. It would seem that the audience, the subject, and the orator, must be equally exhausted; for the assembly had listened for twelve nights to the controversy, and he who was about to address them had, according to his strange habit, taken no sustenance the whole day; it being his custom to dine after the House was up, which was very often long after midnight, and this, with the exception of a slender breakfast, rigidly restricted to dry toast, was his only meal in the four-and-twenty hours.
He had been forced to this regimen, from food exercising a lethargic influence over him; so that, in addition to some constitutional weakness in his organ, he usually laboured, when he addressed the House, under the disadvantage of general exhaustion. And this was, no doubt, a principal cause of that over-excitement and apparently unnecessary energy in his manner of speaking, of which he was himself perfectly, and even painfully, conscious. He was wont to say, that before he could speak he had to make a voice, and, as it were, to pump it from the very core of his frame. One who took a great interest in his success once impressed on him the expediency of trusting entirely to his natural voice and the interest and gravity of his matter, which, combined with his position as the recognized leader of a great party, would be adequate to command the attention of his audience; and he subsequently endeavoured very often to comply with this suggestion. He endeavoured also very much to control his redundancy of action and gesture, when that peculiarity was pointed out to him with the delicacy, but the sincerity, of friendship. He entirely freed himself from a very awkward feature of his first style of speaking, namely, the frequent repetition of a sentence, which seemed at first a habit inveterate with him; but such was his force of will, that when the necessity of ridding himself of this drawback was properly pointed out to him, he achieved the desired result. No one bore criticism more gently and kindly, so long as it was confined to his personal and intellectual characteristics, for he was a man absolutely without vanity or conceit, who thought very humbly of himself, in respect of abilities, and deemed no labour too great to achieve even a slight improvement. But though in these respects the very child of simplicity, he was a man of almost unexampled pride, and chafed under criticism, when his convictions or his conduct were questioned. He was very tenacious of his opinion, almost inexorable; and it required a courage nearly equal to his own, combined with a serene temper, successfully to impugn his conclusions.
Not, therefore, excited by vanity, but sustained by self-respect, by an overpowering feeling that he owed it to himself and the opinions he held, to show to the world that they had not been lightly adopted and should not be lightly laid aside, Bentinck rose, long past the noon of night, at the end of this memorable debate, to undertake an office from which the most successful and most experienced rhetoricians of Parliament would have shrunk with intuitive discretion. But duty scorns prudence, and criticism has few terrors for a man with a great purpose. Unshaken by the adverse hour and circumstances, he proceeded to accomplish the object which he had long meditated, and for which he was fully prepared.
Reminding the House, while he appealed to their indulgence, that, though he had had the honour of a seat for eight parliaments, he had never once ventured to trespass on its time on any subject of great debate, he at once took a clear and comprehensive ground of objection to the government scheme. He opposed it not only because he objected to the great change contemplated with respect to the agricultural interest, but, on principle, to the entire measure, 'a great commercial revolution, which we are of opinion that the circumstances of the country do not by any means require.'
Noticing the observation of the Secretary at War, that the agricultural interest, in submitting to this great change, might now accept it with honour, instead of its being eventually extorted by force, he happily retorted, that vicious as he thought the measure, he should feel it deprived of half its vice if it could be carried without loss of honour, damage to reputation, and forfeiture of public character to a vast number of gentlemen now present. And he proceeded to show among other testimonies, by an appeal to the distinct language of the speech from the throne on the dissolution of 1841, that 'every member who occupied a seat in this House was returned pledged either to oppose or maintain the principle of protection to national industry.'
Adverting to the new position, that the experience of the last three years justified the reversal of the system which the existing administration had been summoned to office to uphold, he wisely remarked, that 'the country will not be satisfied with three years' experience of any system. Three years' experience is not sufficiently extensive to afford a proper criterion by which we may decide the failure or success of any description of policy whatsoever.'
Noticing that the minister had more especially founded 'his present belief in doctrines contrary to those which he had heretofore uniformly maintained,' by the assumption that the price of corn would not be more reduced than the price of cattle and other commodities affected by the tariff of 1842, and also by the results of previous experiments in the instances of silk and wool, Lord George 'accepted his challenge' on these grounds, and proceeded in great detail to investigate these examples.
The House listened with great attention for full two hours, during which he treated these subjects. This attention no doubt was generally accorded because it was felt due to the occasion, and, under the circumstances, to the speaker; but those who, however contrary might be the results at which they had arrived, had themselves deeply entered into these investigations, recognized very soon that Bentinck was master of his subject. Sir Robert Peel looked round very often with that expression of appreciation which it was impossible for his nature to refuse to parliamentary success, even when the ability displayed was hostile to his projects. The minister, with reference to the wool trade, had dwelt on the year 1842, when prices were much depressed, while they had greatly rallied in 1844, when the importation of foreign wool had risen from forty-five to sixty-five millions of pounds; and he had drawn a triumphant inference that the increase of importation and the increase of price were in consequence of the reduction of the duty. This instance had produced a great effect; but Lord George showed the House, by a reference to the tables of 1836, that the importation of foreign wool had then risen to sixty-five millions of pounds, and that large foreign importation was consistent with high prices to the domestic grower. Nor was he less successful about the foreign cattle. He reminded his friends on the Treasury bench how strenuously, previously to the introduction of the tariff of 1842, they had urged upon their agricultural friends that no foreign cattle could enter under their regulations, and that the whole object of the change was to strengthen the hands of the agricultural interest, as regarded more essential protection, by removing the odium of a nominal protection: 'Convinced by my right honourable friends, in 1842, that their tariff would be as inoperative as it has proved, I gave my cordial support to the measure.'
Perceiving that the House began to be wearied with the details of the silk trade, which he had investigated with extraordinary zeal, he postponed until the specific vote in committee his objections to the reduction of the timber duties. The fact is, he had so thoroughly mastered all these topics, that his observations on each of them would have themselves formed a speech of sufficient length and interest. But he successfully checked any interruption by what may be fairly styled his dignified diffidence.
'I trust the House will recollect that I am fighting the battle of a party whose leaders have deserted them; and though I cannot wield my weapons with the skill of the right honourable gentleman on the Treasury bench, I trust the House will remember the emergency which has dragged me out to intrude upon their indulgence.'
And again, when he announced that he was now about to investigate the pretext of 'famine in the land,' and some impatience was exhibited, he drew up and said, 'I think, having sat eighteen years in this house, and never once having trespassed on its time before in any one single great debate, I may appeal to the past as a proof that I duly weigh the measure of my abilities, and that I am painfully conscious of my proper place in this house.'
It was impossible to resist such appeals from such a person, even at three o'clock in the morning; and diffident, but determined, he then entered into what was, perhaps, the most remarkable portion of his speech—an investigation of what was the real position of the country with respect to the supply of food in the past autumn and at the present moment. Having shown from the trade circulars that, far from there being at present 'a wheat famine,' the stocks in the granaries in bond were more than double in amount to what they were in the year 1845, 'a year admitted by all to be a year of extraordinary abundance,' he proceeded to the Irish part of the question: 'I beg leave to say, that though this debate has now continued for three weeks, I am the first gentleman who has at all entered into the real state of the case as regards the allegation of a potato famine in Ireland, upon which, be it remembered, is founded the sole case of her Majesty's ministers for a repeal of the corn laws.'
And this was very true. The fact is, though the Protectionist party had made a most unexpected and gallant defence, no one was really prepared for the contest except Bentinck. Between the end of November and the meeting of Parliament, he had thrown all the energies of his passionate mind into this question. He had sought information on all points and always at the fountain-head. He had placed himself in immediate communication with the ablest representatives of every considerable interest attacked, and being ardent and indefatigable, gifted with a tenacious memory and a very clear and searching spirit, there was scarcely a detail or an argument connected with his subject which was not immediately at his command. No speeches in favour of the protective system have ever been made in the House of Commons compared with his in depth and range of knowledge; and had there been any member not connected with the government, who had been able to vindicate the merits of British agriculture as he did when the final struggle occurred, the impression which was made by the too-often unanswered speeches of the Manchester confederation would never have been effected. But the great Conservative party, exhausted by the labours of ten years of opposition, thought that after the triumph of '41 it might claim a furlough. The defence of their cause was left entirely to the ministers of their choice; and ministers, distracted with detail and wearied with official labour, are not always the most willing or the most efficient champions of the organic principles of a party.
Sir Robert Peel, with respect to the disease in the Irish potato, had largely referred to the statements of the inspectors of police. Lord George wanted to know why the reports of the lieutenants of the Irish counties were not given. Being well-informed upon this head, he asked the government to produce the report of Lord Duncannon, the lord lieutenant of Carlow; especially that of his noble father, the earl of Bes-borough, lord lieutenant of Kilkenny. 'Is there any man in England or in Ireland whose opinion, from his business-like habits, his great practical knowledge, and the warm and affectionate interest which for a long period of years he has taken in everything which concerns the interests of Ireland, especially of the Irish peasantry—is there any man whose opinion would have greater weight? The opinion of Lord Bes-borough on an Irish subject, the lieutenant of an Irish county, and himself long a cabinet minister? Well, sir, I am assured that, having taken the utmost pains to investigate this matter, Lord Besborough has made an elaborate report to the Irish government. Well, then, I desire to know why Lord Besborough's report to the Irish government is suppressed? Is it because that report would not assist the present policy of her Majesty's government?'
He alleged the names of many other individuals of high station who had officially reported on the subject to the government: of Lord Castlereagh, the lieutenant of Down, a member of the House; of Lord de Vesci, whose son was sitting for the Queen's County, over which his father presided in the name of the queen. A murmur ran round the House, that it would have been as well if these reports had been produced.
The last portion of this argumentative harangue referred to the most important division of the subject. Bentinck met it boldly, without evasion; nor was there any portion of his address more interesting, more satisfactory, and more successful. 'I now come,' he said, 'to the great challenge, which is ever and anon put forth by the Anti-Corn Law League, and now by their disciples, her Majesty's ministers. How are we, they ask, with our limited extent of territory, to feed a population annually and rapidly increasing at the rate of three hundred thousand a-year, as generally stated by the member for Stockport—a rate increased by my noble friend, the member for the West Riding, to a thousand a day, or three hundred and sixty-five thousand a year?'
He first proved in a complete manner that, from the year 1821 to the year 1844, the population of the country had increased at the rate of less than thirty-two per cent., while the growth of wheat during the same period had increased no less than sixty-four per cent. He then proceeded to inquire why, with such an increased produce, we were still, as regards bread corn, to a certain extent, an importing nation? This he accounted for by the universally improved condition of the people, and the enlarged command of food by the working classes. He drew an animated picture, founded entirely on the representations of writers and public men adverse to the Protective System, of the superior condition of the people of 'England, happy England,' to that of other countries: how they consumed much more of the best food, and lived much longer. This was under Protection, which Lord John Russell had stigmatized, in his letter, 'the bane of agriculture.' 'In the history of my noble friend's illustrious family,' he continued, 'I should have thought that he would have found a remarkable refutation of such a notion.' And then he drew a lively sketch of the colossal and patriotic works of the Earls and Dukes of Bedford, 'whereby they had drained and reclaimed three hundred thousand acres of land drowned in water, and brought them into cultivation, and thus converted into fertile fields a vast morass extending over seven counties in England.' Could the system which had inspired such enterprise be justly denounced as baneful?
To show the means of the country to sustain even a much-increasing population, and that those means were in operation, he entered into one of the most original and interesting calculations that was perhaps ever offered to the House of Commons. Reminding the House that in the preceding year (1845) the farmers of England, at a cost of two millions sterling, had imported two hundred and eighty thousand tons of guano, he proceeded to estimate what would be the effect on the productive powers of the land of that novel application. Two hundred thousand tons, or, in other words, four million hundred-weight, were expended on the land in 1845. Half of these, he assumed, would be applied to the growth of wheat, and the other half to the growth of turnips preparatory to the wheat crop of the ensuing year. According to the experiments tried and recorded in the Royal Agricultural Journal, it would seem that by the application of two hundred-weight of guano to an acre of wheat land, the produce would be increased by one quarter per acre. At this rate, one hundred thousand tons, or two million hundred-weight of guano would add one million quarters of wheat to the crop, or bread for one year for one million of people. But as he was very careful never to over-state a case, Lord George assumed, that it would require three hundred hundredweight of guano to an acre to produce an extra quarter of wheat. According to this estimate, one hundred thousand tons of guano, applied to the land in 1845, must have added six hundred and sixty-six thousand six hundred and sixty-six quarters of grain to the wheat crop, or, in other words, bread for six hundred and sixty-six thousand six hundred and sixty-six additional mouths. 'And now for turnips,' he continued. The Norfolk authorities whom he quoted have in like manner proved that two hundred-weight of guano will add ten tons per acre to the turnip crop. But again, for fear of exaggeration, he supposed that three hundred-weight would be requisite to create such increased fertility. In this case, two million hundredweight of guano would add six million six hundred and sixty-six thousand six hundred and sixty tons to the natural unmanured produce of the crop. Now it is generally considered that one ton of Swedes would last twenty sheep three weeks, and that each sheep should gain half a pound of meat per week, or one pound and a half in three weeks; thus twenty sheep feeding on one ton of turnips in three weeks should in the aggregate make, as the graziers say, thirty pounds of mutton. But to be safe in his estimate, he would assume that one ton of turnips makes only half this quantity. 'Multiply, then,' exclaimed Bentinck with the earnest air of a crusader, 'six million six hundred and sixty-six thousand six hundred and sixty by fifteen, and you have no less than ninety-nine million nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand and nine hundred pounds of mutton as the fruits of one hundred thousand tons of guano; which, at ninety-two pounds per man—the average Englishman's allowance—affords meat for one million eight hundred and sixty thousand nine hundred and fifty-five—nearly two million of her Majesty's subjects.'
This is a specimen of those original and startling calculations to which the House was soon to become accustomed from his lips. They were received at first with astonishment and incredulity; but they were never impugned. The fact is, he was extremely cautious in his data, and no man was more accustomed ever to impress upon his friends the extreme expediency of not over-stating a case. It should also be remarked of Lord George Bentinck, that in his most complicated calculations he never sought aid from notes.
We have necessarily only noticed a few of the traits of this remarkable performance. Its termination was impressive.
'We have heard in the course of these discussions a good deal about an ancient monarchy, a reformed House of Commons, and a proud aristocracy. Sir, with regard to our ancient monarchy, I have no observation to make; but, if so humble an individual as myself might be permitted to whisper, a word in the ear of that illustrious and royal personage who, as he stands nearest, so is he justly dearest, to her who sits upon the throne, I would take leave to say, that I cannot but think he listened to ill advice, when, on the first night of this great discussion, he allowed himself to be seduced by the first minister of the crown to come down to this House to usher in, to give eclat, and as it were by reflection from the queen, to give the semblance of the personal sanction of her Majesty to a measure which, be it for good or for evil, a great majority at least of the landed aristocracy of England, of Scotland, and of Ireland, imagine fraught with deep injury, if not ruin, to them
—a measure which, not confined in its operation to this great class, is calculated to grind down countless smaller interests engaged in the domestic trades and, interests of the empire, transferring the profits of all these interests—English, Scotch, Irish, and Colonial
—great and small alike, from Englishmen, from Scotchmen, and from Irishmen, to Americans, to Frenchmen, to Russians, to Poles, to Prussians, and to Germans. Sir, I come now to the reformed House of Commons; and as one who was a party to that great measure, I cannot but feel a deep interest in its success, and more especially in that portion of it which extended the franchise to the largest and the most respectable body in the kingdom—I mean the landed tenantry of England; and deeply should I regret should any large proportion of those members who have been sent to Parliament to represent them in this House, prove to be the men to bring lasting dishonour upon themselves, their constituencies, and this House, by an act of tergiversation so gross as to be altogether unprecedented in the annals of any reformed or unreformed House of Commons. Sir, lastly, I come to the "proud aristocracy." We are a proud aristocracy, but if we are proud, it is that we are proud in the chastity of our honour. If we assisted in '41 in turning the Whigs out of office, because we did not consider a fixed duty of eight shillings a quarter on foreign corn a sufficient protection, it was with honesty of purpose and in single-mindedness we did so; and as we were not before the fact, we will not be accomplices after the fact in the fraud by which the Whig ministers were expelled from power. If we are a proud aristocracy, we are proud of our honour, inasmuch as we never have been guilty, and never can be guilty, of double-dealing with the farmers of England—of swindling our opponents, deceiving our friends, or betraying our constituents.'
The division was called. The West-India interest, notwithstanding the amendment was moved by the member for Bristol, deserted the Protectionists. Deaf to the appeals, and the remonstrances, and the warnings of Lord George, one of their leading members replied, with a smile of triumphant content, that 'they had made a satisfactory arrangement for themselves.' How satisfactory did the West-Indians find it four months subsequently? All the shipping interest deserted the land. They were for everything free, except navigation; there was no danger of that being interfered with; 'it rested on quite distinct grounds—national grounds.' They were warned, but they smiled in derisive self-complacency. Lord George Bentinck lived to have the West-India interest and the shipping interest on their knees to him, to defend their perilled or to restore their ruined fortunes; and with characteristic generosity and proud consistency, he undertook the task, and sacrificed his life in the attempt.
Notwithstanding these terrible defalcations, when the numbers were announced, at nearly four o'clock in the morning, the majority had not reached those three magical figures supposed necessary, under the circumstances, to success. In a house of five hundred and eighty-one members present, the amendment of the Protectionists was defeated only by ninety-seven; and two hundred and forty-two gentlemen, in spite of desertion, difficulty, and defeat, still maintained the 'chastity of their honour.'
The Irish Question
IN THE meantime, besides the prolonged and unforeseen resistance of the Protectionists, there were other and unexpected causes at work which equally, or perhaps even more powerfully tended to the fulfilment of the scheme of delay, which Lord George Bentinck had recommended his friends to adopt and encourage.
In the latter months of the year 1845, there broke out in some of the counties of Ireland one of those series of outrages which have hitherto periodically occurred in districts of that country. Assassination and crimes of violence were rife: men on the queen's highway were shot from behind hedges, or suddenly torn from their horses and beaten to death with clubs; houses were visited in the night by bodies of men, masked and armed—their owners dragged from their beds, and, in the presence of their wives and children, maimed and mutilated; the administration of unlawful oaths, with circumstances of terror, indicated the existence of secret confederations, whose fell intents, profusely and ostentatiously announced by threatening letters, were frequently and savagely perpetrated.
These barbarous distempers had their origin in the tenure of land in Ireland, and in the modes of its occupation. A combination of causes, political, social, and economical, had for more than a century unduly stimulated the population of a country which had no considerable resources except in the soil. That soil had become divided into minute allotments, held by a pauper tenantry, at exorbitant rents, of a class of middlemen, themselves necessitous, and who were mere traders in land. A fierce competition raged amid the squalid multitude for these strips of earth which were their sole means of existence. To regulate this fatal rivalry, and restrain this emulation of despair, the peasantry, enrolled in secret societies, found refuge in an inexorable code. He who supplanted another in the occupation of the soil was doomed by an occult tribunal, from which there was no appeal, to a terrible retribution. His house was visited in the night by whitefeet and ribbonmen—his doom was communicated to him, by the post, in letters, signed by Terry Alt, or Molly M'Guire, or he was suddenly shot, like a dog, by the orders of Captain Rock. Yet even these violent inflictions rather punished than prevented the conduct against which they were directed. The Irish peasant had to choose between starving and assassination. If, in deference to an anonymous mandate, he relinquished his holding, he and those who depended on him were outcasts and wanderers; if he retained or accepted it, his life might be the forfeit, but subsistence was secured; and in poor and lawless countries, the means of living are more valued than life. Those who have treated of the agrarian crimes of Ireland have remarked, that the facility with which these outrages have been committed has only been equalled by the difficulty of punishing them. A murder, perpetrated at noonday, in the sight of many persons, cannot be proved in a court of justice. The spectators are never witnesses; and it has been inferred from this, that the outrage is national, and that the heart of the populace is with the criminal. But though a chief landlord, or a stipendiary magistrate, may occasionally be sacrificed, the great majority of victims are furnished by the humblest class. Not sympathy, but terror, seals the lip and clouds the eye of the bystander. And this is proved by the fact that while those who have suffered have almost always publicly declared that they were unable to recognize their assailants, and believed them to be strangers, they have frequently, in confidence, furnished the police with the names of the guilty.
Thus, there is this remarkable characteristic of the agrarian anarchy of Ireland which marks it out from all similar conditions of other countries: it is a war of the poor against the poor.
Before the rapid increase of population had forced governments to study political economy and to investigate the means of subsisting a people, statesmen had contented themselves by attributing to political causes these predial disturbances, and by recommending for them political remedies. The course of time, which had aggravated the condition of the Irish peasantry, had increased the numbers, the wealth, and the general importance of those of the middle classes of Ireland who professed the Roman Catholic faith. Shut out from the political privileges of the constitution, these formed a party of discontent that was a valuable ally to the modern Whigs, too long excluded from that periodical share of power which is the life-blood of a parliamentary government and the safeguard of a constitutional monarchy. The misgovernment of Ireland became therefore a stock topic of the earlier Opposition of the present century; and advocating the cause of their clients, who wished to become mayors, and magistrates, and members of the legislature, they argued that in the concession of those powers and dignities, and perhaps in the discreet confiscation of the property of the Church, the only cures could be found for threatening notices, robbery of arms, administering of unlawful oaths, burglary, murder, and arson.
Yet if these acts of violence were attributable to defective political institutions, why, as was usually the case, were they partial in their occurrence? Why were they limited to particular districts? If political grievances were the cause, the injustice would be as sharp in tranquil Wexford as in turbulent Tipperary. Yet out of the thirty-two counties of Ireland, the outrages prevailed usually in less than a third. These outrages were never insurrectionary: they were not directed against existing authorities; they were stimulated by no public cause or clamour; it was the private individual who was attacked, and for a private reason. This was their characteristic.
But as time elapsed, two considerable events occurred: the Roman Catholic restrictions were repealed, and the Whigs became ministers. Notwithstanding these great changes, the condition of the Irish peasantry remained the same; the tenure of land was unchanged, the modes of its occupation were unaltered, its possession was equally necessary and equally perilous. The same circumstances produced the same consequences. Notwithstanding even that the Irish Church had been remodelled, and its revenues not only commuted but curtailed; notwithstanding that Roman Catholics had not only become members of Parliament but even Parliament had been reformed; Irish outrage became more flagrant and more extensive than at any previous epoch—and the Whigs were ministers.
Placed in this responsible position, forced to repress the evil, the causes of which they had so often explained, and which with their cooperation had apparently been so effectually removed, the Whig government were obliged to have recourse to the very means which they had so frequently denounced when recommended by their rivals, and that, too, on a scale of unusual magnitude and severity. They proposed for the adoption of Parliament one of those measures which would suspend the constitution of Ireland, and which are generally known by the name of Coercion Acts.
The main and customary provisions of these Coercion Acts were of severe restraint, and scarcely less violent than the conduct they were constructed to repress. They invested the lord lieutenant with power to proclaim a district as disturbed, and then to place its inhabitants without the pale of the established law; persons out of their dwellings between sunset and sunrise were liable to transportation; and to secure the due execution of the law, prisoners were tried before military tribunals, and not by their peers, whose verdicts, from sympathy or terror, were usually found to baffle justice.
These Coercion Acts were effectual; they invariably obtained their end, and the proclaimed districts became tranquil. But they were an affair of police, not of government; essentially temporary, their effect was almost as transient as their sway, and as they were never accompanied with any deep and sincere attempt to cope with the social circumstances which produced disorder, the recurrence of the chronic anarchy was merely an affair of time. Whether it were that they did not sufficiently apprehend the causes, or that they shrank from a solution which must bring them in contact with the millions of a surplus population, there seems always to have been an understanding between the public men of both parties, that the Irish difficulty should be deemed a purely political, or at the utmost a religious one. And even so late as 1846, no less a personage than the present chief secretary, put forward by his party to oppose an Irish Coercion Bill which themselves had loudly called for, declared that he could not sanction its penal enactments unless they were accompanied by the remedial measures that were necessary, to wit, an Irish Franchise Bill, and a Bill for the amendment of municipal corporations!
When Sir Robert Peel, in 1841, after a memorable opposition of ten years, acceded to office, sustained by all the sympathies of the country, his Irish policy, not sufficiently noticed amid the vast and urgent questions with which he had immediately to deal, was, however, to the political observer significant and interesting. As a mere matter of party tactics, it was not for him too much to impute Irish disturbances to political and religious causes, even if the accumulated experience of the last ten years were not developing a conviction in his mind, that the methods hitherto adopted to ensure the tranquillity of that country were superficial and fallacious. His cabinet immediately recognized a distinction between political and predial sources of disorder. The first, they resolved into a mere system of agitation, no longer justifiable by the circumstances, and this they determined to put down. The second, they sought in the conditions under which land was occupied, and these they determined to investigate. Hence, on the one hand, the O'Connell prosecution: on the other, the Devon commission.
This was the bold and prudent policy of a minister who felt he had the confidence of the country and was sustained by great parliamentary majorities; and when the summoner of monster meetings was convicted, and the efficient though impartial manner in which the labours of the land commission were simultaneously conducted came to be bruited about, there seemed at last some prospect of the system of political quackery of which Ireland had been so long the victim being at last subverted. But there is nothing in which the power of circumstances is more evident than in politics. They baffle the forethought of statesmen, and control even the apparently inflexible laws of national development and decay.
Had the government of 1841 succeeded in its justifiable expectation of terminating the trade of political agitation in Ireland, armed with all the authority and all the information with which the labours of the land commission would have furnished them, they would in all probability have successfully grappled with the real causes of Irish misery and misrule. They might have thoroughly reformed the modes by which land is holden and occupied; have anticipated the spontaneous emigration that now rages by an administrative enterprise scarcely more costly than the barren loan of '47, and which would have wafted native energies to imperial shores; have limited under these circumstances the evil of the potato famine, even if the improved culture of the interval might not have altogether prevented that visitation; while the laws which regulated the competition between home and foreign industry in agricultural produce might have been modified with so much prudence, or, if necessary, ultimately repealed with so much precaution, that those rapid and startling vicissitudes that have so shattered the social fabric of Ireland might altogether have been avoided.
But it was decreed that it should be otherwise. Having achieved the incredible conviction of O'Connell, by an Irish jury, the great culprit baffled the vengeance of the law by a quirk which a lawyer only could have devised. As regards his Irish policy, Sir Robert Peel never recovered this blow, the severity of which was proportionably increased by its occurrence at a moment of unprecedented success. Resolute not to recur to his ancient Orangeism, yet desperate after his discomfiture of rallying a moderate party around his ministry, his practical mind, more clear-sighted than foreseeing, was alarmed at the absence of all influences for the government of Ireland. The tranquillity which might result from a reformed tenure of the soil, must, if attainable, be a distant blessing, and at present he saw only the obstacles to its fulfilment—prejudiced landlords, and the claims and necessities of pauper millions. He shrank from a theory which might be an illusion. He required a policy for the next post and the next division. There was in his view only one course to take, to outbid his predecessors as successfully in Irish politics as he was doing in taxes and tariffs. He resolved to appropriate the liberal party of Ireland, and merge it into the great Conservative confederation which was destined to destroy so many things. He acted with promptitude and energy, for Sir Robert Peel never hesitated when he had made up his mind. His real character was very different from his public reputation. Far from being timid and wary, he was audacious and even headstrong. It was his cold and constrained demeanour that misled the public. There never was a man who did such rash things in so circumspect a manner. He had been fortunate in early disembarrassing himself of the Orange counsellors who had conducted his Irish questions when in opposition; vacant judgeships had opportunely satisfied the recognized and respectable claims of Mr. Serjeant Jackson and Mr. Lefroy; and so Sir Robert Peel, without a qualm, suddenly began to govern Ireland by sending it 'messages of peace.'
They took various forms; sometimes a Charitable Bequests Act virtually placed the Roman Catholic hierarchy in friendly equality with the prelates of the Established Church; sometimes a 'godless college' called forth a moan from alarmed and irritated Oxford; the endowment of Maynooth struck wider and deeper, and the middle-classes of England, roused from their religious lethargy, called in vain to the rescue of a Protestantism betrayed. But the minister was unshaken. Successful and self-sufficient, impressed with a conviction that his government in duration would rival that of a Walpole or a Pitt, and exceed both in lustre, he treated every remonstrance with imperious disdain. He had even accustomed his mind to contemplate an ecclesiastical adjustment of Ireland which would have allied in that country the Papacy with the State, and have terminated the constitutional supremacy of the Anglican Church, when suddenly, in the very heat of all this arrogant fortune, the mighty fabric of delusion shivered and fell to the ground.
An abused and indignant soil repudiated the ungrateful race that had exhausted and degraded its once exuberant bosom. The land refused to hold those who would not hold the land on terms of justice and of science. All the economical palliatives and political pretences of long years seemed only to aggravate the suffering and confusion. The poor-rate was levied upon a community of paupers, and the 'godless colleges' were denounced by Rome as well as Oxford.
After a wild dream of famine and fever, imperial loans, rates in aid, jobbing public works, confiscated estates, constituencies self-disfranchised, and St. Peter's bearding St. James's in a spirit becoming Christendom rather than Europe, time topped the climax of Irish misgovernment; and by the publication of the census of 1851, proved that the millions with whose evils no statesmen would sincerely deal, but whose condition had been the pretext for so much empiricism, had disappeared, and nature, more powerful than politicians, had settled the 'great difficulty.'
Ere the publication of that document, the mortal career of Sir Robert Peel had closed, and indeed several of the circumstances to which we have just alluded did not occur in his administration; but the contrast between his policy and its results was nevertheless scarcely less striking. It was in '45 that he transmitted his most important 'message of peace' to Ireland, to be followed by an autumnal visit of her Majesty to that kingdom, painted in complacent and prophetic colours by her prime minister. The visit was not made. In the course of that autumn, ten counties of Ireland were in a state of anarchy; and, mainly in that period, there were 136 homicides committed, 138 houses burned, 483 houses attacked, and 138 fired into; there were 544 cases of aggravated assault, and 551 of robbery of arms; there were 89 cases of bands appearing in arms; there were more than 200 cases of administering unlawful oaths; and there were 1,944 cases of sending threatening letters. By the end of the year, the general crime of Ireland had doubled in amount and enormity compared with the preceding year.
The Cure for Irish Ills
LORD GEORGE BENTINCK had large but defined views as to the policy which should be pursued with respect to Ireland. He was a firm supporter of the constitutional preponderance allotted to the land in our scheme of government, not from any jealousy or depreciation of the other great sources of public wealth, for his sympathy with the trading classes was genuine, but because he believed that constitutional preponderance, while not inconsistent with great commercial prosperity, to be the best security for public liberty and the surest foundation of enduring power. But as reality was the characteristic of his vigorous and sagacious nature, he felt that a merely formal preponderance, one not sustained and authorized by an equivalent material superiority, was a position not calculated to endure in the present age, and one especially difficult to maintain with our rapidly increasing population. For this reason he was always very anxious to identify the policy of Great Britain with that of Ireland, the latter being a country essentially agricultural; and he always shrank from any proposition which admitted a difference in the interests of the two kingdoms.
Liberal politicians, who some years ago were very loud for justice to Ireland, and would maintain at all hazards the identity of the interests of the two countries, have of late frequently found it convenient to omit that kingdom from their statistical bulletins of national prosperity. Lord George Bentinck, on the contrary, would impress on his friends, that if they wished to maintain the territorial constitution of their country, they must allow no sectarian considerations to narrow the basis of sympathy on which it should rest; and in the acres and millions of Ireland, in its soil and its people, equally neglected, he would have sought the natural auxiliaries of our institutions. To secure for our Irish fellow-subjects a regular market for their produce; to develop the resources of their country by public works on a great scale; and to obtain a decent provision for the Roman Catholic priesthood from the land and not from the consolidated fund, were three measures which he looked upon as in the highest degree conservative.
When the project of the cabinet of 1846 had transpired, Lord George at once declared, and was in the habit of reiterating his opinion, that 'it would ruin the 500,000 small farmers of Ireland,' and he watched with great interest and anxiety the conduct of their representatives in the House of Commons. It was with great difficulty that he could bring himself to believe, that political liberalism would induce the members for the south and west of Ireland to support a policy in his opinion so fatal to their countrymen as the unconditional repeal of the corn laws; and, indeed, before they took that step, which almost all of them have since publicly regretted and attempted to compensate for by their subsequent votes in the House of Commons, the prospect of their conduct frequently and considerably varied.
The Earl of St. Germans, the chief secretary of the Lord Lieutenant, introduced the Coercion Bill to the House of Lords on the 24th of February, and, considering the exigency, and the important reference to it in the speech from the throne, this step on the part of the government was certainly not precipitate. It was observed that the strongest supporters of the measure in the House of Lords on this occasion were the leaders of the Whig party. Lord Lansdowne, 'so far from complaining of the Government for bringing forward the measure at so early a period of the session, was ready to admit, that after the declaration of her Majesty, a declaration unhappily warranted by facts known to many of their lordships, every day was lost in which an effectual remedy was not at least attempted to put an end to a state of society so horrible.' Lord Clanricarde 'gave his ready assent to the bill;' and even Lord Grey, 'though he regretted the necessity for this measure, was of opinion that the chief secretary had established a sufficient case for arming the executive government with some additional powers.' When, therefore, at the end of the month of March, Lord George Bentinck was invited to attend a meeting of his friends, held at the house of Mr. Bankes, to consider the course which should be adopted by the Protectionist party with respect to the Coercion Bill, it was assumed, as a matter of course, that the coalition of the government and the Whigs must secure the passing of the measure, even if the Protectionists were disposed, for the chance of embarrassing the ministry, to resist it; and of course there was no great tendency in that direction. Men are apt to believe that crime and coercion are inevitably associated. There was abundance of precedent for the course, which seemed also a natural one.
In less than a century there had been seventeen coercive acts for Ireland, a circumstance which might make some ponder whether such legislation were as efficacious as it was violent. However, assassination rife, Captain Rock and Molly M'Guire out at night, Whigs and Tories all agreed, it was easy to catch at a glance the foregone conclusion of the meeting. One advantage of having a recognized organ of a political party is, that its members do not decide too precipitately. They listen before they determine, and if they have a doubt, they will grant the benefit of it to him whose general ability they have acknowledged, and to whom they willingly give credit for having viewed the question at issue in a more laborious and painful manner than themselves. Without a leader, they commit themselves to opinions carelessly and hastily adopted. This is fatal to a party in debate; but it often entails very serious consequences when the mistakes have been committed in a less public and responsible scene than the House of Commons.
In the present case, there was only one individual who took any considerable lead in the management of the party who ventured to suggest the expediency of pausing before they pledged themselves to support an unconstitutional measure, proposed by a government against which they were arrayed under circumstances of urgent and unusual opposition. The support of an unconstitutional measure may be expedient, but it cannot be denied that it is the most indubitable evidence of confidence. This suggestion, though received with kindness, elicited little sympathy, and Lord George Bentinck, who had not yet spoken, and who always refrained at these meetings from taking that directing part which he never wished to assume, marking the general feeling of those present, and wishing to guide it to a practical result advantageous to their policy, observed that the support of the Coercion Bill by the Protectionists, ought to be made conditional on the government proving the sincerity of their policy by immediately proceeding with their measure; that if life were in such danger in Ireland as was officially stated, and as he was bound to believe, no Corn or Customs' Bill could compete in urgency with the necessity of pressing forward a bill, the object of which was to arrest wholesale assassination. He was, therefore, for giving the government a hearty support, provided they proved they were in earnest in their determination to put down murder and outrage in Ireland, by giving a priority in the conduct of public business to the measure in question.
This view of the situation, which was certainly adroit, for it combined the vindication of order with an indefinite delay of the measures for the repeal of the protective system, seemed to please every one; there was a murmur of approbation, and when one of the most considerable of the country gentlemen expressed the prevalent feeling, and added that all that was now to be desired was that Lord George Bentinck would kindly consent to be the organ of the party on the occasion, and state their view to the House, the cheering was very hearty. It came from the hearts of more than two hundred gentlemen, scarcely one of whom had a personal object in this almost hopeless struggle beyond the maintenance of a system which he deemed advantageous to his country; but they wished to show their generous admiration of the man who, in the dark hour of difficulty and desertion, had proved his courage and resource, had saved them from public contempt, and taught them to have confidence in themselves. And after all, there are few rewards in life which equal such sympathy from such men. The favour of courts and the applause of senates may have their moments of excitement and delight, but the incident of deepest and most enduring gratification in public life is to possess the cordial confidence of a high-spirited party, for it touches the heart as well as the intellect, and combines all the softer feelings of private life with the ennobling consciousness of public duty.
Lord George Bentinck, deeply moved, consented to become the organ of the Protectionists in this matter; but he repeated in a marked manner his previous declaration, that his duty must be limited to the occasion: he would serve with them, but he could not pretend to be the leader of a party. In that capacity, however, the government chose to recognize him, and there occurred in consequence, very shortly after this meeting, a scene in the House of Commons, which occasioned at the time a great deal of surprise and scandal. The Secretary of the Treasury, in pursuance of one of his principal duties, which is to facilitate by mutual understanding the conduct of public business in the House of Commons, applied to Lord George Bentinck, confessedly at the request of Sir Robert Peel, to 'enter into some arrangement' as to the conduct of public business before Easter. The arrangement suggested was, that if the Protectionists supported the Coercion Bill, which it was the wish of Sir Robert Peel should be read a first time before Easter, the third reading of the Bill for the Repeal of the Corn Laws should be postponed until after Easter. The interview by appointment took place in the Vote Office, where the Secretary of the Treasury 'called Lord George aside' and made this proposition. Lord George stated in reply, 'what he believed to be the views of the party with whom he served,' and they were those we have already intimated. The 'arrangement' was concluded, and it was at the same time agreed that certain questions, of which notice had been given by Lord John Russell, relative to the progress of these very measures, should be allowed by the Protectionists to pass sub silentio. This 'pledge,' made by the noble lord for himself and his friends, was 'scrupulously observed.' Nevertheless, after all this, a letter arrived from the Secretary of the Treasury, addressed to the noble lord, stating that the secretary 'had not been authorized in saying as much as he had said,' and requesting that the conversation which had taken place might be considered private. Upon this, Lord George Bentinck drew up a statement, 'setting forth all that had passed,' and forwarded it to the secretary as his reply. Subsequently, he met that gentleman, who admitted that 'every word in that statement, as respected the conversation which had passed, was perfectly correct.'
This being the state of the case, on the second night of the debate on Mr. Eliot Yorke's amendment, which we have noticed, and after the adjournment had been moved and carried, the government proceeded with some motions of form, which indicated their intention to secure, if possible, the third reading of the Corn Bill before Easter. Upon this, Lord George Bentinck, after a hurried and apparently agitated conversation with the Secretary of the Treasury and others connected with the government, rose to move the adjournment of the House. He then gave as his reason the circumstances which we have briefly conveyed. A scene of considerable confusion occurred; the Secretary of the Treasury admitted the correctness of the statement; the First Lord of the Treasury rejected the alleged authority of the secretary. Mr. Tuffnell, on the part of the Whigs, intimated that public business could not be carried on if the recognized organs were repudiated by their chief. The feeling of all parties coincided with Mr. Tuffnell; finally, an Irish repealer rose and announced that the government were bartering their Corn Bill to secure coercion to Ireland. Lord George Bentinck said the Coercion Bill was 'a second Curfew Act,' that nothing but necessity could justify it, and if it were necessary it must be immediate. Sir Robert remained irritated and obstinate. He would not give up a stage either of the Corn Bill or the Coercion Bill; he wanted to advance both before Easter. The mere division of the House between Free-traders and Protectionists had already ceased; there were breakers ahead, and it was not difficult from this night to perceive that the course of the government would not be so summary as they had once expected.
This strange interlude occurred after midnight on the 26th of March. On Friday, the 27th, the House divided on the amendment of Mr. Eliot Yorke, and the Corn Bill was read for the second time. On the reassembling of the House on Monday, the 30th, an extraordinary scene took place.
It appears that the cabinet, after painful deliberation, had arrived at the conclusion that, notwithstanding the importance of sending up the Corn Bill to the House of Lords before Easter, it was absolutely necessary to proceed at once with the Coercion Bill; and it was resolved that the Secretary of State should on this evening lay before the House the facts and reasons which 'induce the Government to believe in the necessity of the measure.' Mr. O'Connell and his followers had already announced their intention of opposing the first reading of the bill, an allowable but very unusual course. It is competent to the House of Commons to refuse a first reading to any bill sent down to it; but the journals afford few examples of the exercise of such a privilege. A member of the House of Lords may lay on the table, as a matter of pure right, any bill which he thinks proper to introduce, and it is read a first time as a matter of course; the orders of the House of Commons are different, and a member must obtain permission before he introduces a bill. This permission is occasionally refused; but when a bill comes from the House of Lords, the almost invariable custom is to read it for the first time without discussion. There are, however, as we have observed, instances to the contrary, and the Irish Coercion Bill of '33 was one of them. So pregnant a precedent could not be forgotten on the present occasion. The government therefore were prepared for an opposition to the first reading of their bill; but trusting to the strength of their case and the assumed support of the Whig party, they believed that this opposition would not be stubborn, more especially as there were numerous stages of the measure on which the views of its opponents might be subsequently expressed, and as they themselves were prepared to engage that they would not proceed further than this first reading until the Corn Bill had passed the House of Commons. The consternation, therefore, of the government could scarcely be concealed, when they found on Monday night that they had to encounter a well-organized party opposition, headed by Sir William Somerville, and sanctioned and supported in debate by Lord John Russell and Sir George Grey.
It would seem indeed a difficult and somewhat graceless office for the Whigs to oppose the first reading of a government bill, concerning, too, the highest duties of administration, which had received such unqualified approval from all the leading members of their party in the House of Lords, who had competed in declarations of its necessity and acknowledgments of its moderation, while they only regretted the too tardy progress of a measure so indispensable to the safety of the country and the security of her Majesty's subjects. A curious circumstance, however, saved them from this dilemma, which yet in the strange history of faction they had nevertheless in due time to encounter.
As the Coercion Bill coming from the Lords appeared on the paper of the day in the form of a notice of motion, the Secretary of State, this being a day on which orders have precedence, had to move that such orders of the day should be postponed, so that he might proceed with the motion on the state of Ireland, of which notice had been given. The strict rule of the House is, that on Mondays and Fridays, orders of the day should have precedence of notices of motion, so that it was impossible for the Secretary of State to make his motion, that a certain bill (the Protection of Life—Ireland—Bill) should be read a first time without permission of the House, a permission always granted as a matter of course on such nights to the government, since the business which can be brought forward, whether in the shape of orders or motions, is purely government business, and thus the interests and privilege of no independent member of Parliament can be affected by a relaxation of the rules which the convenience of a ministry and the conduct of public business occasionally require. However, on this night, no sooner had the Secretary of State made, in a few formal words, this formal request, than up sprang Sir William Somerville to move an amendment, that the orders of the day should not be postponed, which he supported in a spirited address, mainly on the ground of the great inconvenience that must be suffered from the postponement of the Corn Bill. The motion of the Secretary of State would produce a long, exciting, and exasperating debate. Time would be lost—for what? To advance one stage of a measure which it was avowedly not the intention of the government to press at the present moment. Sir William concluded with a very earnest appeal to Lord George Bentinck and his friends, who might at no very distant period have the government of Ireland entrusted to them, not, for the sake of a momentary postponement of the Corn Bill, to place themselves, by voting for this measure of coercion, in collision with the Irish nation.' He called upon Lord George Bentinck to weigh the position in which he was placed.
This amendment was seconded by Mr. Smith O'Brien, the member for the county of Limerick, who warned the government that they 'were entering on a contest which would continue for months.' He taunted the minister with governing the country without a party. What chance was there of reconciliation with his estranged friends? After the treatment of that 'disavowed plenipotentiary,' the Secretary of the Treasury, who would be again found willing to undertake the mission of patching up a truce? He was not present when the terms of the treaty were exposed: but he understood, that if the government introduced this Coercion Bill before Easter, then that Lord George Bentinck would deem it wise, proper, and expedient; but if after Easter, then the complexion and character of the bill were, in the noble lord's judgment, utterly transformed, and it was declared to be quite untenable and unconstitutional. Was that the kind of support on which the government calculated for passing this measure?
The Secretary of State made a dexterous, conciliatory, almost humble address, in reply to the taunts of Mr. Smith O'Brien. He said that he was well aware of the fact of which he had been just reminded, that, in the present state of parties, the declared adherents of the government were a small minority; he even, while excusing the delay in the progress of the Irish measure, reminded the House of the curious fact, that since the meeting of Parliament, two successive Irish secretaries had lost their seats in the House of Commons in consequence of supporting the administration of which they were members.
The case of the government was really so good and clear, that for a moment it seemed the opposition could hardly persist in their unusual proceeding: but this was a night of misfortunes.
There had been for some time a smouldering feud between the secretary and the Recorder of Dublin. The learned gentleman had seized the occasion which the present state of parties afforded, and in the course of the recent debate on the second reading of the Corn Bill, had declared that the asserted famine in Ireland was, on the part of the government, 'a great exaggeration.' The secretary had addressed himself particularly to this observation in his speech on the 27th, the night of the division, and had noticed it in a tone of acerbity. He had even intimated that it might have been used by one who was a disappointed solicitor for high office, and whom the government had declined to assist in an unwarrantable arrangement of the duties and salary of the judicial post he at present occupied. The learned Recorder, justly indignant at this depreciating innuendo, resolved to make an opportunity on the following Monday for his vindication and retort. He rose, therefore, immediately after the skilful and winning appeal of the secretary, and pronounced an invective against the right honourable gentleman which was neither ill-conceived nor ill-delivered. It revived the passions that for a moment seemed inclined to lull, and the Protectionists, who on this occasion were going to support the government, forgot the common point of union, while the secretary was described as 'the evil genius of the cabinet.'
After this, it was impossible to arrest the course of debate. Mr. O'Connell, who appeared to be in a state of great debility, made one of those acute points for which he was distinguished. He said the government complained of the threat held out by those who opposed the bill, that they would avail themselves of the forms of the House to give it every opposition in their power. But what did the government do themselves? Why, they were trying to trample upon one of the sessional orders and to abrogate the forms of the House in order to coerce the Irish people. Lord George Bentinck said, that 'the chief minister had told them, that this was a bill to put down murder and assassination; in that case, if this bill were delayed, the blood of every man murdered in Ireland was on the head of her Majesty's ministers.' Sir George Grey followed, and avoiding any discussion of the state of Ireland, in which Lord George had entered, supported the amendment of Sir William Somerville, on the broad ground that the bill for the repeal of the corn laws ought not to be for a moment delayed. 'The debates on that measure had continued several weeks; and all who had any lengthened parliamentary experience must be convinced, that if the further progress of the Corn Bill was postponed until after Easter, they would have much longer and protracted debates in its future stages, than if the bill were pushed de die in diem. As he had understood, the government had intended that this bill should have gone up to the House of Lords before Easter, when it would have been printed, and the second reading could have taken place at an early day after the holidays; but if it were put off until after Easter, he would defy any man to show any reasonable expectation of its getting to a second reading in the other House before June, or July, or even August.' This was encouraging, and the plot seemed to thicken. The Secretary at War was put up by the government to neutralize the effect of the speech of Sir George Grey, and he said, 'I speak not only as a cabinet minister, but also as a considerable Irish proprietor.' He said, 'that anything so horrible as the state of demoralization and crime in which many parts of Ireland were plunged, anything so perfect as the suspension of the law in those parts of the country, anything, in short, so complete as the abrogation of liberty that obtained there, was, perhaps never known.' He thought that, 'no man and no minister could, under these circumstances, decline to admit that every and any measure ought to be postponed until a division had been taken, at least upon the principle of a measure which had for its object the suppression of these horrors.' After such a declaration it was clear the government were in a false position when by the same organ it had to state, 'that in asking to read this bill to-night, they only intended to postpone the Corn Bill for one night.'
Lord John Russell following, admitted, that 'in voting for the motion of Sir William Somerville it was not to be supposed, that if the Secretary of State made out a case, he would not support the government bill;' yet how the secretary was ever to find an opportunity of making out his case, if the amendment of Sir William Somerville was carried, was not very apparent. Sir Robert Peel, who was disquieted by the whole proceedings connected with the Coercion Bill, irritated by the episode of 'the disavowed plenipotentiary,' from which he did not for some time recover, and really alarmed at the indefinite prospect of delay in passing his all-important measures which now began to open, could not conceal his vexation in the remarks which he offered, and speaking of the amendment as one 'of a frivolous character,' indignant cries of 'No, no,' from his usual admirers, obliged him to withdraw the expression. His feelings were not soothed when, later in the evening, even Mr. Cobden rose to deplore the conduct of that minister whom he otherwise so much admired. 'He certainly regarded it as a great calamity. Something had actuated the government which he could not understand. He had a perfect belief in the sincerity of the prime minister, but in all human probability the Corn Bill would not now enter the House of Lords before the beginning or middle of May; and when it would come out again, heaven only knew!'
The House now divided, and being supported by all the Protectionists present, the government had a majority of thirty-nine, so the standing order was for that night rescinded; and, although the hour was late for such a statement, the secretary proceeded with the official exposition. Notwithstanding the depressing circumstances of the previous debate, the speech of Sir James Graham was distinguished by all that lucid arrangement of details and that comprehensive management of his subject which distinguished him. The statement made a great impression upon the House and the country; but, unfortunately for the government, the more necessary they made the measure appear, the more unjustifiable was their conduct in not immediately and vehemently pursuing it. They had, indeed, in the speech from the throne at the commencement of this memorable session, taken up a false position for their campaign; and we shall see, as we pursue this narrative of these interesting events, that the fall of Sir Robert Peel was perhaps occasioned not so much by his repeal of the corn laws as by the mistake in tactics which this adroit and experienced parliamentary commander so strangely committed.
On this night of the 30th the government made no advance; immediately after the secretary had finished, the followers of Mr. O'Connell moved the adjournment of the House, and persisted in this line notwithstanding the almost querulous appeal of the first minister.
The Passing of O'Connell.
LORD GEORGE wrote the next morning (Tuesday, March 31st) to a friend, who had not been able to attend the debate: 'I look upon last night as the most awkward night the government have had yet; I believe they would have given their ears to have been beaten. We have now fairly set them and the tail at loggerheads, and I cannot see how they are to get another stage of either the tariff or Corn Bill before next Tuesday at any rate. I doubt if they will do anything before Easter.'
It was understood that the House would adjourn for the Easter recess on the 8th instant. There were therefore only two nights remaining for government business before the holidays. On the first of these (Friday, April the 3rd), Mr. O'Connell had announced that he should state his views at length on the condition of Ireland, and the causes of these agrarian outrages. Accordingly, when the order of the day for resuming the adjourned debate was read, he rose at once to propose an amendment to the motion. He sat in an unusual place—in that generally occupied by the leader of the opposition—and spoke from the red box, convenient to him from the number of documents to which he had to refer. His appearance was of great debility, and the tones of his voice were very still. His words, indeed, only reached those who were immediately around him and the ministers sitting on the other side of the green table, who listened with that interest and respectful attention which became the occasion.
It was a strange and touching spectacle to those who remembered the form of colossal energy and the clear and thrilling tones that had once startled, disturbed, and controlled senates. Mr. O'Connell was on his legs for nearly two hours, assisted occasionally in the management of his documents by some devoted aide-de-camp. To the House generally it was a performance in dumb show, a feeble old man muttering before a table; but respect for the great parliamentary personage kept all as orderly as if the fortunes of a party hung upon his rhetoric; and though not an accent reached the gallery, means were taken that next morning the country should not lose the last and not the least interesting of the speeches of one who had so long occupied and agitated the mind of nations.
This remarkable address was an abnegation of the whole policy of Mr. O'Connell's career. It proved, by a mass of authentic evidence ranging over a long term of years, that Irish outrage was the consequence of physical misery, and that the social evils of that country could not be successfully encountered by political remedies. To complete the picture, it concluded with a panegyric of Ulster and a patriotic quotation from Lord Clare.
Lord John Russell, who, as an experienced parliamentary leader, had already made more than one effort to extricate the Whigs from the consequences of the hearty support given to the government measures in the other House by Lords Lansdowne and Clanricarde, and even by Lord Grey, ventured to-night even to say that if he should agree that the House would do well to assent to the first reading of this bill, he thought he was bound to state also that in the future stages of it, he should have 'objections to offer, going to the foundations of some of its principal provisions.'
His speech was curious, as perhaps the last considerable manifesto of Whig delusion respecting Ireland. Coercion Bills might be occasionally necessary; no doubt of it; Lord Grey had once a Coercion Bill, and Lord John Russell had voted for it; but then remedial measures ought to be introduced with coercive ones: the evil should be repressed, but also cured. Thus, Lord Althorp, when the government introduced their great Coercion Bill, introduced also a measure which, besides making a great reform in the Protestant Church of Ireland, exempted the whole Catholic community of Ireland from the payment of church cess, which had previously been felt as a very great grievance. On another day Lord Althorp declared his intention of pressing through Parliament a Jury Bill, which had been brought into the House the previous session, but which was allowed to drop in the House of Lords.
Again, there was another declaration which Lord Althorp had made, which, somehow or other, seemed to have been forgotten; it was a declaration with respect to the municipal corporations of Ireland. Lord Althorp said it was exceedingly desirable that the institutions of the two countries should be assimilated as much as possible; and that, as a general rule, the corporate bodies of Ireland should be the same as England. Mr. O'Connell had said on that occasion that there was no greater grievance in Ireland than the existence of corporations in their then shape. Lord John contrasted this language of Lord Althorp, 'simple, plain, emphatic, and decided,' with the language of the government of Sir Robert Peel; and held up to admiration the Whig policy of 1833, certainly coercive, but with remedial measures—a measure for the abolition of church cess, introduced ten days before the Coercion Bill, and a promise of municipal reform made simultaneously with the proclamation of martial law. This was real statesmanship and touching the root of the evil. Whereas 'Sir Robert Peel had only consented to passing the Municipal Bill in a crippled state, and only now (in 1846) promised, that the corporations of Ireland should be placed on the same footing as the corporations of England.' Who could be surprised that such a policy-should end in famine and pestilence?