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parliamentary reform

An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age

parliamentary reform. 

The reform of franchise and representation began to be discussed during the *Wilkite agitations after 1768, but did not gain wide support until the Economical Reform Movement of 1779–80.

The Economical Reform Movement focused mainly on the issue of expenditures that led to the supposed corruption of parliament: if one way to deal with corruption was to root it out, another was to make members of parliament (in this case, members of the House of Commons) less corruptible. Associations in support of economical and parliamentary reform were formed in several counties and in the metropolis. Members of the former aimed to secure more county members, already noted for their independence and resistance to corruption. The metropolitan bodies, particularly the *Society for Constitutional Information, had a more ambitious goal, including universal manhood suffrage and annually elected parliaments. In fact, their programme spelled out the aims that would later become the six foundational points of the Charter in the 1840s. Though the movement gained the support of perhaps a fourth of the existing electorate, the steam was effectively taken out of it by the *Gordon riots of 1780, which led to a sharp reaction against the campaign for parliamentary reform.

The next stage in parliamentary reform came with the formation of popular reform societies in the 1790s, such as the London Corresponding Society, founded in 1792 by Thomas *Hardy. Later in 1792, the future Earl Grey (1764–1845) formed his Society of the Friends of the People, which included the brilliant lawyer Thomas *Erskine. This society aimed to give the lead to, and thus moderate, lower-class organizations such as the LCS, but though *Whigs managed to temper the wind of prosecution, *Pitt's government successfully suppressed the reform campaign in the 1790s.

Thanks largely to Sir Francis *Burdett, parliamentary reform enjoyed a revival between 1809 and 1812. However, despite the indefatigable efforts of the veteran reformer, Major John *Cartwright, in founding the reforming Hampden Clubs during his lecture tours of 1811–12, the movement did not really swell until the end of the war. Between 1816 and 1820, under the impetus of economic recession and demobilization, reforming sentiments spread not only to skilled tradesmen in the older trades but to workers in newer industries centred in such mushrooming towns as Manchester. In 1819 workers constituted the majority of the protesters who turned out in their tens of thousands for a meeting in support of reforming the franchise, the length of parliamentary terms, and voting methods. This meeting was transformed into the *Peterloo massacre, after the magistrates of Lord *Liverpool's government used troops to disperse the crowd, resulting in a dozen deaths and numerous woundings.

Though shocked by these events, Liverpool's government had no sympathy with parliamentary reform and dared not repudiate the rudimentary local government. Lord Grey, though favourable to moderate reform at the right time, was hardly more comfortable with the threat of popular disorder. The popular disturbances surrounding *Queen Caroline whom the Whigs defended with varying degrees of distaste against a prosecution reluctantly pressed by the government, suggested to both parties that something needed to be done to curb the unrest.

Two kinds of response emerged. The *Tory liberal response, associated with such policies as a loosening of trade restrictions and penal reform, and carried out under the leadership of figures such as George *Canning and Robert *Peel, aimed to demonstrate that the existing system was capable of ruling wisely and justly without constitutional reform. The Whig response argued that constitutional reforms, designed to extend the franchise to new classes of people, were essential. In reawakening interest in such measures, young Whig members of the House of Commons, such as Lord John Russell and Lord Althorp, took the lead.

In the late 1820s a coalition of discontents prepared the way for the triumph of reform. Repeal of the Test Acts in 1828, removing political restrictions from Protestant Dissenters, released Dissenting energies for the cause of reform. Protestants angry at the passage of *Catholic emancipation the next year became convinced that parliament must be reformed. Both advocates and opponents of the *corn laws believed they might benefit, as did opponents of municipal as well as parliamentary corruption, and discontented working people. In 1830, with the resignation of the Duke of *Wellington's Tory government, Lord Grey stepped in to carry parliamentary reform.

Grey proceeded according to the best principles of Whiggism. He aimed to produce a respectable and independent middle-class electorate, and a sufficient redistribution of seats in the House of Commons to do away with irredeemably rotten boroughs, and to give new interests a clear voice in the legislature. He argued that only thus could aristocratic government regain the confidence of the people. The *Reform Act of 1832, which embodied these principles, was far from satisfying everybody, but it gave enough satisfaction to enough people to bring the desired stability. Even those who disliked it, such as working men, most of whom were excluded, never lost faith in the system's capability of further reforming itself.

R. W. Davis

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