HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH SPEAKING PEOPLES
by Winston Churchill
The Victory Peace
AFTER a generation of warfare peace had come to Europe in the summer of 1815. It was to be a long peace, disturbed by civil commotions and local campaigns, but flaring into no major blaze until the era of German expansion succeeded the age of French predominance. In the Revolutionary and Napoleonic struggles Britain had played an heroic part. The task that had united and preoccupied her people was now at last accomplished. Henceforth they could bend their energies to developing the great resources of industrial and commercial skill which had accumulated in the Island during the past half-century and been tested and sharpened by twenty-two years of war. But the busy world of trade and manufacture and the needs and aspirations of the mass of men, women, and children who toiled in its service were beyond the grasp of the country's leading statesmen on the morrow of Waterloo. The English political scene succumbed to stagnation. The Tories, as we may call them, though not all would have acknowledged the name, were firmly in power. They had won the struggle against Napoleon with the support of a War Cabinet drawn largely from their own party. They embodied the tradition of resistance to the principles of Revolutionary France and the aggressive might of the Napoleonic empire. Throughout the country they had innumerable allies among men of substance and independent mind,' who would have scorned to wear a party label but nevertheless shared the prevailing Tory outlook. They regarded themselves as the defenders not only of the Island, but of the almost bloodless aristocratic settlement achieved by the Revolution of 1688. Under the shock of the French Terror the English governing classes had closed their minds and their ranks to change. Prolonged exertions had worn out the nation. Convalescence lasted until 1830…….
At home the Government were faced with the delicate and perplexing task of economic reconstruction. For this their members were supremely unfitted. The dislocation caused by the end of the war and the novel problems posed by the advance of industry were beyond the power of these men to remedy or solve. Earlier than her neighbours Britain enjoyed the fruits and endured the rigours of the Industrial Revolution. She gained a new domain of power and prosperity. At the same time the growing masses in her ill-built towns were often plunged into squalor and misery, the source of numerous and well-grounded discontents. Her technical lead was due to the ingenuity and success of British inventors and men of business in the eighteenth century and to the fortunate proximity of her main coal and iron deposits to each other and to the coast. Supremacy at sea, the resources of the colonial empire, and the use of capital accumulated from its trade nourished the industrial movement. Steam engines were gradually harnessed to the whole field of contemporary industry. In engineering accurate tools were perfected which brought a vast increase in output. The spinning of cotton was mechanised, and the factory system grew by degrees. The skilled man, self-employed, who had hitherto worked in his home, was steadily displaced. Machinery, the rise of population, and extensive changes in employment all presented a formidable social problem. The Government were by their background and upbringing largely unaware of the causes of the ills which they had to cure. They concentrated upon the one issue they understood, the defence of property. In a society which was rapidly becoming industrial most of them represented the abiding landed interest. They were incapable of carrying out even moderate reforms because of their obsessive fears of bloody revolution.
Napoleon had closed the Continent to British commerce, and the answering British blockade had made things worse for industry at home. There was much unemployment in the industrial North and the Midlands. Smashing of machinery during the Luddite riots of 1812 and 1813 had exposed the complete absence of means of preserving public order. There /was no co-ordination between the Home Office in London and the Justices of the Peace in the country. Disorder was in the end suppressed only by the tactful and efficient behaviour of the officers commanding the troops sent to put down the rioters. Often before in the eighteenth century low wages and lack of. employment had caused widespread unrest, which had been fanned into riot whenever a succession of bad harvests drove prices high and made food dearer. Bad harvests now added to the prevailing distress. But eighteenth-century riots were generally soon over. They were snuffed out by a few hangings and sentences of transportation to the colonies. The sore-pates who remained at home were more inclined to', blame nature for their woes than either the economic or political system. After Waterloo the public temper was very different. Extremist Radical leaders came out of hiding and kept up a perpetual and growing agitation. Their organisations, which had been suppressed during the French Revolution, now reappeared, and began to take the shape of a political movement, though as yet scarcely represented in the House of Commons.
In the Radical view it was the Government alone, and not chance or Act of God, that was to blame for the misfortunes of the people. The Tory Cabinet in the face of such charges knew not what to do. It was no part of Tory philosophy to leave everything to be settled by the chaffer of the marketplace, to trust to good luck and ignore the bad. The Tories of the time recognised and sometimes gloried in the responsibility of the governing classes for the welfare of the whole nation. The tasks of government were well understood to be as Burke had defined them—"the public peace, the public safety, the public order, the public prosperity." It was the last of these that was now foremost. The trouble was that the Government, in the unprecedented conditions that confronted them, had no idea how to secure the public prosperity. And even if they had hit upon a plan they possessed no experienced body of civil servants to put it into effect. As a result the only remedy for misery was private charity or the Poor Law.
It was a misfortune for Britain in these years that the Parliamentary Opposition was at its weakest. A generation in the wilderness had demoralised the Whig Party, which had not been effectively in office since 1783. Among themselves the Whigs were deeply divided, and none of them had any better or broader plans for post-war reconstruction than the Tories. Indeed, their interests were essentially the same. Like their rivals, they represented the landed class, and also the City of London. The only issues upon which they seriously quarrelled with the Government were Catholic Emancipation and the enfranchisement of the middle classes in the rising industrial towns. In the 1790's the Whigs had favoured the cause of Parliamentary Reform. It had been a useful stick with which to beat the administration of the younger Pitt. But they had been badly scared by the headlong course of events in France. Their leaders only gradually and reluctantly regained their reforming zeal. In the meantime, as Hazlitt put it, the two parties were like competing stage-coaches which splashed each other with mud but went by the same road to the same place. The Radicals who found their way into Parliament were too few to form an effective Opposition. One of their veteran leaders, John Cartwright, had for forty years in a litter of pamphlets been advocating annual Parliaments and universal suffrage. He was a landed gentleman, liked by many Members, but he never sat in the House of Commons. Under the unreformed franchise no constituency would adopt him. The violence of language used by the Radicals frightened Tories and Whigs alike. It stiffened the resistance of the upper middle classes, both industrial and landed, to all proposals for change.
English political, tradition centred in Parliament, and men still looked to Parliament to cure the evils of the day. If Parliament did nothing, then the structure of Parliament must be changed. Agitation therefore turned from airing social discontents to demanding Parliamentary Reform. Huge meetings were held, and protests vociferously made. But the tactics of the Radicals were much too like those of the French Revolutionaries to gain support from the middle classes. Though still denied much weight in Parliament, the middle classes were bound by their fear of revolution to side in the last resort with the landed interest. The Cabinet was thoroughly perturbed. Habeas corpus was suspended, and legislation passed against the holding of seditious meetings. Throughout the country a fresh wave of demonstrations followed. A large body of men set out to march from Manchester to London to present a petition against the Government's measures, each carrying a blanket for his night's shelter. This march of the "Blahketeers" disturbed the authorities profoundly. The leaders were arrested and the rank and file quickly dispersed. Another rising in Derbyshire was easily suppressed.
These alarums and excursions revealed the gravity of conditions. Not only was there grinding poverty among the working population, but also a deep-rooted conflict between the manufacturing and agricultural classes. The economy of the country was dangerously out of balance. The war debt had reached alarming proportions. The fund-holders were worried at the instability of the national finances. The country had gone off the gold standard in 1797, and the paper currency had seriously depreciated. In 1812 a Parliamentary committee advised returning to gold, but the. Bank of England was strongly adverse and nothing was done. The income tax, introduced by Pitt to finance the war, was highly unpopular, especially among the industrial middle class. It took 10 per cent of all incomes over £150 a year, and there were lower rates for smaller incomes. The yield in 1815 was fifteen million pounds, which was a large proportion of the Budget Agriculture as well as industry quaked at the end of the war. Much capital had been sunk in land for the sake of high profits. Peace brought a slump in the prices fetched by crops, and landowners clamoured for protection against the importation of cheap foreign corn. This had been granted by the Corn Law of 1815, which excluded foreign wheat unless the domestic price per quarter rose above eighty shillings. The cost of bread went up, and the manufacturing classes had to raise wages to save their workers from hunger. The manufacturers in their turn got the income tax abolished, which helped them but imperilled the Budget. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nicholas Vansittart, struggled vainly with the chaos of a mounting deficit, and an unstable currency, while behind these technical problems distress grew and gaped.
In 1819 an incident took place which increased the unpopularity and quickened the fears of the Government. A meeting of protest was held at St Peter's Fields, outside Manchester, attended by over fifty thousand people, including women and children. The local magistrates lost their heads, and, after reading the Biot Act, ordered the yeomanry to charge. Eleven people were killed, two of them women, and four hundred were injured. This "massacre of Peterloo," as it . was called in ironic reference to the Battle of Waterloo, aroused widespread indignation, which was swelled still further when the Government took drastic steps to prevent the recurrence of disorder. Six Acts were passed regulating public meetings, empowering the magistrates to seize seditious literature, forbidding unauthorised drilling in military formations, imposing a heavy tax upon the Press to restrict the circulation of-Radical newspapers, regulating the issue of warrants and the bringing of cases to trial. Soon afterwards a conspiracy was discovered against the whole Cabinet. A small gang of plotters was arrested in Cato Street, a turning off the Edgware Road, where they had met to plan to murder all the Ministers at a dinner party and seize the Bank of England.
The attack by the Government upon the traditional principles of English liberty aroused the conscience of the Whigs. They considered that "Peterloo" was no excuse for invading the rights of the subject. They demanded an inquiry. Liberty was at stake, and this was a struggle they well understood. When they were outvoted however they took their defeat with some equanimity; for they were as-frightened as the Tories by the social unrest that was gripping all Europe. Compared with most Continental countries, Britain came lightly out of these years of disturbance. But the- spectacle of convulsions abroad darkened counsel at home. By the end of 1819 trade and harvests had improved. A commission under the chairmanship of Robert Peel, a young Tory politician who had been Chief Secretary for Ireland at the age of twenty-four, recommended a return to the gold standard. Peel brought in and carried a Bill embodying the principles of their report. Stabilisation of the currency was at last achieved, and by a Private Member of Parliament. Though the landed interests suffered some hardship, not without raising their voices in complaint, it seemed that a corner had been turned.
Once again in English history the personal affairs of the royal family now exploded into public view. Victory over Napoleon had been a triumph for the Divine Right of Kings and the cause of monarchy. But the. republican influence of the French Revolution had left its mark on public opinion in most European countries, and the vices or incapacity of many monarchs made them easy targets for criticism and abuse. In England King George HI had long been intermittently mad, and English politicians had had to reckon with the virtual demise of the Crown for considerable intervals. In 1788 the first madness of the King had confronted Pitt with a grave political crisis. An acrimonious dispute with Fox and the Whigs over the powers that should he exercised by the Prince of Wales as Regent was brought to a conclusion only by George Hi's sudden recovery. In 1810 the old King finally sank into incurable imbecility. He lived for another ten years, roaming the corridors of Windsor Castle with long white beard and purple dressing-gown. The Prince became Regent, with unrestricted royal prerogatives. To the consternation of his old Whig friends, he had kept his Tory advisers in power and prosecuted the war with vigour. Whatever the faults of George IV, his determination as Regent to support Wellington and Castlereagh and to stand up to Napoleon should earn him an honourable place in his country's history.
The royal family of the house of Hanover had by now implanted itself firmly on English soil. "Farmer George," as George III was called in his happier middle years, had become a popular figure. He had been the only person who had not lost his nerve at the time of the Gordon Riots, when a crazy Protestant mob, led by an unbalanced member of the aristocracy, reduced London to panic. He had endured the disasters of the American War of Independence. But though he commanded his people's affection he scarcely inspired their leaders' respect. He married- a German princess, Queen Charlotte, who bore him a brood of sons, seven of whom grew to manhood. None of them added dignity or lustre to the royal house.
The atmosphere of the Court was like that of a minor German principality. All was stiff, narrow, fusty. The spirited lad who was to be George TV soon rebelled against his decorous mother and parsimonious father. A gift for facile friendship, often with dubious personages, alienated him still further from the home circle. He was early deprived of the companionship of his brothers, who were dispatched to Germany, there to receive a thorough Teutonic grounding. George, as heir to the throne, had to have an English background; and in the circle of his more intimate friends, Charles James Fox, Richard Sheridan, and Beau Brummel, he soon acquired the attributes of the eighteenth-century English gentleman—the arts of acquiring debts, of wearing fine clothes, and making good conversation. His natural intelligence and good taste went undisciplined and his talent for self-expression was frequently squandered in melodramatic emotion. Self-indulgence warped his judgment and frivolity marred his bearing. When pleasure clashed with royal duty it was usually pleasure that won. The loneliness of his position, both as Regent and King, cast a harsh emphasis upon his not unamiable weaknesses.
In 1784 the Prince had fallen in love. His choice was unfortunate. Maria Fitzherbert was not only a commoner of obscure family, but also a Roman Catholic. Her morals were impeccable and she would be content with nothing less than marriage. The Prince's Whig friends were alarmed when the heir to the most Protestant throne in Europe insisted on marrying a Roman Catholic widow who had already survived two husbands. Under the Royal Marriages Act the union was illegal, and George's behaviour was neither creditable to himself nor to his position. The clandestine beginnings of this relationship and the volatile temperament of George did their work. Mrs Fitzherbert, prim and quiet, was not the woman to hold him for long. The relationship slid back into the secrecy from which it had unwillingly emerged. It was finally broken off, but not until some years after George had contracted a second, legal, and dynastic marriage.
At the bidding of his parents in 1796 he was wedded to Caroline of Brunswick, a noisy, flighty, and unattractive German princess. George was so appalled at the sight of his bride that he was drunk for the first twenty-four hours of his married life. A few days after his wedding he wrote his wife a letter absolving her from any further conjugal duties. For some years thereafter he consoled himself with Lady Jersey. He acquired a growing hatred for Caroline. A high-spirited, warm-hearted girl was born of their brief union, Princess Charlotte, who found her mother quite as unsatisfactory as her father. In 1814 George banned his wife from Court, and after an unseemly squabble she left England for a European tour, vowing to return to plague her husband when he should accede to the throne.
The Government were perturbed about the problem of the succession. Princess Charlotte married Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, later King of the Belgians, but in 1817 she died in childbirth. Her infant was stillborn. George's brothers, who were all in different ways eccentric, were thoroughly unpopular; as Wellington said, "the damnedest millstone about the necks of any Government, .... who had personally insulted two-thirds of the gentlemen of England." They lacked not only charm, but lawful issue. But they were well aware of the importance of their position. They had a cash value to the Government on the royal marriage market. Most of them were already illegally involved in long-standing relationships with women. In 1818 however the obliging Dukes of Clarence and Kent did their royal duty—for a sum. Kent made a German marriage, and retired to Gibraltar to exercise his martial talents upon the Rock. The offspring of this alliance was the future Queen Victoria.
The Prince of Wales had long played with the idea of divorcing his itinerant wife. But Liverpool's Government were apprehensive. The Prince's extravagance, his lavish architectural experiments at Brighton and Windsor, were already causing them anxiety and giving rise to hostile speeches in Parliament. The Lord Chancellor, bluest of Tories, was vehemently opposed to any idea of divorce. The bench of bishops adopted a similar and suitable attitude. But George was persistent. He got a commission appointed to inquire into the Princess's conduct. It posted to Italy to collect evidence from the unsavoury entourage of Caroline. In July 1819 the Government received a report producing considerable circumstantial evidence against her. George was delighted, Liverpool and the Cabinet dismayed. Ever since 1714 the quarrels of the royal family had provided ammunition for party political warfare. The Opposition would certainly take up the cause of the injured wife.
The Princess's chief legal adviser was Henry Brougham, the ablest of the younger Whigs. This witty, ambitious, and unscrupulous attorney saw the value of the case to his party, though he was unconvinced of his client's innocence. He entered into confidential relations with the Government, hoping for a compromise which would bring advancement to himself. But in January 1820 the mad old King died and the position of the new sovereign's consort had to be determined. George IV fell seriously ill, but his hatred of Caroline sustained and promoted his recovery. He insisted upon her name being struck from the Church liturgy. The Cabinet presented him with a nervous note pointing out the difficulties of action. But now he was King. He warned them he would dismiss the lot, and threatened to retire to Hanover. The Whigs were as much alarmed as the Tories by the King's determination. They too feared the effect on public opinion outside Parliamentary and political circles. Whatever happened there would be a scandal which would bring the monarchy into dangerous disrepute.
Caroline now showed her hand. In April 1820 an open letter appeared in the London Press, signed by her, and recounting her woes. The Radical sympathy of the City of London was easily aroused in her favour. Alderman Wood entered into active correspondence with her and promised her a warm reception. The Radicals saw their chance of discrediting the-traditional political parties. The Government made a last effort. Brougham was sent to intercept the Queen on her journey to England. A hurried meeting took place at St Omer. But nothing would stop the infuriated woman, whose obstinacy was inflamed by Radical advice. In June she landed, and she drove amid stormy scenes of enthusiasm from Dover to London. Her carriage was hauled most of the way by exuberant supporters. Her arrival produced a tumult of agitation.
The Government reluctantly decided that they must go through with the business. A Secret Committee of the Lords was set up, and their report persuaded Liverpool to agree to introduce a Bill of Pains and Penalties if the Queen were proved guilty of adultery. Popular feeling against the conditions of England was now diverted into a national inquiry into the condition of the monarchy. The characters of the royal personages concerned came under merciless scrutiny. A well-organised campaign was launched on behalf of Queen Caroline, led by the City Radicals, and, now that there was no turning back, by Brougham. Cheering crowds gathered every day outside her house in London. Her appearance in public places was loudly acclaimed. Politicians known to oppose her case were stoned in their carriages. In July the hearing of the charges was opened in Westminster Hall. In lengthy sessions the Attorney-General put the case for the Government, producing unreliable Italian witnesses from Caroline's vagabond Court. Her Master of Ceremonies, Bergarni, had installed his numerous Telations with bogus titles around her person, and this motley company had for some years been touring the Mediterranean countries, earning derision and insults from several Governments. The conflicting and sordid evidence of lackeys and chambermaids was displayed before the audience in Westminster Hall. Stories of keyholes, of indecorous costumes and gestures, regaled the public ear. The London Press openly attacked the credibility of the witnesses with their broken Italianate English and their uninspiring appearance. Leigh Hunt wrote a pungent verse:
You swear—you swear—"O Signore, si,"
That through a double door, eh,
You've seen her think adulterously?
"Ver' true, Sir—Si, Signore!"
"For fifteen days," wrote a contemporary historian, "the whole people was obscene." Brougham led the defence. With great effect he produced George's letter of 1796 absolving his wife from all marital obligations. It was not difficult to show that the conflicting evidence produced hardly justified the divorce clause in the Bill of Pains and Penalties. He boldly attacked the veiled personage behind the case, the King himself, malevolently referring to George's obesity in a wounding quotation from Paradise Lost:
The other shape—
If shape it could be called—that shape had none
Distinguishable in member, joint or limb;
Or substance might be called that shadow seemed,
For each seemed either....
What seemed its head The likeness of a kingly crown had on.
The peers thought the Queen guilty, but doubted the wisdom of divorce, and the Bill passed through their House by only nine votes. The Whigs, when compromise had become impossible, voted against the Government. Their leader, Earl Grey, had declared his belief in the innocence of Caroline. The Cabinet now decided that there was small chance of forcing the Bill through the Commons. They withdrew it and the affair was dropped. The London mob rioted in joy; the whole city was illuminated. The windows of the Ministers' houses were broken. Lord Sidmouth, who had prudently kept the newspapers from his daughters, was the first to suffer. But the bubbling effervescence of the masses quickly subsided. Caroline was granted an annuity of £50,000, which she was not too proud to accept. One political result of the crisis was the resignation of George Canning, who had been on friendly terms with the Queen. This gifted pupil of Pitt had rejoined the administration in 1816 as President of the Board of Control, which supervised the Government of India. He had made his influence felt in other spheres as well, and his departure was a serious loss to the Cabinet.
Two more awkward scenes closed this regrettable story. In July 1821 George IV was crowned in pomp at Westminster Abbey. Caroline attempted to force her way into the Abbey, but was turned away because she had no ticket. A month later she died. An attempt by the authorities to smuggle her coffin out of the country was frustrated and a triumphant" and tumultuous funeral procession struggled through the City of London. This was the last victory that the Radicals gained from the affair.
The agitation over the Queen had been essentially the expression of discontent. It marked the highest point of the Radical movement in these post-war years. Towards the end of 1820 however industry and trade revived and popular disturbances subsided. The mass of the country was instinctively Royalist and the personal defects of the sovereign had little effect upon this deep-rooted tradition. The monarchy was inseparable from the settlement of 1688. Canning himself had underrated the nation's deep conservatism. The Duke of Bedford had at one moment so far lost his nerve in the crisis as to declare, "The monarchy is finished." Eldon showed better judgment. "The lower orders here are all Queen's folks; few of the middling or higher orders are, except the profligate, or those who are endeavouring to acquire power through mischief. . . . There is certainly an inclination to disquiet among the lower orders; but it is so well watched that there is no great cause for uneasiness on that account."
The political effects of the episode did not end at Canning's resignation. The Tory administration, which consisted largely of ageing reactionaries, had been gravely weakened. It was isolated from general opinion and badly in need of new recruits. The Whigs too had been forced to recognise their lack of popular backing, and the younger Members saw that the "old and natural alliance between the Whigs and the people" was now in danger. They began henceforth to renew their interest in Parliamentary Reform, which soon became the question of the hour.
TO BE CONTINUED