European Leaders

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When William IV. ascended the throne the Tories were still in power, and were hostile to reform. But the agitations and discontents of the latter days of George IV. had made the ministry unpopular. Great political reformers had arisen, like Lords Grey, Althorp, and Russell, and great orators like Henry Brougham and Macaulay, who demanded a change in the national policy. The social evils which stared everybody in the face were a national disgrace; they made the boasted liberty of the English a mockery. There was an unparalleled distress among the laboring classes, especially in the mining and manufacturing districts. The price of labor had diminished, while the price of bread had increased. So wretched was the condition of the poor that there were constant riots and insurrections, especially in large towns. In war times unskilled laborers earned from twelve to fifteen shillings a week, and mechanics twenty-five shillings; but in the stagnation of business which followed peace, wages suffered a great reduction, and thousands could find no work at all. The disbanding of the immense armies that had been necessary to combat Napoleon threw out of employ perhaps half a million of men, who became vagabonds, beggars, and paupers. The agricultural classes did not suffer as much as operatives in mills, since they got a high price for their grain; but the more remunerative agriculture became to landlords, the more miserable were those laborers who paid all they could earn to save themselves from absolute starvation. No foreign grain could be imported until wheat had arisen to eighty shillings a "quarter," [1]--which unjust law tended to the enrichment of land-owners, and to a corresponding poverty among the laboring classes. In addition to the high price which the people paid for bread, they were taxed heavily upon everything imported, upon everything consumed, upon the necessities and conveniences of life as well as its luxuries,--on tea, on coffee, on sugar, on paper, on glass, on horses, on carriages, on medicines,--since money had to be raised to pay the interest on the national debt and to provide for the support of the government, including pensions, sinecures, and general extravagance.

[Footnote 1: A quarter of a gross ton.]

In the poverty which enormous taxes and low wages together produced, there were not only degradation and squalid misery in England at this time, but violence and crime. And there was also great injustice in the laws which punished crime. There were two hundred and twenty-three offences punishable with death. If a starving peasant killed a hare, he was summarily hanged. Catholics were persecuted for their opinions; Jews were disqualified from holding office. Only men of comfortable means were allowed to vote. The universities were closed against Dissenters. No man stood any chance of political preferment unless he was rich or was allied with the aristocracy, who controlled the House of Commons. The nobles and squires not merely owned most of the landed property of the realm, but by their "rotten boroughs" could send whom they pleased to Parliament. In consequence the House of Commons did not represent the nation, but only the privileged classes. It was as aristocratic as the House of Lords.

In the period of repose which succeeded the excitements of war the people began to see their own political insignificance, and to agitate for reforms. A few noble-minded and able statesmen of the more liberal party, if any political party could be called liberal, lifted up their voices in Parliament for a redress of scandalous evils; but the eloquence which distinguished them was a mere protest. They were in a hopeless minority; nothing could be done to remove or ameliorate public evils so long as the majority of the House of Commons were opposed to reform. It is obvious that the only thing the reformers could do, whether in or out of Parliament, was to agitate, to discuss, to hold public meetings, to write political tracts, to change public opinion, to bring such a pressure to bear on political aspirants as to insure an election of members to the House of Commons who were favorable to reform. For seven years this agitation had been going on during the later years of the reign of George IV. It was seen and felt by everybody that glaring public evils could not be removed until there should be a reform in Parliament itself,--which meant an extension of the electoral suffrage, by which more liberal and popular members might be elected.

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