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Macmillan Education UK
Politics and Empire in Victorian Britain: A Reader

Politics and Empire in Victorian Britain: A Reader

by Antoinette Burton
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ISBN-13: 9780312293352
Publisher: Macmillan Education UK
Publication date: 10/19/2001
Edition description: 2001
Pages: 343
Sales rank: 1,211,367
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.25(h) x 0.03(d)

About the Author

ANTOINETTE BURTON is Associate Professor of Modern European History at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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Part I

Shaping the Imperial Body Politic, 1829-1857

A. Emancipation, Representation and Empire

Daniel O'Connell (1775-1847)—known to contemporaries as "The Liberator," "The Counsellor," "The Uncrowned King of Ireland," and the "Big Beggarman"—was elected MP for Clare in 1828 but could not take his seat because he was a Catholic. In the speeches below he makes the case for the removal of religious disabilities for both Catholics and Jews.

Daniel O'Connell, "Speech at the Bar" (1829)

Mr. O'Connell then proceeded to address the House. He said he thought he could not be accused of affectation when he stated that he was very ignorant of the forms of that House, and therefore he required the kind indulgence of the House if he should happen to violate them. He said he was there to claim his right to sit and vote in the House as the representative of the county of Clare, without taking the Oath of Supremacy. He was ready to take the Oath of Allegiance provided by the recent statute, entitled "An Act for the Relief of His Majesty's Roman Catholic Subjects." He was desirous to have that oath administered to him, and of course must be prepared to verify his qualification in point of property; and whether the House should be of opinion that he ought to be permitted to take the new oath or not, he respectfully required to be allowed to take the qualification oath. If he was allowed to take that oath, be it then at his own hazard to sit and vote in the House. If he were allowed only to take that oath, he was content to run the risk of sitting in the House. His right to sit and vote in that House was in its nature perfectly plain. He had been returned duly elected by the proper officer. It appeared by that return, that he had had a great majority of the legal voters of the county of Clare, who voted for his return; and that return had since been confirmed by the unanimous decision of a committee of the House. He therefore had as good a right to sit and vote in the House, according to the principles of the constitution, as any of the right . . . hon. gentlemen by whom he was surrounded. The voice of the people had sent him there. He was a representative of the people. The question, as it affected his right to sit and vote in the House, could not, he said, arise at common law, but only on statute law. It was a question of statute law, whether a representative of the people was bound, before he entered on the execution of his duty to his constituents, to take oaths of any description....

He would not detain the House by going minutely through the Act [for the Relief of . . . Catholic(s)]. He would rest his claim upon the tenth clause, which conferred the right of exercising every civil right upon Catholics. If he should be asked, whether the right of sitting and voting in Parliament were a civil right, he would reply, if it might be permitted, by asking another question—namely, "If it be not a civil right, what is it?" He had looked through the law books, and he found that Blackstone divided the entire law into rights and wrongs, and amongst the civil rights he classed the privileges of sitting and voting in Parliament. But he would appeal to the common sense and understanding of men. Was it not a civil right? Must it not be a civil right? In this very statute itself civil and military rights were contradistinguished. Thus there was in the act itself a clue to the meaning of the act. If he went out of the act, and referred to those authorities which decided the meaning of words in the English language, he found that the words "civil rights" included every right of the description for which he was now contending. "Civil," according to Dr. Johnson, was an adjective which meant "relating to the community; political; relating to the city or government." Now, political and civil were just the same thing, only that one was derived from the Latin, and the other from the Greek. What he claimed was a political right. No man could deny that it was a political right to sit and vote in Parliament. One of the examples which Dr. Johnson gave showed that "civil" and "political" bore the same meaning. The example was—"But there is another unity which would be most advantageous to our country, and that is your endeavour after a civil, a political union in the whole nation." This definition proved that the tenth clause necessarily included such a right as that which he claimed. He now came to the definition of the word "right." Dr. Johnson said it was a noun substantive, meaning, first, a "just claim;" next, "that which justly belonged to one;" next, "property, interest;" next, "power, prerogative;" next, "immunity, privilege." In short, there was not one of those significations which was not more comprehensive than he desired it to be. In reference to the signification of "just claim," Dr. Johnson gave this definition: "The Roman citizens were by the sword taught to acknowledge the Pope their Lord, though they knew not by what right." There was a plain definition of the meaning of the language of the tenth clause where it spoke of "civil right." It could not mean "franchise;" for that was already included. It could not mean "property," for that was already included under the twenty-third clause, which provided, "that from and after the passing of this act, no oath or oaths shall be tendered to, or required to be taken by, his Majesty's subjects professing the Roman Catholic religion, for enabling them to hold or enjoy any real or personal property, other than such as may by law be tendered to and required to be taken by his Majesty's other subjects." It was evident, therefore, that the words of the tenth clause did not mean franchise or property, but a just claim to protection, privilege, and immunity of any kind whatever. Thus, then, common sense showed what the law sanctioned, that the phrase "civil rights" must necessarily include the right to speak and vote in that House.

I now turn round and respectfully ask, why I am not to be allowed to exercise my rights? Let it be remembered that my case cannot be drawn into precedent: it can never occur again; and I ask the House, in construing the act, whether it intends to make it an outlawry against a single individual? (Hear, hear.) If the act were meant to meet my case, why was not my case specified in it? It existed when the act was passed; it was upon the records of the house, for a committee had sat while the bill was pending, and had given in its report upon oath. Why, I ask again, was not my case specified? Simply, because it was not intended to be included. Where, then, is the individual who would think it ought to be included? Let me call the attention of the House to the recital of the statute: "Whereas, by various Acts of Parliament certain restraints and disabilities affecting Roman Catholics;" and proceeds—"And whereas it is expedient that such restraints and disabilities shall be henceforth discontinued: and whereas by various acts certain oaths and certain declarations . . . are or may be required to be taken, made, and subscribed by the subjects of his Majesty as qualifications for sitting and voting in Parliament, and for the enjoyment of certain offices, franchises, and civil rights: Be it enacted . . . that such restraints and disabilities shall be from henceforth discontinued." All are to be discontinued. What do I claim? That they shall be discontinued. It is a maxim of law that the recital of a statute shall not control the enactments; but with this qualification, that, although a particular recital cannot control a general enactment, there is no rule of law that a general recital shall not explain a particular enactment. But I have a general recital, and a general enactment, too, in my favour. If to sit and vote be not a civil right, what civil right was intended by the word; for every other is provided for? Why should this be excluded? Look at the recital and look at the intention of the statute, and shall I then be told that a doubt can arise as to the right to sit and vote? If I have not that right, what is to be done? Is the statute of Charles II., enabling the house to exclude me, still in force? What is to become of me? Am I to remain the representative for Clare? Will the House not let me in, and is it not able to turn me out? What, I ask again, is to become of me? I call the attention of the house to that—what is to become of me? (Hear, and a laugh). The statute of Charles II. imposed penalties for not taking the oaths and signing the declaration; among others there was a pecuniary penalty, and it continued in force until the Union with Ireland. The first question I would ask the lawyers of the House, then, is this—did the Union Act continue those penalties? I take upon me to say it did not. Then, I ask, can any penalty or punishment be continued on a free-born British subject, when an Act of Parliament, like that of the Union, is silent, and contains no enactment as to penalty? That is a question of constitutional law; and if I were sued tomorrow for the penalty of £500 in a court of justice, I should, of course, instantly demur. If I am right in that position—if the penalty of £500 could not be recovered, shall the greater infliction remain? When courts of justice would refuse to enforce the fine, shall this House take the law into its own hands, and deprive me of what ought to be infinitely more precious—the right to sit and vote as the representative of a divided, a disinterested, and, I had almost said, a martyred people? The Union statue, I apprehend, would alone be sufficient, but I do not stand on that merely. This Relief Bill has abolished the oaths and declaration, and abolished with it the punishment for not taking the one and subscribing the other. If the declaration be abolished, does the pecuniary penalty remain? I answer, no; and if the pecuniary penalty do not remain, does the heavier penalty of exclusion continue? Certainly not; and I respectfully submit to the House that it has not now jurisdiction to prevent the exercise of my civil right of sitting and voting here....

The question is: is it not my right, on this return, to take the seat to which I have been duly elected? Is question free from doubt? If there be a doubt, I am entitled to the benefit of that doubt. I maintain that I have a constitutional right, founded on the return of the sheriff and the voice of the people; and if there be a doubt on the subject, it should be removed. The statute comes before us to be construed from the first clause. I did—and I am not ashamed to own it—I did defer to the opinion of others, and was averse from calling that construction; and if it had not been for the interests of those who sent me here, my own right should have been buried in oblivion. But now I require the House to consider it. Will you decide that a civil right does not mean a civil right? And if this case of mine be not excepted, will you add it as an additional exception? It might have been said by some of those who supported the bill, that it was intended by that measure to compensate a nation for by-gone wrongs, and to form the foundation stone of a solid and substantial building, to be consecrated to the unity and peace of the empire. But if what is certain may be disturbed; if what words express may be erased; if civil rights may be determined not to be civil rights; if we are to be told that, by some excuse or by some pretext, what is not uncertain may be made so, we shall be put under an impossibility to know what construction we must hereafter place on the statutes. I have endeavoured to treat this House with respect. My title to sit in it is clear and plain; and I contend that the statute is all-comprehensive in its intention, in its recital, and in its enactments. It comprehends every principle and measure of relief, with such exceptions as are thereinafter excepted. But while I show my respect for this House, I stand here on my right, and claim the benefit of it.

The honored and learned gentleman then bowed to the house and withdrew, amidst loud and general cheering.

Daniel O'Connell, On a Bill for the Removal of Jewish Disabilities (1830)

Mr. O'Connell said, he was proud of the opportunity of supporting the measure. He supported it both on principle and sympathy. The time had but recently gone by, when the Catholics were assailed by clamours which he would refute that very evening by his conduct. They had been assailed by a cry which might be very satisfactory to some Christians, who thought that no others were right in argument or good sense but themselves. The cry then raised was Protestant—now it was Christian. To persons who now raised that cry against this measure, he would say that they avoided or evaded the true principles of Christianity, which were liberality and charity. On the former occasion, these persons said that the Catholics were the advocates of bigotry. Who were the advocates of bigotry now? Christian charity, with such people, was a good thing to talk of, but when they came to the point they refused to put it in practice. Who were before the House now in the character of claimants for rights? They were not foreigners—they were not Poles—nor Russians—nor Turks—nor Frenchmen. They were men born in England—men entitled to hold property in England—to inherit property from their ancestors in England—in short, they were Englishmen. They were debarred from some of the privileges of Englishmen because they refused to take an oath of a particular kind, and therefore they were shut out of that House. They were excluded, as it was said, because the safety of our institution demanded their exclusion. But the House might be asked whether it would admit the unbeliever? It did admit the Mahometan. The Mahometan might, perhaps, refuse the oath, "on the faith of a Christian." Yes, that was true, the Mahometan might be considered excluded; but would they laugh at him now, when he asked them what sanction had they against the Atheist or the Deist? Against any man who did believe in a God, or professed a particular religion, they had a protection, but they had no check upon the man who had no religious faith. It was said that the Jews had sympathies elsewhere. In the same manner, it had been said, that the Catholics had sympathies elsewhere. He did not mean to disavow that he and they carried spiritual homage to another than the King of England; but his own Sovereign received his undivided political homage. So it was with the Jews; he might still remember the traditionary home of his fathers, but he was obedient to our laws. Let them not, therefore, talk of the name of Christianity, when it was used to do evil instead of good. In such a case he scorned the name; he desired the substance. Christianity was charitable; charity was the precept of Jesus Christ their Saviour himself. He was charitable to all men, even to his murderers; he prayed even for them, saying—"Father, forgive them, they know not what they do." In France they had a Christian Legislature, and the Jews were ranked with the other citizens of the State. Perhaps it might be denied that the French Legislature was Christian; for one mark of a Christian Legislature they had not—they had not a boroughmongering system—they had not one lord with ten retainers, who, after sitting with the Côte Gauche, went over just at the critical moment to the Côte Droite, carrying his ten retainers with him. Certainly that was not the case in France; and yet he imagined, notwithstanding its disadvantage in this respect, it might be said to have a Christian legislature. But both there and in the Netherlands, Jews were appointed judges, magistrates and legislators, and performed their duties in the most efficient and most honorable manner; and at the moment at which he was speaking, one of the secretaries of the Sorbonne was a converted Jew. Conversion was prevented in this country by our own system of laws.

Affect to scorn a man for his opinions, or to deprive him of civil power on their account, and he became wedded to them more firmly than ever. Such had been the case with the Catholics, and such would be the case with the Jews, and with all other people in similar circumstances. They had been told that the same reason did not hold for admitting the Jews as for admitting the Catholics. It was true, for there were more reasons against the admission of the Catholics than against that of the Jews. It was because the Catholics were so numerous that they ought not to have been admitted; for if their belief were dangerous to the State, their numbers only rendered it doubly dangerous. That was not the case with the Jews, whose numbers were insufficient to create the least degree of alarm. Then it was said the Catholics were a proselytising race; that made them more dangerous still, though, perhaps they could gain but few proselytes, for they could offer but few pecuniary advantages; and, as an hon. member had said the other night, if the road to heaven were not paved with gold, nobody would have taken the trouble to discover it. He should support the bill on the universal principle of toleration, if that were not an improper word to be used on such an occasion—perhaps he ought to have said the principle of right. That right was not to be infringed either by an inquisition which inflicted torture, as in Spain, or by laws which, as in England, imposed privation. Man had a right to inflict neither the one nor the other; Christianity had spread itself—not by the force of temporal power, not by the efforts of Christians, nor by the labour of Christian legislatures, but by virtue of its own truth, and its mild and benevolent influence on the human heart. It had expanded itself, not only without the assistance of temporal power, but against the most formidable opposition; and where was the Christian that would tell him that the arm of God was short, and needed the aid of any of His creatures?

Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859) was a member of Parliament (for Calne in 1830 and Leeds in 1832) and a Whig historian who also served as the Law Member for India in the 1830s (see below). Here he makes the conservative case for political reform, arguing that change is necessary in order to preserve English traditions of government.

Thomas Babington Macaulay, "Parliamentary Reform" (1831)

It is a circumstance, Sir, of happy augury for the motion before the House, that almost all those who have opposed it have declared themselves hostile on principle to Parliamentary Reform. Two Members, I think, have confessed that, though they disapprove of the plan now submitted to us, they are forced to admit the necessity of a change in the Representative system. Yet even those gentlemen have used, as far as I have observed, no arguments which would not apply as strongly to the most moderate change as to that which has been proposed by His Majesty's Government. I say, Sir, that I consider this as a circumstance of happy augury. For what I feared was, not the opposition of those who are averse to all Reform, but the disunion of reformers. I knew that, during three months, every reformer had been employed in conjecturing what the plan of the Government would be. I knew that every reformer had imagined in his own mind a scheme differing doubtless in some points from that which my noble friend, the Paymaster of the Forces, has developed. I felt therefore great apprehension that one person would be dissatisfied with one part of the bill, that another person would be dissatisfied with another part, and that thus our whole strength would be wasted in internal dissensions. That apprehension is now at an end. I have seen with delight the perfect concord which prevails among all who deserve the name of reformers in this House; and I trust that I may consider it as an omen of the concord which will prevail among reformers throughout the country. I will not, Sir, at present express any opinion as to the details of the bill; but, having during the last twenty-four hours given the most diligent consideration to its general principles, I have no hesitation in pronouncing it a wise, noble, and comprehensive measure, skilfully framed for the healing of great distempers, for the securing at once of the public liberties and of the public repose, and for the reconciling and knitting together of all the orders of the State.

I consider this, Sir, as a practical question. I rest my opinion on no general theory of government. I distrust all general theories of government. I will not positively say, that there is any form of polity which may not, in some conceivable circumstances, be the best possible. I believe that there are societies in which every man may safely be admitted to vote. Gentlemen may cheer, but such is my opinion. I say, Sir, that there are countries in which the condition of the labouring classes is such that they may safely be intrusted with the right of electing Members of the Legislature. If the labourers of England were in that state in which I, from my soul, wish to see them, if employment were always plentiful, wages always high, food always cheap, if a large family were considered not as an encumbrance but as a blessing, the principal objections to Universal Suffrage would, I think, be removed. Universal Suffrage exists in the United States without producing any very frightful consequences; and I do not believe, that the people of those States, or of any part of the world, are in any good quality naturally superior to our own countrymen. But, unhappily, the labouring classes in England, and in all old countries, are occasionally in a state of great distress. Some of the causes of this distress are, I fear, beyond the control of the Government. We know what effect distress produces, even on people more intelligent than the great body of the labouring classes can possibly be. We know that it makes even wise men irritable, unreasonable, credulous, eager for immediate relief, heedless of remote consequences. There is no quackery in medicine, religion, or politics, which may not impose even on a powerful mind, when that mind has been disordered by pain or fear. It is therefore no reflection on the poorer class of Englishmen, who are not, and who cannot in the nature of things be, highly educated, to say that distress produces on them its natural effects, those effects which it would produce on the Americans, or on any other people, that it blinds their judgment, that it inflames their passions, that it makes them prone to believe those who flatter them, and to distrust those who would serve them. For the sake, therefore, of the whole society, for the sake of the labouring classes themselves, I hold it to be clearly expedient that, in a country like this, the right of suffrage should depend on a pecuniary qualification.

But, Sir, every argument which would induce me to oppose Universal Suffrage, induces me to support the plan which is now before us. I am opposed to Universal Suffrage, because I think that it would produce a destructive revolution. I support this plan, because I am sure that it is our best security against a revolution....

To say that such a system is ancient is no defence. My honorable friend, the Member for the University of Oxford challenges us to show, that the Constitution was ever better than it is. Sir, we are legislators, not antiquaries. The question for us is, not whether the Constitution was better formerly, but whether we can make it better now.

But these great cities, says my honorable friend, the Member for the University of Oxford, are virtually, though not directly, represented. Are not the wishes of Manchester, he asks, as much consulted as those of any town which sends Members to Parliament? Now, Sir, I do not understand how a power which is salutary when exercised virtually can be noxious when exercised directly. If the wishes of Manchester have as much weight with us as they would have under a system which should give Representatives to Manchester, how can there be any danger in giving Representatives to Manchester? A virtual Representative is, I presume, a man who acts as a direct Representative would act: for surely it would be absurd to say that a man virtually represents the people of Manchester, who is in the habit of saying No, when a man directly representing the people of Manchester would say Aye. The utmost that can be expected from virtual Representation is that it may be as good as direct Representation. If so, why not grant direct Representation to places which, as every body allows, ought, by some process or other, to be represented?

...Under such circumstances, a great plan of reconciliation, prepared by the Ministers of the Crown, has been brought before us in a manner which gives additional lustre to a noble name, inseparably associated during two centuries with the dearest liberties of the English people. I will not say, that this plan is in all its details precisely such as I might wish it to be; but it is founded on a great and a sound principle. It takes away a vast power from a few. It distributes that power through the great mass of the middle order. Every man, therefore, who thinks as I think is bound to stand firmly by Ministers who are resolved to stand or fall with this measure. Were I one of them, I would sooner, infinitely sooner, fall with such a measure than stand by any other means that ever supported a Cabinet.

My honorable friend, the Member for the University of Oxford, tells us, that if we pass this law, England will soon be a republic. The reformed House of Commons will, according to him, before it has sat ten years, depose the King, and expel the Lords from their House. Sir, if my honorable friend could prove this, he would have succeeded in bringing an argument for democracy, infinitely stronger than any that is to be found in the works of Paine. My honorable friend's proposition is in fact this; that our monarchical and aristocratical institutions have no hold on the public mind of England; that these institutions are regarded with aversion by a decided majority of the middle class. This, Sir, I say, is plainly deducible from his proposition; for he tells us that the Representatives of the middle class will inevitably abolish royalty and nobility within ten years: and there is surely no reason to think that the Representatives of the middle class will be more inclined to a democratic revolution than their constituents. Now, Sir, if I were convinced that the great body of the middle class in England look with aversion on monarchy and aristocracy, I should be forced, much against my will, to come to this conclusion, that monarchical and aristocratical institutions are unsuited to my country. Monarchy and aristocracy, valuable and useful as I think them, are still valuable and useful as means, and not as ends. The end of government is the happiness of the people: and I do not conceive that, in a country like this, the happiness of the people can be promoted by a form of government in which the middle classes place no confidence, and which exists only because the middle classes have no organ by which to make their sentiments known.

...The question of Parliamentary Reform is still behind. But signs, of which it is impossible to misconceive the import, do most clearly indicate that, unless that question also be speedily settled, property, and order, and all the institutions of this great monarchy, will be exposed to fearful peril. Is it possible that gentlemen long versed in high political affairs cannot read these signs? Is it possible that they can really believe that the Representative system of England, such as it now is, will last till the year 1860? If not, for what would they have us wait? Would they have us wait merely that we may show to all the world how little we have profited by our own recent experience? Would they have us wait, that we may once again hit the exact point where we can neither refuse with authority, nor concede with grace? Would they have us wait, that the numbers of the discontented party may become larger, its demands higher, its feelings more acrimonious, its organisation more complete?....

Have they forgotten how the spirit of liberty in Ireland, debarred from its natural outlet, found a vent by forbidden passages? Have they forgotten how we were forced to indulge the Catholics in all the licence of rebels, merely because we chose to withhold from them the liberties of subjects? Do they wait for associations more formidable than that of the Corn Exchange, for contributions larger than the Rent, for agitators more violent than those who, three years ago, divided with the King and the Parliament the sovereignty of Ireland? Do they wait for that last and most dreadful paroxysm of popular rage, for that last and most cruel test of military fidelity?. . . Turn where we may, within, around, the voice of great events is proclaiming to us, Reform, that you may preserve. Now, therefore, while every thing at home and abroad forebodes ruin to those who persist in a hopeless struggle against the spirit of the age, now, while the crash of the proudest throne of the continent is still resounding in our ears, now, while the roof of a British palace affords an ignominious shelter to the exiled heir of forty kings, now, while we see on every side ancient institutions subverted, and great societies dissolved, now, while the heart of England is still sound, now, while old feelings and old associations retain a power and a charm which may too soon pass away, now, in this your accepted time, now, in this your day of salvation, take counsel, not of prejudice, not of party spirit, not of the ignominious pride of a fatal consistency, but of history, of reason, of the ages which are past, of the signs of this most portentous time. Pronounce in a manner worthy of the expectation with which this great debate has been anticipated, and of the long remembrance which it will leave behind. Renew the youth of the State. Save property, divided against itself. Save the multitude, endangered by its own ungovernable passions. Save the aristocracy, endangered by its own unpopular power. Save the greatest, and fairest, and most highly civilized community that ever existed, from calamities which may in a few days sweep away all the rich heritage of so many ages of wisdom and glory. The danger is terrible. The time is short. If this bill should be rejected, I pray to God that none of those who concur in rejecting it may ever remember their votes with unavailing remorse, amidst the wreck of laws, the confusion of ranks, the spoliation of property, and the dissolution of social order.

—From Politics and Empire in Victorian Britain : A Reader edited by Antoinette Burton. (c) 2001, Palgrave USA used by permission

Table of Contents

Part I: Shaping the Imperial Body Politic, 1829-1857
Cultures of Service, Anti-Slavery and Reform
Imperial Britons at Mid-Century
Part II: Liberalizing Imperial Democracy: Mid-Century and After
Imagining an Imperial Polity
Women, Politics and Empire
Varieties of National and Imperial Patriotism
Part III: At Home with Imperial Culture: Toward the 20th Century
Empire's Civilizing Missions
Work, Race and Politics: Centers and Peripheries
The Boer War and the New Century

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An original, enlightening and entertaining choice of texts, offering a refreshing view of 19th century British history, with Ireland, the colonies and women given their proper place for the first time in a work of this kind.' – Bernard Porter, Professor of Modern History, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England

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