In the years that lay between the Treaty of Utrecht and the close of the Napoleonic wars British politics were largely dominated by Walpole and the two Pitts: their great figures only stand out in stronger relief because their place was filled for a time by such weak ministers as Newcastle and Bute, as Grafton and North. In the nineteenth century there were many gifted statesmen who held the position of first minister of the Crown. Disraeli and Palmerston by shrewdness and force of character, Canning and Derby by brilliant oratorical gifts, Russell and Aberdeen by earnest devotion to public service, were all commanding figures in their day, whose claims to the chieftainship of a party and of a government were generally admitted. Gladstone, the most versatile genius of them all, had abilities second to none; but his place in history will for long be a subject of acute controversy. He stands too close to our own time to be fairly judged. Of the others no one had the same combination of gifts as Sir Robert Peel, no one had in the same measure that particular knowledge, judgment, and ability which characterize the statesman. His career was the most fruitful, his work the most enduring: he has left his mark in English history to a degree which no one of his rivals can equal.
The Peel family can be traced back to the misty days of Danish inroads. Its original home in England is disputed between Yorkshire and Lancashire; but as early as the days of Elizabeth the branch from which our statesman was descended is certainly to be found at Blackburn, and its members lived for generations as sturdy yeomen of that district. The first of them known to strike out an independent line was his grandfather, Robert Peel, who with his brother-in-law, Mr. Haworth, started the first firm for calico-printing in Lancashire about the year 1760, ceasing the practice of sending the material to be printed in France. This grandfather was a type of the men who were making the new England, leading the way in the creation of industries that were to transform the North and Midlands. The business prospered and he moved from Blackburn to Burton-on-Trent, where he built three new mills. His third son, named Robert, was also gifted with resource. Beginning as a member of the family firm, he soon came to be its chief director, and added another branch at Tamworth, where later he built the house of Drayton Manor, the family seat in the nineteenth century. He was a Tory and a staunch follower of the younger Pitt, who rewarded his services with a baronetcy in 1800. He too was a typical man of his age and class, an age of material progress and expansion, a class full of self-confidence and animated by a spirit of stubborn resistance to so-called un-English ideas. His eldest son, the third Robert and the second baronet, is our subject. It is impossible to grasp the springs of his conduct unless we know what traditions he inherited from his forbears.
Peel’s education was begun at home with a specific purpose. Though his father had every reason to be satisfied with his own success, for his son he cherished a yet higher ambition and one, which he did not conceal. He said openly that he intended him to be Prime Minister of his country. The knowledge of this provoked many jests among the boy’s friends and caused him no slight embarrassment. It conspired with the shyness and reserve, which were innate in him, to win him from the outset a reputation for pride and aloofness. If he had not been forced to mix with those of his own age, and if he had not resolutely set himself to overcome this feeling, he might have grown into a student and a recluse. Both at school and college he did ‘attend to his book’: at Harrow he roused the greatest hopes. His brilliant schoolfellow, Lord Byron, while claiming to excel him in general information and history, admits that Peel was greatly his superior as a scholar. The working of their minds, now and afterwards, was curiously different. Bagehot illustrates the contrast by a striking metaphor: Byron’s mind, he says, worked by momentary eruptions of volcanic force from within and then relapsed into inactivity. Peel on the other hand steadily accumulated knowledge and opinions, his mind receiving impressions from outward experience like the alluvial soil deposited by a river in its course. But this is to anticipate. At Oxford Peel was the first man to win a ‘Double First’ (i.e. a first class both in classics and mathematics), in which distinction Gladstone alone, among our Prime Ministers, equaled him. But he also found time during the term to indulge in cricket, in rowing, and in riding, while in the vacation he developed a more marked taste for shooting, and thus freed himself from the charge of being a mere bookworm. He was good-looking, rather a dandy in his dress, stiff in his manner, regular in his habits, conforming to the Oxford standards of excellence and as yet showing few signs of independence of character.
Peel went into Parliament early, after the fashion of the day. He was twenty-one when, in 1809, a seat was offered him at Cashel in Ireland. The system of ‘rotten boroughs’ had many faults-our textbooks of history do not spare it-but it may claim to have offered an easy way into Parliament for some men of brilliant talents. Peel’s family connexions and his own training marked out the path for him. It was difficult for the young Oxford prizeman not to follow Lord Chancellor Eldon, that stout survival of the high old Tories: it was impossible for his father’s son not to sit behind the successors of Pitt. We shall see how far his own reasoning powers and clear vision led him from this path; but the early influences were never quite effaced. His first patron was Lord Liverpool, to whom he became private secretary in the following year. This nobleman, described by Disraeli in a famous passage as an ‘arch-mediocrity’ was Prime Minister for fifteen years. He owed his long tenure of office largely to the tolerance with which he allowed his abler lieutenants to usurp his power: perhaps he owed it still more to the victories which Wellington was then winning abroad and which secured the confidence of the country; but at least he seems to have been a good judge of men. In 1811 he promoted Peel to be Under-Secretary for the Colonies, and in 1812 to be Chief Secretary for Ireland. His abilities must have made a great impression to win him such promotion: he must have had plenty of self-confidence to undertake such duties, for he was only twenty-four years old. We are accustomed to day to under-secretaries of forty or forty-five; but we must remember that the younger Pitt led the House of Commons at twenty-four and was Prime Minister at twenty-five.
At Dublin Castle Peel was not expected to deal with the great political questions, which convulsed Parliament at different periods of the century. He had to administer the law. It was routine work of a tedious and difficult kind; it involved the close study of facts-not in order to make a showy speech or to win a case for the moment, but in order to frame practical measures which would stand the test of time. Peel eschewed the usual recreations of Dublin society, and flung himself into his work whole-heartedly. In Roman history we see how Caesar was trained in the details of administration as quaestor, aedile, praetor, consul, while Pompeius passed in a lordly progress from one high command to another; how Caesar voluntarily exiled himself from Rome for ten years to conquer and develop Gaul, while Cicero bewailed himself over a few months’ absence from the Forum. Of these three famous men only one proved himself able to guide the ship of state in stormy waters. Analogy must not be too closely pressed; but we see that, while Canning for all his ability established no durable influence, and his oratory burnt itself out after a brief blaze, while Wellington’s fame paled year after year from his inability to control the course of civil strife, Peel’s light burnt brighter every decade, as he rose from office to office and faced one difficult situation after another with coolness and success. He stayed at his post in Dublin for six years: he worked at the details of his office-education, agriculture, and police-and brought in many practical reforms. His beneficial activity is still better seen in the years 1821 to 1827 when he was Home Secretary. Today he is chiefly remembered as the eponymous hero of our police; but in many other ways his tenure of the latter office is a landmark in departmental work. It may be that he originated little himself: that Romilly was the pioneer in the humanizing of law, that Horner taught him the doctrines of sound finance, that Huskisson led the way in freeing trade from the shackles with which it had been bound. But Peel in all these cases lent generous support and made their cause his own. He had a cool head and a warm heart, a knowledge of Parliament and an influence in Parliament already unrivalled. He saw what could be done, and how it could be done, and so he was able to push through successfully the reforms, which his colleagues initiated. The value of his work in this sphere has never been seriously contested.
The point on which Peel’s enemies fastened in judging his career was the number of times that he changed his convictions, abandoned his party, and carried through a measure which he himself had formerly opposed. To understand his claim to be called a great statesman it is particularly necessary to study these changes.
The first instance was the Reform of the Currency. Early in the French wars the London banks had been in difficulties. The Government was forced to borrow large sums from the Bank of England in order to give subsidies to our allies, and was unable to pay its debts. The Bank could not at the same time meet the demands of the Government and the claims of its private customers. Since a panic might at any moment cause an unprecedented run on its reserves, Pitt suspended cash payments till six months after the conclusion of peace. The Bank was thus allowed to circulate notes without being obliged to pay full cash value for them immediately on demand, and the purchasing power of these notes tended to vary far more than that of a metal currency. Also foreigners refused to accept a pound note in the place of a pound sterling; foreign payments had to be made in specie, and the gold was rapidly drained abroad. When the war was over, Horner and other economists began to draw attention to the bad effect of this on foreign trade and to the varying price of commodities at home, due to the want of a fixed currency. As Pitt had allowed the system of inconvertible paper, the Tories generally applauded and were ready to perpetuate it. The elder Sir Robert Peel had been always a firm supporter of these views and his son began by accepting them. He continued to acquiesce in them till his attention was definitely turned to the subject. In 1819 he was asked to be a member of a committee of very eminent men, including Canning and Mackintosh, which was to investigate the question, and he was elected chairman of it. But, though his verdict was taken for granted by his party, his mind was so constituted that he could not shut it against evidence. He listened to arguments, and judged them fairly; and, being by nature unable to palter with the truth, once he was convinced of it, he threw in all his weight with the reformers and reported in favour of a return to cash payments. History has vindicated his judgment, and he himself crowned his financial work by the famous Bank Act of 1844, passed when he was Prime Minister.
The second question on which Peel’s conduct surprised his colleagues was that of Catholic Emancipation. Since 1793 Roman Catholic electors had the parliamentary vote; but, since no Roman Catholic could sit in Parliament, they had hitherto been content to cast their votes for the more tolerant of the Protestant candidates. Pitt had failed to induce George III to grant the Catholics civil equality, and George IV, despite his liberal professions, took up the same attitude as his father on succeeding to the throne. But the majority of the Whigs, and some even of the Tories, such as Castlereagh and Canning, were prepared to make concessions; and since 1820 the Irish agitation led by O’Connell had been gaining in strength. Peel had several reasons for being on the other side. His early training by his father, his friendship with Eldon and Wellington, his attachment to the Established Church, all had influence upon him. He saw clearly that Disestablishment would follow closely in Ireland on the granting of the Catholic demands; and since 1817, when he became Member for Oxford University, he felt bound to resist this. In taking this line he was no better and no worse than any other Tory member of the day; and in later times many politicians have allowed their traditions and prejudices to blind them to the existence of an Irish problem.
For all that, Peel ought earlier to have recognized the facts, to have looked ahead and formed a policy. As Chief Secretary for Ireland he had unrivalled opportunities for studying the whole question; but he did not let it penetrate beneath the surface of his mind. He had continued to bring up the same arguments on the few occasions when he spoke at Westminster, and had buried himself in administrative work. He seems to have hoped that he could evade it. If the Whigs got a majority and introduced an Emancipation Bill, he would have satisfied his constituents by formally opposing the measure and would not have gone beyond this. As he saw it gradually coming, he satisfied his own conscience by retiring from Lord Liverpool’s Government and by refusing to join Canning, when he became Prime Minister in 1827. As a private member he would only be responsible for his own vote, and would not feel that he was settling the question for others. But Canning died after holding office only a month, and a Government was formed by Wellington in which Peel returned to office as Home Secretary and became leader of the House of Commons. Now he had to pay the penalty for his lack of foresight, and to deal with the tide of feeling, which had been rising for some years on both sides of the Irish Channel. At least he could see facts, which were before his eyes.
In 1828, before he had been twelve months in office, his decision was aided by a definite event. A by-election had to be fought in Clare, Mr. Fitzgerald seeking re-election on joining the Government. Against him came forward no less a person than Daniel O’Connell himself, the most eloquent and most popular of the Catholic leaders; and, although under the existing laws his candidature was void, he received an overwhelming majority. The bewilderment of the Tories was ludicrous. Fitzgerald himself wrote, ‘The proceedings of yesterday were those of madmen; but the country is mad.’ Peel took a careful view of the situation and decided on his course. He certainly laid himself open to the charge of giving way before a breach of the law, and the charge was pressed by the angry Tories. But his judgment was clearly based on a complete survey of all the facts. A single event was the candle, which lit up the scene, but by the light of it he surveyed the whole room. He still held to his view about the dangers of Disestablishment ahead, but he maintained that a crisis had arisen involving graver dangers at the moment, and that the statesman must choose the lesser of two evils. There is no doubt that the situation was critical. The Duke of Wellington and Lord Anglesey (a Waterloo veteran, who was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland) both had fears of mutiny in the army; and civil war was to be expected, if O’Connell was not admitted to the House of Commons. Peel’s personal consistency was one matter; the public welfare was another and a weightier. His first idea was to retire from office and to lend unofficial support to a measure, which he could not advocate in principle. But the only hope of breaking down the old Tory opposition lay in the influence of the Tory ministers; no Whig Government could prevail in the temper of that time; and Wellington appealed in the strongest terms to Peel to remain in office and to lead the House. Peel yielded from motives of public policy and made himself responsible for a measure of Catholic Emancipation, which he had been pledged to resist.
It was a surrender-an undisguised surrender-and Peel did not, as on the Bullion Committee, profess to have changed his mind. But it was an honest surrender carried out in the light of day; and, before Parliament met, Peel announced his decision to resign his seat at Oxford and to give his constituents the chance of expressing their opinion of his conduct. The verdict was not long in doubt: the University, which in 1865 rejected another of its brilliant sons, gave a majority of one hundred and forty-six against him, and his political connexion with Oxford was severed. The verdict of posterity has been more liberal. The chief fault laid to Peel’s charge is that he should for so many years have ignored all signs of the danger, which was approaching, and not have made up his mind in time. He could see the crisis clearly, when it came, and could put the national interest above everything else: he could not look far enough ahead.
It was a similar want of foresight that led to the fall of the Tory Government in 1830. The Reform movement, so long delayed by the great wars, had been gathering force again. Events in France, where Charles X was driven from the throne and Louis Philippe proclaimed as Citizen-king, gave it additional impetus. The famous lawyer Brougham was thundering against the Government in Parliament, while throughout the country the platforms from which Radical orators declaimed were surrounded by eager throngs. The history of the movement cannot be told here. Its chief actors were the Whigs, who on Wellington’s resignation formed a Government under Earl Grey at the end of 1830. Peel was fighting a losing fight and he did not show his usual judgment or cool temper. He opposed the Reform Bill to the last: he was haranguing violently against it when Black Rod arrived to summon the Commons to the presence of the King. William IV came down in person, at the instance of the Whig ministers, to dissolve Parliament and so to stay all proceedings by which, in the as yet unreformed Parliament, the Bill might have been defeated. In the General Election of 1831 the Whigs carried all before them, and in July, when Lord Grey carried the second reading, he could command a majority of 136. Even then it took three months of stubborn fighting to vanquish the Tory opposition in the House of Commons. When the Peers rejected the Bill, the question was raised whether a Tory Government could be formed; but Peel, however he might dislike the Bill, could recognize facts, and his refusal to co-operate in defying public opinion was decisive. Lord Grey returned to office fortified by the King’s promise to make any number of new peers, if required; and the influence of Wellington was effective in dissuading the Upper House from further futile resistance. Again Peel had shown his good sense in accepting the situation. So far as he was concerned, there was no talk of repeal. He explicitly said that he regarded the question as ‘finally and irrevocably disposed of’, and he set to work to adapt his policy to the new situation.
It might well seem a desperate one for the Tories. Here were three hundred new members, most of whom had just received their seats from the Whigs against the direct opposition of their rivals. Gratitude and self-interest impelled them to support the Whig party; and its leaders, who had for nearly fifty years been out in the cold shade of opposition, might count on a long spell of power, especially as the Canningites, stronger in talents than in numbers, joined them at this juncture. Brougham had gone to the House of Lords, but three future Prime Ministers-Stanley (afterwards Lord Derby), Lord John Russell, and Palmerston-were in the House of Commons serving under Lord Althorp, who, though gifted with no oratorical talent, by his good sense and still more by his high character, commanded general respect. On the other side there was only one figure of the first rank, and that was Peel. Till 1832 he had not grown to his full stature: the Reformed Parliament gave him his chance and drew forth all his powers. It represented a new force in politics. No longer were the members sent to Westminster by a few great landholders, by the small market towns, and by the agricultural laborers. The great industrial districts, Lancashire, Yorkshire, and the Midlands, were there in the persons of well-to-do citizens, experienced in business and serious in temper; and Peel, who was himself sprung from a notable family of this kind, was eminently the man to lead these classes and to win their confidence. It was also a gain to him to stand alone. His judgment was ripened, his confidence firm; and he could dominate his party, while the able and ambitious leaders on the other side too often clashed with one another. Above all, in the years 1832 to 1834, he showed that he had patience. Instead of snatching at occasions to ally himself with O’Connell, who was in opposition to every Government, and to embarrass the Whigs in a factious party spirit, he showed a marked respect for principle. He supported or opposed the Whig bills purely on their merits, and gradually trained his party to be ready for the inevitable reaction when it should come.
By 1834 the tendencies to disruption in the victorious party were clearly showing themselves. First Stanley, on grounds of policy, and then Lord Grey, for personal reasons never quite cleared up, resigned office. Soon after, Lord Althorp left the House of Commons on succeeding to his father’s earldom, and a little later Melbourne, the new Premier, was unexpectedly dismissed by the King. At the time Peel, expecting no immediate crisis, was abroad, in Rome; and we have interesting details of his slow journey home to meet the urgent call of Wellington, who was carrying on the administration provisionally. The changes of the last few years were shown by the fact that the Tories felt bound to choose their Premier from the Lower House. It was Wellington who recommended Peel for the place which, under the old conditions, he might have been expected to take himself. On his return, Peel accepted the task of forming a ministry, and, conscious of the numerical weakness of his own party; he made overtures to some of the Whigs. But Stanley and Graham refused to join him, and he had to fall back on the Tories of Wellington’s last Government. Before going to the country he laid down his principles in the famous Tamworth Manifesto. This manifesto is important for its acceptance of the changes permanently made by the Reform Bill, and for the clear exposition of his attitude towards the important Church questions which were imminent. It is an excellent document for any one to study who wishes to understand the evolution of the old Tories into the modern Conservative party.
Peel’s first administration was not destined to last long. The Liberal wave was not spent, and the Tories had little to hope for, at this moment, from a General Election. As so often happened afterwards, when the two English parties were evenly balanced, the Irish votes turned the scale. Peel had been forced into this position by the King: his own judgment would have led him to wait some years. He fought dexterously for four months, helped in some measure by Stanley, who had left the Whigs when they threatened the Established Church in Ireland; but it was this question, which in the end upset him. Lord John Russell, in alliance with O’Connell, proposed the disendowment of that Church and defeated Peel by thirty-three votes. It was a question of principle, though it was raised in a factious way, and subsequent history showed that the mover, after his tactical victory of the moment, could not effect any practical solution. Peel was driven to resign. But in this short period, so far from losing credit, he had won the confidence of his party and the respect of his opponents; he had put some useful measures on the Statute Book; and he had shown the country that a new spirit, practical and enlightened, was growing up in the Tory party, and that there was a minister capable of utilizing it for the general good.
In the Greville papers and other literature of the time we get many references to the predominant place, which he held, in the esteem of the House of Commons. An entry in Greville’s journal for February 1834 shows Peel’s unique power. ‘No matter how unruly the House, how impatient or fatigued, the moment he rises, all is silence, and he is sure of being heard with profound attention and respect.’ Lady Lyttelton, who met him later at Windsor, shows us another aspect. His readiness and presence of mind come out in the most trivial matters. When Queen Victoria suddenly, one evening, issued her command that all who could dance were to dance, the more elderly guests were much embarrassed. Such an order was not to Peel’s taste. ‘He was, in fact, to a close observer, evidently both shy and cross’; but he was ‘much the best figure of all, so mincing with his legs and feet, his countenance full of the funniest attempt to look unconcerned and “matter of course”.’ Another time when games were improvised in the royal circle, Lady Lyttelton was ‘much struck with the quickness and watchful cautious characteristic sagacity which Sir Robert showed in learning and playing a new round game’. And to the ladies-in-waiting he commended himself by his quiet courtesy. ‘Sir Robert Peel’, we read, ‘was in his most conversable mood and so very agreeable. I never enjoyed an evening more.’
Perhaps the best description to show how personally he impressed his contemporaries at this time is given by Lord Dalling and Bulwer in his memoir. Sir Robert Peel, he tells us, was ‘tall and powerfully built, his body somewhat bulky for his limbs, his head small and well-formed, his features regular. His countenance was not what would be generally called expressive, but it was capable of taking the expression he wished to give it, humor, sarcasm, persuasion, and command, being its alternate characteristics. The character of the man was seen more… in the whole person than in the face. He did not stoop, but he bent rather forwards; his mode of walking was peculiar, and rather like that of a cat, but of a cat that was well acquainted with the ground it was moving over; the step showed no doubt or apprehension, it could hardly be called stealthy, but it glided on firmly and cautiously, without haste, or swagger, or unevenness…. The oftener you heard him speak, the more his speaking gained upon you…. He never seemed occupied with himself. His effort was evidently directed to convince you, not that he was eloquent, but that he was right…. He seemed rather to aim at gaining the doubtful, than mortifying or crushing the hostile.’ These qualities appealed especially to the practical men of business whom the Reform Bill had brought into politics. They were suited to the temper of the day, and his speaking won the favour of the best judges in the House of Commons. Though he disappointed ardent crusaders like Lord Shaftesbury by his apparent coldness and calculating caution, he impressed his fellow members as pre-eminently honest and as anxious to advance in the most effective manner those causes, which his judgment approved. He was not the man to lead a forlorn hope, but rather the sagacious commander who directed his troops through a practicable breach.
He was to be in opposition for another six years; but during these years the Whigs were in constant difficulties, and, as Greville notes, it was often obvious that Peel was leading the House from the front Opposition bench. Had he imitated Russell’s conduct in 1834 and devoted his chief energies to overthrowing the Whigs, he could have found many an occasion. Sedition in Canada and Jamaica, rivalry with France in the Levant and with Russia in the Farther East, financial troubles and deficits, the spread of Chartist doctrine, all combined to embarrass a Government which had no single will and no concentrated resolution. The accession of Queen Victoria, in 1837, made no change for the moment. But Wellington’s famous remark that the Tories would have no chance with a Queen because Peel had no manners and he had no small talk, is only quoted now because of the falsity of the prediction; both politicians soon came to form a better estimate of her judgment and public spirit. It was some years before this could be fairly tested. The Tories, while improving their position, failed to gain an absolute majority in the elections, and Peel’s want of tact in insisting on the Queen changing all the ladies of her household delayed his triumph from 1839 to 1841. Meanwhile he spent his energies in training his party and organizing their resources. He studied measures and he studied men, and he gradually gathered round him a body of loyal followers who believed in their chief and were ready to help him in administrative reform when the time should come. Among his most devoted adherents was Mr. Gladstone, at this time more famous as a churchman than as a financier; and even Mr. Disraeli, for all his eccentricities, accepted Peel’s leadership without question. Few could then foresee the very different careers that lay before his two brilliant lieutenants.
By 1841 the power of the Whigs was spent. A vote of want of confidence was carried by Peel, the King dissolved Parliament, and the Tories came back with a majority of ninety in the new House of Commons. Now begins the most famous part of Peel’s career that associated with the Repeal of the Corn Laws, the third of his so-called ‘betrayals’ of his party. No action of his has been so variously criticized; none caused such bitterness in political circles. There is no space here to discuss the value of Protection or the wisdom of the Anti-Corn-Law League, still less the merits or demerits of a fixed duty as opposed to a ‘sliding-scale’. We are concerned with Peel’s conduct and must try to answer the questions-What were Peel’s earlier views on the subject? What caused him to change these views? Was this change effected honestly, or was he guilty of abandoning his party in order to retain office himself?
The Corn Laws, introduced in 1670, re-enacted in 1815, forbade any one to import corn into England till the price of homegrown corn had reached eighty shillings a quarter. It is easy to attack a system based on rigid figures applied to conditions varying widely in every century; but the idea was that the English farmer should be given a decisive advantage over his foreign rivals, and only when the price rose to a prohibitive point might the interest of the consumer be allowed to outweigh that of the producer. The revival of the old law in 1815 met with strong opposition. England had greatly changed; the agricultural area had not been widely increased, but there were many more millions of mouths to feed, thanks to the growth of population in the industrial districts. But while in 1815 the House of Commons represented almost exclusively the land-owning and corn-growing classes, between 1815 and 1840 opposition to their policy had lately been growing and had been organized, outside Parliament, by the famous league of which Richard Cobden was the leading spirit. Peel, though he had been brought up by his father a strong Protectionist and Tory, had been largely influenced by Huskisson, the most remarkable President of the Board of Trade that this country has ever seen, and had shown on many occasions that he grasped the principle of Free Trade as well as any statesman of the day. The Whigs had left the finances of the country in a very bad state, and Peel had to take sweeping measures to restore credit. From 1842 to 1845 he brought in Budgets of a Free Trade character, designed to encourage commerce by remitting taxation, especially on raw material; and he made up the loss thus incurred by the Treasury, by imposing an income-tax. To this policy there were two exceptions, the Corn Laws and the Sugar Duties. On the latter he felt that England, since she had abolished slave-owning, had a duty to her colonies to see that they did not suffer by the competition of sugar produced by slave labor elsewhere. On the former he held that England ought, so far as possible, to produce its own food and to be self-sufficing; and as a practical man he recognized that it was too much to expect of the agricultural interest, so strongly represented in both Houses of Parliament, to pronounce what seemed to be its death-warrant. But through these years he came more and more to see that the interest of a class must give way to the interest of the nation; and his clear intellect was from time to time shaken by the arguments of the Anti-Corn-Law League and its orators. In 1845 he was probably expecting that he would tide over this Parliament, thanks to his Budgets and to good harvests, and that at a general election he would be able to declare for a change of fiscal policy without going back on his pledges to the party. Meanwhile his general attitude had been noted by shrewd observers. Cobden himself in a speech delivered at Birmingham said, ‘There can be no doubt that Sir Robert Peel is at heart as good a Free Trader as I am. He has told us so in the House of Commons again and again.’
Among the causes which influenced Peel at the moment two are specially noteworthy as reminding us of the way in which his opinion was changed over Catholic Emancipation. Severe critics say that, to retain office, he surrendered to the agitation of Cobden, as he had surrendered to that of O’Connell. Undoubtedly the increasing size and success of Cobden’s meetings, which were on a scale unknown before in political agitation, did cause Peel to consider fully what he had only half considered before: it did help to force open a door in his mind, and to break down a water-tight compartment. But Peel’s mind, once opened, saw far more than an agitation and a transfer of votes: it looked at the merits of the question and surveyed the interest of the whole country. He had seen that the fall of a Protestant Church was less serious than the loss of Ireland: he now saw that a shock to the agricultural interest was less serious than general starvation in the country. And as with the Clare election, so with the Irish potato famine in 1845: a definite event arrested his attention and clamored for instant decision. Peel was as humane a man as has ever presided over the destinies of this country, and the picture of Ireland’s sufferings was brought forcibly before his imagination by the reports presented to him and by his own knowledge of the country. His personal consistency could not be put in the balance against national distress.
That the manner in which he made the change did give great offence to his followers, there is no room to doubt. Peel was naturally reserved in manner and in his Cabinet he occupied a position of such unquestioned superiority that he had no need of advice to make up his mind, and was apt to keep matters in his own hand. Whether he was preparing to consult his colleagues or not, the Irish potato famine forced his hand before he had done so. When in November 1845 he made suddenly in the Cabinet a definite proposal to suspend the duties on corn, only three members supported him. Year after year Peel had opposed the motion brought in by Mr. Villiers for repeal: only those who had been studying the situation as closely as Peel and with as clear a vision-and they were few-could understand this sudden declaration of a change of policy. After holding four Cabinet councils in one week, winning over some waverers, but still failing to get a unanimous vote, he expressed a wish to resign. But the Whigs, owing to personal disagreements, could not form a ministry and Queen Victoria asked Peel to retain office: it was evident that he alone could carry through the measure which he believed to be so urgent, and he steeled himself to face the breach with his own party. As Lord John Russell had already pledged the Whigs to repeal, the issue was no longer in doubt; but Peel was not to win the victory without heavy cost. Disraeli, who had been offended at not being given a place in the ministry in 1841, came forward, rallied the agricultural interest, and attacked his leader in a series of bitter speeches, opening old sores, and charging him with having for the second time broken his pledges and betrayed his party. The Protectionists could not defeat the Government. In the Commons the Whig votes ensured a majority: in the Lords the influence of Wellington triumphed over the resistance of the more obstinate landowners. The Bill passed its third reading by ninety-eight votes.
But Peel knew how uncertain was his position in view of the hostility aroused. At this very time the Irish question was acute, as a Coercion Bill was under consideration, and this gave his enemies their chance. The Protectionist Tories made an unprincipled alliance for the moment with the Irish members; and on the very day when the Repeal of the Corn Laws passed the House of Lords, the ministry was defeated in the Commons. The moment of his fall, when Disraeli and the Protectionists were loudest in their exultation, was the moment of his triumph. It is the climax of his career. In the long debate on Repeal he had refused to notice personal attacks: he now rose superior to all personal rancor. In defeat he bore himself with dignity, and in his last speech as minister he praised Cobden in very generous terms, giving him the chief credit for the benefits, which the Bill conferred upon his fellow-countrymen. This speech gave offence to his late colleagues, Aberdeen, Sidney Herbert, and Gladstone, and was interpreted as being designed to mark clearly Peel’s breach with the Conservative party. The whole episode is illustrated in an interesting way in the Life of Gladstone. Lord Morley reports a long conversation between the two friends and colleagues, where Peel declares his intention to act in future as a private member and to abstain from party politics. Gladstone, while fully allowing that Peel had earned the right to retire after such labors (‘you have been Prime Minister in a sense in which no other man has been since Mr. Pitt’s time’), pointed out how impossible it would be for him to carry out his intentions. His personal ascendancy in Parliament was too great: men must look to him as a leader. But Peel evidently was at the end of his strength, and had been suffering acutely from pains in the head, due to an old shooting accident but intensified by recent hard work. For the moment repose was essential.
It was Gladstone, Peel’s disciple and true successor, who seven years later paid the following tribute to his memory: ‘It is easy’, he said, ‘to enumerate many characteristics of the greatness of Sir Robert Peel. It is easy to speak of his ability, of his sagacity, of his indefatigable industry. But there was something yet more admirable… and that was his sense of public virtue; when he had to choose between personal ease and enjoyment, or again, on the other hand, between political power and distinction, and what he knew to be the welfare of the nation, his choice was made at once. When his choice was made, no man ever saw him hesitate, no man ever saw him hold back from that which was necessary to give it effect.’ Though his own political views changed, Gladstone always paid tribute to the moral influence, which Peel, had exercised in political life, purifying its practices and ennobling its traditions.
For the last four years of his life he was in opposition, but he held a place of dignity and independence, which few fallen ministers have ever enjoyed. He was the trusted friend and adviser of Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort; he was often consulted in grave matters by the chiefs of the Government; his speeches both in the House and in the country carried greater weight than those of any minister. Despite the bitterness of the Protectionists he seemed still to have a great future before him, and in any national emergency the country would unfailingly have called him to the helm. But on July 29, 1850, when he was just reaching the age of sixty-two, he had a fall from his horse which caused very grave injuries, and he only survived three days.
The interest of Peel’s life is almost absorbed by public questions. He was not picturesque like Disraeli; he did not, like Gladstone, live long enough to be in his lifetime a mythical figure; the public did not cherish anecdotes about his sayings or doings, nor did he lend himself to the art of the caricaturist. He was an English gentleman to the backbone, in his tastes, in his conduct, in his nature. His married life was entirely happy, he had a few devoted friends, he avoided general society; he had a genuine fondness for shooting and country life, he was a judicious patron of art, and his collection of Dutch pictures form to-day a very precious part of our National Gallery. Just because of his aloofness, his gravity, the concentration of his energies, he is the best example that we can study if we want to know how an English statesman should train himself to do work of lasting value and how he should bear himself in the hour of trial. Within little more than half a century three famous politicians, Peel, Gladstone, and Chamberlain, have split their parties in two by an abrupt change of policy, and their conduct has been bitterly criticized by those to whom the traditions of party are dear. It is the glory of British politics that these traditions remained honorable so long, and no one of these statesmen broke with them lightly or without regret. For all that, let us be thankful that from time to time statesmen do arise who are capable of responding to a still higher call, of following their own individual consciences and of looking only to what, so far as they can judge, is the highest interest of the nation.