TOPICS OF TILE'DAY.
RESULTS OF THE LATE ADMINISTRATION.
THOUGH the period of its rule has not been eventful in deeds of war, nor disturbed by revolution, Sir Robert Peel's Administra- tion has bad an extraordinary influence on the progress of opinion in this country, and therefore on the progress of mankind.
Foremost, because the most obvious among its tangible results, may be placed the changes which have been effected in the national economy. Upon entering office, the Government found depression of trade, dear corn, deficient revenue. After Sir Robert Peel's accession, the sun shone out brightly: corn abound- ed ; trade revived ; there was a surplus revenue ; and prosperity, individual as well as national. Much was there of luck in this change from adverse to propitious seasons ; much, however, was due to the bold financial arrangements which put a screw upon the revenue, checked the decline, and forced a surplus. Striking experiments were attempted in a kind of modified free trade. They were eminently successful ; generally fulfilling the expectations of benefit, dispelling the fears of injury to particular interests. The prosperity intoxicated the commercial classes; and in the madness of the moment railway speculation assumed the most extravagant and dangerous shape. That mania was a new peril: it and its antidote were not down in the books ; the Government showed itself not at all prepared to cope with the difficulty ; and the prosperity is now threatened with a reaction. Simultaneously with the last chancre the sky itself becomes clouded ; dearth is apprehended ; a double panic, of the money and provision mar- kets, seizes the people ; " distress" is at hand, and perhaps defi- ciency of revenue. At this juncture, the Premier proposes, what the active portion of the people loudly demand—a further and sweeping extension of his Free-trade policy ; and, as a pledge of the importance which he attaches to that step, rather than con- tinue the Ministry, counteracted by hostile colleagues, he resigns. There is a burst of indignation at such " inconsistency" in a Mi- nister who was called to power by the Protectionist party. The " inconsistency" is evident enough on a superficial view, and it is easy to dilate upon that ; though not very profitable, if our wish is, not to vituperate, but to form just estimates. A ifinister owes a hgber fealty to his country than to his party. Those who lay too much on the technical crime of party-desertion, should not forget, that just before he took office, Sir Robert Peel distinctly recognized the possibility that it might be necessary to alter the Corn-laws ; but he said that the change ought to be executed by a Govern- ment having the confidence of the country ; and later he dis- tinctly refused to pledge himself even to the existing Corn-law. Those who take a broader view of his conduct, seeking neither to aggravate nor to extenuate, will not attach more weight, however, to the technical reservation than to the technical fault. In a na- tional and historical point of view, the praise or blame to be awarded to the individual is of small moment; but it is of some importance to understand the working of character in its effect on the progress of the country. It is true that Sir Robert Peel has departed from the general tenour of his earlier career ; true that he entered office to form this particular Administration partly upon the strength of a dis- like to free trade prevalent among the constituencies that gave him his majority, and that his latest policy is the reverse of that which he was expected to enforce. It is equally true, however, that he is above the reach of mere corrupt motives to treachery. Of wealth, political power, high station, he has. had enough to cloying.. He had nothing to gain by dis- honesty. The key to his conduct must be sought elsewhere. Sir Robert Peel entered life as a Tory. He is a man not readily moved—of strong feelings, probably, but slow. He is eminently a " practical" man ; seldom if ever reverting to first principles, those pole-stars of conduct. He does so only on great emergen- cies, and with hesitating distrust. He is the antipodes of Sieyes, who always had a constitution ready in his pocket: Sir Robert Peel. would have constitutions grow up by the slow accretion of na- tional experiences. On the other hand, he has too much strength and vigour of mind to be bound by prejudice, which stands to inferior minds in lieu of some first principle. He entered. political life before his political education was completed : his schoolroom has been the national council-chamber, and he has been all his life a student. Many who began as he did• would resist subsequent convictions, and would sacrifice their better understanding to a show of "consistency" : Sir Robert Peel has acted up to his convictions as he from time to time ac- quired them, and has attested the honesty of his purpose by the peremptory manner of sacrificing the immediate object of his ambition—the power of place. To apply this analysis of his public character to the subject in hand—free trade. For years he has had increasing mistrust of the Corn-laws : he is now con- vinced that they must go, and he sacrifices power to his convic- tion. The principles of free trade had been already asserted " in the abstract," with official sanction : " to buy in the cheapest market and sell in the dearest," is the maxim avowed by Sir Robert Peel; and Sir James Graham holds principles of free trade to be identical with " common sense." Those declarations removed the principles from the field of controversy. Now, by. his last step, Sir Robert Peel has removed the great practical application of those principles from the field of controversy : it has diminished to a matter of Ministerial difficulty and arrange.. meat. That is the immensely advanced position whence Free Trade starts at Christmas 1845.
On matters of not less vital if of less obvious importance, opinion has also made great progress. Religious "toleration," once the boast of the Whigs, is superseded by religious equality— not yet complete, but far advanced. The opprobrium of Pro- testant government in Ireland—an affectation of refusing to re- cognize the Roman Catholic hierarchy—has been discontinued. Appointments have been made without distinction of creed. In England we see similar liberality in the distribution of patron- age ; and if the advance beyond the Whig party in promoting education is not very large, be it remembered that the advance is made in the name of a party that once resisted every effort to further popular education. From being a drag upon the Whigs in that behalf, the quondam Tories have become an example to them. Again, the claims of "the people" and of the poor to equal rights with the "upper" and middle classes, in recreation and attention to material comfort, have never been more em- phatically recogt ized. Few tangible results have yet been at- tained; but the starting-point has been widely moved forward. Maxims that once were extravagancies of Liberalism, if not of Republicanism, have now become the truisms of all parties. The practice of official administration has not retrograded—has not become less liberal; while the reforms of the Liberals have been improved upon. The Liberals got rid of much arbitrary conduct, especially in the law departments of Government. When the cry was to keep in the Whigs that they might " keep out the Tories," it used to be predicted that there would be a re- turn to the virulent oppressive spirit of another reign. The alarm was especially sounded in regard to Ireland. To a well-meaning English gentleman then sitting in Parliament for an Irish con- stituency, who lectured us in our own columns for refusing to be alarmed, we answered, "Time is stronger than Toryism" : for we saw that the days of " ascendancy" had departed for ever ; and we knew that no Minister—least of all, a cautious and watch- ful observer of the times, like Sir Robert Peel—durst attempt to revive the practices of an odious and exploded policy, even if he had been inclined to it. The event has justified our faith. No period of milder administration is to be found in British his- tory than the last four years. When it was deemed necessary to appeal to the law, whether in Ireland or England, it was done in a spirit of leniency and fairness. Such was the case even in Ire- land, as to the inception of the proceedings in the great State trials ; though they suffered from mismanagement in the details. In England and Wales, the generous forbearance of the Attorney- General of the time extorted a tribute of admiration from oppo- nents. A similar spirit has prevailed, as the rule, in the other departments of Government. One discreditable exception must be noted for the sake of truth—Sir James Graham's conduct in the case of Mr. Mazzini. There has been a singular absence of jobbing,—unless we record the sacrifice of Rowland Hill to the Maberly-Lowther influence at the Post-office, as a kind of inverted jobbing. Even in the bestowal of " honours" a decorous parsimony has been observed ; contrasting remarkably with the profusion of the preceding Ministers down to the very last days of their nominal possession of office. Only two new Peers have been created,—Lord Stanley, whose elevation to the Upper House was but an anticipation of his birthright for a convenience of Minis- terial distribution; and Lord Metcalfe, whose creation was on every account a credit to Ministers, not a charge against them. There has been one promotion to a higher rank in the Peerage— that of Lord Ellenborough, the Duke of Wellington's friend and client. Lord Ashburton might have expected equal honour for a greater service ; but a dead set was made against him by ene- mies, he had no peremptory friend at court, and Mr. Hume was more just with the thanks of the Commons to a Conservative employe, little liked on the Liberal benches, than Sir Robert Peel with the Crown's customary compliment to the successful diplo- matist of his own appointment. This refusal was not a merit, but a weakness, cognate to that which made Sir Robert Peel a con- senting party to Mr. Rowland Hill's dismissal from the Post- office, although he Alt it necessary to stay his private conscience by a contribution of ten pounds towards the "national testi- monial."
A flagrant nuisance has been abated. A vulgar canting use of the Queen's name had grown to an every-day habit of the "loyal Liberals," as hazardous to the regal position as it was false to the principles of our limited monarchy. The Crown was most "unconstitutionally " identified with its Ministers. They boasted themselves to be "the Queen's friends " ; the approval of "the Queen" was held out as the premium for fulfilling their behests, her displeasure threatened as thepenalty for opposition ; the suffrages of the electors were begged" in the name of the Queen." The sycophants of the party were not deterred from the abuse even by the odious and revolting scandals to which it gave rise, in the spirit of party retaliation. That unmanly abuse ceased with the departure of the Whigs from office. For the last four years, the Sovereign has been treated with respect, but without adulation. Such is the force of the new habit, that throughout the whole of the crisis not yet terminated, the name of the Queen has not been mentioned in any undue sense ; but the discussion has very properly been fixed on the Ministers in esse and in posse. The administration in Ireland was of a checkered aspect, but favourable in the main. Lord De Grey's somewhat pragmatical display was supported by no efficiency, and it exposed his autho- nty to ridicule. The great trials were not conducted with judg- ment sufficient to overpower the unceasing exertions to embarrass the Government. Lord Heytesbury's quieter rule has been more efficient. But the Ministers were without a party in Ireland. The Irish Liberals—little resembling the English except in name— have not learned the change that has occurred in the nature of English parties: they still fancy the Conservatives to be the "Tory" party represented by their own Orangemen : "Id metu- ens, vetensque memor belli," they were indomitably wild, and would not be conciliated. On the other hand, the Irish Tories, if not altogether unchanged, were enemies instead of allies to the new Conservatives. The late Ministers were obliged to govern Ireland without a party in that island ; and it was little to be wondered that they had yet so much way to make in conquer- ing difficulties. Yet some way was made—witness the history of the Bequests Act and of the Colleges Bill. In Scotland Ministers incurred, and deserved, some odium. In trying to evade the difficulties of the Free Church schism, they more embroiled the fray ; and in refusing to abolish religious tests in the Universities, they were inconsistent with their own main policy and with justice.
The Colonies, a few excepted, were a worse nest of grievances than ever. But even in this department the personal influence of the Premier was usefully felt. He effectually supported Sir Charles Bigot and his generous policy towards the French Canadians, against the arbitrary indiscretion of Lord Stanley and the Duke of Wellington. In New Zealand, he saved Lord Stanley from the last humiliation of being driven out of office by the New Zealand Company ; but he disarmed his colleague from further mischief, by superseding him in the affair, and turning it over to Mr. John Lefevre. Sir Robert Peel's Govern- ment failed in Colonial administration, except when he attended to the business himself.
Abroad, peace was established instead of contest on the boun- dary of New Brunswick, in China, Afghanistan, Syria, and France,—a spirit of peace, hating war; and that more peaceful spirit even now avails us in the councils of those countries where some warlike heats still lurk among sections of the people. Such are the prominent facts by which the future historian will judge Sir Robert Peel's Administration. It has been marked by a decided, a vast progress in rational Liberalism. By newly-organizing the party representing the spirit of Con- servatism so as to accord better with the spirit of the times, Sir Robert Peel broke up the old Tory party. Alone he did it. But he has also incidentally broken up the old Whig position : by bringing forward the main body of the quondam Tories to the advanced post of the Whigs, he has disorganized that other party; and if it wish to retain a distinctive character' it will be obliged to assert a far more decidedly Liberal policy than it has ever yet done. Thus, the general result is, that the position of the country in the winter of 1845 is greatly in advance of that to which it had attained in the autumn of 1841.