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Interpreting the 1832 Reform Act Essay

Summary: The Great Reform Act, a product of in tense debate, has produced an equally diverse debate among historians. One element of the controversy centres on the origins of the Act. How far was it designed to stave off a popular revolution, and how far to preserve the influence of the landed gentry or to buy off opposition by timely concessions? Or did the policy-makers not have time to formulate precise aims? The effects of the legislation are equally controversial. Did governments become more popular and more responsive to national issues? How did voting behaviour change? The answers historians have found tend to reflect the particular constituencies they have studied. Diversity rather than uniformity characterises both the motives for the Act and its historical effects.

The 1832 Reform Act continues to arouse a great deal of controversy among historians. Older accounts by Trevelyan (1920), Christie (1927) and Butler (1914) treat reform as a timely concession to popular pressure and a Whig party manoeuvre designed to weaken the Tories. But since the 1960s there have been many alternative interpretations, and as we enter the new century it seems appropriate to draw together and reexamine these differing opinions about a topic which continues to fascinate teachers and students of nineteenth-century British history.

Concession or cure?

According to Moore (1966 and 1974), the Reform Act was not a concession but a cure, designed to revive electoral deference. Reform was meant to reorganise the electoral system, concludes Moore, so that there would be no power for the unpropertied, a clearer distinction between county and borough constituencies, an exclusion of middle-class influence from the counties, and – with more seats for the counties – a reinforcement of landed influence. Parry (1993, p 80) dismisses Moore’s idea, not least because counties continued to have large urban electorates, and Eastwood (1997) argues that rural voters were rather less pliant, and county politics more complex, than Moore appreciates. Eastwood shows that county elections were participatory events before and after 1832, and that rural elites continually had to negotiate with voters. There was no ‘hegemonic paternalism’ and no simple correlation between landlord power and voting behaviour.

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O’Gorman (1984) also casts doubt on Moore’s assumptions about deference, and McCord (1967) has suggested that even if the government did have clear aims (which were, in his view, to remove anomalies and bring into the political nation worthy sections of the middle classes), ministers did not have the time, expertise and knowledge needed to draft legislation which would give effect to these intentions. Evans (1995, pp 93-4) points out that neither Grey’s ministry nor the Whig party were united on reform. Lack of information about different types of constituency and the extent of middle-class and landed influence, moreover, made it impossible to accomplish the reorganisation posited by Moore.

There was no master plan, argues Evans, only general concerns about reserving political influence for property and preventing an alliance of middle-class reformers with the masses. For the most part ministers reacted to extra-parliamentary developments (on this point Evans appears to disagree with McCord, who thinks that the main features of the reform bill were settled well before popular pressure reached its height). Evans stresses that the reform crisis did not allow ministers the time (even had they the ability) to get into the minutiae of precisely who should and should not be enfranchised in particular places.

Moore’s thesis has also been questioned by Hennock (1971) and Davis (1976), while Beales (1992) insists that redistribution of seats was far more important to the framers of the reform bill than expansion of the electorate. Mitchell’s interpretation of reform (1993) underlines this point. For Mitchell the reform bill was part of the old Whig struggle against the Crown.

Senior Whigs believed that liberty and property were inseparable and that more influence for the propertied classes would serve as a barrier against royal tyranny. Liberty would be safe if property was properly represented and, since the rotten boroughs no longer served this function, seats had to be redistributed and borough voting rights revised. Vernon (1993) argues that the 1832 Reform Act enabled the elite narrowly to define ‘the people’ as propertied men. It thereby contributed to a political closure experienced between 1832 and 1867. Vernon’s idea about ‘democratic losses’, however, must be balanced by the undoubted gains achieved in 1832, especially in terms of political influence for non-elite interests.

Continuity or change?

According to Gash (1979, pp 150-2). the general purpose behind reform was to make the old system more acceptable. The bill had enough scope to capture the public imagination while also appearing to meet a need, but it was a ‘clumsy’ measure, incapable of recasting the electoral system, and its authors were always more interested in continuity than change. Ministers lacked the intention, information and experience to go farther than they did. They were ‘working in haste to carry out a political pledge’ and ‘did not profess to be logical’. Milton-Smith (1972) suggests that generalisation about reform is unhelpful, since the bill was a highly flexible tool.

Though it was presented by ministers as a ‘final’ measure, they meant by this that it would satisfy existing demands. Whig leaders accepted that in future decades representation might have to be conceded to new interests, and Milton-Smith concludes that the reform bill should be viewed more as a concession than a cure. Other commentators, notably Bentley (1984, p 87), Parry (1993, p 99) and O’Gorman (1986), have stressed that reform did not greatly alter the social composition of the Commons, or make the electorate ‘popular’, or transfer power to the urban middle classes.

Some historians have chosen to focus on what was achieved in 1832, rather than on what the reform bill did not do. Briggs (1979, p 253) pays modest tribute to the government’s role in making it possible for an unwilling parliament to reform itself. The reform bill was a success, he adds, because it removed the danger of revolution, attached the middle classes to the constitution, and gave aristocratic government a new lease of life. Evans (1996, pp 223-9), Derry (1990, pp 195) and Phillips (1982) have examined the importance of 1832 in promoting new forms of political organisation, registration drives, party cohesion, the rise of urban and industrial influence, and a higher number of electoral contests (with persistent partisan voting). The instrumentality of reform is clear.

The bill was not just a Conservative measure. It was also dynamic. In the 1830s and 1840s there were constructive social and economic policies, and the success of 1832 enabled Parliament to regain lost stature and command wider approval. This ties in with Mandler’s thesis (1990, chs 1, 4) about the reassertion of an aristocratic governing style, and with Parry’s idea (1993, pp 78-89) of vigorous ‘liberal government’. Parry claims that the Reform Act achieved its fundamental purpose, which was ‘by bold means, to strengthen the power of government to locate, and respond equitably to, social tensions, unrest, and grievances, and so secure popular confidence in more active, disciplinary rule’. Hence the Whigs’ interventionist approach of the 1830s and their eagerness to use the powers and opportunities provided by reform ‘to transform the range and image of government behaviour’. Parry may be exaggerating. He implies that Grey’s administration had clear goals and complete control over the process of reform, and that ministers really knew how they were doing and how to do it when, in fact, much was uncertain and unpredictable.

The Reform Act was significant not only for what it did, argues Davis (1980). but for what politicians thought it did, and reform prompted a notable change of attitudes, especially among Tories who came to accept Peel as their leader. After 1832 Peel demonstrated that he was reconciled to institutional reform, and he saw clearly that the Reform Act made the influence of electors much more significant than it had formerly been. To Phillips (1980), the expansion of the electorate is a clear indication that reform was a concession, intended to appease the nation and satisfy a growing desire for inclusion in the political process. Political activity had mushroomed since the 1780s, and the reform of 1832 ‘created a voting public corresponding reasonably well, proportionately, to that segment of the population apparently meriting inclusion among the electorate as a result of several decades of sustained political participation’. Phillips presents a coherent argument, though it is easy to confuse effects with intentions.

In a detailed examination of parliamentary boroughs, Phillips (1992) has shown that the Reform Act significantly altered voting behaviour in some locations, but that the nature of change varied from place to place. Phillips argues that after 1832 voting became clearly and consistently partisan (partly an unintended consequence of voter registration). Voter turnout increased (it was already high in many places). Religious affiliation had more influence over voting choices than social class, as had been the case before 1832, and national issues rapidly came to dominate elections. Some electoral corruption continued, though it was ‘politically irrelevant’ and rarely determined voting choices and election results. Another element of continuity, therefore, was the considerable freedom of choice enjoyed by voters.

These findings are useful because they indicate that elections were already politicised and participatory before 1832, and that the Reform Act furthered political commitment in a manner that would not otherwise have been possible. Indeed, reform made previous changes irreversible. Yet Phillips probably claims too much. His focus on local conditions is not easy to marry with his view that the Reform Act facilitated the rise of national parties and national issues. Furthermore, reform gave government broader responsibilities, another reason why purely local contexts were superseded. Phillips identifies an increase in voting on national party lines, but he also states that reform had uneven results. Perhaps in his general conclusions he loses sight of this point. His sample of boroughs all survived 1832 as two-member constituencies, moreover, which makes them a questionable basis for generalisation. The Reform Act possibly had greatest impact in the new boroughs it created in 1832.

On partisanship, national platforms, individual voter choice, participation and turnout in the post-1832 electoral system, the interpretation of Taylor (1997) differs greatly from that of Phillips. In Taylor’s account party was limited as an organisation and an idea. Consistency in voting took time to develop, as did party cohesion at local and elite levels, so that national platforms were not really significant until after 1867. Individual voter choice made little sense to contemporaries, adds Taylor. because they tended to vote as members of an interest or community, not as individuals. On this matter Taylor gives a salutary warning about the dangers of pollbook analysis, which tends to privilege the views of individual voters.

He argues that the reformed system was meant to represent interests; this was the constitutional context within which elections took place. As for participation, demographic change led to a relative fall in the proportion of voters among the adult male population after 1832, and in some boroughs voter turnout declined. Many potential �10 householders never registered, and a large number of electors voted only once (particularly as first-time voters). The fact that there were six general elections within just 11 years (1830 to 1841) affected both registration and the inclination to vote. Much of this is incontestable, though the value of Taylor’s conclusions (like those of Phillips) must be balanced by a recognition of the diversity of borough constituencies.

Did popular pressure really matter?

Opinions differ as to the importance of popular pressure during the reform struggle. Though Briggs thinks that the bill relieved the danger of revolution, Rude (1967) notes the absence of a genuine revolutionary threat. Some historians deny that extra-parliamentary agitation did much to shape the struggle or its outcome. Clark (1985. p 402) insists that the timing and nature of reform owed most not to unrest and radicalism out of doors, but to party confusion, a conflict of opinion in cabinet and Parliament, and instability in high politics caused by Catholic emancipation in 1829. Clark blames Peel for betraying the old regime, the ‘confessional state’ with its exclusive Anglican constitution, and asserts that parliamentary reform would not have been possible without Catholic emancipation.

The constitution was already fractured by earlier surrenders, argues Clark, even before Grey’s ministry took office. Hole (1989, ch. 16) offers a different analysis. He contends that secular arguments had been replacing religious ones in political controversy since the I 790s. Therefore Clark’s ‘confessional state’ no longer existed in the late 1820s. Theological influences played no important role in the struggles over Catholic emancipation and parliamentary reform. Discussion was carried on primarily in political and social terms.

Reform is not to be understood only in the intellectual and high political framework recreated by Clark. Any explanation of the reform struggle would be incomplete without some reference to popular pressure, and as excitement reached new peaks there were times when extra-parliamentary agitation had decisive impact: October 1831 when the Lords rejected the reform bill, for example, and May 1832 when the Grey ministry resigned. After the ‘Days of May’, indeed, reformers were sure that their activities had prevented Wellington from forming a government and promoted Grey’s return to the premiership. On the other hand, as Evans suggests (1995, pp 92-3), even in May 1832 when agitation was ‘of more moment’ than Wellington’s efforts to form an administration, it is not clear that the unrest actually altered the course of events.

Nor, in fact, did politicians ever lose the initiative. Wellington’s failure and Grey’s recall resulted directly from decisions made by William IV and prominent Tories. Brock (1973, pp 305-9) accepts that there was ‘peril’ in 1832, though he points out that ministerial responses must be treated cautiously. Francis Place, Joseph Parkes and other reform spokesmen kept ministers informed of the agitation, but we cannot be sure how much ministers believed or how far they were unnerved by what they were told. Cannon (1973, pp 238-40) concludes that pressure from below was less important than decisions taken at the top. But could the unrest of this period really be ignored? Grey and his colleagues were conscious of enormous pressure from external sources, which is one of the reasons why they only returned to office after securing the King’s agreement to a creation of peers.

Stevenson (1992, p 296) doubts that there could have been a rising had Wellington taken office in May 1832, for though the people had arms, they did not have the necessary leadership and organisation. This emphasises the threat posed to the established order not by the masses but by respectable radicalism and its methods. Newbould (1990, p 10) suggests that ministers were concerned less about an imminent popular revolt than about a future challenge from the wealthy, assertive and politically aware middle classes. Much was said about a resort to physical force, not least by Place in London and the leaders of the Birmingham Political Union, but this talk was meant to disturb elite politicians. The will and planning for an uprising were exaggerated for effect. Several historians have emphasised this in their explanations of reform; Thompson (1980, pp 887-903), Hamburger (1963, cii. 4), Thomis and Holt (1977, ch. 4) and Wright (1988, pp 89-95) conclude that the threat of revolution was never as serious as contemporaries believed or claimed.

United action was precluded by divisions within the reform movement. The campaign in many towns was fragmented, and Birmingham was unusual because of the co-operation there between reformers of different social ranks. It cannot be assumed that Place, Parkes and other spokesmen were firmly in control of the masses (and there was still an insurrectionary minority on the fringes of British radicalism, though it lacked wide support). Another important point is that there was less violence in May 1832 than in October 1831. Contemporaries noted this, and some feared a sinister plot, assuming that radicals were so well-disciplined they could hold themselves back in readiness for a popular outbreak at some later time. Place allowed this idea to spread. Again, perception mattered more than reality. Place advised his allies not to hold meetings in case these revealed that the popular movement was more divided than was generally supposed.

Whig MPs and peers made much of the danger of unrest when addressing Parliament, as did Grey and the King in their correspondence. Though some feigned alarm only to persuade opponents of reform to give way, others genuinely feared revolution. The fear was expressed often enough, and not only in public arenas. Private letters and records include such expressions, and perhaps these reveal what people were really thinking at the time. For Grey and his colleagues, and for the King, one of the most disturbing aspects of the reform struggle was the manner in which popular pressure became focused with the rise of political unions. The fact that these bodies had such authority, and yet for so long were answerable only to themselves, was a new and alarming development. Grey repeatedly emphasised that the only way to take the wind from their sails was to carry the reform bill, and Lopatin (1991) and Ferguson (1960) have argued that there would have been no reform without them.

Words and concepts to note:

‘Hegemonic paternalism’: a form of control by the ‘natural leaders’ of society; those who owned the land, that amounted to domination.

Instrumentality: purpose served.

Pollbooks: the records kept by returning officers of those who voted in particular constituencies.

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