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There is probably no other English public man of the present century whose career has attracted in so large a measure the interest both of politicians and of men of letters as Sir Robert Peel. In addition to a crowd of industrious but not very distinguished compilers, it has been discussed with great skill by Guizot, by Lord Dalling, by Mr. Goldwin Smith, and by Mr. Spencer Walpole; and in that great literature of monographs which has grown up with such remarkable rapidity in England within the last decade, no less than three have been devoted to the life of Peel. The interest that attaches to him is, indeed, of a very peculiar character. He was almost wholly destitute of the power of imagination that is so conspicuous in the careers or speeches of Chatham and Burke, of Canning and Beaconsfield. Except during a few years that followed the Reform Bill of 1832, he never exhibited the spectacle of a leader struggling successfully against enormous odds. He was not one of those statesmen who see further than their contemporaries, and who, after years of failure and struggle, are proved by their ultimate triumph to have most truly read the tendencies of their age. Though he was three times Prime Minister of England, and though he was for a time deemed the most brilliant of party leaders, he left the great and powerful party which trusted him almost hopelessly shattered. Twice in his life he carried measures of transcendent importance which he had not only persistently opposed, but had been specially placed in power for the purpose of resisting. The most striking incidents in his career are incidents of failure rather than of success, and history has pronounced that, on the most important questions of his time, he was disastrously wrong. The long delay in the inevitable emancipation of the Catholics, which was largely due to him, and the circumstances under which he ultimately carried the measure, produced evils that are in full activity at the present hour. His persistent opposition to parliamentary reform contributed to bring England to the very verge of revolution; though when the Reform Bill had been carried he nobly retrieved his error by the frankness with which he accepted, and the skill with which he used, the new conditions of English politics. His abolition of the Corn Laws at the head of a Government which had been pledged to maintain them gave a great shock to public confidence, and for a long period most seriously dislocated the machinery of party government. But, in spite of all this, there are few statesmen who have carried so large a number of measures of great and acknowledged importance, who have impressed so deeply the sense of their superiority on the minds of their contemporaries, or who were followed to the grave by a more widespread and genuine regret.

It is this contrast between the leading incidents of Peel’s life and the impression which he made on the world that constitutes the great interest of his career. The explanation is not difficult to discover. It is the common story of extraordinary qualities balanced by striking defects. He was not a great statesman, but he was a supremely great administrator, a supremely great master of parliamentary management and of parliamentary legislation. He had little prescience; he often grossly misread the signs of the times, or only recognised them when it was too late; but when he was once convinced, he acted on his conviction with frankness and courage, and when a thing had to be done, no one could do it like him. As Disraeli said: ’In the course of time the method which was natural to Sir Robert Peel matured into a habit of such expertness that no one in the despatch of affairs ever adapted the means more fitly to the end.’ In the words of Sir Cornewall Lewis: For concocting, producing, explaining, and defending measures, he had no equal, or anything like an equal.

In the interesting volumes which were published by Lord Mahon and Mr. Cardwell in 1856 we have Peel’s own explanation of his conduct relating to the removal of the Catholic disabilities in 1829, and to the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846; but the publication of his confidential correspondence has been long delayed, and the volume before us only carries the work down to 1827. It has been edited by Mr. Parker with great care and accuracy, and with undeviating good sense and good taste, and it throws much curious light upon a corner of history which has been but little explored.

Peel started in life with great advantages. The eldest son of a very wealthy manufacturer who had long occupied a respectable place in Parliament, and who was closely attached to the dominant party in the State, he was from his earliest youth destined by his father to be a statesman. Under such circumstances he was certain in the pre-Reform period to have not only all the advantages which the best school and university education could give, but also the still greater advantages of an early introduction into both parliamentary and official life; provided always that no aberration of character, or taste, or imagination, or opinion drew him aside from the plain path that lay before him. He grew up in an atmosphere of the best middle-class virtues. Decorum, good sense, industry, strict morality; a sober religious orthodoxy; much simplicity of life, preserved in the midst of great wealth; ideals which, if not very lofty, were at least eminently practical and perfectly honourable, prevailed around him, and their influence imbued his whole nature. He accepted cordially the destiny that was before him, and threw himself into it with untiring industry. His opinions changed during his life much more than his character, and the shy, sensitive, industrious, somewhat self-conscious, somewhat awkward Harrow boy, prefigured very faithfully the future statesman. He is described as wandering when a schoolboy by himself among the hedges, knocking down birds with stones, a practice in which he was very skilful, and which eventually developed into a strong passion for shooting. He was quiet, good-natured, studious, scarcely ever in scrapes, and it was not until the last year of his school life that he threw himself with any keenness into the amusements of his comrades. He had good natural abilities; but probably the one point in which he greatly exceeded the average of intelligent boys was his memory, which was of extraordinary retentiveness, and which he carefully cultivated. During a few months which elapsed between leaving Harrow and going to Oxford he constantly attended the House of Commons, under the Gallery; and he also attended some natural history lectures at the Royal Institution. His Oxford career was very successful. He is said to have worked before his degree examination for no less than eighteen hours, through the day and night. He gained a double-first, and in the first class of mathematics he stood alone. Such a success at once stamped him as a youth of extraordinary promise, and the impression it made was especially great because, the examination system having been very recently reorganised, he was the first Oxford man who had attained it.

He was brought into Parliament in April 1809, almost immediately after he came of age, for the borough of Cashel. No special significance attaches to the fact of his having entered Parliament for an Irish constituency, for his father had simply bought the seat, and the young member appears to have never gone over to his constituents or held any communication with them.

‘When I sat for Cashel,’ he afterwards wrote, ’and was not in office, having made those sacrifices which could then legally be made, but now cannot, I did not consider myself at all pledged to the support of Government.’ Perceval, who represented in its extreme form the Tory reaction that followed the Revolution, was then Prime Minister, and Peel at once took his place among his followers. He first spoke in seconding the Address in 1810, and in the partial judgment of his father his speech was considered, ’by men the best qualified to form a correct opinion of public speaking, the best first speech since that of Mr. Pitt.’

It was not, perhaps, an unmixed advantage to Peel that while he was still a mere boy his father had somewhat ostentatiously destined him to be one day a Tory statesman. Such an education could hardly fail to strengthen the self-consciousness which was never wanting in Peel’s character, and to give a decided bias to his judgment. At the same time, the distinctive merits of his career would have probably never been fully developed without the early administrative training which his opinions made possible for him, and there is nothing in his early history to give the least countenance to the belief that his adherence to the extreme type of Tory politics imposed the slightest strain upon his judgment. His immediate interests and his sentiments appear at this time to have perfectly concurred. He came into Parliament with the party which was dominant, and with the section of the party which was most poor in able men. Had he adopted on the Catholic question the liberal opinions of Canning and Castlereagh, he must have held a position altogether subordinate to them; and the same causes that in the preceding Ministry had raised Perceval to be leader of the House of Commons over the heads of Castlereagh and Canning, marked out for Peel the future leadership of the party of resistance to concession. It has been said, on the authority of Sir Lawrence Peel, that his first appointment was that of private secretary to Lord Liverpool, but Mr. Parker has found no trace of this in the papers either of Peel or of Lord Liverpool. In 1810, however, when he was but just twenty-two, he entered administrative life as Under-Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, and he held that place till August 1812, when he obtained the far more important post of Chief Secretary for Ireland, and became for the next six years virtual governor of that country.

It was a post requiring not only great administrative skill, but also great gifts of original statesmanship. During the last five years of the eighteenth century, and especially during the rebellion of 1798, religious passions in Ireland, which had for more than a generation been steadily subsiding, had been kindled into a flame, and the urgent necessity of settling the Catholic question had begun to press with irresistible force on the minds of the more intelligent statesmen. Pitt had intended to complete the Union by measures for admitting Catholics into Parliament, for commuting tithes, and for paying the Catholic clergy. Through the instrumentality of Lord Castlereagh assurances of the disposition of the Cabinet had been conveyed to the Catholic bishops and the leading Catholic laymen in 1799, which were sufficient to secure their active support for the Union and to prevent any serious opposition among the Catholic laity. The bishops met the wishes of the English Government by drawing up a series of resolutions, in which they declared their readiness to accept with gratitude an endowment for the priesthood, to confer upon the English Government a power of veto over the appointment of Catholic bishops which would prevent the introduction into that body of any disloyal men, and to certify to the Government the nomination of all Catholic parish priests, as well as the fact that they had taken the oath of allegiance. But the King had not been informed of the negotiations that had taken place, and it is well known how his uncompromising opposition produced the resignation of Pitt in 1801, how the agitation caused by the question threw the King into a temporary fit of insanity, and how Pitt at once promised that he would not move the question again during the reign. In the spring of 1804 Pitt resumed office, on the express understanding that he would not permit Catholic Emancipation; when the question was introduced in 1805 by Lord Grenville in the Lords, and by Fox in the Commons, it was defeated in both Houses by immense majorities, and Pitt declared that though he was still of opinion that there was no danger in the concession, yet, as long as the circumstances which prevented him from bringing it forward continued, he would be no party to agitating the question.

In 1806 Pitt died, and Fox and Grenville were themselves in power, but the Catholics were again disappointed. The prejudice of the King, the feeling of the country, the recent vote of the House of Commons, the presence of Lord Sidmouth in the Ministry, proved insuperable obstacles, and Fox could only urge the Catholic leaders to postpone the question. Fox died in September 1806, and the Government presided over by Lord Grenville met a new Parliament in the following December. Grenville had been Pitt’s colleague during the negotiations with the Catholics that preceded the Union; he had strongly urged upon Pitt the necessity of resigning in 1801, and he never forgave him for having so lightly abandoned the cause. Grenville did not attempt to carry emancipation, but he resolved to take at least one serious step in the direction of concession, by throwing open to the Catholics all the posts in the army and navy. An Irish Act of 1793 had enabled them to hold in Ireland commissions in the army, and to attain any rank except commander-in-chief, master-general of the ordnance, and general of the staff; but if the regiments in which they served were sent to England, they were disqualified by law from remaining in the service. The original Bill of Grenville’s Government was intended to remove this anomaly, and assimilate the law in the two countries; but in the course of the discussions it was agreed that the Catholics should be freed from the exceptions to which they were subjected by the Irish Act, that all posts in the army and navy should be thrown open to men of all religious persuasions, subject only to the obligation of taking an oath which was prescribed, and that Catholic soldiers should be guaranteed by law the free exercise of their religion. The King had been informed of this, and was understood to have given a distinct, though a reluctant, assent; but a strong Protestant party, headed by Perceval, fiercely opposed it. The King withdrew his assent from the added clauses, and expressed his disapprobation of the whole measure. At last, after much discussion, the Ministers agreed for the present to withdraw their Bill, reserving to themselves by a Cabinet minute, which was submitted to the King, the right to renew it, or to propose any other measure on the subject which they desired. But the King was determined to push his victory to the end. He demanded from his Ministers a promise in writing that they would never again propose to him any measure connected with Catholic emancipation, and as the Ministers refused to give this unconstitutional pledge, the King dismissed them from office, and called the Duke of Portland to the head of affairs.

It was the second time that the King had broken up a Ministry on the Catholic question, and his conduct was especially significant, as his refusal to grant military promotion to Catholics was announced in the midst of a great war, and at a time when thousands of Catholics were fighting in his armies. It at once appeared that there were two entirely distinct schools of Tories. Pitt, to the very close of his life, had declared that his opinions on the Catholic question were unchanged, though he would not force them against the inclination of the King; and his views were adopted by Canning, Castlereagh, and Wellesley. Perceval, on the other hand, emphatically declared that he ’could not conceive a time or any change of circumstances which could render further concession to the Catholics consistent with the safety of the State.’ With the exception of Eldon, scarcely any man of real ability adopted this view until Peel entered Parliament as the follower of Perceval. It is sufficiently evident from this fact how little truth there is in the theory that attributes Peel’s early Toryism to a blind admiration for Pitt.

The party of the King triumphed. Parliament was dissolved on the ’No Popery’ cry, and on the first great party division that followed the election the Ministers in the House of Commons had a majority of 195. Canning and Castlereagh, though they had no sympathy with that cry, availed themselves of the current that ran so strongly against the Whigs. In the Ministry of the Duke of Portland they held the seals for the Foreign and War Departments, but the leadership of the Commons and the virtual leadership of the Ministry was given to Perceval, who, though entirely without brilliant parts, exhibited unexpected talents, both as a practical debater and as a manager of men, and who had the advantage of representing fully the dominant party. Several circumstances, however, other than a conviction of the danger of the Catholic claims, contributed to the triumph of the anti-Catholic party. The Whigs, already broken by their policy towards France in the first stages of the Revolution and of the war, had become still more unpopular through their opposition to the seizure of the Danish fleet and to the Peninsular War. They were divided among themselves, for there was little sympathy between the more aristocratic Whigs, who were represented by Grenville and Lord Howick, and the more Radical party of Sir F. Burdett and Whitbread. A strong personal as well as political dislike already existed between Howick and Canning, and prevented their hearty co-operation on the one great question on which they were agreed. Above all, there was a general conviction among statesmen that the King’s mind was trembling on the verge of insanity, and that a renewal of the Catholic complications of 1801 would produce a catastrophe.

The question was debated in both the Lords and Commons in 1808. In the former it was lost by a majority of 87, and in the latter by a majority of 153. Grattan on this occasion introduced the Catholic petition in a speech of consummate power; but both Castlereagh and Canning opposed the reception of the petition, on the ground that the time was unsuited for the agitation of the question; and the spirit of the ruling part of the Ministry was sufficiently shown by the reduction of the Maynooth grant from 13,000_l._ to 9,250_l._ When the Portland Government was broken up in September 1809 by the quarrel, duel, and resignation of Canning and Castlereagh, Perceval became the head of the new Ministry, Lord Wellesley occupying the place of Canning, and Lord Hawkesbury that of Castlereagh; and an intensely anti-Catholic ministry continued to the death of Perceval. In 1809 the Catholic question was not introduced into Parliament. In the spring of 1810 it was introduced into both Houses, but was defeated by majorities of 86 and 104; but in October 1810 an event occurred which profoundly changed the aspect of affairs. The King’s insanity broke out anew in a form which gave little hope of recovery, and the Prince of Wales was appointed Regent. For a year the regency was subject to restrictions similar to those which had been adopted in 1788, but on February 1, 1812, these restrictions were to cease, and the Regent was to enter into full fruition of the royal power.

The hopes of the Catholics were now raised to the highest point. With the confirmed insanity of George III. the most serious of all the obstacles to their claims was removed. During the year of the restricted regency, while there was still some chance of the recovery of the King, the Prince of Wales declined to remove the existing Ministry from office, though even this decision was not taken without some hesitation and some negotiations with the Whigs. The Catholics, however, fully expected that the royal influence would now be exerted in their favour, and that the Whig Ministry would speedily come. The Prince of Wales had long been in close connection with the Whigs. As early as 1797 he had expressed a desire to go over to Ireland as Lord-Lieutenant, carrying with him a policy of conciliation to the Catholics. In 1805, when Fox and Grenville had introduced the Catholic question into the Imperial Parliament, the Prince, while stating that considerations of obvious delicacy prevented him from taking an immediate and open part in its favour, had given the Whig leaders the fullest authority to assure the Catholics of Ireland that he would never forsake their interests, the ’most distinct and authentic pledge’ of his wish to relieve them from the disabilities of which they complained, and to exert himself in their favour as soon as he was constitutionally able to do so. It is easy therefore to imagine the consternation and the indignation with which, in 1812, the Catholics found that the Prince Regent had changed his principles and his policy; that, after a short and perhaps insincere negotiation with the Whigs, he had resolved to maintain in power a Ministry which was constructed for the main purpose of maintaining the Catholic disabilities; and that his own opinions were rapidly verging towards this policy.

The situation in Ireland was becoming very dangerous. For some years after the Union a great apathy prevailed, and there is no reasonable doubt that, if events in England had been favourable, Catholic emancipation would have met with no serious opposition in Ireland, and could have been carried with every reasonable limitation and safeguard. The most competent English officials calculated that at least sixty-four of the hundred Irish representatives would vote for it, and that a decided preponderance of Irish Protestant opinion was in its favour. On the other hand, the Catholic bishops and aristocracy had fully accepted the policy of an endowment for the priests and a veto on the appointment of bishops, and the most Conservative elements in the Catholic body still exercised an ascendancy over their co-religionists. The question of the veto had been mentioned in the Commons, by Sir J. Hippisley, in 1805, and in 1808 Grattan and Ponsonby formally announced, on the authority of the Catholic bishops, their readiness to accept it. A letter from Bishop Milner was read to the House, which very clearly stated their position:

‘The Catholic prelates of Ireland,’ he wrote, ’are willing to give a direct negative power to his Majesty’s Government with respect to the nomination of their titular bishoprics, in such manner that when they have among themselves resolved who is the fittest person for the vacant see, they will transmit his name to his Majesty’s Ministers; and if the latter should object to that name, they will transmit another and another, until a name is presented to which no objection is made; and (which is never likely to be the case) should the Pope refuse to give those essentially necessary spiritual powers, of which he is the depository, to the person so presented by the Catholic bishops and so approved by the Government, they will continue to propose names till one occurs which is agreeable to both parties namely, the Crown and Apostolic See.’

The prelates also engaged to nominate no persons who had not previously taken the oath of allegiance. But a democratic party had now arisen among the Catholics, which utterly repudiated the restrictions of the veto, which sought emancipation by violent and democratic agitation, and which was rapidly drawing the most dangerous elements in the country into its channel. The bishops, pushed on by the strong force that was behind them, speedily retraced their steps and passed resolutions against the restrictions they had accepted, and there were evident signs that the Catholic body was passing away from the guidance of Grattan and of the gentry. This was not surprising in a country where many elements of anarchy subsisted; and the democratic party had already found in O’Connell a leader of consummate skill, and of untiring industry, energy, and ambition. But the chief cause of the great change that was passing over the Irish Catholics was to be found in the disappointment of their hopes in 1801, in 1804, in 1806, and 1812; in the desertion of their cause by Pitt; in the proved impotence of the Whigs; in the failure of ‘the securities’ even to mitigate the hostility of Perceval and his followers; in the profound consternation and exasperation that were produced by the attitude of the Regent. The formation of the General Committee of Catholic Delegates was speedily followed by its suppression under the Convention Act. But the influence of O’Connell was rapidly growing; there were already ominous signs of a possible agitation for the repeal of the Union, and the indignation of the Catholics was significantly shown by the famous ‘witchery resolutions,’ which were unanimously carried by the aggregate meeting of the Catholics in the June of 1812, reflecting on the influence which Lady Hertford was believed to exercise over the Prince. After calling for the ’total and unqualified repeal of the penal laws which aggrieve the Catholics,’ they proceeded to use the following language: ’That from authentic documents now before us we hear, with deep disappointment and anguish, how cruelly the promised boon of Catholic freedom has been interrupted by the fatal witchery of an unworthy secret influence.... To this impure source we trace but too distinctly our baffled hopes and protracted servitude.’ Such language was not calculated to conciliate the Prince, and he was only confirmed in his hostility to the Catholics. As early as September 1813 the Duke of Richmond wrote to Peel: ’I was delighted to find H.R.H. as steady a Protestant as the Attorney-General.’

The commencement, however, of what was virtually a new reign had given a new activity to the question. It was brought forward in different forms in the first months of 1812 by Lord Wellesley and Lord Donoughmore in one House, and by Lord Morpeth and Grattan in the other; and although it was still defeated, the diminished majorities, the evident signs of an increased Catholic party in the country, and the language of some of the most distinguished men in Parliament, clearly indicated the progress of the measure. Canning especially now strenuously urged that the time had come when the Catholic question must be fully dealt with. The assassination of Perceval on May 11, 1812, again changed the situation and led to a long series of feeble and abortive negotiations. An attempt was made to continue the existing Ministry under the lead of Lord Liverpool, with the addition of Canning and Lord Wellesley; but these statesmen declined the offer, on the ground that the other Ministers refused to carry Catholic emancipation, and Lord Wellesley on the additional ground of their languor in prosecuting the Spanish war. The Regent then authorised Lord Wellesley to construct a Ministry, with the assistance of Canning, and an offer was made to Lords Grey and Grenville to join it, promising an immediate consideration of the Catholic claims with a view to a conciliatory settlement; while, on the other hand, attempts were made to retain the services of the leading members of Perceval’s Ministry. But the Whig leaders refused to take part in a coalition Ministry, in which they would probably be outvoted, and the former Cabinet was reconstructed, under the leadership of Lord Liverpool, but on the principle of leaving the Catholic question an open one. Liverpool himself was opposed to concession, but his opposition was by no means of the unqualified kind which had been shown by Perceval; and a large proportion of his colleagues, including Castlereagh, who led the House of Commons, were in favour of Catholic emancipation. If Canning had consented to join the Ministry, Lord Wellesley would probably have been Lord-Lieutenant in Ireland, and under these circumstances the Catholic side could scarcely have failed to acquire a decisive preponderance. If, on the other hand, Castlereagh had followed the example of Canning, and refused to take part in a Ministry which declined to settle the Catholic question, or if the Whigs had consented to co-operate with Canning, the settlement of this great question could scarcely have been deferred. Unfortunately, none of these things happened. Castlereagh remained the leader of the House. Canning refused to follow his leadership, and two years later accepted the embassy to Lisbon. The Whig leaders stood aloof from all Ministerial combinations. The Duke of Richmond, who was violently anti-Catholic, continued to be Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland; the post of Chief Secretary was given to Peel, and Ireland was destined to undergo fifteen more years of demoralising and disorganising agitation before the Catholic question was settled.

Canning, however, as an independent member, brought forward a resolution pledging the House to an early consideration of the laws affecting his Majesty’s Roman Catholic subjects, with a view to their final conciliatory adjustment, and the conditions of the question had so profoundly changed that it was carried by a majority of 129; while a similar motion by Lord Wellesley in the House of Lords was met by the previous question, which was carried by a majority of only one.

Peel, though he had come into Parliament as a special follower of Perceval, had not yet pledged himself decisively against the Catholics. He had voted silently against Canning’s motion in June, and although he had spoken against a previous motion of Grattan, he had done so mainly on the ground that the time was not opportune, and had expressly guarded himself against giving any positive pledge. He was now, however, obliged to take a more prominent part, and for the next six years he was the chief support of the anti-Catholic party in Parliament. His part was a very difficult one, for he had to encounter Grattan, Plunket, Canning, and the Whig leaders, and he had scarcely any real supporters. Saurin, the Attorney-General, it is true, was strongly opposed to all concession. He was a lawyer of high character and attainments, of Huguenot descent and strong Huguenot principles, and he had borne a distinguished part in opposition to the Union; but Saurin refused to go to London. Bushe, who was Solicitor-General, leaned to the Catholic side; and, to the great indignation and consternation of the Government, Wellesley Pole, who had preceded Peel as Chief Secretary and who was the brother of Lord Wellesley, now pronounced himself strongly in Parliament in favour of the Catholics. This speech was entirely unexpected, for Pole had hitherto been regarded as a staunch adherent of the Protestant party, and as late as the last day of 1811 he had sent a memorandum on the Catholic question to the Secretary of State in England, which was intended to be laid before the Cabinet, and which maintained the impossibility of safely satisfying the Catholic claims, and the expediency of the Prince Regent’s taking a decided part against them. A general election had taken place in September, and it is evident from the letters of Lord Liverpool and Peel that they at this time looked upon Canning and his followers with even more hostility than the regular Opposition.

In the new Parliament the Catholic question at once assumed a great prominence. A motion for the immediate consideration of the laws affecting the Catholics was introduced by Grattan, supported by Castlereagh, opposed by Peel, and ultimately carried by a majority of 40. A resolution of Grattan’s for removing laws imposing civil and military disabilities on the Catholics, with such regulations and exceptions as might provide for the security of the Protestant succession and of the Established Church, was next introduced. Peel opposed it bitterly, but was beaten by a majority of 67.

‘We were terribly beaten,’ he wrote to his Under-Secretary, ’but we are sad cowards, I am afraid; at least, we are shamefully used. Poor Duigenan could not get a hearing, and the general impression seemed against the Protestants. We will fight them out, however, to the last. I am sure it is better than to give way.’ ’Your defence of the Protestant cause,’ wrote Saurin, ’was not only by far the ablest and best, but the only one which did not seem to strengthen the cause of the adversary by some concession of principle. I really fear the Protestant cause is lost in the Commons. There can be no rally now but on the securities.’

Grattan at once brought in a Bill in accordance with the terms of the Resolution that had been carried; but the Protestant party now rallied around a motion of Sir John Hippisley, for a committee to inquire into the state and tenets of the Roman Catholics, and the laws affecting them. Canning pointed out with great force that a committee of inquiry was exactly what the Protestant party had for so many years strenuously resisted; but, as Peel wrote to the Duke of Richmond, there was no inconsistency in their conduct: ’When the question was whether we should consider the claims of the Catholics and the laws affecting them, or should resist their claims, we voted for resistance without inquiry; the question now is, whether we shall consider or concede, and we prefer inquiry to concession.’

The motion for delay, however, was defeated by 187 to 235, and the second reading of Grattan’s Bill was carried by 245 to 203. But a sudden change now occurred in the prospects of the cause. Canning and Castlereagh, with the full assent of Grattan, introduced clauses for the securities which had been before intimated, giving the Crown a control over the nomination of the Catholic bishops. But the bishops unanimously condemned the proposal, and the large majority of the Catholic Board supported them. It became evident that the Bill before Parliament would fail to satisfy the Catholics, and after a long discussion the clause admitting Catholics to Parliament was rejected by 251 to 247.

Peel had triumphed. The profound division which had broken out among the supporters of Catholic emancipation threw back for many years a cause which had been almost gained, though in 1817 an Act was passed without opposition throwing open to the Catholics the military and naval positions which Grenville had vainly attempted to open in 1807. Few things could have been eventually more disastrous both to Ireland and to the Empire than the defeat of the influence represented by Grattan and by the Catholic gentry, and the growing ascendancy of O’Connell and the democratic and sacerdotal party in Irish popular politics. Grattan had long predicted that, if concession was not speedily and wisely made, population in Ireland would drift away from the guiding and moderating influence of property; that seditious and anarchical men would gain an ascendancy which would make the whole problem of Irish Government incalculably difficult; that a priesthood unconnected with the English Government would lead to a ’Catholic laity discorporated from the people of England.’ In the Irish Parliament the strong bias of Conservatism in his policy had been repeatedly displayed, and it was equally apparent in the Imperial Parliament. In 1807 he had supported the Insurrection Act, in opposition to many of his friends, on the ground that there was a real and dangerous French party in Ireland, which the common law was insufficient to suppress. In 1814 he expressed his full approval of the proclamation suppressing the Catholic Board. He steadily and earnestly maintained that, although it was vitally necessary that Catholic emancipation should be speedily carried, it should be accompanied by measures for securing, as far as possible, the loyalty of the higher Catholic clergy, and uniting them in interest and sentiment with the British Government. He looked with bitter hostility on the rise and policy of O’Connell. He accused him of ’setting afloat the bad passions of the people,’ making grievances instruments of power without any honest wish to redress them, treating politics as a trade to serve a desperate and interested purpose.

But the influence of Grattan was now manifestly declining, and Peel watched the decline with a short-sighted and not very generous pleasure. In Parliament, though numbers were against the Catholics, the overwhelming preponderance of ability was still in favour of the principle of emancipation, and it was in leading the anti-Catholic party that Peel chiefly acquired his almost unrivalled parliamentary skill. He had, indeed, all the qualities of a great debater: courage, fluency, self-possession, complete command of every subject he treated, unfailing lucidity both in statement and reasoning; admirable skill in marshalling and disentangling great masses of facts, in meeting, evading, or retorting arguments, and detecting the weak points of the case of an opponent, in veiling, by plausible language, extreme or unpalatable views, in extricating himself by subtle distinctions and qualifications from embarrassing situations. He can scarcely, it is true, be called a great orator. His style was formal, cumbrous, extremely verbose, without sparkle and without fire. He had little or no power of moving the passions, nothing of the flexibility that can adapt itself to very different audiences, nothing of the philosophic insight that can impart a perennial interest to transient discussions. But few men have ever understood the House of Commons like him, or have possessed in so high a degree the qualities that are most fitted to command and influence it. The great mass of anti-Catholic sentiment in the country rallied around him as its most powerful champion, and in 1817 he attained one of the chief objects of his ambition in being elected member for Oxford University. It is well known that his older and more brilliant rival had long aspired to this honour. It was mainly through the Catholic question that Canning missed and Peel won the prize.

The nickname ‘Orange Peel,’ which was given to him in Ireland, was not wholly deserved. His letters abundantly show that he had no sympathy with the ribbons, the anniversaries, the party tunes, the insulting processions and insulting language of the Orangemen; and, although he believed that in Ireland anti-Catholicism and loyalty were very closely connected, he viewed with much dislike the growth of any political confederacies unconnected with the Government. Declamation and boastfulness and needless provocation were, indeed, wholly alien to his nature; and even when defending extreme causes he rarely or never used the language of a fanatic. He resisted Catholic concession mainly on the ground that the admission of the Catholics to political power would prove incompatible with the existence of the Established Church in Ireland, with the security of property in a country where property was mainly in Protestant hands, and ultimately with the connection between the two countries. His arguments were not based on religion, but on political expediency; but it was an expediency which he believed to be permanent.

‘I see,’ he wrote to the Duke of Richmond, ’one of the papers reports me as having said that I was not an advocate for perpetual exclusion. It might be inferred that I objected only to the time of discussing the question. That is not the case.... There are certain anomalies in the system which I would wish to remove, but the main principles of it I would retain untouched.... At no time, and under no circumstances, so long as the Catholic admits the supremacy in spirituals of a foreign earthly potentate, and will not tell us what supremacy in spirituals means so long as he will not give us voluntarily the security which every despotic Sovereign in Europe has by the concession of the Pope himself will I consent to admit them.’

The letters before us show clearly that his political sympathy was with Saurin, with Duigenan, with Lord Eldon, and even with Lord Norbury. O’Connell early perceived in Peel his most dangerous opponent, and a strong personal enmity, which was as much due to profound differences of character as to differences of policy, grew up between them. A scurrilous attack of O’Connell on Peel in 1815 was followed by a challenge, and a duel was prevented only by the arrest of O’Connell. The antipathy between the two men was never mitigated. O’Connell said of Peel that ’his smile was like the silver plate on a coffin.’ Peel, in his confidential letters, expressed the utmost dislike and contempt for the character of O’Connell, and when he was at length compelled by the Clare election to concede Catholic emancipation, his feeling towards him was significantly and characteristically shown. He enumerated in a brilliant passage the men to whom the triumph of Catholic emancipation was really due. He spoke of Fox and Grattan, of Plunket and of Canning, but he made no mention of O’Connell.

The administrative side of Peels Chief Secretaryship is much more creditable to him than the political side. The vivid picture which his letters present of the manner in which Ireland was governed more than fifteen years after the Union will probably strike the reader with some surprise, when he remembers that the Union had extinguished about seventy small boroughs, and had at the same time greatly diminished the importance of the Irish representatives, and therefore the necessities for corruption. Peel noticed that while the pension list of Great Britain was limited to 90,000_l._ per annum, the pension list of Ireland may amount to 80,000_l._ a year; and he found almost all Irish patronage still employed for political purposes, and almost every office honeycombed with abuses and peculations. A few extracts will give the reader some notion of the nature and extent of the evil, and of the efforts of Peel to reduce it:

‘How is it possible,’ he wrote, ’to propose that a shilling should be granted to a general officer on the staff in Ireland when sixpence is granted in England? This is called a modification in official phrase, but it ought to be called doubling the allowance. Set your face steadily against all increase of salary, all extra allowances, all plausible claims for additional emolument. Economy must be the order of the day rigid economy.’ ’When English members hear that the sheriff appoints the grand jury, that the grand jury tax the county, that the sheriff has a considerable influence at elections, and that the sheriff is appointed openly on the recommendation of the member supporting the Government, they are startled not a little.... I know that this is a most convenient patronage to the Government, but I know also that I cannot hint in the House of Commons at such a source of patronage, and I confess I have great doubts on the legitimacy of it.... After Lord Redesdale’s declaration ... that the mode of appointing sheriffs “poisons the sources of justice,” and witnessing the general feeling among the English against making the nomination of a most important officer in the execution of justice dependent on the will of the county member, I thought it highly expedient to give a positive assurance that the Government would revert to the ancient and legal practice of appointing sheriffs in Ireland.... With a pure Bench and time will, I hope, purify it the change would be an essential change for the better.’ ’Foster says that the abuses discovered in the office [of Clerk of the Pleas] are enormous, that the amount of fees exacted from suitors is not less than 30,000_l._ per annum, of which the principal clerk did not receive more than one-third. A Mr. Pollock, the first deputy, is in receipt of 8,000_l._ or 9,000_l._ a year as his own share of the profits; other deputies and persons unnecessarily employed have profits amounting to 1,200_l._ or 1,400_l._ a year each. Foster thinks that every possible difficulty will be thrown in the way of an early decision in the Irish Courts.... In the meantime, the Chief Baron is receiving the enormous profits arising from these enormous abuses.’

The practice of buying and selling public offices, and the practice of dividing the salaries of a single office between a principal and deputies, still continued; but Peel did his utmost to eradicate them. If it were permitted in one case, he said, ’every officer in every department who purchased on corrupt terms and is now living may claim a right to sell the office so purchased.’

’With respect to a payment out of the salary to R., I can have no scruple in giving you my opinion that it would not be right. I have never been, and cannot conscientiously be, a party to an arrangement of that kind, because I think this is quite clear, that if the salary of the office is disproportionate to the labour of it, and can bear to be taxed to the amount of 200_l._, the public should benefit, and the emoluments of the office be reduced.’

One of Peel’s first tasks was to conduct a general election, and he had ample opportunities of judging how these things were managed in Ireland. A law known as Curwen’s Act had been recently passed, condemning to a heavy fine in the event of failure, and to the loss of his seat in the event of success, any person giving, or promising to give, or consenting to give either money or office for a seat in Parliament. The law was not a little embarrassing to Peel, as his own seat of Cashel had been purchased, and he thought it safer to transfer himself to the English seat of Chippenham, where his return was managed by his father without any intervention on his own part. At the same time, the elections in Ireland went on much as if Curwen’s Act had never passed.

‘I am placed in a delicate situation enough here,’ he wrote to his friend Croker: ’bound to secure the Government interests, if possible, from dilapidation, but still more bound to faint with horror at the mention of money transactions, to threaten the unfortunate culprits with impeachment if they hint at an impure return, and yet to prevent those strongholds, Cashel, Mallow, and Tralee, from surrendering to the enemies who besiege them.’

Croker himself furnished an admirable illustration of the manner in which these principles were carried out. ‘I find the borough’ [Down], he writes, ’extremely well disposed to me. Of the respectable and steady people I have a decided majority, not less than twenty; but there are sixty-two persons who are extremely doubtful.... I have the greatest repugnance to bribery, ... but my agent informs me that many voters will require money.... The return absolutely depends upon pounds sterling. The best computation which my agents can make is that a sum of 2,000_l._ will be necessary. The natural expenses will be 500_l._ These, I think, I am bound to make good. But with regard to the money for votes, that I expect from Government.’

Peel replied that he could not answer for the Government in England, and that the Irish Government possessed no funds for this purpose; he would himself have been ready to send Croker ’1,000_l._ as a private concern between ourselves with no reference whatever to Government’; but he had it not. ‘If you think proper,’ he added, ’to take the chance whether it [the Government] will assist you, you can promise.’ For about six years Peel was constantly receiving from Croker requests for places, in order to discharge ‘debts of gratitude’ incurred at this election; and in 1816 we find the Government very nearly beaten in the House of Commons in an attempt to raise Croker’s own salary.

‘Could you tell me,’ writes Lord Palmerston to Peel, ’whether you think there is any probability of a contest for the county of Sligo at the next election? I could at the present moment make from 280 to 290 voters by giving leases to tenants who are now holding at will. If there is any chance of their being of use next year, I will do so forthwith, and register them in time. If not, I should perhaps postpone giving twenty-one years’ leases till matters look a little more propitious to the payment of rents.’

’Lord Lorton wrote yesterday to his agent to make all the freeholders he can on his small Queen’s County property. He says he is sorry he can’t make more than twenty, but that those shall go against Pole.’

A few illustrations of the minor details of patronage may be added. One gentleman called upon Peel about an election in Clare, but ’said that he would make no promise of his interest unless he received a pledge from me that his two brothers should be provided for one in the Church, and the other advanced in the profession of the law.’

Lord C. ’wanted, long since, to make terms with me for his support in Cork, ... and wished to be one of a committee for superintending the patronage of the county.’

’When G. wants a baronetcy, he is very rich; and when he wants a place, he is very poor. I think we may fairly turn the tables on him, and when he asks to be a baronet, make his poverty the objection, and his wealth when he asks for an office.’

’Pole is constantly pressing K., of the Navigation Board, for promotion.... I am told he entirely neglects his duty. Pole readily admits his hopeless stupidity and unfitness for office.’

‘I do not think your son,’ Peel wrote to his Under-Secretary, ’can make a more inefficient member of the Board of Stamps than Mr. T. has done. I am perfectly ready, therefore, to acquiesce in the exchange.’ ‘I make a great sacrifice,’ he wrote to Lord Whitworth, ’when I say that I doubt whether O.’s habits would qualify him for such practical duties as the Collector of Belfast at least ought to perform. Belfast is so flourishing a town, and contributes so much to the revenue, that I fear the Collectorship of it is too prominent a situation to place in it a young man ... we must admit to be a ruined man by gambling. Considering how careless he has been of his own money, perhaps some office not connected with the collection of the public money ... would be more suited to him.... What do you think of the following arrangement? Make J. collector for this very bad and very good reason, that he is the most inefficient Commissioner, and therefore the public service will suffer least from his appointment. Make Colonel H. a Commissioner. He will be about as inefficient as J. Make R.M. junior, the most inefficient of the three, Surveyor of Lands, vice H., which (though he will lose 200_l._ a year) will greatly oblige his father, the member; and, lastly, fulfil your good intentions towards O. by making him a Commissioner of Accounts, vice M.’

Many other characteristic pictures pass before us. There were officers of the revenue who were recommended to ‘the marked favour’ of the Government because they had shown what Peel somewhat rashly called ‘the common honesty’ of refusing bribes. There was an official who scandalously connived at an abuse of justice by which innocent women were condemned to transportation, though taking measures that the Government should indirectly hear of the transaction. There were shameful abuses in the sale of the office of gaoler, shameful frauds in the collection of taxes, in the Customs, in the barrack charges.

‘My most decided opinion,’ Peel wrote about one of these culprits, ’is in favour of his dismissal. I am quite tired of, and disgusted with, the shameful corruptions which every Irish inquiry brings to light.’

Much trouble was given by newspapers which were subsidised by the Government, and at the same time conducted in a manner which no honest Government could approve of. Another evil is disclosed in the following very creditable letter written by Peel to one of his successors:

’I found in Ireland that every official man, not content with the favour of Government to himself, thought he had a right to quarter his family on the patronage of Government. I took the course that you have done in order to enable me to resist with effect such extravagant pretensions. I determined never to gratify any private wish of my own by the smallest Irish appointment. There is nothing half so disgusting as the personal monopoly of honours and offices by those to whom the distribution of them is entrusted.’

In the Irish Pension List there had been enormous abuses, but Peel took credit for having effectually stopped them. ’No member of Parliament,’ he wrote, ’has benefited by it. No vote has been influenced by it.... I do not think there are any three years in the whole period of the Irish history during which so honest a use has been made of it.’

As might have been expected, blunders arising from extreme inefficiency were very numerous. In one case, by negligent drafting, the Insurrection Bill was made to extend to three instead of two years, while a simple mistake in one of the Revenue Bills was believed to have cost the Revenue not less than 40,000_l._

In all this dreary field the great administrative ability of Peel and the essential integrity of his character produced much real improvement, though it is very possible to exaggerate his merits. No one who has read the Hardwicke and Colchester papers will question that some of his predecessors, and especially the Chancellor, Lord Redesdale, had laboured with at least equal earnestness to purify Irish administration; and the energy with which Lord Redesdale, though out of office, still recurred to the subject, was extremely displeasing to Peel. His own patronage, as we have already seen, was by no means ideal, and he was very anxious to stifle parliamentary inquiries.

‘I believe,’ he wrote, ’an honest, despotic government would be by far the fittest government for Ireland’; but as this could not be attained he wished no essential alteration. ’I think the present system on which the government of Ireland is conducted is the best, but I am terribly afraid that Englishmen, who know nothing of Ireland, would not concur with me if they inquired into detail. It is very difficult to manage even the most limited inquiry. How could we prevent the introduction of tithes, magistracy, the Catholic question itself?’

Whatever might be the case in the future, he believed that in the present it was impossible for the Irish Government to receive adequate support unless it made up its mind to purchase it. ’It would be good policy,’ he says in one of his letters, ’to direct the channel of patronage as plentifully as we can towards those who are adhering to us on these pressing questions of army establishments and property tax.’ He refused in very lofty tones applications for peerages as rewards for political support; but the merit of this refusal belongs mainly to Lord Liverpool, who, at the beginning of the Chief Secretaryship, took on this subject a very firm and honourable line, both in England and Ireland, and maintained it at the sacrifice of many votes. For Irish honours unaccompanied by endowments there appear to have been few applicants. Peel disliked the bestowal of ecclesiastical dignities as rewards for political services; but if he did not practise it quite as much as his predecessors, this appears to have been much more due to nature than to policy.

‘There is nothing so extraordinary,’ he wrote, ’in natural history as the longevity of all bishops, priests, and deacons in Ireland. During the last five years there has been literally no Church preferment to dispose of, to the infinite disappointment of many expectants.’

In the higher legal appointments, however, while insisting that ‘attachment to the Government on principle’ was very material, Peel cordially agreed with Saurin that it was vitally necessary to select men ‘for character, and not for politics or connection’; and he added, that those were not likely to be the least fit for high office who were too proud to solicit it. ’It is a species of pride which occasions very little practical inconvenience in Ireland.’

His letters show clearly the terrible evils of Irish life. He speaks of ‘the enormous and overgrown population,’ with no employment except agriculture; of a poverty so extreme that in many districts widespread starvation was averted only by prompt Government intervention; of ‘that infernal curse, the forty shilling freeholds’; of the evil system of employing the military in distraining for rent and in the collection of tithes; of juries, through fear or sympathy, acquitting prisoners in the face of the clearest evidence; of the gross perjury in the law courts; of the almost universal disaffection of the lower orders, fostered by a seditious press; of the growing spirit of animosity in the north of Ireland between the lower orders of Protestants and Catholics, which was breaking out in constant riots, and had already cost many lives. This last evil, it might be truly said, was very largely due to the policy of his own party, who had protracted through so many years the Catholic question, which ought to have been settled at the Union. There was extreme and chronic ignorance, poverty, and anarchy; the payment of tithes was constantly resisted; and a failure of the potato crop, and a sudden and terrible fall in the price of agricultural products after the peace, added enormously to the difficulties of the situation. It is remarkable, indeed, that there appears to have been in 1816 and 1817 less disturbance of the public peace in Ireland than in England; Peel found it even possible to reduce the military establishments, and in Dublin extreme distress was borne with remarkable patience; but in many parts of the country crimes of combination were frequent, and almost incredibly savage. Peel mentions one case of a family of eight persons who were deliberately burnt in their house by a party of armed men, because the owner of the house had prosecuted to conviction three men, on a capital charge, at the Louth assizes. In another case a farmer, who had shot two men who attacked his house, was himself shot dead on a Sunday morning, after Mass, at the chapel door, in the presence of hundreds of men, not one of whom attempted to arrest the culprit.

These things filled Peel with a not unnatural horror, and his letters showed clearly his intense dislike both of the Irish character and of the Irish religion. By far the most valuable contribution he made to the improvement of Ireland during his Chief Secretaryship was the formation, in 1814, of an efficient police force, which has ever since been popularly associated with his name, and which was the nucleus from which the present admirable constabulary force was developed in 1822 and in 1835. ‘We ought to be crucified,’ he wrote, ’if we make the measure a job, and select our constables from the servants of our parliamentary friends.’ He attempted also, though without much success, to institute a system of popular education on a perfectly unsectarian basis, and with Catholics among the commissioners. He appears to have met with little encouragement, and at least one Catholic bishop lost no time in cursing ’these nefarious deistical schools’; but some schools were established, and Peel has the merit of being one of the earliest advocates of a general system of unsectarian national education for Ireland, which many years after was accomplished. His measures for the relief of distress appear to have been skilful and judicious, supporting and stimulating, but not superseding private benevolence. For the rest, he relied chiefly on Insurrection Acts strengthening the Executive and giving a greater efficiency to the administration of justice, and on strong protective legislation encouraging the corn and the manufactures of Ireland.

‘I have always,’ he wrote, ’been, and always shall be, as strong an advocate for giving that preference to the productions of Ireland, natural or artificial, which will best promote the industry of the people, as I am for instructing the lower orders.’

To the tithe system he would do nothing, and this is one of the fatal blots on his reputation as a statesman. There was no single source of crime, agitation, and disaffection in Ireland which was so prolific as this, and there was no subject on which the wisest statesmen had been more agreed than on the supreme importance of meeting this evil by a judicious system of commutation. Pitt had clearly expressed his opinion of the necessity of such a commutation to the Duke of Rutland as early as 1786, and it was one of the measures which he intended to have followed the Union. Grattan had brought schemes of commutation in three successive years before the Irish Parliament. Lord Loughborough, who was the chief cause of the failure of Catholic emancipation after the Union, had himself drawn up a Tithe Commutation Bill. Lord Redesdale, who represented the extreme Toryism of the ministry of Addington, strongly urged the absolute necessity of speedy legislation on the subject. The Duke of Bedford, in 1807, dwelt on the importance of commuting tithes into a land-tax, and ultimately into land. Parnell and Grattan had brought the subject before the Imperial Parliament in 1810, and it was again and again insisted on by the Whig writers, and nowhere more strongly than in Sydney Smith’s admirable letters to Peter Plymley and in some of the pages of the ‘Edinburgh Review.’ But nothing was done till the evil had become intolerable, and had brought the country to a state of anarchy and demoralisation that can scarcely be exaggerated. The connection of Peel with the question of Irish tithes is a very remarkable one. The Tithe Commutation Act, which was carried by a Whig Government in 1838, is one of the few instances of perfectly successful legislation in Irish history, and it is well known that the chief credit of this measure does not belong to the Ministers who carried it. It was the very measure which Sir Robert Peel had introduced in 1835, which the Whig party when in opposition defeated by connecting it with the Appropriation clause, and which the Whig party when in power were compelled to carry without that clause. But if the chief credit of the final settlement of this momentous question justly belongs to Peel, it must not be forgotten that in the eleven years during which, as Chief Secretary or as Home Secretary, he was directly responsible for the government of Ireland, he had allowed this monster curse to grow and strengthen without making any serious effort to mitigate it.

Peel was Chief Secretary during the concluding part of the viceroyalty of the Duke of Richmond, during the whole of that of Lord Whitworth, and during part of that of Lord Talbot. He had grown very tired of his position, but agreed to postpone his departure till after a general election, and he at last left Ireland, as he says, with ’undiminished and unqualified satisfaction,’ in August 1818. He remained out of office until January 1822; but the interval was not spent in idleness, and in 1819 he took the leading part in the great Act for resuming cash payments, which, as it has been truly said, attaches to his name ’the same meed of praise which he had quoted as inscribed on the tomb of Queen Elizabeth: “Moneta in justum valorem redacta."’ It is one of his greatest legislative achievements; it is also the first of that series of recantations which forms one of the most distinctive features of his career, for it was based upon the policy which Horner had advocated in 1811, and against which Peel had then voted. He still took, on the Catholic question, the leading part in opposition to emancipation, declaring his determination to offer ’a most sincere and uncompromising,’ though he now feared unavailing, resistance to Catholic concession. The last time the question was brought forward, by Grattan, was in 1819, and he was defeated by a majority of only two. In 1821, after the death of Grattan, and in a new Parliament, Plunket carried a Bill for Catholic emancipation successfully through all its stages in the House of Commons, though it was afterwards rejected in the Lords. In the ensuing session a similar fate befel a Bill of Canning’s to relieve Catholic peers of their disabilities. Some considerable change, however, was introduced into the spirit of the Irish Government by the appointment of Lord Wellesley, who was in favour of the Catholics, to the viceroyalty. One of its most important results was the removal of Saurin from the office of Attorney-General and the appointment of Plunket in his place. Lord Wellesley described this measure to Lady Blessington as the removal of ‘an old Orangeman’ who, though ’Attorney-General by title, had really been Lord-Lieutenant for fifteen years’; but it is evident from the letters of Peel that his warm sympathies, both personal and political, were with Saurin.

The accession of George IV. to the throne in the beginning of 1820 brought to a crisis the quarrel between the new King and his wife, and led to the resignation of Canning in the last days of the year, and Lord Liverpool then tried to induce Peel to enter the Cabinet in the vacant post of President of the Board of Control. Peel, however, refused the office, declaring that he differed from some of the proceedings of the Ministry about the Queen. In the summer of 1821 he again declined a similar offer, chiefly, as it appears, on the ground of uncertain health and of a dislike to official life which his recent marriage had produced. But when Lord Sidmouth resigned the Home Office, Peel proved less inflexible, and on January 17, 1822, he accepted the seals, which he held till 1827. In August Castlereagh, or, as he now was, Lord Londonderry, committed suicide. Lord Liverpool saw the necessity of recalling Canning to the Cabinet as Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Canning would accept the post only as leader of the House of Commons. The King hated Canning, and would gladly have excluded him altogether from the Ministry, and Eldon and the Duke of Newcastle greatly desired that the leadership of the House of Commons should be given to Peel. Canning, however, who had been sixteen years longer in Parliament than Peel, had both the right and the power to insist upon the leadership, and Peel acquiesced in his claim with honourable frankness. Except on the Catholic question they appear to have cordially agreed, and something of the success of Canning’s brilliant foreign policy is due to the loyalty with which he was supported by Peel in the Cabinet and at Court.

Space will not permit us to relate at length the history of Peel’s conduct as home Minister. The Catholic question was rapidly advancing to a crisis, and the system of a divided Ministry in which it was an open question, and in which the leading Ministers took opposite sides, was becoming plainly impossible. Ireland was again in a state of anarchy bordering on civil war, and the foundation, in 1823, of the Catholic Association by O’Connell and Sheil gave a new impulse to the agitation. The Duke of Wellington, who knew the country well and was not liable to panic, predicted that the new association if it continued would lead to civil war, and declared that the organisation of the disaffected in Ireland was much more perfect than in 1798. At the same time the long-protracted and increasing violence of the conflict had aroused fierce Orange passions both in the North and in Dublin, while in England the King was embarrassing even his ‘anti-Catholic’ Ministers by the vehemence of his hostility to concession. He described Peel as ‘the King’s Protestant Minister’ and Lord Wellesley as an ‘enemy in the camp.’ He assured Peel that, whether the Cabinet wished it or not, he would never consent to give letters of precedence to a Roman Catholic barrister, and he wrote Peel a formal letter in which he said, ’the sentiments of the King upon Catholic emancipation are those of his revered and excellent father; from those sentiments the King never can and never will deviate.’

Peel, while maintaining his unflinching hostility to important concessions, tried to moderate all parties. He implored the King to make no public declaration. He wrote to Ireland strongly discouraging the violence of the Orangemen and urging that ’in this age of liberal doctrine, when prescription is no longer even a presumption in favour of what is established, it will be a work of desperate difficulty to contend against “emancipation,” as they call it, unless we can fight with the advantage on our side of great discretion, forbearance, and moderation on the part of the Irish Protestants.’ He recurred to his old idea of establishing a system of unsectarian national education, and he readily abandoned the corrupt and proselytising charter schools. He supported a measure of Lord Nugent, which Lord Eldon succeeded in defeating in the Lords, for extending to the English Catholics such privileges as were already possessed by Catholics in Ireland, and he fully approved of a letter written on behalf of the Cabinet to the Lord-Lieutenant urging ’that a disposition should be manifested to admit the Roman Catholics of Ireland to a fair proportion of the emoluments and honours to which they are eligible by law,’ but without issuing patents of precedence.

On matters unconnected with the Catholic question his administration was skilful and, on the whole, enlightened; and in 1823 he introduced the first of a series of important measures diminishing the enormous number of capital offences that disgraced the English criminal code, and, at the same time, doing much to simplify and consolidate that code. In this, as in most respects, there was little original in his legislation. He followed, at some distance, in the steps of Romilly and Mackintosh, and he left very much to be done, which was chiefly accomplished during the Whig ascendancy that followed the Reform Bill of 1832. It appears, from some remarkable letters in this volume, that, before Peel took up the question of criminal reform, George IV. was exceedingly sensible of the enormity of executing very young men for secondary offences, and that he was continually pressing on his Ministers a more merciful administration of the law. He sometimes found Peel by no means ready to yield. In one case Peel invoked the aid of the Cabinet to overrule the wish of the King, who desired to save two culprits from the gallows; and, in another case, he threatened to resign his office if the King persisted in commuting the sentence of a youth who had been found guilty of uttering forged notes. But Peel had at least the merit of recognising an intolerable abuse, and his legislation on the subject was skilfully framed and still more skilfully introduced and carried. In his patronage in this, as in later periods of his life, he cared much more than most English Ministers for the interests of science, literature, and art. He was by no means indifferent to the opportunities his position gave him of advancing his own family and friends; but he never, in his English patronage, forgot the character of those whom he recommended for promotion, and he brought forward or assisted many men of ability and learning with whom he had no connection and no political sympathy. The letters in this volume between Peel and his very intimate Oxford friend Dr. Lloyd are especially interesting and characteristic. They are in general very honourable to Peel; but Mr. Parker is much too indulgent when he describes the intensely worldly letters in which Dr. Lloyd urged his own merits and his claims to the bishopric of Oxford as merely ’frank, and free from affectation of the traditional nolo episcopari.’ Both Peel and Lord Liverpool appear to have had a much stronger sense than most of their predecessors of the responsibilities attaching to Church patronage and of the duty of administering it in the public interest, and in this respect they were broadly distinguished from Lord Eldon.

‘It is really a cruel thing,’ Lord Liverpool wrote to Peel, ’that the patronage of the Crown as to Church matters should be divided between the Minister and the Chancellor, and that all the public claims should fall upon the former. The Chancellor has nine livings to the Minister’s one. With respect to these he does occasionally attend to local claims, but he has besides four cathedrals, and to no one of these cathedrals has any man of distinguished learning or merit been promoted.’

In the beginning of 1825 the Irish Government, having without consulting Peel undertaken a foolish prosecution of O’Connell for a not very dangerous speech, received a heavy rebuff, for the Grand Jury threw out the Bill, and the prosecution of an Orange leader was equally unsuccessful. A Bill was about the same time brought in and carried, suppressing the new association; but it could not suppress the spirit which it had aroused. O’Connell, however, was thoroughly alarmed at the state of the country, and as far as possible from desiring a rebellion, and he was at this time in a very conciliatory mood. He was perfectly ready to accept an endowment for the priesthood, which would attach them to the Government, and also a considerable raising of the Irish franchise. This was the last occasion on which his party and the Catholic gentry very cordially concurred, and it was the last occasion on which the Catholic question could have been settled on a basis that would have given real strength to the Empire. A Relief Bill passed through all its stages in the Commons by considerable majorities, and it was followed by a Bill for raising the qualifications of Irish electors, and by a resolution for endowing the priesthood. O’Connell fully believed that Catholic emancipation would definitely pass in this session, and he appeared to have excellent reasons for his belief. In Ireland it generally prevailed, and it exercised an immediate pacifying influence. Lord Fingall and other Catholic noblemen, in presenting an address at this time to the King, were able to say ’the whole of Ireland reposes in profound tranquillity, and the law, without the aid of any extraordinary power, everywhere receives voluntary obedience.’ It was afterwards stated by Lord George Bentinck that Peel had changed his opinions about Catholic emancipation in 1825, and had communicated this change to Lord Liverpool. The letters before us, however, conclusively prove that if Peel was shaken, it was not about the merits of emancipation, but about the practicability of resisting it. Having been four times defeated in the Commons on the Catholic question, he tendered his resignation, and Lord Liverpool at once declared that without his assistance he could not continue the struggle. Peel was the only Minister in the House of Commons opposed to the Catholic cause, differing on the question from all his colleagues in the House. If he had resigned, and if Lord Liverpool had followed his example, there is good reason to believe that a Government might have been formed which would have carried the measure safely and speedily with the securities that had been accepted. Most unfortunately for the Empire, the ‘Protestant’ party persuaded Peel to withdraw his resignation in order to avert this surrender. In the House of Lords the Duke of York, who was the heir-presumptive to the throne, stood up and declared his unalterable opposition to the Catholic claims, ’whatever might be his situation in life, so help him God,’ and the Lords rejected the Bill by a majority of 48.

The conscientious views of George III. obtained some measure of respect even from those who believed them to be most unfounded; but no halo of sanctity dignified the scruples of George IV. or of the Duke of York. The Irish Catholics, exasperated at the present disappointment of their hopes, and at the prospect of another hostile King, flung themselves into a furious agitation, and in a few months all the progress which had been made towards pacifying the country was undone, while in England Peel had to meet a terrible commercial crisis. Seventy county banks stopped in less than a week. In dealing with questions of commerce and currency Peel was always in his element, and his measures appear to have been wise and skilful. A general election took place, and he was again returned by the University of Oxford as the uncompromising opponent of Catholic emancipation. In England the anti-Catholic party gained some seats, and the increasing violence in Ireland had produced some reaction. In Ireland it was soon apparent that what Grattan had feared had come to pass, and that the tie which had hitherto attached the people to their landlords was completely broken. The priests everywhere appeared at the head of their people, and it was at once seen that a new and terrible power was dominating Irish politics. In Waterford, where the Beresfords had long been omnipotent, they were totally defeated, and Leslie Foster sent Peel a vivid description of his own defeat in the Louth election. At the outset of the contest, upwards of five-sixths of the votes were promised to him; but the whole priesthood turned themselves into electioneering agents against him. In every chapel there were political sermons; the priests menaced all who voted for him with eternal damnation; they were present at every polling-booth to overawe their parishioners; and their efforts were seconded by savage mobs who waylaid and beat all opponents, and forced multitudes of Protestants, by threats of assassination or of the burning of their houses, to vote against their promises and their convictions. ’In the county town the studied violence and intimidation were such that it was only by locking up my voters in enclosed yards that their lives were preserved.’ By these means the election was won. What, asked Foster, will be the end of this? ’The landlords are exasperated to the utmost, the priests swaggering in their triumph, the tenantry sullen and insolent. Men who, a month ago, were all civility and submission now hardly suppress their curses when a gentleman passes by. The text of every village orator is, “Boys, you have put down three lords; stick to your priests, and you will carry all before you."’

The letters of Goulburn, the Chief Secretary, show that the picture was not overcharged.

‘Never,’ he wrote, ’were Roman Catholic and Protestant so decidedly opposed. Never did the former act with so general a concert, or place themselves so completely under the command of the priesthood.’ ’The priests exercise on all matters a dominion perfectly uncontrolled and uncontrollable. In many parts of the country their sermons are purely political, and the altars in the several chapels are the rostra from which they declaim on the subject of Roman Catholic grievances, exhort to the collection of rent, or denounce their Protestant neighbours in a mode perfectly intelligible and effective, but not within the grasp of the law. In several towns no Roman Catholic will now deal with a Protestant shop-keeper, in consequence of the priest’s interdiction, and this species of interference, stirring up enmity on one hand and feelings of resentment on the other, is mainly conducive to outrage and disorder.... The first vacancy on the Roman Catholic bench is to be supplied by Dr. England from America, a man of all others most decidedly hostile to British interests and the most active in fomenting the discord of this country.... With such leaders it is reasonable to anticipate the worst. It is impossible to detail in a letter the various modes in which the Roman Catholic priesthood now interfere in every transaction of every description, how they rule the mob, the gentry, and the magistracy, and how they impede the administration of justice.’ Their power is greater than any other in the State, ’and they love to display it, and omit no opportunity of taunting their adversaries.’ ’The state of society here is so disorganised, and the Government has so inferior an authority to other powers acting on the people, that the opinion formed to-day may be quite changed to-morrow.’

The election of 1826 virtually carried Catholic emancipation, for it reduced Ireland to a state in which it was impossible long to resist it. Clear-sighted men had no difficulty in perceiving that the policy of Peel had failed to avert it, though it had succeeded in making impossible the securities which Grattan and the wisest men of his generation had pronounced indispensable for its safe working, in kindling religious hatreds as intense as in the darkest period of the eighteenth century, in breaking down that healthy relation and subordination of classes on which beyond all other things the future well-being of Ireland depended. Peel was not wholly blind to what was happening. ‘A darker cloud than ever,’ he wrote, ’seems to me to impend over Ireland, that is if one of the remaining bonds of society, the friendly connection between landlord and tenant, is dissolved.’ He still persuaded himself, however, that the political power of the priests was transient, and that a reaction would set in that might destroy it. The defeat of the Catholic question in the new Parliament by a majority of four encouraged him in his resistance. In January 1827 the death of the Duke of York removed one serious obstacle to the Catholic cause, and six weeks later Lord Liverpool, who had so long held together the divided Ministry, was struck down by apoplexy. Peel would gladly have continued in his present position if a peer of real weight who held his opinions on the Catholic question was appointed to the vacant place. But there was no such peer, except Wellington, to be found, and under Wellington Canning refused to serve. Canning had, indeed, now fully resolved to be at the head of the Administration, and Peel refused to serve under him.

With his opinions on the Catholic question it is impossible to blame him, and the letters which passed between the two statesmen are very honourable to both, and show clearly that in spite of great divergence of opinion, character, and interests, each could recognise the good faith of the other. In a letter written to one of his brothers Peel describes his position with complete frankness:

’I am content with my position in the Government, and willing to retain it willing to see Mr. Canning leader of the House of Commons, as he has been. But giving him credit for honesty and sincerity, if he is at the head of the Government, and has all the patronage of the Government, he must exert himself as an honest man to carry the Catholic question; and to the carrying of that question, to the preparation for its being carried, I never can be a party. Still less can I be a party to it for the sake of office.’

These words were written little more than a year before Peel undertook, as Minister of the Crown, to introduce a measure of Catholic emancipation. But if they do little credit to his prescience, no one can mistake the accent of sincerity in what follows:

’I do not choose to see new lights on the Catholic question precisely at that conjuncture when the Duke of York has been laid in his grave and Lord Liverpool struck dumb by the palsy. Would any man, woman, or child believe that after nineteen years’ stubborn unbelief I was converted, at the very moment Mr. Canning was Prime Minister, out of pure conscience and the force of truth?’

With the resignation of Peel and the other anti-Catholic members of Lord Liverpool’s Government, and the formation of the short Canning Ministry, this instalment of Peel’s letters comes to an end. We rejoice that the publication of this very interesting correspondence has been entrusted to an editor who is at once so competent and so judicious.