[Added by Marjie Bloy Ph.D., Senior Research Fellow, National University of Singapore from Park's British Prime Ministers of the Nineteenth Century: Policies and Speeches (1916). Alvin Wee and Lee Xin Rui of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences created the electronic text using OmniPage Pro OCR software, created the HTML version, converting footnotes, and adding links.]
Sir Robert Peel gave, in the midst of the discussion on the address in answer to the royal speech (January 22, 1846), the following account of the causes which impelled him no longer to maintain the Corn Law. This selection can be found in HANSARD (LXXXIII [3d Ser.], 67-95).
Peel modified in 1842 the sliding scale of 1828 in order to stimulate importation of grain, and he also reduced the tariff on a large number of articles. The results of this programme impressed the Conservative leader, as he stated in his speech, so that he was prepared to go much farther in the direction of free trade should an emergency, such as came with the potato blight, occur. With the arrival of the dread emergency Peel could neither get united support on policy from members of his own cabinet nor obtain, upon his resignation, a Whig successor; Lord John Russell, who might have assumed responsibility and who was, in reality, for the repeal of the Corn Laws, found himself unable to form a ministry. Peel therefore reassumed the burdens of office. The political manoeuvres of the day gave Peel an opportunity to discuss in the latter part of the speech the relationship between the Prime Minister and other agencies of government.
Sir, I would fain hope, that although the course which I take is an unusual one, yet that I am acting in conformity with the general wish of the House, in availing myself of the very earliest opportunity of giving that explanation which at no remote period the House will require from me. I would fain hope that I am not obstructing the course of this discussion upon the Address by giving that explanation at this period. But, if no consideration of public advantage could justify me in taking this course, I am sure the generous feelings of the House will deem it only natural that I should desire that not a moment should elapse before I explain to the House the motives by which I have been actuated, and the principles which have governed my conduct. I may feel hurt at having been the object of much accusation upon vague surmise; I may think it unjust to have been condemned without a hearing — I say nothing upon that head; if any momentary feelings of indignation were aroused, the recollection of great indulgence and of great confidence was quite sufficient to efface those temporary feelings. I shall make no allusion, therefore, to particular expressions, or particular accusations; but this I do ask, even while I do not require the reversal of the sentence; I ask for the opportunity, after condemnation, [117/118] of explaining the motives of my conduct. I ask you to listen at least with patience and indulgence to those facts and that evidence which I shall this night adduce, and which will form the materials on which other tribunals, judging under less excitement, will ultimately pronounce upon the motives and the conduct of men charged with deep responsibility in critical times. I wish to explain what were the grounds which led me and those with whom I acted humbly to tender to a gracious Sovereign the resignation of the trust which was committed to us. I wish also to explain what were the circumstances under which the trust was reassumed, and under which I now appear in the House as the Minister of the Crown.
Sir, the immediate cause which led to the dissolution of the Government in the early part of last December, was that great and mysterious calamity which caused a lamentable failure in an article of food on which great numbers of the people in this part of the United Kingdom, and still larger numbers in the sister kingdom, depend mainly for their subsistence. That was the immediate and proximate cause, which led to the dissolution of the Government. But it would be unfair and uncandid on my part, if I attached undue importance to that particular cause. It certainly appeared to me to preclude further delay, and to require immediate decision — decision not only upon the measures which it was necessary at the time to adopt, but also as to the course to be ultimately taken with regard to the laws which govern the importation of grain. I will not assign to that cause too much weight. I will not withhold the homage which is due to the progress of reason and to truth, by denying that my opinions on the subject of protection have undergone a change. Whether holding a private station, or placed in a public one, I will assert the privilege of yielding to the force of argument and conviction, and acting upon the results of enlarged experience. It may be supposed that there is something humiliating in making such admissions; Sir, I feel no such humiliation. I have not so much confidence in the capacity of man, to determine what is right or wrong intuitively, as to make me feel abashed at admitting that I have been in error. I should feel humiliation, if, having modified or changed my opinions, I declined to acknowledge the change for fear of incurring the imputation of inconsistency. The question is whether the facts are sufficient to account for the change, and the motives for it are pure and disinterested. Nothing could be more base on the part of a public man than to protect himself from danger by pretending a change of opinion; or more inconsistent with the duty he owes to his Sovereign and country than if, seeing reason to alter his course, he forebore to make the alteration by the fear of being taunted with a charge of inconsistency. The [118/119] real question, as I have said, is, whether the motives for the modification of opinion are sufficient and sincere.
Sir, those who contend for the removal of impediments upon the import of a great article of subsistence, such as corn, start with an immense advantage in the argument. The natural presumption is in favour of free and unrestricted importation. It may, indeed, be possible to combat that presumption; it may be possible to meet its advocates in the field of argument, by showing that there are other and greater advantages arising out of the system of prohibition than out of the system of unrestricted intercourse; but even those who so contend will, I think, admit that the natural feelings of mankind are strongly in favour of the absence of all restriction, and that the presumption is so strong, that we must combat it by an avowal of some great public danger to be avoided, or some great public benefit to be obtained by restriction on the importation of food.
We all admit that the argument in favour of high protection or prohibition on the ground that it is for the benefit of a particular class, is untenable. The most strenuous advocates for protection have abandoned that argument; they rest, and wisely rest, the defence of protective duties upon higher principles. They have alleged, as I have myself alleged, that there were public reasons for retaining this protection. Sir, circumstances made it absolutely necessary for me, occupying the public station I do, and seeing the duty that must unavoidably devolve on me — it became absolutely necessary for me maturely to consider whether the grounds on which an alteration of the Corn Laws can be resisted are tenable. The arguments in favour of protection must be based either on the principle that protection to domestic industry is in itself sound policy, and that, therefore, agriculture being a branch of domestic industry, is entitled to share in that protection; or, that in a country like ours, encumbered with an enormous load of debt, and subject to great taxation, it is necessary that domestic industry should be, protected from competition with foreigners; or, again — the interests of the great body of the community, the laborious classes, being committed in this question — that the rate of wages varies with the price of provisions, that high prices implies high wages, and that low wages are the concomitants of low prices. Further, it may be said, that the land is entitled to protection on account of some peculiar burdens which it bears. But that is a question of justice rather than of policy; I have always felt and maintained that the land is subject to peculiar burdens; but you have the power of weakening the force of that argument by the removal of the burden, or making compensation. The first three objections to the removal of protection are objections founded on considerations of public [119/120] policy. The last is:a question of justice, which may be determined by giving some counterbalancing advantage.
Now, I want not to deprive those who, arguing a priori, without the benefit of experience, have come to the conclusion that protection is objectionable in principle — I want not to deprive them of any of the credit which is fairly their due. Reason, unaided by experience, brought conviction to their minds. My opinions have been modified by the experience of the last three years. I have had the means and opportunity of comparing the results of periods of abundance and low prices with periods of scarcity and high prices. I have carefully watched the effects of the one system and of the other — first, of the policy we have been steadily pursuing for some years, viz., the removal of protection from domestic industry; and next, of the policy which the friends of protection recommend. I have also had an opportunity of marking from day to day the effect upon great social interests of freedom of trade and comparative abundance. I have not failed to note the results of preceding years, and to contrast them with the results of the last three years; and I am led to the conclusion that the main grounds of public policy on which protection has been defended are not tenable; at least I cannot maintain them. I do not believe, after the experience of the last three years, that the rate of wages varies with the price of food. I do not believe, that with high prices, wages will necessarily rise in the same ratio. I do not believe that a low price of food necessarily implies a low rate of wages. Neither can I maintain that protection to domestic industry is necessarily good. I said last year on the Motion of the noble Lord (Lord J. Russell) that I thought protective duties were evils in themselves. But I also said, that as they had grown with our system, and not being incompatible with a high degree of prosperity, I thought they ought not to be lightly abolished, and must be tenderly and cautiously dealt with. It is now, however, impossible for us, after we see the results of the change in the Tariff during the last four years, to contend that protection to industry is in itself, and abstractedly, a public good.
Then, as to the other argument, which I confess made a great impression on me in the first instance, and which is sanctioned by great authority — that because we have a heavy debt and a high rate of taxation, we must be protected from competition with foreign of industry — that argument has also been submitted to the test the last three years, and, so far as the experience of that period can supply an argument, it is this — that a large debt and heavy taxation are best encountered by abundance and cheapness of provisions; which rather alleviate than add to the weight of the burden.
Let us take the result of that experience of constantly diminished [120/121] protection — on wages — on trade, and on revenue. First, as to wages. Who can deny the fact that during the three years that preceded the month of October last, prices were comparatively low? There was comparative cheapness and plenty, and yet at no period were the wages of labour higher. If you take the three preceding years, you will find high prices, and coexistent with high prices you will find low wages. Well, then, I have six years experience; I have during the first three years high prices and low wages; I have during the last three years low prices and high wages; and I cannot resist the conclusion that wages do not vary with the price of provision. They do vary with the increase of capital, with the prosperity of the country, with the increased power to employ labour; but there is no immediate relation between wages and provisions — or if there be a relation, it is an inverse ratio.
Now as to the Tariff; as I said before during the last four or five years we have been acting on the admitted principle of removing prohibitions — reducing duties, or abating, and in some cases destroying protection to native industry. That has been the principle, whether right or wrong, on which we have acted — the removal of, protection to native industry. Now, what has been the result? I will give you the total amount of exports since the year 1839. The total value of British produce and manufactures exported from the United Kingdom was, in 1839, 53,000,000l.; in 1840, 51,000,000l.; in 1842, 47,000,000l.; in 1843, 52,000,000l.; in 1844, 58,000,000l.; that is, the rise from the year when the great invasion upon the protection of domestic industry was made by Parliament was from 47,381,000l. in 1842, to 58,500,000l. in 1844. But it may be said the China trade made all the difference. Now let us deduct the whole of that trade. In 1842, our exports to all the countries, except China, amounted to 46,411,000l.; and in 1844, they increased by 10,000,000l., amounting to 56,000,000l. For the last year we can only have the account for eleven months preceding December. In 1843, the exports of our principal articles of manufacture to all parts of the world, including China, amounted to 41,011,000l.; in 1844, to 47,312,000l., and during the first eleven months of 1845, to 47,764,000l. Such is the state of our foreign exports under this system of continued removal of protection.
Now let me take the returns of the revenue as bearing on this question — ought there to be high protection in a country encumbered with an immense public debt and heavy taxation? In 1842, I proposed a reduction in the Customs to an estimated amount of 1,438,000l.; in 1844, I proposed a further reduction in the Customs' duties to the amount of 273,000l.; in 1845, to the large amount of 2,418,000l. I estimated the total loss from these several reductions [121/122] at 4,129,000l., and let it be remembered that I discarded altogether the revenue from corn. How have these calculations been verified? Have 4,000,000l. been lost? No. The total amount of the loss has been 1,500,000l. I dealt with the Excise last year, and made a reduction of a million of Excise duties; the whole of the glass duties, the whole of the auction duty was taken off; the loss on that occasion was estimated at 1,000,000l. Observe, that was not a mere reduction of duties; there was no expectation, therefore that increased consumption would make up for a diminished rate of taxation, for these duties were totally abolished, I felt confident that although the glass and auction duties were abolished, still by vivifying other branches of industry, the revenue would derive some compensation. What will be the fact on the 5th of April? I believe, that notwithstanding the total reduction, the absolute loss of a million, my firm belief is, that the revenue from the Excise will this year be greater than ever. Notwithstanding these reductions there has been a salient spring of prosperity which has supplied the void you caused by the remission of taxation. Well, then, with that evidence before me, could I contend that on account of high taxation or great debt you must necessarily continue high protective duties? I have shown you that my estimates as to a loss in the Customs have been already falsified; that the Customs this year amount to nearly 20,000,000l.; that, comparing the Customs' revenue of 1845 with the Customs' revenue of 1842, after that diminution of taxation to the extent of 4,000,000l., the Customs of this year, excluding from both years the revenue from foreign corn, are better by 100,000l. than in the former year. But I will now refer to more important considerations than those either of trade or revenue; I will take the state of crime in the country. (Data on this subject as well as on the diminution of protection are omitted.)
... I think, as far as we have had experience within the last four years, I have shown that, by the removal of protection, domestic industry and the great social interests of the country have been promoted; crime has diminished, and morality has improved. I can bring the most conclusive proof that the public health has been improved, yet the national trade has been extending, our exports have increased; and this — and I rejoice in it — has been effected, not only without serious injury to those interests from which protection was withdrawn, but I think I have shown that it has been concurrent with an increase in the prices of those articles.
Now, it is right I should state, that notwithstanding the conviction which this experience has brought home to my mind, yet my [122/123] decided impression was, that on other grounds the charge of considering the change in the present Corn Law ought not to have devolved upon me. This I was firmly resolved upon, that I could not this Session, on the Motion of the honourable Gentleman (Mr. Villiers), for the consideration of the Corn Laws — I could not, with these convictions, which, say as you will, I cannot withstand, have met that Motion with a direct negative. Now, Sir, let me again repeat that I claim no credit whatever for having drawn my conclusions from abstract reasoning. My conviction has been brought about by observation and experience; and I could not, with this conviction, have undertaken the defence of the Corn Laws, either upon the public ground that this country being highly taxed the continuance of protection was necessary, or upon the ground that it was for the interest of the labouring classes that high prices should continue as a guarantee of high wages; and I could not have undertaken it upon the ground that the removing protection from domestic industry must necessarily paralyse commerce, lower prices, and undermine our national prosperity.
But this I wish more ardently — I wish to have the opportunity of frankly stating to those Gentlemen who have honoured me upon so many occasions with their confidence, that I can continue this contest no longer — that they must devolve the duty of maintaining protection upon other persons, who can adduce better arguments in its favour than I can. I doubted whether it would not have been advantageous if, in another Parliament, this question should have been considered; but it would have been my bounden duty to have committed the defence, if a defence were undertaken, of protection to other bands more able to maintain the conflict.
I should have wished, I say, that another Parliament should have had an opportunity of considering this question; but there did occur, during the course of the last autumn, that which precluded me from taking the course which would have been most agreeable to my personal feelings. A great calamity befell us, the limits of which it was difficult to divine, the consequences of which, though felt, it may still be difficult to describe. There occurred a great visitation of Providence, extending not to Ireland [the potato blight] only, but Great Britain, America, and many parts of the world; and we, Her Majesty's servants, constituting the Government of the country, were called upon to consider what should be done to lessen the calamity. There appeared to be a great and a pressing danger, and it was our duty towards our Sovereign and towards the country to meet the danger. If it was advisable, from the pressure of the deficiency to [123/124] take immediate measures, it would have been impossible, with our conviction of the necessity, to abstain; with our convictions, we could not, consistently with the duty we owed to the Sovereign and the country. If we had, indeed, pretended apprehensions of a scarcity for the purpose of effecting an alteration in the Corn Laws, nothing could have been more base or dishonest than to have taken such a step; but you shall have the opportunity of judging of the motives upon which I and others have acted, and you shall determine whether or no, with the information we were in possession of, we were not justified in drawing the conclusion that it was impossible to maintain the existing commercial system.
My own opinion was founded upon the evidence which I shall now adduce; and it was impossible, upon that evidence to come to any other opinion. The advice which I individually offered at an early period — so early as in the month of November, was to meet this emergency by a suspension of the import duties on foreign corn. I came to that conclusion; and I was adduced to advise that unusual — not unprecedented, but I admit unusual — course, upon the following considerations.
I will proceed first to an explanation of the circumstances under which, early in December, the Government was temporarily dissolved, and under which the Government, as now constituted, resumed office. There are two important periods in giving that explanation, to which I must draw attention — first, the period which elapsed between the lst of November, 1845, and the 6th of November; and, second, the period which elapsed between the 25th of November and the 6th of December. I propose to read consecutively the information that was received from different parts of this country and the Continent which appeared to me to justify the conclusion to which I came, both in the early part of November, and towards the close of that month and the beginning of the following month. I will give the date of each letter that I shall quote; but, of course, the letters which were received subsequently to November 6th, can form no justification of the advice; but though I shall give the date of each letter, I will not divide the evidence into two periods, but I will give the whole of it consecutively. The disease which affected the potato crop in this country was also felt in other parts of the world; and there were in other parts of Europe apprehensions of scarcity. For instance, the Resident Agent of the Government, writing from Poland, on the 22nd of October, said —
The cost of articles of food is stated to be higher than it has been since 1813 and 1814. The unfavourable results of the harvests in Podolia, Lithuania, Gallicia, the German Baltic provinces, preclude the [124/125] hope of foreign aid. No alleviation of the general distress is expected before next autumn.
In a letter, dated the 14th of December, Colonel Wynford, writing from Riga, says —
The supply of rye and rye-flour sent from St. Petersburg is insufficient for the relief of the Livonians, and discontent prevails.
. . . . Here is a letter from Mr. Wood, Chairman of the Excise, who, writing on the 2nd December from Yorkshire, thus addressed the Chancellor of the Exchequer: —
You will regret to hear that the potato disease has now manifested itself in the most extensive manner in this district. Potatoes were selling ten days since at 2s. to 2s. 6d. a bushel of 70 lbs., in York. Yesterday, the same weight sold at 1s. 2d., owing to the farmers bringing an extra quantity to market. I have, consequently, had several pits opened on this estate, and I fear that before Christmas we shall not have a sound one; what the poor are to live on, I cannot guess. I know you will be anxious to have accurate information, and therefore have ventured to give you this account.
From Scotland, I received a letter from my honourable Friend the Member for the County of Dumfries, which gave us as unfavourable an account as any I had seen from that part. Mr. Hope Johnstone, writing on the 22nd November, says —
I am sorry to say, that in so far as my own observation has gone, the disease appears to be progressing. I have today examined a large quantity of potatoes grown on some of the best and dryest soils in this neighborhood, and have not found one potato in twenty untainted, while three-fourths are quite unfit for human food. These have been carefully housed, and have never been exposed to damp since they were taken out of the ground. In Dumfries-shire also the decay is going on rapidly.
These were the accounts which reached me in the months of October and November, with respect to the extent of this disease in parts of Great Britain.
Now as to the accounts from Ireland, because the pressure appeared to be the greatest in that country, the people there chiefly subsisting upon potatoes. It is difficult to estimate the numbers who subsist upon potatoes. But here is the Report made to the Government, presented by Mr. Lucas, who was Member for Monaghan, Sir. R. Routh, and Professor Kane. They say that the numerical proportion of the Irish population that live exclusively upon potatoes, included, certainly, four millions. It was, therefore, a calamity which threatened the subsistence of not less than four millions in [125/126] Ireland that the Government had to provide against. Now, first I will read to the House the information which came to us from the chief authority in Ireland — the Lord Lieutenant, who remitted to us every day the principal information which he received. It was the duty of my right honourable Friend and myself to read the reports thus received, and to that duty we did devote many anxious days and nights. I will not refer to the detailed reports received in great numbers from Ireland. They were nearly all concurrent; but I will state at once the impressions of the chief authority, and the communications which he made to the Government. (Additional statements on this topic and the effects of the reports upon the Cabinet are omitted.)
... I thought that there was a perfect justification at the time for extraordinary measures, and that the adoption of extraordinary measures would compel the reconsideration of the Corn Law. My noble Friend (Lord Stanley) was not the only Member of the Administration who would have refused me the inestimable aid of his counsel and support; and that being the case — believing as I did that his resignation would be followed by that of others — thinking that under such circumstances the attempt to settle the question, which I thought to settle, would fail, and that I should fail after having made new combinations, and that I should be compelled to offer worse terms than the interests in question were entitled to claim at my hands.
I felt it to be my duty, not being supported by the unanimous voice of my Colleagues, humbly to tender to Her Majesty my resignation. That resignation Her Majesty was pleased to accept; and as my late Colleagues were not themselves prepared to carry on the Government, Her Majesty, of Her own choice, sent for the noble Lord [Russell]. The noble Lord undertook the task of forming an Administration — I believed then that I was in the situation of a private Member — that I was reduced to the ranks, and that I was at entire liberty to act on the suggestions of my own conscience; and I do not hesitate to say that in that capacity I would have done all in my power to promote the settlement of this question. The duty of adjusting would then have been left to the noble Lord, and in my capacity as a private Member I repeat that I would have done all I could to facilitate a fair and final settlement of the question. I remained under the impression that my functions had ceased until Saturday, the 20th of December. On Thursday, the 18th, it was intimated to me by Her Majesty that the noble Lord had undertaken [126/127] the duty of forming an Administration, and on the 19th I received a gracious communication from Her Majesty stating that, as my relation to Her Majesty was about to terminate, she wished again to see me, for the purpose of taking a final farewell; and Saturday, the 20th of December, was the day appointed for that purpose. Upon waiting on Her Majesty — having heard through the courtesy of the noble Lord that he had found all his efforts to form an Administration were in vain — upon waiting on Her Majesty she was pleased to inform me, that so far from taking my final leave, She was obliged to demand of me that I should withdraw my offer of resignation. Her Majesty had understood from those of my Colleagues who had differed from me that they were unprepared to form, and did not advise the formation, of a Government on the principle of the existing protective system. That the noble Lord, having undertaken the formation of a Government, had failed, from causes which it is unnecessary for me to notice; and the noble Lord having signified to Her Majesty that he had failed in his attempt to form a Government, Her Majesty requested that I should not persist in the tender of my resignation. I do not hesitate to say that I informed Her Majesty on the instant, and without a moment's hesitation, that the noble Lord having failed, and the Colleagues with whom I had heretofore acted not thinking it advisable to form an Administration, I did inform Her Majesty on the instant that I would return to town as Her Majesty's Minister — that I would withdraw my resignation, and inform my Colleagues of my determination, and urge them to assist me in carrying on the business of the country.
I resolved, therefore, to meet them in the capacity of the Minister of the Crown, and to submit to them the measures I proposed to bring before Parliament. My noble Friend at once expressed the regret he felt that he could not co-operate with me in the difficult circumstances in which I was placed; but my Colleagues generally thought it was their duty to assist me in the arduous task I had undertaken. I have now, Sir, stated to the House the circumstances under which I felt it my duty to tender my resignation, and also the circumstances under which I again returned to office.
Sir, I have given, on the earliest day on which it is possible, notice, that it is my intention, on the part of the Government, to submit to the consideration of the House measures connected with the commercial and financial affairs of the country. My firm determination is not to anticipate discussion. I know that the information I have given must be imperfect — I know that it may give rise to some misconception, and that I must ask for a suspension of the judgment of the House; but my desire is to disconnect a great [127/128] political question from the mere personal and party one; to keep my explanation, so far as it refers to personal matters, distinct from the great question itself, and my explanation therefore is necessarily imperfect.
Therefore I do hope, that after having referred to the evidence in the possession of the Government, although many may think that the conclusions to which I and others have come as to the danger have been erroneous, I advise them not to be too confident, as we have yet seven months to pass before a new supply of food can be obtained for the people. I remember the accounts that have been lately coming in; but I ask the House not to form too precipitate a conclusion that the danger has passed. It is not so. Sir, I trust I may have satisfied some of those who think the conclusions were erroneous, that, at least, the advice was honest, for advising a resort to extraordinary measures.
Sir, you can hardly estimate what a painful position it is for those whose public duty requires them to take precautions against so fearful a calamity as famine. I am charged with treason towards the agricultural interest — treason, indeed, it would be, if, with my deep conviction and solemn impressions of the position in which the country was placed, I subjected the agricultural interest to the odium of claiming protection against the hazard of scarcity — of calling for votes of public money for purchasing oats and other grain, while at the same time I resisted on their part any relaxation of the protective duties. Why, there are some points in which you could not possibly resist it. I take the law as it applies to the introduction of Indian corn. It is in a most anomalous state, because the present amount of duty on Indian corn depends on the price of barley. There is no connexion between them. There is no reason why it should rise and fall with the price of barley. Suppose a proposition had been made at the meeting of Parliament for the admission of Indian corn, what would be the consequence? Suppose the worst of things arises in Ireland, which I anticipate as possible, which I am afraid is probable, what would be the feeling with regard to the great agricultural interests of this country, if I, a member of it, had positively refused to make the slightest relaxation in the law?
But this I tell you, to touch the Corn Law in some slight point, like that of Indian corn, would be dangerous to it. I thought it would be unjust to relax it upon one article, and to confine it to the nobler species of grain, oats, and wheat. Sir, I would rather keep the law intact and refuse to admit Indian corn, than come down to the House with such a proposition, and refuse to relax the duties on other descriptions of grain. I recollect the notice given [128/129] by the Honourable Member for Winchester [Bickham Escott], which was brought forward for the special benefit of the agricultural interest. Would it be possible to relax the law in that instance and refuse it in the others? Sir, I venture to think that it would be impossible, consistently with the true interests of agriculture, to take such a step. Sir, I have felt, as I said before, that when after the severe labour of the last Session of Parliament, almost every hour of the recess was devoted to calculating the chances that might result from the disease, and to collecting evidence on the subject, night and day, and adopting precautions against the possibility of the calamity which might result from such a state of the crop — I felt it rather hard to find myself the object of accusations that I was unfaithful to the interests of the country, or to any special and peculiar interest. I cannot, of course, but recollect the repeated manifestations of great confidence which I have at various times experienced — those manifestations cannot be without their effect on my mind — but notwithstanding those manifestations of confidence, the constant repetition of those observations to which I have adverted, of those accusations that I have been unfaithful renders it absolutely necessary that I should allude to them.
The Prime Minister and Other Agencies of Government
I have over and over again attempted to define the relation in which I conceived myself to stand with respect to party, to my country, and to my Sovereign, and it is necessary that I should again describe that relation. I see it over and over again repeated, that I am under a personal obligation for holding the great office which 1 have the honour to occupy. I see it over and over again repeated, that I was placed in that position by a party, and that the party which elevated me to my present position is powerful enough to displace me. I see constantly put forth allusions to the power of those men to remove me from office. I am afraid that, with respect to holding the office that I hold, there is a very material difference between the extent of the obligation and the amount of the penalty. I am not under an obligation to any man, or to any body of men, for being compelled to submit to the sacrifices which I have submitted to, and to undergo the official duties and labour which I have undertaken. I do not underrate the distinction and importance of the position; but let us understand — and I am speaking not for myself, but for the many honourable men who have [129/130] preceded me of different parties — let us understand what is the nature of the obligation we owe for being placed in office. As I said before, I do not undervalue the distinction and the power which are attached to the occupation of that office; but what, I ask, is its real value? It does not consist in the power of distributing honours, or conferring appointments. That power, it is true, is inseparable from the office of Prime Minister, and cannot be separated from it without injuring its authority; but the power of giving the highest rewards and the highest offices, is constantly accompanied by the invidious duty of selection, and the disappointment of those who may not have been selected. For my part, I value power not one farthing for any such privilege. I have served four Sovereigns; George III, and his three successors. In the reign of George III, the office which I held was so subordinate, that it was impossible my services could have attracted his notice; but, as I have said, I also served his three successors — George IV as Regent and King, King William IV, and Queen Victoria; and during the reigns of those Sovereigns, it has been my fate to hold some of the highest offices in the State. I served each of those Sovereigns at critical times and in critical circumstances — I did so with constant truth to each, and I constantly said to each of those Sovereigns that there was but one favour, but one distinction, one reward which I desired, that it was in their power to offer me — namely, the simple acknowledgment, on their part, that I had been to them a loyal and faithful Minister.
I have now stated my view of the obligations which are conferred on those in power; but let me remark that there is that valuable privilege in power, that it gives constant and favourable opportunities for exertion; and affords great facilities to the holder of it to render his country service, according to his sense of the public good. That, in my mind, constitutes the real value of official power; and I can say with truth, that I have never abused that power for any unworthy object. I have tried to use it for the promotion of the public interests and the advancement of the public good. I used it for the public advantage, and in doing so I cannot charge myself with any conduct at variance with the true and comprehensive policy of a Conservative Minister. Sir, I do not think it at variance with Conservative policy, that I and my Colleagues have attempted to repair the disasters of Cabul — that [130/131] we have attempted to infuse into the Indian army that spirit which had been checked by the defeats and misfortunes of Afghanistan. Nor do I think it inconsistent with true Conservative policy, that I have laboured to assuage that feeling of animosity which for a long time prevailed between this country and another powerful and great nation; and I cannot think that this paragraph in the Speech of the Sovereign —
The Convention concluded with France in the course of last year, for the more effectual suppression of the Slave Trade, is about to be carried into immediate execution by the active co-operation of the two Powers on the coast of Africa. It is my desire that our present union, and the good understanding which so happily exists between us, may always be employed to promote the interest of humanity, and to secure the peace of the world;
I cannot, I repeat, think it inconsistent with true Conservative policy, that we should be enabled to insert that paragraph, and that we should be engaged in trying to efface the recollections of the exploits of both countries in war, or extracting from those recollections everything which savours of bitterness; that we should be trying to engage in a rivalry, not in exploits on the field of blood, but in an honourable competition for the advancement of commerce and civilization, and the improvement of the social condition of the people. It is not inconsistent with true Conservative policy, that we should increase the trade of the country by removing restrictions; nor is it inconsistent with sound Conservative policy, that we should reduce the taxation of the country whilst we increased its revenue. It is not, in my mind, inconsistent with true Conservative policy, that we have extinguished agitation and discouraged sedition, not by stringent coercive laws, but by encouraging the idea amongst the great body of the people, that we, the rich and powerful, are willing to take a more than ordinary share of the public burdens, and to remove those burdens from the people so far as it is possible.
Sir, believe me, to conduct the Government of this country is a most arduous duty; I may say it without irreverence, that these ancient institutions, like our physical frames, are "fearfully and wonderfully made." It is no easy task to ensure the united action of an ancient monarchy, a proud aristocracy, and a reformed constituency. I have done everything I could do, and have thought it consistent with true Conservative policy to reconcile these three branches of the State. I have thought it consistent with true Conservative [131/132] policy to promote so much of happiness and contentment among the people that the voice of disaffection should be no longer heard, and that thoughts of the dissolution of our institutions should be forgotten in the midst of physical enjoyment. These were my attempts, and I thought them not inconsistent with true and enlarged Conservative policy. These were my objects in accepting office — it is a burden too great for my physical, and far beyond my intellectual structure; and to be relieved from it with perfect honour would be the greatest favour that could be conferred on me. But as a feeling of honour and strong sense of duty require me to undertake those responsible functions, I declare, Sir, that I am ready to incur these risks, to bear these burdens, and to front all these honourable dangers. But, Sir, I will not take the step with mutilated power and shackled authority. I will not stand at the helm during, such tempestuous nights as I have seen, if the vessel be not allowed fairly to pursue the course which I think she ought to take. I will not, Sir, undertake to direct the course of the vessel by the observations which have been taken in 1842. I will reserve to myself the marking out of that course; and I must, for the public interest, claim for myself the unfettered power of judging of those measures which I conceive will be better for the country to propose.
Sir, I do not wish to be the Minister of England; but while I have the high honour of holding that Office, I am determined to hold it by no servile tenure. I will only hold that office upon the condition of being unshackled by any other obligations than those of consulting the public interests, and of providing for the public safety.
Park, Joseph Hendershot. British Prime Ministers of the Nineteenth Century: Policies and Speeches. New York: New York University Press, 1916.
Last modified 26 June 2002