When the fall of Napoleon brought peace to Europe, that peace found England in a condition which might well have awakened despondency and almost despair in the minds of some of the best and wisest Englishmen. The country was almost starved; the want of. work was felt everywhere, manufacturing industry had collapsed, and many of the provinces were traversed by gaunt and hungry patrols of workmen looking for employment, almost as distressing and alarming to meet as were the troops of the hungry whom Arthur Young might have seen during some seasons of the French Revolution. England was, for the time, practically exhausted by her war expenditure. The last three years of the struggle against Napoleon are estimated to have cost the English Treasury no less than £200,000,000 sterling. Then, to add to England's troubles, a tremendous disappointment had fallen upon the country with the close of the war. We all know by observation and experience what a semblance of immense prosperity is caused by a great war in all regions which it affects, except those alone which are made its immediate battle-field. The prosperity is purely artificial and fictitious; there is an immense and apparently inexhaustible demand for all the appliances and the provisions of war; an unnatural and ghastly show of trade and prosperity is conjured up, and those who are not capable of looking even a little way before them are apt to think that the resources of the nation are positively inexhaustible. The State, however, meanwhile is not creating a vast prosperity, but only pledging its credit for an enormous debt. Thus it was with England when the wished-for peace had at last been brought about. The common belief, not unnaturally, was that with peace must come prosperity, and the disappointment was tremendous indeed when at first nothing but calamity seemed to be brought about. While the war was going on there was not merely the sham prosperity to keep up the spirits of the people, but there was the stress and ardour of the struggle to make all other considerations seem light when weighed in the balance with victory. The English people suddenly woke up from their fool's paradise to find that under certain conditions peace had her horrors scarcely less appalling than those of war. In truth, England found herself face to face with a crisis hardly less portentous than that which France had to encounter when she began her momentous work of revolution. Francis Horner, the great politician and economist of that day, wrote with some despondency about the wide and irreconcilable differences of opinion "between those who, on the one hand, will hear of nothing but to return to all that was undone by the French Revolution, and those who on the other hand, think that the French people have some right to make and to mend their Government for themselves." Francis Horner, be it remembered, was only speaking of those who may be called the moderate men on both sides; he was not speaking of those, on the one hand, who would try to impose on the English people a system like that of the Bourbons in France, or, on the other hand, of those who were clamouring for liberty, equality, and fraternity, such as the French Democrats were striving to establish.
Richard Brinsley Sheridan. (I751-1816).
In truth, the story of England's nineteenth century is the story of the choice which at one time seemed to be imposed on England between revolution and reaction, and of the trials and troubles, the sad confusions, the many mistakes and blunders by the way, through which at last she was guided on the road to national prosperity. During the time of her struggle with Napoleon she had taken one decidedly backward step in the management of one department of her national affairs. Her ruling statesmen had succeeded in passing the Act of Union, which took from Ireland all control of her domestic affairs and compelled her to enter into an unwilling companionship with the Parliament at Westminster. England had also allowed herself to be drawn by a mistaken policy into a war with the young republic of the United States, out of which she only emerged by the tacit surrender of the one demand for the sake of which the war had been undertaken. She still adhered to the odious policy which denied the right of religious freedom to the Roman Catholics and the Dissenters of Great Britain and Ireland. Indeed, this latter policy was the immediate impulse to the Irish Rebellion of 1798 which was crushed after much bloodshed and was made the excuse for the passing of the Act of Union. We have said that "England" did all these things because there is no other convenient way of describing in ordinary language the influence which brought them about. But it is a most important part of our story that English people in general had no more to do with such principles or acts of policy than the peasantry of France had to do with the policy of Louis XIV. The vast majority of the English people, according to a favourite phrase of the time, had nothing to do with the laws but to obey them - or to disobey them, if they liked that better, at their own risk and peril. The Parliament at Westminster was in no conceivable sense the representative of the English people. It represented the territorial aristocracy and, to a certain extent, but only to a very limited extent, the wealthiest of the trading and manufacturing classes. No Roman Catholic, Dissenter, or Jew could be elected a member of that Parliament; when all other disqualifications were absent there was a property qualification which prevented any poor man from obtaining a seat in the House of Commons. It is curious to notice now that the reforming programme which was adopted by Charles Fox included amongst its leading principles, universal suffrage, abolition of the property qualification for members of the House of Commons, equal voting districts, and the introduction of vote by ballot at parliamentary elections. Fox, and those who thought with him, held that until these reforms had been carried Parliament could not possibly be regarded as the representative of the people's opinions and the guardian of the people's liberties. Half a century and more after the death of Fox these demands were still regarded by all steady-going Conservatives as the very extravagance of Radicalism, only fit for Chartists and Revolutionists and mob-orators and other such dangerous and monstrous creatures.