We shall show before long how it was reserved for the best days of Canning's foreign policy not merely to withdraw England from any confederacy with the Holy Alliance, but to checkmate altogether some of its most important and most audacious enterprises. With Canning, it may fairly be said, is to begin the modern era of English foreign policy. It would be idle now to enter into any speculation as to what might have happened if the English statesmanship of that day had been more like the English statesmanship of a later day. It is still a question of keen argument whether the war between France and England was really forced on by England or by France. Some enlightened English writers, who cannot be suspected of any lack of patriotic feeling, insist that but for the policy and obstinacy of George III. there never might have been a war with France. English statesmen have learned much since then. The hero of the Iliad proclaims, at least in Pope's version, that "no more Achilles draws his conquering sword in any woman's cause." English statesmanship, we may well believe, will never again draw its sword in the cause of any foreign dynasty. So far as that goes, at least, the principle of non-intervention may safely be said to be established as a canon of British policy.
The settlement of international peace was followed in England by something very like an outbreak of domestic war. When great suffering prevails among a population, the first thought of the sufferers is, naturally, to look to the Government for an immediate redress of the evil. Disraeli once said that no English Government, however popular, could stand up against a third bad harvest. The saying, of course, like most of Disraeli's sayings, was meant to be a sort of cynical epigram; but there was meaning in it for all that. Popular suffering will always mean political discontent, and political discontent, here, there, and everywhere, is discontent with the existing Government. The great Italian statesman, Count Cavour, used to maintain that national prosperity or national adversity was only a question of good or bad government. Perhaps this was giving somewhat too wide an application to a principle sound and healthy within its limits; but it certainly is a principle which cannot be borne too constantly in the minds of the rulers of men. After the close of the great war the English populations found themselves oppressed by poverty, by want of employment, and in many regions by absolute starvation. Employment had, to a great extent, collapsed; the price of food was enormously high, and was kept high, with the avowed purpose of enabling the landlords to maintain their rents. Pad weather added to the troubles; masses of agricultural labourers and of artisans in cities were clamouring for a reduction in the prices of grain and meat. These assemblages led to disturbances, and to night attacks on the houses of landlords and magistrates. In many places the wealthier inhabitants were compelled to abandon their houses for a time, in order to save their families and themselves from violence at the hand of hunger-maddened mobs.
Many of the rioters were captured and put to trial, and, according to the ferocious criminal code of the time, several were sentenced to death, and actually executed. Rioting took another form as well. The rapid introduction of machinery into so many manufactories seemed to illiterate artisans but another means of lowering the wages of the working man. Here and there manufactories were attacked and machinery was destroyed, and the law did all that it could, in the way of severity of punishment; but severity of punishment does not feed half-starving men, or convince the intelligence of those who, while taking no actual part in riot, are yet in sympathy with others who, driven by hunger, seek any means, however desperate, of bringing about a better condition of things. Under the conditions that prevailed, tumult and riot were humanly inevitable, and at that time the ruling authorities had no idea of dealing with discontent except by the prison cell, the transport ship, and the gallows. Then, again, there was much rancour and bitterness occasioned at one time by the reports, only too well founded, which went abroad over the country, concerning the extravagance of the Prince Regent and his Court. George, the Regent, was living in a style which might have served the tastes of an Eastern despot or a Prince of the Lower Empire. The stories told about his luxury, his reckless and wanton extravagance, his monstrous debts, were only too well borne out by the nature of the incessant applications made to the House of Commons for new grants to save him from bankruptcy. It may easily be understood how the bitterness of want amongst the working populations was made more and more intense by the increasing knowledge of the Regent's outrageous expenditure. Byron wrote in sarcastic anger of the one comfort still left to a patriot nation, the consoling thought that " Gaunt famine never can approach the throne, Though Ireland starve, great George weighs twenty stone".
For some time the expression of national discontent did not shape itself into the lineaments of a deliberate demand for political reform. Food, work, and wages were the first concessions for which the popular voice cried out. It was in the beginning but a wild cry of agony; it soon awakened echoes from the voices of men who knew how to give its plaint a distinct tone and definite purpose. Probably the first successful attempt to put the popular complaint into a definite political form came from the teachings of William Cobbett. Cobbett was emphatically a man of the people: he was born among the people; he had been for several years a soldier in the army, and had served in Canada. He had been a bookseller in New York and Philadelphia. He was master of a style singularly telling. His language was as clear, straightforward Anglo-Saxon as that of Swift himself. His ideas were sometimes wild; he was not what would be called an educated man; he knew little of constitutional systems, and political economy had not become a popular science in his time. But he knew enough to know that many of the evils of which Englishmen then complained were to be ascribed directly and almost altogether to a bad system of government. His mode of reform was simple and drastic. He would have had one single legislative chamber elected by ballot and by universal suffrage. He became what we should now call an agitator. He threw his soul into the movement for political reform. He started a newspaper, which at one time was circulated all over the country, and was read in every garret and every cottage - those who could read declaiming his sentences to those who could not. He soon became a power in the land, and, to do him justice, he did not use his power unscrupulously or even, as far as his lights went, unwisely.