The social condition was very like that which prevailed in the Southern States of America after the emancipation of the negroes had been proclaimed, and when the great Civil War had come to an end. The Jamaica planters, like the planters in Virginia, made pertinacious efforts to retain, in fact, the mastery which had been abolished by law, and on many of the plantations the system of slavery was maintained in reality in one way or another, although the law and the progress of civilisation and the courses of the stars were against them. This led to a continual intervention by the Colonial Office at home and a constant quarrel between the Jamaica House of Assembly and the authorities at Westminster. In April, 1839, Lord Melbourne and his colleagues made an attempt to deal with the subject, and they brought in a Bill to make temporary provision for the better government of the island by setting aside for five years the House of Assembly, and ruling Jamaica during that interval by means of the Governor and his Council, with the assistance of three Commissioners appointed by the home authorities for that special purpose. In other words, the Government proposed to deal with Jamaica during five years as if it were a Crown Colony. Now, under all the circumstances, such a measure was not only justifiable, but may be almost called inevitable if the policy proclaimed by Great Britain was to be really carried out. The House of Assembly in Jamaica had set itself directly against such a policy, and either the whole scheme of emancipation must be abandoned so far as that Colony was concerned, or the House of Assembly must be compelled to accept the principle which the Parliament of Great Britain had solemnly determined to enforce.
All this is true, and it would be hardly possible for any cool observer now to say that Lord Melbourne and his colleagues could have acted otherwise than as they did. All the same, nothing can be more difficult for a Liberal Ministry than to enter upon any course which seems to resemble that of despotic action. In all modern times this has been found an especial difficulty. Those who had opposed the abolition of slavery in our Colonies when the measure was first brought forward were now only too delighted by the chance which it put in their way of endeavouring to turn the very friends of the Ministry against them. With what face, it was indignantly asked, can a Ministry, formed especially to carry on constitutional and Liberal reform, set about to override the representative principle even in such a place as the Island of Jamaica ? That might be all very well for the Tory party, it was said, for the Tory party, who had never professed any new-fangled devotion to what were called the principles of representative government. But you, you, the Liberals, who only the other day upset the whole of the system of government prescribed for this country by the wisdom of our ancestors; you, who in order to create a popular House of Commons, thought it nothing to deprive the landlord of his right to have his property represented as he saw fit, and even to deprive the Sovereign of his time-honoured right to send such members into Parliament as he found best fitted to represent him; how comes it that you are already willing to introduce a Bill which quietly disestablishes for a definite period of five years, and for no one knows how long afterwards, the Constitutional Assembly of Jamaica, and to govern the island after what fashion you please ?
The friends of abolition stood by the Ministry gallantly, although many of them had lost faith in the energy, and some had lost faith even in the sincerity, of the Melbourne Administration. But when the critical time came the Ministry only carried their measure by a majority of five in the House of Commons. A majority so small as that is always reckoned in modern days equivalent to the defeat of a Government. The time had quite gone by when the Sovereign could of his own will maintain his Ministers, not only without a majority of the House of Commons, but even in the face of an adverse majority. There was now, for the first time, a thoroughly constitutional Sovereign on the throne of these countries; and it was quite certain that, even if Lord Melbourne were wild enough to ask for a Royal support which would have sufficed in the days of William Pitt, the new Queen would have nothing to do with such a transaction. Lord Melbourne and his colleagues had no course open to them but to resign office; and the Queen had no course open to her but to accept their resignation. Probably Lord Melbourne himself was very glad to get the chance of escaping from an irksome position, which was ill-suited to a man so fond of ease, and who had so little sense of the enjoyment of the strife.
So what every one had anticipated was now coming to pass; and Lord Melbourne and his colleagues were out of office. But then, what nobody anticipated was just what did come to pass, and Lord Melbourne and his colleagues were no sooner out of office than they were in office again. The story is worth telling, although it has no historical importance now; it is worth telling if only for the mere curiosity of the whole adventure. The Queen sent for the Duke of Wellington, and the Duke recommended her to send at once for Sir Robert Peel on the ground that the chief difficulties of a Conservative Government would be found in the House of Commons - there was no difficulty about the House of Lords, where the Conservative majority was then as certain as it would be to-day - and Sir Robert Peel was, therefore, obviously the man to form and lead the new administration. The Queen sent for Peel accordingly, and when he came to see her she told him with a girlish frankness, which became her and which touched the statesman, that she had parted very reluctantly from Lord Melbourne and the other Ministers, of whose conduct she had entirely approved, but she felt bound to defer to constitutional usage and to accept the resignation of Ministers who could not secure a real working majority of the House of Commons. Peel with all his experiences of sovereigns must have found this a new experience, and must in his heart have welcomed the evidence of a new era in English political life. He undertook to form a Ministry; and then came the famous dispute known at the time and destined to be remembered in English history as the Bedchamber Question. Everything was going on smoothly between the Sovereign and Peel.