This was, perhaps, the extreme high-water mark of the most antique Toryism. Sir Robert Inglis naturally defended the system of small boroughs - the rotten boroughs as they came to be called - which were the property of some owner or patron, and were disposed of to anybody whom the patron's good fancy was pleased to favour. He hammered away at this argument with a certain clap-trap effect, when he pointed out that a number of the greatest public men who had adorned the House of Commons could never have had seats there but for the intelligence and generosity of the patrons who discovered their merits, and endowed them with a constituency. We shall presently see that Sir Robert Inglis was not the only man who made use of this argument; that it was used again and again by men far better entitled to a hearing than he; and that it was heard of more than a quarter of a century after the introduction of the first Reform Bill. Sir Robert Inglis then went on to enunciate the proposition dear to the heart of good old Toryism in every country, that everything would be peaceful and happy, if only a flood of mob oratory were not allowed to pour itself all over the land. Mob oratory, with men like Sir Robert Inglis, meant any kind of eloquence which appealed to the hearts and the brains of large numbers of men; and it was an article of faith with him that no human being would ever fancy he had a grievance that ought to be remedied by law, if some mob orator did not get upon an inverted tub and bellow into his ears a story of imaginary wrong. Robert Inglis is dead and gone long ago; but the theory that popular commotion never springs from real grievance, but always comes from the wicked inspirings of irresponsible agitators, is a favourite conviction still with the reactionary party in every country of the world where men form parties at all, and where the patrons of old abuses find their sole enemies in the workings of popular agitation.
Not long after Sir Robert Inglis had finished his speech, a man of a very different order of mind and of eloquence rose to oppose the Ministerial measure of Reform. This was Sir Robert Peel, the second of the name, the great Sir Robert Peel as we may fairly call him. Peel was a Lancashire man; and it is a curious fact that Lancashire has contributed to Parliament the four greatest orators of the present reign : Peel himself, Stanley, afterwards Earl of Derby, Gladstone, and John Bright. Peel's speech against the Reform Bill is said to have been, and we can well believe it, a masterpiece of parliamentary argument. We have to consider what must have been the effect of the noble delivery, the exquisitely chosen language, the appeals skilfully addressed to ingrained prejudice and old-established ideas, in order to understand with what telling force such a speech must have fallen upon the ears of the House of Commons. We have to bear in mind, too, that a distinct majority of those who listened to him were in their secret hearts only too ready to admit the justice of his arguments. But let any reader take up the speech and study it to-day, and the chances are many to one that the first feeling it will arouse in him is one of wonder that a man of Peel's intellect and education could possibly have indulged in such chimeras and believed them to be guiding spirits. Peel began by denouncing all those who had incited the people to a pitch of frenzy, and spurred their lazy indifference until it broke into a revolutionary charge.
Peel, one of the most far-seeing and the greatest members of an English Parliament, was in this kind of argument putting himself on an intellectual level with Sir Robert Inglis. According to his contention, the most intelligent Englishman, Irishman, or Scotchman would never have cared whether boroughs were bought or sold, or not; would never have seen any objection to a deserted plain returning members to Parliament; or to the Lord of the Manor nominating members to please himself or some of his friends, to reward a parasite, or to please a pretty woman; would never have had the least idea that there was anything wrong, or unconstitutional, or dangerous, or degrading in all this; if only the wicked popular agitators would let him alone, and not try to excite him to delirium. Then came the appeal, which some of my readers have been no doubt already anticipating, the demand how even the wickedest of agitators could be wicked enough to raise such questions at a time when our foreign relations were passing through so profound and grave a crisis. This, of course, is the sort of appeal that is always introduced when any measure of reform is proposed. What! while France is in the throes of a new revolution, is that the time to unsettle our minds by tormenting us about rotten boroughs and unenfranchised millions? "Better a rotten borough or two," sang Tennyson many years later, "than a rotting fleet and towns in flames." Tennyson, however, was a singer, and did not pretend to any knowledge of political affairs, and was not called upon by anybody to explain how the maintenance of the rotten boroughs was to keep a fleet from rotting, and a town from foreign bombardment. Even if the condition of things had been quite different from that which Peel fairly described it to be, Peel might have used his argument just as effectively in another way. He might have asked, Is it at a moment like this, when peace prevails at home and abroad, that you are going to allow your wicked agitators to disturb a nation and a world at rest? Nobody could have known better than Peel did, that the revolution in France was brought about by the dogged determination of the rulers of that country not to allow any measure of even the most moderate reform.
He went over again, although with greater dexterity and effect, the argument of Sir Robert Inglis, in favour of the close borough system. "Consider," he urged, "the number of men who had guided and illumined the House of Commons, and who might never have had a chance of finding a seat there if it were not for the existence of those small close boroughs which the present measure proposed altogether to disfranchise." He ran, indeed, over a glittering bead-roll of names. Burke, Pitt, Fox, Plunket, Canning, Brougham, and many other great men were all returned in the first instance for close boroughs at the nomination of a patron. This same kind of argument was used many years later by Peel's greatest parliamentary successor, Mr. Gladstone. The argument, of course, leaves out of all account the infinite anomalies and abominations which the old system brought with it : the patronage, the bribery, the corruption, the subjection of the nation's best interests to the caprice or the selfish purposes of a few owners of the soil. The fact could not be disputed that there were owners of boroughs here and there generous and enlightened enough to see the merits of men like Burke and Plunket and Canning, and to hand over to them constituencies which they could not possibly have purchased for themselves. But has it ever been shown that a great and populous borough would be in the least degree less likely than a patron or a close corporation to appreciate the gifts of such daniel O'connell's speech men, and to give them a chance in the House of Commons? In the England of our time, a new man of great abilities and without money would find a much better chance of a seat in Parliament by addressing himself to some large and populous borough, where the spread of education was telling on the electors, than he would have in some much smaller constituency, where mere local influence and local patronage would be only too likely to carry the day against the stranger.