During the course of the debate, a very remarkable speech was made by the Irish leader, Daniel O'Connell. O'Connell seems to have seen farther and more distinctly into the future than any other of the great orators who took part in the discussion. He declared that he would give the Bill his full support; but that it was not the sort of measure that he as a Radical reformer would have wished to introduce. The main defect of the Bill, he said, was to be found in the fact that it was not a measure of radical reform. No such measure, he insisted, could ever give abiding satisfaction to the country which did not recognise the principle of universal suffrage; and he contended that the durations of Parliament ought to be made shorter, and that the votes of the electors ought to be taken by ballot. Already, it has to be observed, we have in Great Britain something nearly approaching to manhood suffrage, and we have vote by ballot, and there is not a reactionary in his senses who believes that the people of these countries could ever be induced to return to the old franchise and the old system of the open vote.
The debate on the first reading was carried on for seven nights. As we have already said, there is very seldom a division taken on the first reading of any measure. The second reading, when it comes on, brings up a debate on the actual principle of the Bill; and a man who votes against the second reading, thereby declares that he disapproves of the whole purpose which the promoters of the Bill have in view. But he may vote for the second reading while firm in the intention to make every alteration he can in the provisions of the Bill as it passes through what is called Committee stage, after second reading, that being the stage at which the Bill comes up for the consideration of all its separate clauses and details. Many a Member of Parliament votes for the second reading of a Bill in the hope that he may so damage it in Committee, as to leave it worth nothing to its promoters. Many observers, themselves hostile to reform, were of opinion then, and many historical writers have been of opinion since, that the Tories made an entire mistake in their way of dealing with the measure. The great difficulty of the Bill, according to these observers and writers, lay, not so much in the House of Commons as outside the House of Commons. Even within the House, as we have already shown, there were many sincere reformers who put up with the Bill rather than welcomed it; who were willing to take it because they were afraid that they could get nothing better just at that time; but who fully shared the opinions of Mr. O'Connell as to the impossibility of its proving adequate to the work of a lasting settlement. Outside the House of Commons the feeling of the Reform Party was much stronger still. It would have required all the influence of Lord Grey and Lord John Russell and Lord Durham and other such men to induce the country to be satisfied with the measure. The opinion, therefore, of the critics, to whom allusion has been made, was that the policy of the Tory Opposition would have been to show no inveterate and determined hostility to the Bill, to criticise it and censure it, but not to make too much of it; and let the attention of Reformers outside Parliament be turned rather to the unsatisfactory character of the measure itself, than to the impassioned and wholesale opposition of the Tories.
It is hardly probable that in any case the Tory opposition of that day, with men like Sir Robert Inglis and his friends to urge them on, could have been capable of any such subtle policy as that which was recommended to them. But there can be little doubt that the fury of the Tories went a good way to make the Bill more popular than it otherwise might have been. It was almost enough for many of the Reformers in the country, and especially in the great towns, to know that the Duke of Wellington and Lord Sidmouth and Sir Robert Inglis and others were set against the Bill, in order to make all true Reformers throw up their caps for it. The measure had, undoubtedly, two or three splendid merits. It abolished the principle of nomination to Parliament by owners or by close corporations; it established something like a symmetrical system of voting all over the country; it restored the principle of representation; and it added about half a million to the voters of the United Kingdom. But in almost every other of its objects the Reform Bill fell far short of the necessities of the country; and the proof of this is to be found in the number of other Reform Bills that had to be introduced in order to supplement and amend and reconstruct it. The extension of the suffrage was still miserably inadequate; and practically the whole working population of Great Britain and Ireland was left without the chance of a vote - that is without any direct share whatever in the government of the country with which its own dearest interests were bound up. Some of the closing sentences in Lord John Russell's speech were full of an earnest and generous hope as to the result which the measure might have, by stimulating the working classes generally to steady conduct, praiseworthy frugality, and honourable ambition, in order that they might become legally possessed of the quality of citizenship. But the ,£10 franchise in boroughs and the £50 franchise in counties left hundreds of thousands of honest men without the slightest chance of gratifying their honourable ambitions. Ten pounds a year rent in boroughs, and fifty pounds a year in counties, meant much more money at that time than the same figures would mean now. But even the more advanced Reformers were willing to put up with a good deal of deficiency in order to get a Reform Bill of some kind, which at least established the principle of direct representation. The Reformers out of doors, therefore, welcomed with general enthusiasm the first reading of the Bill; and that first reading was followed at once by the first reading of measures of the same kind for Scotland and for Ireland.