With the victory of Waterloo we reach a time within the memory of some now living, and the opening of a period of our history, the greatest indeed of all in real importance and interest, but perhaps too near to us as yet to admit of a cool and purely historical treatment. In a work such as the present at any rate it will be advisable to limit ourselves from this point to a brief summary of the more noteworthy events which have occurred in our political history since 1815.
The peace which closed the great war with Napoleon left Britain feverish and exhausted. Of her conquests at sea she retained only Malta, (whose former possessors, the Knights of St. John, had ceased to exist,) the Dutch colonies of Ceylon, and the Cape of Good Hope, the French Colony of Mauritius, and a few West India islands. On the other hand the pressure of the heavy taxation and of the debt, which now reached eight hundred millions, was embittered by the general distress of the country. The rapid developement of English industry for a time ran ahead of the world's demands; the markets at home and abroad were glutted with unsaleable goods, and mills and manufactories were brought to a standstill. The scarcity caused by a series of bad harvests-was intensified by the selfish legislation of the landowners in Parliament. Conscious that the prosperity of English agriculture was merely factitious, and rested on the high price of corn produced by the war, they prohibited by an Act passed in 1815 the introduction of foreign corn till wheat had reached famine prices. Society, too, was disturbed by the great changes of employment consequent on a sudden return to peace after twenty years of war, and by the disbanding of the immense forces employed at sea and on land.
The movement against machinery which had been put down in 1812 revived in formidable riots, and the distress of the rural poor brought about a rapid increase of crime. The steady opposition too of the Administration, in which Lord Castlereagh's influence was now supreme, to any project of political progress created a dangerous irritation which brought to the front men whose demand of a "radical reform" in English institutions won them the name of Radicals, and drove more violent agitators into treasonable disaffection and silly plots. In 1819 the breaking up by military force of a meeting at Manchester, assembled for the purpose of advocating a reform in Parliament, increased the unpopularity of the Government; and a plot of some desperate men with Arthur Thistlewood at their head for the assassination of the whole Ministry, which is known as the Cato-Street Conspiracy, threw light on the violent temper which was springing up among its more extreme opponents. The death of George the Third in 1820, and the accession of his son the Prince Regent as George the Fourth, only added to the general disturbance of men's minds.
The new King had long since forsaken his wife and privately charged her with infidelity; his first act on mounting the throne was to renew his accusations against her, and to lay before Parliament a bill for the dissolution of her marriage with him. The public agitation which followed on this step at last forced the Ministry to abandon the bill, but the shame of the royal family and the unpopularity of the King increased the general discontent of the country.
The real danger to public order, however, lay only in the blind opposition to all political change which confused wise and moderate projects of reform with projects of revolution; and in 1822 the suicide of Lord Castlereagh, who had now become Marquis of Londonderry, and to whom this opposition was mainly due, put an end to the policy of mere resistance. Canning became Foreign Secretary in Castlereagh's place, and with Canning returned the earlier and progressive policy of William Pitt. Abroad, his first act was to break with the "Holy Alliance," as it called itself, which the continental courts had formed after the overthrow of Napoleon for the repression of revolutionary or liberal movements in their kingdoms, and whose despotic policy had driven Naples, Spain, and Portugal into revolt. Canning asserted the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of foreign states, a principle he enforced by sending troops in 1826 to defend Portugal from Spanish intervention, while he recognized the revolted colonies of Spain in South America and Mexico as independent states.
At home his influence was seen in the new strength gained by the question of Catholic Emancipation, and in the passing of a bill for giving relief to Roman Catholics through the House of Commons in 1825. With the entry of his friend Mr. Huskisson into office in 1823 began a commercial policy which was founded on a conviction of the benefits derived from freedom of trade, and which brought about. at a later time the repeal of the Corn Laws. The new drift of public policy produced a division among the Ministers which showed itself openly at Lord Liverpool's death in 1827. Canning became First Lord of the Treasury, but the Duke of Wellington, with the Chancellor, Lord Eldon, and the Home Secretary, Mr. Peel, refused to serve under him; and four months after the formation of Canning's Ministry it was broken up by his death. A temporary Ministry formed under Lord Goderich on Canning's principles was at once weakened by the position of foreign affairs. A revolt of the Greeks against Turkey had now lasted some years in spite of Canning's efforts to bring about peace, and the despatch of an Egyptian expedition with orders to devastate the Morea and carry off its inhabitants as slaves forced England, France, and Russia to interfere.
In 1827 their united fleet under Admiral Codrington attacked and destroyed that of Egypt in the bay of Navarino; but the blow at Turkey was disapproved by English opinion, and the Ministry, already wanting in Parliamentary strength, was driven to resign.
The formation of a purely Tory Ministry by the Duke of Wellington, with Mr. Peel for its principal support in the Commons, was generally looked on as a promise of utter resistance to all further progress. But the state of Ireland, where a "Catholic Association*' formed by Daniel O'Connell maintained a growing agitation, had now reached a point when the English Ministry had to choose between concessions and civil war. The Duke gave way, and brought in a bill which, like that designed by Pitt, admitted Roman Catholics to Parliament, and to all but a few of the highest posts, civil or military, in the service of the Crown. The passing of this bill by the aid of the Whigs threw the Tory party into confusion; while the cry for Parliamentary Reform was suddenly revived with a strength it had never known before by a Revolution in France, which drove Charles the Tenth from the throne and called his cousin, Louis Philippe, the Duke of Orleans, to reign as a Constitutional King. William the Fourth, who succeeded to the crown on the death of his brother, George the Fourth, at this moment was favourable to the demand of Reform, but Wellington refused all concession.