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Autobiographical Reminiscences of David Johnston
Chapter XVII


IN 1831 I mingled in the gaping crowd to see the Sailor King (in the habit of an admiral) and his Queen Adelaide open that noble structure of Scotch granite, New London Bridge, planned and constructed by an East Lothian man (Sir John Rennie). The scene was one of grandeur and magnificence. The Thames was literally covered with boats of all kinds and dimensions, each having its stem and stern adorned with gay flags and streamers, and filled with folks in their richest apparel. Among the notables present on that occasion (men who had done their state some service, but who are now all in their graves) it was easy to distinguish the hero of a thousand fights, the Iron Duke, his brother-in-arms, the Marquis of Anglesea, Earl Grey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lord Mayor of London, accompanied by all the civic officers in official garbs and barges, and the representatives of the Admiralty and Trinity House, and to complete the scene the old, gray, antique Tower of London, all the public buildings and the spires of all the churches were adorned with flags. In 1832, under the auspices of England's most consistent reformer, Lord John Russell, the controversy of nearly thirty years on the subject of reform of parliament took the shape of a bill, whose every schedule was severely scrutinized in and out of parliament, and ultimately became law, followed by similar measures for Scotland and Ireland, whereby large cities were enfranchised and privileged rotten boroughs cut off. Then came in quick succession reform in every department of the state. First on the list was the repeal of the test and corporation acts, which had so long disgraced the annals of British legislation. The strength attained by the popular powers by these measures was sensibly felt through every class of society. Even the king, from outward pressure, felt himself under the disagreeable necessity of taking into his counsels the distinguished- leaders of the distasteful opposition, prominent among whom was Brougham, who, by virtue of his appointment as Lord Chancellor, became the keeper of the conscience of the very man who at an earlier day he stigmatized in open court as a royal slanderer. The Duke of Newcastle, too, was practically made to understand that he could not do as he liked with what he was pleased to call his own. His rotten boroughs had to share the fate of that which formed the most profitable feature of a 60,000 purchase made by Sir Mark Wood, who in his place in the Commons had the audacity to ask the house if it considered it fair to deprive him of the privilege of returning two members to parliament through the instrumentality of a constituency of seven voters, some of whom were his own servants. About this time the altered tariff pressed heavily on the West India interest, and that which the philanthropy and eloquence of Clarkson, Wilberforce and others failed to do was accomplished easily on touching the pocket. The moment that Jamacia planters and those of other islands found their estates had ceased to be self-sustaining, and their slaves an absolute burden, they were willing to negotiate with the government for a bonus. The generosity of England is proverbial, but this virtue is not always exercised with prudence. The efforts of the people of the united kingdoms are patent to the world in behalf of human freedom. But saddling a willing people with a debt of twenty million pounds for an article which had outlived its usefulness was, to say the least, sharp practice, but dwelling on the price that breaks the galling chain of slavery is like looking a gift-horse in the mouth. The blessing of freedom is so far beyond all estimated value that the lopsided bargain was soon overlooked in the idea that now England, said to be the land of freedom, is no longer a political falsity. Throughout the extensive dominions of Great Britain the same immunity exists as pertained for centuries to her own sacred soil, which to tread on was to turn links of steel to gossamer. The increased power of the popular branch of the government began to be felt in high places. The sages of Threadneedle street and Leaden-hall street, and those of minor monopolies, had to put their respective houses in order when the sound of the besom of reform was heard at their thresholds. Joint-stock banking companies became admissible, and the legion of tea-sippers throughout the kingdom soon found that to go to London for a continued supply of their favorite beverage was no longer necessary. The Oriental trade being thrown open, and a free intercourse between the principal ports of Great Britain and those of the East, had the natural effect of augmenting the mercantile marine to an enormous extent, with all its concomitant advantages.

Catholic emancipation now became the all-engrossing subject for legislation. Its great and able advocate, Daniel O'Connell, had spoken too freely at a mass meeting of his followers, which led to his incarceration in Kilmainham jail. This event greatly increased his popularity, leading to his election to serve in parliament for County Clare. The form of swearing against his religion he indignantly resented, whereupon the seat for County Clare was declared vacant, and new writs issued. Mr. O'Connell was re-elected by the same constituency, and the farce in the Commons re-enacted, with the additional feature of his declaring to the speaker on vacating his seat that the day is not distant when he, the speaker, shall be by the voice of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland stripped of the power of removing him from this, his legitimate place in representing County Clare in Parliament. In the meantime O'Connell was gaining ground rapidly. He had all the manufacturing towns in England with him. Even Scotland, slow to move in that direction, was awakened by his eloquence and his happy handling of statistics. On one occasion eighty thousand people assembled on the Calton Hill, Edinburgh, to listen to his powerful arguments on behalf of his downtrodden fellow-countrymen. The King in his weak tergiversation had recourse to the assistance of his Tory friends, Sir Robert Peel and the Duke of Wellington, to form a ministry, which, when formed, astonished the world by its humiliating admission that it found two grave evils to contend against, the alternative being between anarchy and bloodshed on the one hand, and on the other Catholic emancipation, and it became the duty of his majesty's ministers to choose the less of the two evils. It therefore fell to the lot of the Tory party to submit a measure to parliament which stultified all the principles involved in the most active political and polemical opposition on record. But consistency is a jewel which is seldom found ornamenting the career of the politician.

The power of the landed interest now became the subject of general investigation. The tax on the workingman's loaf had to be considered. The trimming enactments and sliding scales of the lords of the soil had at length nauseated the nation, and under the auspices of Richard Cobden, John Bright, Doctor Bowring and many others an anti-corn-law league was formed at Manchester, whose branches ramified throughout the kingdom, and from whose councils written arguments by the ton weight were scattered broadcast over the land and rewards offered for the best essays on effects of the corn law on divers interests, one of which deserves particular notice, viz., The best written essay on the effects of existing corn laws on the farming interests of the land.


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