The Whigs

In the late 17th century the term Whig was used to describe those opposed to the religious policies of Charles II. In 1714 Queen Anne became very ill. The true heir to the throne was James Stuart, the son of James II. Many Tory ministers supported James becoming king. However, James Stuart was a Catholic and was strongly opposed by the Whigs. A group of Whigs visited Anne just before she died and persuaded her to sack her Tory ministers. With the support of the Whigs, Queen Anne nominated Prince George of Hanover as the next king of Britain. When George arrived in England, he knew little about British politics nor could he speak very much English. George therefore became very dependent on the Whigs who had arranged for him to become king. This included Robert Walpole who was made Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1715.

Walpole was such a powerful figure in the government he became known as Prime Minister, the first in Britain's history. He was also given 10 Downing Street by Prince George, which became the permanent home of all future Prime Ministers.

Robert Walpole believed that the strength of a country depended on its wealth. The main objective of Walpole's policies was to achieve and maintain this wealth. For example, he helped the business community sell goods by removing taxes on foreign exports.

Walpole did all he could to avoid war, as he believed it drained a country of its financial resources. However, in 1739 Britain became involved in a war with Spain. George II was in favour of the war and became Britain's last king to lead his troops into battle. Walpole, who thought the war was unnecessary, did not provide the dynamic leadership needed during a war. The Tory opposition accused Walpole of not supplying enough money for the British armed forces. Robert Walpole gradually lost the support of the House of Commons, and in February 1742 he was forced to resign from office.

Charles Fox was one of the most important Whigs in the 18th century. After 1780 Fox became a supporter of parliamentary reform. He advocated the disfranchisement of rotten and pocket boroughs and the redistribution of these seats to the fast growing industrial towns. When Lord Frederick North's government fell in March 1782, Fox became Foreign Secretary in Rockingham's Whig government. Fox left the government in July 1782, on the death of the Marquis of Rockingham as he was unwilling to serve under the new prime minister, Lord Sherburne. Sherburne appointed the twenty-three year old William Pitt as his Chanchellor of the Exchequer. Pitt had been a close political friend of Fox and after this the two men became bitter enemies.

For a short period in 1783 the Duke of Portland became leader of the Whig administration. The Duke of Portland's government was concerned with the power of the East India Company and in 1783 Charles Fox attempted to persuade Parliament to pass a bill that would replace the company's directors with a board of commissioners. George III made it known to the House of Lords that he would consider anyone voting with the Bill an enemy. As a result of this interference, Portland's government resigned.

When the French Revolution broke out in 1789 Charles Fox was initially enthusiastic describing it as the "greatest event that has happened in the history of the world". He expected the creation of a liberal, constitutional monarchy and was horrified when King Louis XVI was executed. When war broke out between Britain and France in February 1793, Fox criticised the government and called for a negotiated end to the dispute. Although Fox's views were supported by the Radicals, many people regarded him as defeatist and unpatriotic.

In April 1792, a group of pro-reform Whigs to form the Friends of the People. Three peers (Lord Porchester, Lord Lauderdale and Lord Buchan) and twenty-eight Whig MPs joined the group. Other leading members included Earl Grey, Richard Sheridan, Major John Cartwright, Lord John Russell, George Tierney, Thomas Erskine and Samuel Whitbread. The main objective of the the society was to obtain "a more equal representation of the people in Parliament" and "to secure to the people a more frequent exercise of their right of electing their representatives". Charles Fox was opposed to the formation of this group as he feared it would lead to a split the Whig Party.

On 30th April 1792, Earl Grey introduced a petition in favour of constitutional reform. He argued that the reform of the parliamentary system would remove public complaints and "restore the tranquillity of the nation". He also stressed that the Friends of the People would not become involved in any activities that would "promote public disturbances". Although Charles Fox had refused to join the Friends of the People, in the debate that followed, he supported Grey's proposals. When the vote was taken, Grey's proposals were defeated by 256 to 91 votes.

On 6th May 1793, Earl Grey once again introduced a parliamentary reform bill. Grey argued that one of the basic principles established by the Glorious Revolution of 1688 was the freedom of elections to the House of Commons. Grey added that "a man ought not to be governed by laws, in the framing of which he had not a voice, either in person or by his representative, and that he ought not to be made to pay any tax to which he should not have consented in the same way." Grey also attacked William Pitt, the Prime Minister, for the way that he exploited the present system. Grey pointed out that Pitt had created 30 new peers who nominated or indirectly influenced the return of a total of 40 MPs.

Charles Fox and Richard Sheridan supported Grey in the debate that followed. Robert Jenkinson and Lord Mornington, spoke against. So also did William Pitt who argued that any reform at this time would give encouragement to the Radicals in Britain who were supporting the French Revolution. When the vote was taken, Grey's proposals were defeated by 282 to 41. Members of the Friends of the People now realised they had no chance of persuading the House of Commons to accept parliamentary reform and the group disbanded.

In February, 1806 Lord Grenville was invited by the king to form a new Whig administration. Grenville, along with his Foreign Secretary, Charles Fox, were strong opponents of the slave trade. Grenville and Fox had both spoken against the trade in nearly all the debates on the subject since the first time it was discussed in the House of Commons in 1789.

Grenville was determined to bring an end to British involvement in the slave trade. Fox and William Wilberforce led the campaign in the House of Commons, whereas Grenville, had the more difficult task of persuading the House of Lords to accept the measure. Grenville made a passionate speech where he argued that the trade was "contrary to the principles of justice, humanity and sound policy" and criticised fellow members for "not having abolished the trade long ago". When the vote was taken the Abolition of the Slave Trade bill was passed in the House of Lords by 41 votes to 20. In the House of Commons it was carried by 114 to 15.

Lord Grenville now turned his attention to Catholic Emancipation. However, with the death of Charles Fox in September, 1806, Grenville government was severely weakened. When George III rejected Grenville's attempt to bring an end to Catholic disabilities in March 1807, he resigned from office.

Several attempts were made to persuade Grenville to return to government but he preferred to work from the backbenches. He continued to campaign against slavery and in 1815 argued against the Corn Laws. Grenville did support the introduction of the Six Acts and this led to Lord Liverpool offering his a place in his government. He refused and in 1823 a paralytic attack brought an end to his political career.

In June 1830 Earl Grey made an impressive speech on the need for parliamentary reform. The Duke of Wellington, the prime minister and leader of the Tories in Parliament, replied that the "existing system of representation was as near perfection as possible". It was now clear that the Tories would be unwilling to change the electoral system and that if people wanted reform they had to give their support to the Whigs.

On 15th November, 1830 Wellington's government was defeated in a vote in the House of Commons. The new king, William IV, was more sympathetic to reform than his predecessor and decided to ask Earl Grey to form a government. As soon as Grey became prime minister he formed a cabinet committee to produce a plan for parliamentary reform. Details of the proposals were announced on 3rd February 1831. The bill was passed by the Commons by a majority of 136, but despite a powerful speech by Earl Grey, the bill was defeated in the House of Lords by forty-one.

The defeat of the Reform Act resulted in Earl Grey calling a general election. The Whigs were popular with the electorate and after the election they had a larger majority than before in the House of Commons. A second reform bill was also defeated in the House of Lords. When people heard the news, riots took place in several British towns. Nottingham Castle was burnt down and in Bristol the Mansion House was set on fire.

In 1832 Earl Grey tried again but the House of Lords refused to pass the bill. Grey now appealed to William IV for help. He agreed to Grey's request to create a large number of new Whig peers. When the Lords heard the news, they agreed to pass the Reform Act. On 7th June the Bill received the Royal Assent and large crowds celebrated in the streets of Britain.

Earl Grey now called another general election and in the new reformed House of Commons, Grey had a majority of over a hundred. The Whigs were now able to introduce and pass a series of reforming measures. This included an act for the abolition of slavery in the colonies and the 1833 Factory Act. After the passing of the 1834 Poor Law Earl Grey decided to resign from office. Lord Melbourne was asked to became prime minister. Melbourne was not an ambitious man and had to be persuaded to take the post. William IV was now in a much stronger position and after four months the king dismissed the Whig government and appointed the Tory, Sir Robert Peel as his new prime minister.

As there were more Whigs than Tories in the House of Commons, Sir Robert Peel found government very difficult. Peel was only able to pass legislation that was supported by the Whigs and on 8th April 1835 he resigned from office. William IV was forced to reappoint Lord Melbourne as his prime minister.

Lord Melbourne was opposed to some of the measures being advocated by some of the more radical Whigs such as Lord John Russell and Henry Brougham. This included the proposal for the secret ballot and the idea of state education. Russell, the Home Secretary in Melbourne's government, did manage to introduce some progressive legislation. His first measure concerned the reform of local government. For many years most English towns had been under the control of a self-elected body of aldermen and councillors. Under the terms of the Municipal Corporations Act, these men now had to be elected by the whole body of ratepayers.

In 1836 Lord John Russell was responsible for several new reforms including the establishment of the civil registration of births, marriages, and deaths, and the legislation of the marriage of dissenters in their own chapels. The following year Russell proposed a bill that would reduce the number of offences to which capital punishment was applicable.

William IV died in 1837. His replacement, the eighteen year old Queen Victoria, unlike William, was willing to listen to the advice of her prime minister. Melbourne, whose wife and only child had recently died, became her mentor. An apartment was made available for him at Windsor Castle and it was estimated that Melbourne spent six hours a day with Victoria. Her feelings for Melbourne were clearly expressed in her journal. On one occasion she wrote: "he is such an honest, good kind-hearted man and is my friend, I know it."

Some people objected to this close relationship. Melbourne's old friend, Thomas Barnes, the editor of The Times wrote "Is it for the Queen's service - is it for the Queen's dignity - is it becoming - is it commonly descent?" In the autumn of 1837 a rumour circulated that the 18 year old Victoria was considering marrying the 58 year old Melbourne. Queen Victoria wrote in her diary that she was growing very fond of Melbourne and loved listening to him talk: "Such stories of knowledge; such a wonderful memory; he knows about everybody and everything,; who they were and what they did. He has such a kind and agreeable manner; he does me the world of good."

In 1839 Lord Melbourne resigned after a defeat in the House of Commons. Sir Robert Peel, the Tory leader, now became prime minister. It was the custom for the Queen's ladies of the bedchamber should be of the some political party as the government. Peel asked Victoria to replace the Whig ladies with Tory ladies. When Victoria refused, Peel resigned and Melbourne and the Whigs returned to office.

Lord John Russell had for a long time been a advocate of reforming the Corn Laws. This eventually became the policy of Lord Melbourne's government. However, when the proposed changes were defeated by thirty-six votes on 18th May, 1841, the government resigned. The following general election resulted in Sir Robert Peel becoming prime minister.

Although Lord Russell was opposed to most of Peel's policies, he fully supported his plans to reform the Corn Laws. In a speech he made on 22nd November 1845, Russell called for a total repeal of the corn laws. Peel was also coming to the same conclusion and with Whig support, the corn laws were finally abolished on 26th June 1846.

When Sir Robert Peel resigned the following month, Lord John Russell was asked to form a new government. Russell immediate problem was to deal with the potato famine in Ireland. Russell attempted to help by allocating £10 million to be spent on public works in Ireland. Russell also vigorously supported John Fielden in his campaign for factory reform. This resulted in the passing of the 1847 Factory Act. The following year he managed to persuade parliament to accept his government's Public Health Act that gave municipalities powers to set up local boards of health.

In December 1851 Lord John Russell sacked his foreign minister, Lord Palmerston, after he had recognised the government formed by Napoleon III in France without consulting with his fellow cabinet ministers. Palmerston gained revenge by proposing an amendment to the Militia Bill that was carried by eleven votes. As a result of this defeat Russell resigned and was replaced by the Earl of Derby.

Lord John Russell returned to the government when Lord Aberdeen became prime minister in 1852. In December Russell brought before the cabinet a new parliamentary reform bill. Many members of the cabinet, including Lord Palmerston, disagreed with the measure and threatened to resign. Disappointed by the lack of support from his colleagues, Russell decided to leave office.

Aberdeen's coalition government was very popular with the public at first. However, attitudes changed when Britain became involved in the Crimean War in 1854. Aberdeen was blamed for the mismanagement of the war and he was forced to resign in February 1855.

The aristocratic connotations surrounding the Whig name caused some politicians to refer to themselves as Liberals, a term used by reforming politicians in Europe. However, the term Liberal was not used officially until 1868 when William Gladstone became Prime Minister.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) J. Green, British History (1874)

Walpole was the first and he was the most successful of our Prime Ministers... He took off the duties from more than a hundred British exports... The wisdom of Walpole was rewarded by a quick growth of prosperity.

(2) A.L. Morton, A People's History of England (1938)

The policy of Robert Walpole and the Whigs was simple enough. First to avoid foreign wars as being harmful to trade. Then to remove taxes as far as possible, from the merchants and the manufacturers and place them upon goods consumed by the masses.

(3) H. Arnold-Foster, A History of England (1898)

Walpole was in many ways a really great man, and England owes much to his wisdom and good government... There can be no doubt whatever that for many years Walpole bribed and bought the support of Parliament. It must be said, however, that the practice was common at the time, and that he was by no means the only person who adopted it... It is only just, to Walpole, to say that... he bought votes in order to enable him to carry out what he really believed to be the best and wisest policy for the country.

(4) James Grant, Random Collections of the House of Lords (1836)

The name of Earl Grey is one which is, without question, destined to be better known by posterity than of any other statesman of the present day. The zeal and energy with which, in early life, he expoused those liberal principles of Reform which he afterwards not only lived to see triumphant, but whose triumph was chiefly brought about by his own instrumentality. He was the author of that great measure, and the Minister under whose auspices it was triumphantly carried through both Houses of Parliament, in defiance of a most decided and powerful opposition, that gives him that commanding station which he now occupies in the eyes of the country, and which his memory will inevitably occupy in the eyes of future ages.

(5) Mrs Arbuthnot's Journal (29th November, 1830)

I earnestly hope this government will not last and I don't expect it, for they are a most heterogeneous mass of persons taken from all parties and have made some most extraordinary appointments. Lord Grey has given good places to his son, his three sons-in-law, three brothers-in-law, besides nephews; has made two merchants, one Secretary to the Treasury and the other Vice-President of the Board of Trade. This is all quite new. No merchants were ever before put into financial situations, and certainly the Duke of Wellington did not crowd the offices with his sons and nephews.

(6) Lord Hatherton, E. J. Littleton, Chief Secretary for Ireland under Earl Grey, diary entry on the death of Earl Grey.

Lord Grey's death has long been expected - he was 82 - the uncompromising friend of Fox in the height of revolutionary madness in France. He gradually mellowed down into Conservative Whiggism, as years and experience advanced: and died as much a Conservative as Peel himself.

Lord Grey's carriage was aristocratic and lofty in the extreme. It was a fine thing to see him in his erect stature and graceful figure - and bald elevated forehead - on the floor of the House of Lords, delivering one of his great orations, which were always vigorously conceived, lucidly arranged, and given in fine classical language. He was generally in evening dress - black pantaloons (tight) and a white waistcoat, with Blue Ribbon and Garter.

(7) John Cam Hobhouse, described Lord John Russell's speech on parliamentary reform on 1st March, 1831 in his book Recollections of a Long Life (1910)

Lord John Russell began his speech at six o'clock. Never shall I forget the astonishment of my neighbours as he developed his plan. Indeed, all the House seemed perfectly astounded; and when he read the long list of the boroughs to be either wholly or partially disfranchised there was a sort of wild ironical laughter. Baring Wall turned to me, said, 'They are mad! they are mad!' and others made use of similar expressions - all but Sir Robert Peel; he looked serious and angry.

Lord Russell seemed rather to play with the fears of his audience; and, after detailing some clauses which seemed to complete the scheme, smiled and paused, and said, 'More yet.' When Lord John sat down, we (the Radicals) cheered long and loud; although there was hardly one of us that believed such a scheme could, by any possibility, become law of the land.

(8) Charles Sumner described a speech by Lord Russell in the House of Commons in 1838.

Lord John Russell rose in my mind the more I listened to him. In person diminutive and rickety, he wriggled round, played with his hat, and seemed unable to to dispose of his hands or his feet; his voice was small and thin, but notwithstanding this, a house of five hundred members was hushed to catch his smallest accents. You listened, and you felt that you had heard a man of mind, of thought, and of moral elevation.

(9) Princess Lieven to his brother Alexander, 2nd March, 1831.

I was absolutely stupefied when I learnt the extent of the Reform Bill. The most absolutely secrecy has been maintained on the subject until the last moment. It is said that the House of Commons was quite taken by surprise; the Whigs are astonished, the Radicals delighted, the Tories indignant. This was the first impression of Lord John Russell's speech, who was entrusted with explaining the Government Bill.

I have had neither the time nor the courage to read it. Its leading features have scared me completely: 168 members are unseated, sixty boroughs disfranchised, eight more members allotted to London and proportionately to the large towns and counties, the total number of members reduced by sixty or more.

(10) Sir Denis Le Marchant, journal (March, 1831)

Lord Russell spoke for rather more than two hours. A more noble and convincing plea for Reform had not been heard for many years within the walls of the House. It stamped him as a statesman, an orator, and a patriot.

(11) Letter to The Times (8th June, 1832)

Now that the Reform Act has reached its consummation, I suggest the exertion of your powerful influence to set immediately on a penny subscription, for the purpose of erecting a triumphal arch in Hyde Park. A statue of William the Reformer surmounting the elevation, supported by the figures of Lords Grey, Brougham, Althorp and Russell, would be a noble monument of a great and generous peoples' gratitude, to hand down to posterity - to endless time.