Janice Carlisle, “On the Second Reform Act, 1867”


The Second Reform Act, arguably the signal political event of the 1860s, enfranchised large numbers of working-class men by setting a new financial standard for the suffrage. It became law only after members of Parliament vigorously debated the failed reform measure proposed by the Liberal party in 1866 and the successful, though much amended, Conservative bill of 1867. The law created new problems when it terminated compounding, the customary practice by which landlords added to their tenants’ rent the sums that covered the poor rates and other taxes that those tenants owed. The Second Reform Act therefore exemplifies the way in which one piece of reforming legislation in the mid-Victorian period often created the need for another. Completing at least some of the work that the 1867 act had been expected to do, the Assessed Rates Amendment Act in 1869 reinstated compounding; in doing so, it liberalized the qualifications for voting in the boroughs of England and Wales in a way that moved Britain toward the goal of universal (manhood) suffrage.


The Second Reform Act (1867) raised in its own time and continues to raise in ours two deceptively simple questions, one of cause and the other of effect. How did a bill for which there was so little enthusiasm become law? To what extent did its passage grant Britain a genuinely representative government? For many contemporary observers, the act was, for better or worse, an obviously liberalizing measure because it typically enfranchised a majority of working-class men living in the boroughs and cities of England and map iconWales. Thomas Carlyle, writing in his diatribe Shooting Niagara: And After? (1867), had no doubts that the Great Unwashed, as working men were often called, would soon be catastrophically ascendant: the country was about to take the “Niagara leap of democracy,” after which the nation would be ruled by a “Swarmery” of men “buzzing, humming . . . tumbling in infinite noise and darkness”; all political questions would be determined by a simple “Count of Heads” (4, 10, 1). The poet Coventry Patmore wrote in similar tones of despair, “the orgies of the multitude/ . . . now begin” (ll. 62-63). The number of potential new electors explains, at least in part, such hysteria. The Second Reform Act – more formally, An Act Further to Amend the Laws Relating to the Representation of the People in England and Wales (30 & 31 Vict., c. 102) – no doubt extended the work of the First Reform Act of 1832. While the earlier legislation increased the number of electors, largely middle-class men, by approximately 40% or 50%, an increase that yielded a proportion of one voter for every six or seven adult men, the act of 1867 enlarged the overall electorate by approximately 90%, to about one man in three.[1] Yet when measured against the realities of the numbers of men who could or would actually go to the polls, such figures may not be as definitive as they seem.

Why the act passed is similarly unclear. Any conventional Victorian political wisdom would have predicted that the Whigs or Liberals, as many Whigs were being called with increasing consistency, would have ushered in electoral reform, thereby confirming the widespread belief among workers that the Tories or Conservatives were indifferent to the interests and needs of the so-called people. Such a logical outcome was not to be. In 1867 the Conservatives, led by Lord Derby as prime minister in the House of Lords and by Benjamin Disraeli as chancellor of the exchequer in Commons, sponsored a reform bill a year after the Liberals, led by Earl Russell as prime minister in Lords and W. E. Gladstone as chancellor in Commons, had failed to pass their own version of such a measure. Like the earlier repeal of the Corn Laws (1846), the Second Reform Act proved that conservative politicians can sometimes pull off a reform beyond the power of their more progressive opponents. Most conservative thinkers, however, deplored that outcome. Even a moderately liberal political analyst like Walter Bagehot, looking back on the recent passage of the act, conjured up a vision of a political defeat that would lead inevitably to further defeats: “The Conservative party relinquished the citadel without a fight. . . .  After this triumph, innovators will believe that they can have what they wish, and they will attack with the vigour of men who have just won and who mean to win again; while the Conservatives will defend like men who have just lost, and lost not after an heroic struggle, but meanly and by surrender” (Works 6: 390-91). Yet the metaphor of the state as a fallen citadel – a metaphor that appeared in many Victorian accounts of the Second Reform Act – is no more an adequate account of what caused that fall than a comparison of pre- and post-reform statistics is of its effects.

Traditional accounts of the 1867 act, including those published by Victorian witnesses, often tried to explain its passage by instancing a combination of party politics and strong personalities and public pressure.[2] Added to such forces were a number of destabilizing events – war in map iconItaly and between map iconFrance and Prussia as well as a financial crisis in London – that made legislators anxious to settle the question of reform, as did the spread of poor economic conditions and a cholera epidemic, which, rightly or wrongly, increased fears of working-class unrest. Those supporting an extension of the franchise were cheered by the rise of Garibaldi in Italy and the Civil War in the United States, both of which were seen to be motivated by the ideals of freedom and political autonomy. In addition, after 1865, Gladstone emerged as an increasingly powerful, if cautious, advocate for reform. More generally, the various explanations of the passage of the act that have been offered by historians since the nineteenth century accord with, not surprisingly, the changing nature of historical inquiry: the focus on the high politics of parliamentary maneuvers that was dominant through the 1960s has been replaced more recently by attempts to set the act in larger cultural contexts, the most important of which, I think, involves the nature and structure of British class relations.[3] From such a perspective, the Second Reform Act reflects either the “persistence” of aristocratic power or the emergence of “class collaboration.” Yet describing the passage of the 1867 bill as an “accident” was and still is typical: that formulation links Victorian writers as diverse as Bagehot and the art critic John Ruskin to historians like Jonathan Parry and Robert Saunders.[4] The account offered here is in one sense retrograde: it returns to the arena of high politics, but it does so in a way, I hope, that recognizes the range of factors that contributed to the passage of the Second Reform Act and the “accidental” convergence of contingencies that seemed to make reform inexplicably inevitable.

The issues raised by electoral reform could be so dauntingly dense and detailed that they often perplexed Victorian onlookers and even rank-and-file MPs: one of the latter memorably complained about both the substance and the audibility of the speeches in the House by objecting that “it was quite impossible to know what was going on.”[5] In fact, one of the reasons that the Conservative bill became law might have been that a number – perhaps a determinative number – of MPs voted for a measure whose implications they simply did not understand. Yet the chief source that I draw upon in this essay is the archive of parliamentary debates that these bewildered MPs and their leaders created when they considered passing reform bills in 1866 and 1867 and, two years later, when they in effect amended the 1867 act. Speeches in Parliament were impressively long in the Victorian period, and one sitting often spanned from the afternoon into the wee hours of the next morning, thus typically yielding well over forty-thousand words when it was afterwards transcribed in Hansard. A single speech could easily run to over eighteen thousand words, longer by half again than a monthly installment in a twenty-number Dickens novel. Reading the Historic Hansard, as it is called on the Web site of the UK Parliament, is, I hope to demonstrate, one of the pleasures of Victorian studies: both compelling ideas and vivid personalities emerge from its hundreds and thousands and hundreds of thousands of words.  Victorian legislators, however, prided themselves more on the eloquence than on the amplitude of their speeches, the delivery of which one of them ironically described as strewing “flowers of speech” on the floor of the House of Commons (H 183: 124).

These characteristically Victorian feats of verbal prowess have come down to us in a form that is not a word-for-word recording of their contents,[6] but the record that we have does reveal the tenor of the major day-to-day deliberations over the possibility of expanding the electorate. Such a perspective on the Second Reform Act highlights both the forms of rhetoric that Members of Parliament used to address this issue and the predictable, if sometimes not very uplifting, personal concerns with which they often invested it. Although it is well beyond the scope of this essay to analyze how parliamentary speeches in the late 1860s affected the wider realm of public opinion, examining the changing nature of the statements made by MPs of both parties demonstrates how those legislators wished that public to understand and to judge their support for reform or the lack thereof. In that sense, an account of the Second Reform Act drawn from the pages of Hansard illuminates the manner in which it was proposed, amended, and passed.

These debates testify to the extraordinary complexity not only of Victorian legislative procedures but also of Victorian election law, much of it based as it was on cases tried in courts specifically created to adjudicate rival claims about a man’s eligibility to vote. So ornate were such precedents and their application that there emerged in the mid-Victorian period a specialized publishing industry devoted to the production of hefty and frequently revised handbooks for use by election officials and party agents. Although I do not have recourse here to such guides as the tenth edition of Rogers on Elections, Election Committees, and RegistrationWith an Appendix of  Statutes and Forms (1865) and the twelfth edition of Cox and Grady’s The New Law and Practice of Registration and Elections, Parliamentary and Municipal (1872), the reader should be warned that I do include a relatively ample amount of specificity, without which it would be impossible to communicate a sense of what was at stake in franchise reform. Similarly, only a detailed account of election law makes clear a point downplayed in some current treatments of the Second Reform Act: the question of whether a man did or did not have a vote in Victorian Britain, both pre- and post-1867, was a highly intricate matter of pounds and shillings and pence.

By extending the story beyond 1867 to the passage of the Assessed Rates Amendment Act in 1869, I hope to emphasize the importance of rate-paying as the basis for the Victorian franchise. Before the Second Reform Act, Conservatives lauded as a bulwark of the constitution the personal payment of the rates levied to support the aged, indigent, and unemployed. Yet in most parishes, the rates and taxes due on relatively inexpensive housing were not paid directly to the collectors of them; rather, they were added to – or “compounded” with – the rent paid to landlords. Because the first version of the annual list of voters was copied from the list of men who had paid their rates directly – “personally” – to a collector, those whose payments were compounded and therefore made by their landlords faced almost insuperable challenges if they wanted to vote. When the Second Reform Act eliminated compounding, the adjective personal was removed from the phrase personal payment of rates, but the requirement that rates be paid, one way or another, remained inviolate even after compounding was reinstated in 1869.

However complex such matters were, one question stood out from all the others in 1866 and 1867 as the major issue of mid-Victorian franchise reform: how many men – for which read: how many working-class men – should be added to the electorate? MPs used many distinctive rhetorical strategies as they attempted to answer that question: apparently reasoned citation of statistics; invocations of classical allusions or religious language; calls to patriotism; virulent attacks on the opposing party or its individual members; and lengthy attempts at self-justification. Yet the ways in which these ingredients were combined in 1866, when the failure of the Liberal bill led to the downfall of the Liberal government, and in 1867, when the Conservatives were triumphant, differ in surprising ways; and those differences make it possible both to confirm and to alter conventional characterizations of the high politics of the late 1860s. Disraeli in his time was often the object of anti-Semitic prejudices (see Fig. 1), as is evidenced by Carlyle’s calling him a “superlative Hebrew Conjuror” in Shooting Niagara (12); but in the 1867 debates, the Conservative chancellor of the exchequer does not emerge as the unprincipled manipulator that he is often still taken to be.[7] Even more surprisingly, Gladstone, frequently praised for his ability to “govern by speaking” (Meisel 83), presided in 1866 over a House of Commons whose members often gave priority to the needs of their egos, perhaps because they were following his lead. Ethos, the time-honored method of basing one’s argumentative appeals on one’s character, was customarily treated with “indulgence” in Parliament: according to the chief Victorian authority on the practices of Commons, MPs had great “latitude” when it came to explaining or defending their own “character or conduct” (May 296-98). Yet in 1866 ethos, often inflected with plenty of pathos, tended to overwhelm logos. In both sessions, verbal fireworks were as typical as incomprehension was widespread. By contrast, the 1869 parliamentary debates over assessed rates were fairly straightforward, even lackluster; and they indicate a significant waning of the fears that franchise reform had generated only two years earlier. Although I can focus here on only the major figures in these debates, their speeches demonstrate, I think, what a lively, if sometimes baffling, place the Victorian House of Commons could be.

Punch cartoon

Figure 1: Contemporary cartoon of Disraeli outpacing Gladstone at The Derby, parodying the perceived victor in debates in a split Liberal-led Commons while Disraeli’s fellow Conservative, Lord Derby led as Prime Minister from the House of Lords

Debating the Borough Franchise

To provide a number of different perspectives on the major implications of the Second Reform Act, I treat here one specific change, the extension of the franchise in the boroughs and cities of England and Wales. In narrowing my focus in this way, I am choosing to discuss one side rather than another in a series of oppositions. Electoral reform in the Victorian period, as in many others, involved binary distinctions that were clear in theory and messy in practice. First, it could alter either the qualifications for the suffrage or the nature and boundaries of electoral districts. Redistricting in 1867 was no doubt more consequential than was or is commonly recognized – K. Theodore Hoppen notes that Disraeli’s goal was “not to make more voters vote Conservative, but to construct a system in which Conservative voters counted for more” (253) – but in the 1860s, most parliamentary and public debate focused on franchise qualifications. Second, men who lived in counties had to meet a standard that differed widely from that applied to men in boroughs. Both suffrages were crucial in determining the relative power of the two parties in the House of Commons, but MPs and the press and the reformers in such organizations as the largely working-class Reform League were more concerned about the franchise in the boroughs, where working-class populations were concentrated, than in the predominantly rural and agricultural regions of the counties. According to Gladstone, speaking in 1866 of the proposed Liberal reform legislation, the borough franchise was “the very hinge of the whole framework of this Bill”; and one of his counterparts in 1867 went farther when he explained that the clause dealing with the borough franchise “was by far the important portion of the whole Bill – it was in reality the Reform Bill” (H 183: 114; 187: 804). Third, the fact that both those formulations come from speakers in the House of Commons, rather than from those in the House of Lords, also testifies to the relative importance of these two bodies in the origination of Victorian legislation. By concentrating on the borough franchise in England and Wales as well as on the debates in the lower map iconhouse of Parliament, my approach coordinates with contemporaneous views on what mattered most in electoral reform during the mid-1860s.

Another set of preliminary distinctions is in order here, as is a warning about the inadequacies of historical generalization. The difference between the First and Second Reform Acts is often framed as the difference between the so-called property qualification of 1832 and the so-called household suffrage of 1867. Yet those simple formulations are accurate only if they are understood as shorthand for complex and specifically Victorian ways of defining ownership and residence. The 1832 measure, often accorded the honor of being the “Great Reform Act,” allotted the franchise to any man who had occupied for one year a “house” with a “clear yearly value” of £10; but occupation did not mean ownership, and a “house” could be any structure capable of containing a man’s family or servants or property, so that not only homes but also offices, storerooms, and even cowsheds could count toward this qualification. There were other requirements, but most important was a man’s payment of all assessed taxes and poor rates, the sums levied by a parish or combination of parishes for the support of those who could not support themselves. It almost went without saying, though it often was said, that such a would-be voter must not have accepted poor relief during the previous year.[8] Despite the fact that this suffrage depended on the “clear yearly value” of a “house,” the term value could and did mean different things to different authorities. In the context of the 1832 bill, it meant a “rental value,” the cost of rent minus rates and other taxes. Even this brief attempt at definition – and Victorian electoral law was all about what Disraeli called “the dangerous domain of definitions” (H 188: 521) – suggests that the £10 standard was and is less than “clear”: because a tenant, not an owner, paid the rates and taxes due on a property, “rental” did not refer to the actual sum paid by the occupier of a “house.” The Second Reform Act construed franchise qualifications quite differently, but equally confusingly. In the boroughs, the main requirement was that a man had to have lived for one year in a dwelling of such value that he would be expected to pay poor rates and taxes, which he had indeed paid, again without having accepted any relief.[9] Thus the monetary test of fitness for the franchise remained after 1867 as important as it was after 1832: although it was less direct, it was no less imperative. The earlier law involved what was known as a “fixed-line franchise”; the later one, a supposedly more liberal standard based on the inhabitance of a dwelling that identified its resident as a man well-off enough to be capable of contributing to the welfare of others. Understanding those distinctions makes accounting for the passage of the Second Reform Act both a simpler and a more complicated process than one might expect.

The basic story of that passage seems clear enough. Timing, as in all political endeavors, was crucial. In the late 1850s and early 1860s, the Whigs and Tories enjoyed brief stints in office, during which they made repeatedly unsuccessful moves toward electoral reform.[10] When the Whigs took over the government, their leader, Lord Palmerston, felt no pressing need to extend the franchise. He was therefore both surprised and dismayed when, during a parliamentary debate in 1864, Gladstone, his chancellor of the exchequer, made a soon-to-be famous equation of the franchise and moral worth: “I venture to say that every man who is not presumably incapacitated by some consideration of personal unfitness or of political danger is morally entitled to come within the pale of the Constitution.” Later on, Gladstone often identified artisans as the kind of men whom a reform act should enfranchise, but he pointed out in this speech that factory workers had borne with admirable patience and selflessness the suffering – the lack of work and therefore the lack of wages – that resulted from the cotton famine, as the interruption in the supply of raw materials during the US Civil War was called. Gladstone went on to ask, “What are the qualities which fit a man for the exercise of a privilege such as the franchise? Self-command, self-control, respect for order, patience under suffering, confidence in the law, regard for superiors” (H 175: 324, 325). Although Jonathan Parry has wittily dismissed the idea that the Second Reform Act resulted from a “romantic” belief in the virtuous worker (207), Gladstone in this speech inaugurated working-class character as one of the topics that would dominate franchise debate in 1866.[11]

When Palmerston died in October 1865 and Earl Russell, now sitting in the House of Lords, became prime minister, Gladstone, again the chancellor of the exchequer, was given his chance to turn his ideal of the law-abiding working-class man into the fact of a working-class suffrage. The Liberal reform bill of 1866 would have changed the extent, but not the nature, of the standards that determined who could vote. Gladstone proposed a borough franchise that reduced the required rental value of the property that a man occupied from £10 to £7; it also added lodgers whose rooms were worth £10 a year and, through what was called a “fancy franchise,” men with £50 in savings banks (Seymour 247-50). Not surprisingly, the debates during 1866 tended to focus on the issue of numbers and the relation of those numbers to the stability of the “citadel,” as Bagehot later called the nation. Although the Liberal government was in the majority, it was not able to command the votes of a number of its own members, some opposing any reform and some championing a wider enlargement of the electorate. The most obstreperous of the former group were the Adullumites, so labeled because they, like their Old Testament counterparts, were discontented with their leaders. During the weeks when the passage of a bill began to seem more and more unlikely, the tone of the debates in the House of Commons became more and more mean-spirited, with personal attacks and personal explanations predominating over statements of principles or objectives.

At the outset, however, Gladstone had set the agenda in a more rational fashion when he offered electoral statistics to prove that a portion of relatively well-off working-class men deserved the suffrage. The precision of Victorian statistics – for instance, election expenses in a specific borough calculated down to the last penny – is often suspect, but the recourse to them, particularly in Parliament, is frequently revealing. In the case of the borough franchise in 1866, they go to the heart of the matter. Would new voters “swamp” their constituencies and thereby undermine Britain’s unwritten constitution, whose greatest strength was either, according to Whig and Liberal views, the balanced representation of diverse interests or, according to the Tories and Conservatives, its maintenance of the ascendency of the propertied classes? Patriotic statements about the defense of the nation were therefore often as typical of parliamentary speeches as was a confidence in the argumentative power of statistics. Yet when Gladstone introduced his bill on 12 March 1866 in an astonishingly long and intricate speech, his almost obsessive fascination with numbers made him sound like a combination of grammar-school tutor and evangelical preacher. His discourse on “arithmetic” reportedly put some MPs to sleep, while others found comic relief in his teacherly tones:

If [the] Gentlemen will take the pains to add together from page 54 of the statistical volumes the gross total of the male occupiers at £7, and under £10, and will then make a Rule of Three sum, having for its first two terms the gross number of occupiers above £10, and the present number of the £10 constituency, and for its third term the gross number of occupiers between £7 and £10, the fourth term will give the probable constituency upon reducing the franchise to £7. [Laughter from the Opposition Members.] I am very glad that these studies in arithmetic prove so amusing, as they are generally thought to be among the drier class of subjects. But the result is that the figure is 156,000 persons. [An hon. MEMBER:  The gross number?] No, the net number. (H 182:  53)

Gladstone presented hours of less “amusing” and even more mind-numbing statistics, too many for his audience to comprehend. Typical is one of his citations of official election returns, which, though “among the drier class of subjects,” is valuable because it clearly indicates how restrictive the working-class suffrage actually was before 1867:

in Oldham, with a constituency of 2,285 [voters], the working class represent 315, or one in 8 of the population; in map iconHalifax, with a constituency of 1,771, the working class stands at 171, or one in 10; in Stockport, with a constituency of 1,348, the working class is 124, or one in 11; in Bradford, with a constituency of 5,189, the working class is 438, or one in 12; in map iconLeeds, with a constituency of 7,217, the working class stands at 523, or one in 14 . . . .  [In Rochdale] with a constituency of 1,358, the enfranchised working class stands at only 68, or one in 20. (H 182:  37-38)

Despite the responses of his bored colleagues, such statistics have their drama, as the figures here rise inexorably from “one in 8” and “one in 12” to “one in 20.”  Gladstone ended this speech with a stirring evocation of the benefits of the “new attachment” to their country that the enfranchised members of the working classes would feel: “for the attachment of the people to the Throne, the institutions, and the laws under which they live is, after all, more than gold and silver, or more than fleets and armies, at once the strength, the glory, and the safety of the land” (H 182:  60). Such soaring oratory surrounded the nitty-gritty of the borough franchise with the visionary grandeur of a nation in its full “strength” and “glory.”

Equally memorable was the classical allusion that Gladstone used in this speech when he urged his fellow MPs not to give in to a fear of working-class “political power”: “We cannot look, and we hope no man will look, upon it as upon some Trojan horse approaching the walls of the sacred city, and filled with armed men, bent upon ruin, plunder, and conflagration. We cannot join in comparing it with that monstrum infelix” (H 182: 59). By quoting lines about that “accursèd portent” or “ill-omened monster” from the second book of the Aeneid,[12] Gladstone tried to specify what a reformed borough franchise would not do: it would not cram the rolls of voters with workers “bent on ruin, plunder, and conflagration.” He offered a more positive counterargument to the claims of his opponents some ten days later when a Conservative speaker questioned the validity of the information in the government returns on which MPs were asked to rely: statistics do not constitute, the chancellor now averred, an appropriate way to think about the borough franchise because they make it “seem as if [MPs] were engaged in ascertaining the numbers of an invading army; but the persons to whom their remarks apply are our fellow-subjects, our fellow-Christians, our own flesh and blood” (H 182: 873). Here Gladstone’s language equates the extension of the borough franchise and the elimination of slavery: it would be the political liberation of anyone who could ask, in the words of the famous abolitionist slogan, “Am I not a man and a brother?” Such a sentimental slide down the slippery slope toward universal suffrage – what man or what woman, for that matter, is not “our own flesh and blood”? – was an easy and therefore a repeated target for Conservative MPs.

The most effective attacks on the Liberal bill came not from the Conservative Disraeli, but from an equally gifted speaker, the Liberal MP Robert Lowe, one of the leaders of the Adullamites. Lowe consistently argued that control of the House of Commons should remain in the hands of “wealth” and “intellect” rather than “numbers” (H 188: 1540), the educated few rather than the unthinking many. On 13 March 1866, he took the floor of the House of Commons to champion his conception of unlegislated franchise reform: if “the working man” would spend his money on rent rather than on dissipation, he would be able to use his rising wages to “get the franchise for himself.” Lowe also mocked Gladstone’s pedantry: the chancellor was “eloquent in distinctions – in which we could not all follow him – with respect to compound householders, tenants of flats, lodgers, and other abstruse personalities.” Amid all these confusing “distinctions,” Lowe complained, Gladstone had failed to offer any principles that would justify the passage of the bill. Calling on his fellow MPs to “consider” all the “unhappy experiences” that they had had in dealing with their constituencies – Lowe himself had been badly wounded during a fairly typical election brawl – he then posed what were arguably the most resonant and consequential set of questions in all the long debates over reform: “If you want venality, if you want ignorance, if you want drunkenness, and facility for being intimidated; or if, on the other hand, you want impulsive, unreflecting, and violent people, where do you look for them in the constituencies? Do you go to the top or to the bottom?” Answering his own query, Lowe declared that those at the “bottom” of the current electorate – “the £10 shopkeepers, and lodging-house keepers, and beerhouse keepers” – were characterized by “venality” and “ignorance” and “drunkenness.” In short, there were already enfranchised such a large number of morally unqualified men that extending the franchise any lower would be folly. In yet another rhetorical flourish, Lowe sarcastically compared supporters of franchise reform with those naïve souls who believe in the myth of the Hyperboreans, the people who are “always warm, happy, and virtuous” because they live on the other side of the North Wind (H 182: 147, 143-44, 147-48). The outrage engendered by this speech quickly spread far beyond the House of Commons. Lowe’s very name became anathema to working-class reformers: his words were emblazoned on banners and quoted at demonstrations, predictably eliciting “whistles and groans” from the assembled crowds (Biagini 260, n23).

Both Gladstone’s reference to the Trojan horse of the Aeneid and Lowe’s denunciations of the lowest segment of the current electorate were cited repeatedly in a series of sittings in 1866 that became known as the “great eight-nights’ debate,” during which the House of Commons considered an amendment, which had been offered by the Adullamite Earl Grosvenor, that would have required the introduction of a redistribution bill before a vote could be taken on franchise reform. The speeches given from 12 to 27 April have garnered considerable praise (Cox 47, Smith 82). Closing the eight nights in an address that began after 1:00 am, Gladstone himself reviewed what he called the “historical debate,” one that involved “what is called ‘making History,’” by congratulating his colleagues in the House of Commons for having offered up “the choicest treasures of its wit, its argument, its rhetorical, and its persuasive powers” (H 183: 181). Yet the oratory exercised over those eight evenings (and early mornings) was often far less elevated than such a characterization would suggest. It was signally self-regarding in a number of different ways: members spend considerable time defending themselves from personal attacks and turning to the past to justify their actions. The speakers often seemed unwilling, even unable to rise above a contest of personalities, their own as well as those of their opponents.

On the first night of this “great” debate, Gladstone concluded his lengthy opening speech, full of statistics and accounts of previous efforts at reform, by defending at such great length his previous comments on the meaning of Lowe’s infamous words that the issue of franchise reform fell by the way. The chancellor’s self-defense was exceptionally detailed: he made one overly nice distinction after another and carefully specified who said what where and when. Gladstone, in moving the second reading of the bill, reverted to the Trojan horse, again denying that the £7 voter would be a “monstrum infelix,” but this time he unaccountably made such a possibility seem more frightening than it had been in his previous invocation of it by referring to a “Trojan horse charged with armed men” poised to “carry fire and desolation through your homes” (H 182: 1148, 1149). Not content to use the falling citadel of Troy as an analogy for post-reform Britain, Gladstone, albeit by trying to refute that equation, suggested that the cherished homes of respectable Victorians – “your homes” – were in danger of violent invasion. The chancellor also made it clear, however, that this classical allusion was a weapon in a personal contest between two parliamentarians:  “What I have said, I have said to justify myself for having believed, with reluctance and with pain, but still for having honestly believed, that [Lowe’s] speech was a denunciation of the working community.” Gladstone offered in the last words of his own speech a call to action: “Enough, and more than enough, there have been already, of barren, idle, mocking words. Deeds are what are wanted.” Yet his previous words made action seem unlikely. Lowe, the next speaker, indulged in excesses of self-pity, providing a torturous explanation of how his words had been “garbled” not only by Gladstone, but also by Russell at a meeting outside the House of Commons and by the radical MP John Bright in a speech in Rochdale. Declaring with notable exaggeration, “No man in the world has been subjected to more abuse than I have been during the last month,” Lowe asserted his own “perfect integrity” (H 182: 1149, 1152).

Lowe, however, reserved his rhetorical fireworks for the seventh night of the debate when, at the end of a very long speech, he responded to Gladstone’s renewed allusion to the Trojan horse, which gave Lowe a chance to make fun of his colleague’s fame as a classicist. (Gladstone’s well-respected three-volume Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age had appeared in 1858.) Mocking “My right hon. Friend” by calling him a “singed” moth who had helplessly returned to the “candle” of “the poor old Trojan horse,” Lowe quoted and helpfully translated the lines from Virgil’s Aeneid that describe what happens when the “monstrum infelix” is allowed into Troy: “‘The fatal horse pours forth the human tide, . . . . The gates are burst; the ancient rampart falls, And swarming millions climb its crumbling walls.’” Lowe then turned to lofty visions of England’s majesty and its unique status among other, necessarily inferior nations. Passage of the Liberal reform bill, he predicted, would:

destroy one after another those institutions which have secured for England an amount of happiness and prosperity which no country has ever reached, or is ever likely to attain. Surely the heroic work of so many centuries, the matchless achievements of so many wise heads and strong hands, deserve a nobler consummation than to be sacrificed at the shrine of revolutionary passion or the maudlin enthusiasm of humanity? But if we do fall, we shall fall deservedly. Uncoerced by any external force, not borne down by any internal calamity, but in the full plethora of our wealth and the surfeit of our too exuberant prosperity, with our own rash and inconsiderate hands, we are about to pluck down on our own heads the venerable temple of our liberty and our glory. History may tell of other acts as signally disastrous, but of none more wanton, none more disgraceful. (H 182: 2117-8)

Employing the time-honored rhetorical figures characteristic of great speeches from Pericles on, Lowe offered a majestic cascade of parallelisms and antitheses: “wise heads and strong hands,” “external force . . . internal calamity.” He also foreshadowed the terms of Bagehot’s post-reform lament over a fallen citadel when he prophesied the destruction of a “venerable temple” by “revolutionary passion.” With such dissidents within his own party, Gladstone hardly needed to look for opposition from those seated on the other side of the House. Disraeli, however, added some of his more purple prose when he seconded Lowe’s vision of imminent doom on the last night of the debate: if franchise reform is enacted, “there will be no charm of tradition; . . . no families of historic lineage; [no] great estates . . . ; no statesmanship, no eloquence, no learning, no genius. Instead of these, you will have a horde of selfish and obscure mediocrities, incapable of anything but mischief, and that mischief devised and regulated by the raging demagogue of the hour” (H 183:  93). Civilization, it was clear from such a perspective, might soon be nearing its end.

Various other speakers during the “great eight-nights’ debate” followed, usually more closely than Disraeli did, the pattern set by Lowe’s speech: self-justification leading to flights into the empyrean of God and country. John Bright, the first speaker on the sixth night, offered a set of compelling statistics to counter government figures that, for instance, estimated the ratio of working-class men who were already electors in a specific borough as 29% of the 680 voters there. Deducting beersellers, “cart owners, cowkeepers, and tradesmen with assistants,” the ratio, Bright declared, was actually 11% (H 182: 1891-1892). Yet in the most remarkable part of his speech, Bright took issue with those who characterized him as a demagogue willing to say whatever the workers gathered at “monster” meetings wanted to hear. Instead of being condemned, he said, he should be praised for his role in securing Britain’s peace and prosperity. After defending the honor of workers who had been unfairly described as the embodiments of “poverty and passion,” Bright continued to defend himself: if the workers of the “great” cities of the North and in London are not “hungry and exasperated multitudes,” if they are peaceful and productive, “if [the country’s] statesmen glory” in that situation, “have not I, as much as any living man, some claim to partake of that glory?” Although Bright had fostered plenty of partisan divisions, he ended his speech by appealing to values that transcend party while he again expressed his pride in his role as the promoter of “the public welfare”:

And now, when I speak to you and ask you to pass this Bill; when I plead on behalf of those who are not allowed to speak for themselves in this House, if you could raise yourselves for this night, for this hour, above the region of party strife – if you could free yourselves from the pestilent atmosphere of passion and prejudice which so often surrounds us here, I feel confident that, at this moment, I should not plead in vain with the Imperial Parliament on behalf of the English Constitution and the English People. (H 182: 1893, 1903-1904)

Championing the unwritten constitution and flattering his fellow MPs as members of an “Imperial Parliament,” Bright presented himself as the speaker for the speechless and a statesman above “party strife” – a posture that probably amused more of his listeners than it persuaded.

The only MP in the eight nights of this debate to eschew self-justification, self-congratulation, and chauvinism was John Stuart Mill. Serving his only term in Parliament, the famous Utilitarian philosopher had been elected arguably because he refused to flatter the working- and lower-middle-class voters of the map iconborough of Westminster. On this occasion, he used his logical skills to deflate Conservative arguments against reform. Lowe had repeatedly referred to a figure from one set of government returns that revealed that 26% of working men in boroughs and cities already enjoyed the suffrage. Employing his characteristically clear reasoning and understated sarcasm, Mill explained that a minority of  26% of the electorate gave workers the “right of voting [that] may be only the right of being everywhere outvoted” (H 182: 1256), in response to which, as one record of this speech makes clear, several of his colleagues added “A laugh, and hear.[13] Yet more compelling was Mill’s ploy of adopting his opponents’ arguments and turning those arguments against them. He defended the extension of the franchise, not by having recourse to democratic principles, but by citing “the class theory, which we all know is the Conservative view of the constitution.” To more cheers, Mill asserted, “Now, all that need be asked at present is that this theory be applied to practice. There is a class which has not yet had the benefit of the theory. . . .  We claim, then, a large and liberal representation of the working classes, on the Conservative theory of the constitution. (Cheers).” Surprisingly, the author who had established his authority as a commentator on working-class character in successive editions of his Principles of Political Economy (1848) avoided that timely subject. Instead he addressed his listeners as “reasonable men” who were ready to admit the limited perspectives resulting from “their mental habits or their position in life.” A reformed House of Commons, Mill prophesied, could become a school for MPs, who would then have access there to the “many just ideas and much valuable knowledge” that only workers could provide. Nor would MPs be the only beneficiaries of such a series of literally radical lessons: “I can hardly conceive a nobler course of national education than the debates of this House would become, if the notions, right and wrong, which are fermenting in the minds of the working classes, many of which go down very deep into the foundations of society and government, were fairly stated and genuinely discussed within these walls” (Works 28: 61, 65, 66). Mill’s words clearly made an impression: he spoke on the second night of the debate, and there was hardly a speaker, Liberal or Conservative, on the subsequent six evenings who did not silently adopt or directly refer to his approach to the question of franchise reform.

The final speech of the eight nights’ debate was, as tradition demanded, Gladstone’s; and he used it to defend himself against recent attacks on his past political allegiances, his past statements, and his current political allies. Inexplicably, Gladstone categorized his own previous words about working men as “persons [who] are . . . our own flesh and blood” as an “elementary truth” that should not be construed as an argument for franchise reform: he explained that he had been goaded into stating that truth by Conservative claims that an extension of the franchise would amount to a “domestic revolution”; but he was not, he assured his listeners, guilty of the “greatest imaginable absurdity” of thinking that such an idea could or should be adduced in support of the Liberal reform bill. Then the chancellor of the exchequer unaccountably blamed Lowe for having originated the “illustration” of the Trojan horse and the idea that workers constituted “an invading ambush” on “a city all fore-doomed.” Finally, Gladstone entered the realm of autobiography so that he could counter Disraeli’s mockery of him because Gladstone, as a young man, had opposed the passage of the First Reform Act. As if to prove that he had not had enough of the Aeneid, Gladstone called himself a “shipwrecked” Aeneas welcomed by the Dido of the Whig party when, out of the “resistless forces of conviction,” he had changed his political allegiances. Once again referring to Lowe’s characterization of voters at the bottom of the electorate as “drunken” and “venal,” the chancellor promised that he would “refrain from recalling those words,” which he was therefore recalling, so that he could go on to deflate Lowe’s main argument against reform, the prediction that it would Americanize the British constitution (H 183: 120-21, 129-30, 143).

In the final segment of his extremely long speech, Gladstone returned the debate to the subject that he had first broached in 1864, working-class character: “My hon. Friend says we know nothing about the labouring classes. Is not one single word a sufficient reply? That word is map iconLancashire.” By referring again to the stoic forbearance of factory operatives in the face of the “sufferings of the last four years, so painful and bitter in themselves to contemplate, but so nobly and gloriously borne,” Gladstone was able to engage the argument of numbers in support of parliamentary reform: “The qualities then exhibited were the qualities not of select men here and there among a depraved multitude, but of the mass of a working community. The sufferings were sufferings of the mass. The heroism was heroism of the mass.” Yet the chancellor also conceded that the “struggle” for franchise reform might soon lead to the downfall of the Liberal government. To make his point, he cited a line from the fourth book of the Aeneid, this one equating the Liberal bill with the lovelorn Dido:

this Bill is in a state of crisis and of peril, and the Government along with it. . . . We stand with it now; we may fall with it a short time hence. If we do so fall, we, or others in our places, shall rise with it hereafter. . . . At some point of the contest you [Conservative MPs] may possibly succeed. You may drive us from our seats. You may bury the Bill that we have introduced, but we will write upon its gravestone for an epitaph this line, with certain confidence in its fulfilment – “Exoriare aliquis nostris ex ossibus ultor” [Arise, some avenger, from my bones]. You cannot fight against the future. Time is on our side. The great social forces . . . are against you; they are marshalled on our side; and the banner which we now carry in this fight, though perhaps at some moment it may droop over our sinking heads, yet it soon again will float in the eye of heaven, and it will be borne by the firm hands of the united people of the three kingdoms, perhaps not to an easy, but to a certain and to a not distant victory. (H 183: 147, 151-52)

Gladstone’s renewed quotation of the Aeneid led him into a logical morass. Britain was no longer a besieged Troy: by adopting the voice of Dido when she curses Aeneas and calls for a champion who will wage perpetual war between her people and his, Gladstone seemed to be suggesting that the Conservatives were now playing the role of the Trojan leader who would go on to found a glorious empire. Despite the grand cadences of Gladstone’s spoken prose, if not because of his tortured classical allusion, the government won this vote by only a slim majority, a mere 5 out of an usually large total of 631. In the event, Gladstone’s words correctly foretold the imminent Conservative triumph.

So weakened was the Liberal government that its leaders unwillingly agreed to consider a redistribution bill before calling for a vote on their proposed franchise reforms – precisely the course that they had just so narrowly avoided – and a series of votes led to similarly marginal victories (Smith 91-110). The end came when Lord Dunkellin, an otherwise insignificant Irish MP on the Liberal side of the House, proposed that the “clear yearly value” of the £7 borough franchise be construed as a rateable value rather than the “gross estimated rental” in the ministry’s bill (H 184: 539). Basing the eligibility for the franchise, at least in part, on the payment of poor rates had already created significant inequities within boroughs and between parishes because rates were determined in accordance with numbers of different national acts and local understandings.[14] Setting the requirement for the vote on the rateable value of a house could only increase the unequal treatment of potential voters and the often chaotic complexity of the suffrage. The distinction between rental and rateable (or ratal) made, as Gladstone rightly objected, all the difference.[15] The former, as he stressed, was “almost exactly, the real value” at which a property was rented (qtd. Cox 71) because it was the cost of rent minus only rates and other taxes; rateable values were less indicative of what a person paid in rent because they were calculated by deducting a set percentage of the gross estimated rental to cover the cost of maintenance, such as insurance and repairs. Those deductions were made by using percentages that were remarkably inconsistent from one parish to the next. In map iconExeter, the rateable value of a dwelling varied among seven parishes from 15% to 50% below the rental value. As the Victorian commentator presenting this statistic commented, “To refer the suffrage to such a variable test would be like making a standard yard of elastic tape” (Cox 75). Switching the meaning of “value” from rental to rateable therefore made more restrictive and less equal the kind of the “house” – in this case MPs were still dealing with cowsheds and warehouses as well as dwellings – that would confer the vote; and it would eliminate approximately 60,000 men from the modest number whom Gladstone was attempting to enfranchise. It was also impossible to come up with a rateable value that would be the equivalent of a rental value of £7, a rateable of £5 yielding more potential voters and a £6 rateable yielding fewer (Seymour 256). Such arguments against the amendment did not sway those Conservatives and Liberals who opposed the reform bill; and at the end of the sitting on 18 June 1866 in the early hours of next morning, the government lost the contest by a majority of 11 out of another usually large total vote of 619.[16]

Having announced at the very end of this debate that such an outcome had to construed as “striking at” the Liberal bill (H 184: 638), Russell and Gladstone had little option but to consider this loss fatal to their government. After a week of uncertainty, Queen Victoria on 26 June 1866 accepted the resignations of the Liberal ministers. Two days later, an MP lamented that the government had fallen on “a mere point of detail,” “defeated” by forty-four Liberals (H 184: 699). Yet, as the speeches of the 1866 session suggest, the failure of the Liberal bill was perhaps attributable less to the efforts of a group of renegade Liberals than to an inability on the part on many MPs to master the intricacies of the proposed borough franchise. One contemporary commentator deplored the “ignorance” and the “hallucinations” evident on the part of those supporting Dunkellin’s amendment: against all the evidence, they, along with Dunkellin himself, accepted the idea that switching from a rental to a rateable value would introduce the use of the rate books as the basis of the suffrage, a practice already central to the Liberal bill (Cox 68, 75). These were matters that, as Gladstone had repeatedly tried to explain, involved much more than “mere point[s] of detail.”

With the formation of a minority Conservative government, Disraeli, now serving as chancellor of the exchequer, once again had an opportunity to try his chances with franchise reform. Fueling what feelings there were that something had to be done was the growing fear of working-class displeasure and working-class demonstrations. In the spring of 1866, there had been “monster” meetings in London – some 12,000 supporters of reform gathering in map iconTrafalgar Square, for instance (Smith 128) – but after the ouster of the Liberal party, reformers, middle-class and working class alike, staged demonstrations to embarrass the Conservative government and to foster support for franchise reform. The most unnerving of such public displays came to be known as the map iconHyde Park riots – three days at the end of July 1866 when the park was taken over, either by the Reform League or by ruffians, depending upon whose account one believes, once its gates had been forced open on Monday, 23 July, either by prearranged plan or by the unintended pressure of perhaps as many as 200,000 people excluded from it, again depending upon whose account one credits. The results of the violence are also in doubt: according to some reports, only the flowers in the park suffered much damage; according to others, there was one death, along with many injuries. The police stationed in the park were unable to control the situation; and troops were finally called in, though when order was actually restored to the park is not clear. What was not in dispute at the time was the fear that these events engendered. In essays that would come together in 1869 as Culture and Anarchy, Matthew Arnold saw in them “anarchy,” violence that should be met by violence; one newspaper declared that “civil war” was at hand; and Karl Marx hoped for another such conflict, this one a “really bloody encounter” in the park that would be the harbinger of revolution.[17] Lowe’s reference to the Trojan horse seemed to have been uncannily prophetic: “the gates [were] burst,” and the “swarming” tens of thousands entered over literally “crumbling walls.” The size of reform demonstrations and the degree of discipline that their participants displayed became more and more impressive during the fall of 1866: 150,000 gathered at meetings in Birmingham and Leeds, followed by 120,000 at Manchester and 130,000 in Glasgow (Smith 139-40); but their massed numbers caused very little trouble. Hyde Park, therefore, remained the site of the most infamous of these demonstrations. Although the unrest during 1866 and 1867 never caused the destruction and even terror that preceded the passage of the First Reform Act, MPs probably paid more attention to such factors than either they or later historians admitted.

Yet when Parliament opened again in February 1867, Disraeli and Lord Derby revealed the weakness of their coalition ministry when they tried to put off any real action by introducing a set of reform resolutions instead of a reform bill. That strategy, however, was an immediate and predictable failure. The new chancellor of the exchequer soon brought to the floor of the House what was called the “ten minute” bill because it reportedly had been adopted by the cabinet in that risible amount of time. The bill mandated a £6 rateable-value franchise in boroughs and cities. After that too failed, Disraeli introduced a second bill on 18 March. The borough suffrage would now be granted to men who personally paid their rates if they had resided for two years in the same constituency. Disraeli’s bill attempted to lessen the effects of this provision by adding the “fancy franchises” that he had proposed back in 1859, including men with university degrees or with £50 in funds or savings banks, along with members of the learned professions. Most controversially, this bill called for dual votes for householders in the boroughs who paid direct taxes of 20s. per year as well as for men of “capital and knowledge,” as some Conservatives called them. When Disraeli introduced his bill, he offered the statistic that would, like the figure of 26% in 1866, resonate throughout the early weeks of the debates: according to him, only 237,000 men would be enfranchised in the boroughs by the rating portion of the bill, a figure offset by the 305,000 men who would be granted the suffrage through the fancy franchises and dual voting (Smith 167-68). In effect, this Conservative bill would have enfranchised only slightly more men than Gladstone’s 1866 measure would have done, though there would be among them fewer working-class voters (Seymour 258-59). For all its modesty and safeguards, however, the Conservative bill was genuinely innovative. Gone was any specific number of pounds that would attach to qualified “houses.” Disraeli proposed that the eligibility to vote should be accorded any adult man who lived in a rateable dwelling and who had paid all the rates and taxes due on it, as long as he had not accepted poor relief during the previous year. Perhaps moved to such a reform by the many times he had mocked Gladstone for his faith in a fixed-line franchise, “your precious line” (H 186: 647-48), Disraeli argued that security against further reforms could be found in a flexible financial test that would gradually enfranchise more and more working men as economic conditions improved, as, it was assumed, they would continue to do.

Between 18 March 1867, when Disraeli introduced this bill, and 15 July, when it finally passed the House of Commons, it was so completely altered by one amendment after another that, as a member of the House of Lords later quipped, it retained from Disraeli’s original bill only the word “Whereas” (qtd. Parry 216). Because the Conservative leadership had asked the House, deliberating as a committee of the whole, to participate in the shaping of their bill, the “marvellous changes” that it underwent, as Gladstone called them, were engineered by members of both parties. The proposed two-year residency to be required for the franchise in boroughs and cities became one year, provisions for fancy franchises and for most dual votes simply disappeared, and lodgers were given an at-least-hypothetical chance to vote. (Mill’s attempt to inaugurate women’s suffrage through an amendment that would have replaced the word man in the bill with the gender-neutral person failed, although there were seventy-two other MPs willing to vote for it with him.) Other political maneuvers succeeded in slowly stripping away the various protections that Disraeli had included in his party’s bill, and they ultimately increased the electorate created by the Second Reform Act well beyond any numbers that Gladstone had envisioned in 1866. Lowe, with icy fury on 20 May, excoriated a bill that had “proceeded like the car of the Juggernaut, crushing under its wheels” both principles and party. The clause dealing with the borough franchise was, according to Lowe, “the most important [measure] ever submitted to the House of Commons”; and it had been “more amended and more cobbled than any other clause probably ever was”; and he asked in vain that it be reprinted so that MPs could know what they were voting for or against (H 187: 784, 781). Moreover, as Robert Saunders has noted, the passage of the Conservative bill was “almost without precedent, in that MPs . . . never actually voted on the scheme as a whole” (259), an obvious violation of “customary” parliamentary procedure (May 450). The bill – one of whose clauses, according to Lowe, “comprise[d] in itself a whole revolution” (H 187: 781) – therefore became law in an unusual, even radical, manner.

How had such a “revolution” taken place? Why did the bill pass the House of Commons and then, with little opposition, the House of Lords? Not surprisingly, one prominent view, then and now, attributes the passage of this bill to Disraeli’s need to triumph over Gladstone and the Liberal party, no matter the cost – to “dish the Whigs,” as it was put by more than one contemporary. Mixed in with this motive and supposedly increasing its impact was the idea that Disraeli, despite his Anglican baptism, was simply more Semitic, more cunning and deceptive than other, supposedly more Christian MPs. The parliamentary debates of 1867 tell a different story. Although it must have galled the defeated Liberals to hear Disraeli support a relatively generous extension of the franchise when he had opposed a more moderate measure seven months earlier and, even more so, to listen to him now declare that no government should fall just because it lost a vote on reform, Gladstone in 1867 performed similar political flip-flops, most remarkably when he tried to amend the Conservative bill by proposing a fixed-line borough franchise set at a £5 rateable rather than rental value. Lowe late in that process commented more generally on how stunningly dissimilar were the terms of the speeches of 1866 and 1867. Using parallelism as his central rhetorical device, he launched into a lengthy series of contrasts between “last year” and “this year”:  “Last year . . . we argued the question”; “this year . . . we have been engaged in revolting details”; “We had statistics last year; this year we have souls above statistics”; “last year” everyone talked of “swamping,” but “Who talks of ‘swamping’ now?”; “Last year” Gladstone championed “skilled labour,” but now “Nobody talks of skilled labour” (H 187: 786-88). The extent to which these contrasts accurately characterize the differences between the speeches of 1866 and those of 1867 reveals the mixture of motivations that contributed to the passage of the Conservative bill.

Several rhetorical ploys, pace Lowe, were used consistently from one session to the next. MPs were frequently treated to the history of the various attempts at franchise reform, sometimes going back as far as 1797, but usually beginning in 1852, as does this remarkably concise account offered by a Conservative MP:

In 1852, a £5 rating franchise failed. In 1854, a £6 rating franchise failed. In 1859, the non-lowering by any amount of the borough franchise failed. In 1860, a franchise of the yearly value of £6 failed. In 1866, a franchise of the yearly value of £7 failed. In 1867, a scheme, which was a short time before the House, failed. (H 186: 505) 

The personal attacks and attempts at self-justification that had marked the 1866 session were much less frequent than they had been, perhaps because so many MPs directed their venom at Disraeli and his supposedly Semitic trickery and “tergiversation.” One MP spoke obliquely of the chancellor as an “Asian mystery” (H 186: 1315, 1609). Yet the most furious vituperation came from Viscount Cranborne, who, along with Lowe, gave an outraged speech on the night when the bill passed the House: the “mysteries of this inscrutable Session” wrought by Disraeli’s “sophistry” and “legerdemain” had led to a “political betrayal which has no parallel in our Parliamentary annals.” To Cranborne, the lesson was clear: “If you borrow your political ethics from the ethics of the political adventurer, you may depend upon it that the whole of your representative institutions will crumble beneath your feet” (H 188: 1537, 1539). On the last night of the debates in 1867, there also reappeared the highly emotional appeals to patriotism that had been prominent in 1866. Using another elaborate reference to ancient history, this one equating Britain and map iconGreece, Lowe deplored the “dishonest victory” that was about to turn his country into a “perishing nation” and a “downtrodden civilization”: the only emotions that a “cultivated Englishman” could feel at this moment of crisis were “the shame, the rage, the scorn, the indignation, and the despair” appropriate to such an “ignoble” outcome. According to Lowe, the nation had been defeated by the modern equivalent of the Macedonian armies of Philip II, and his was the only voice able to convey the appropriate response to the “shameful victory” that the country had won over itself (H 188: 1550).

The cascade of outraged feelings that Lowe found appropriate on this occasion – shame, rage, scorn, indignation – identifies one of the two ways in which the debates of 1867 differed radically from those of 1866: appeals to emotions and explicit confessions of emotion often dominated discussion. The 1867 debates had a clearly discernible dramatic arc, one that offers a way of understanding what moved members of the House to extend the borough franchise: impatience yielded to confusion, confusion yielded to resignation, only to be followed by Lowe’s and Cranborne’s scornful fury and a show of calm self-possession on the part of the chancellor of the exchequer. Throughout all the stages of this process, the debates evidenced a second new feature: concern about the pressure of time, the need to get something done in the current session. Some of the urgency resulted from the fear that an impasse would mean the dissolution of Parliament and the expense of another election, some from the sense that workers now really did demand action. Often emotion and timing were conjoined when MPs spoke of what one of them called the “anxious desire to settle the matter.” As March turned to April and April to May and then to June and July, such anxiety seemed to be having almost physical effects, as distaste turned to illness and the smell of the map iconThames became more intolerable: the members were “tired and sick” of and “nauseated” by the subject of reform (H 186: 606, 1291; 187: 1182). Not surprisingly, then, “hot haste” created misunderstandings that kept many MPs so confused that they ended up supporting an act for which they had no “particular affection” (H 186: 1291; 188: 1540).

“Hot haste” accurately describes Disraeli’s acceptance of the most significant of the amendments proposed, the one dealing with compounding. Almost everyone touched by this system was happy with its effects: it offered conveniences to the rate collector, landlord, and tenant by making easier, more frequent, and therefore more predictable the payment of rates. Yet the practice clearly limited the extension of the franchise proposed by the Conservative government. Before 1867, compounding had kept large numbers of men from voting: in St. Giles parish in London in 1865, there were 4,921 compounders who met the £10 standard, but only 5 of them were enfranchised (Cox 192); and although the number of such exclusions would be lessened by the bill now before Parliament, they would in no way be eliminated. To solve this problem, early in the evening of 17 May, up stepped a Liberal backbencher named Grosvenor Hodgkinson, who proposed a badly worded amendment that simply did away with compounding, thereby enfranchising every otherwise eligible householder by making him responsible for the direct payment of his rates. Gladstone rose to defend this amendment. Recognizing that the “settlement of a great political problem” might require “sacrifice and inconvenience,” the leader of the Liberal opposition explained that, “for the sake of . . . immediate settlement,” he was ready to undertake “a complete waiving of the ground upon which we have stood” (H 187: 717, 719). After listening to Gladstone’s willingness to set aside the principle of a fixed-line suffrage, Disraeli, apparently taking advantage of a sparsely populated house, quickly voiced his assent to Hodgkinson’s amendment, and it was adopted without a vote. In a moment in the history of parliamentary contests that baffled commentators at the time and has continued to do so ever since, Disraeli, much to the consternation of his Conservative colleagues, accepted the motion without taking the advice of the cabinet. In the event, Hodgkinson’s amendment alone enfranchised approximately half a million men (Cowling 45; Saunders 266).

Disraeli countered criticism of his action by claiming that the amendment did not violate either of the central principles of the Conservative bill – residency and rate-paying – and he reiterated that point in the last speech that he gave just before the bill was passed. The Conservatives, as a minority government, could defuse the danger that the country faced only if, according to Disraeli, they proceeded “in the spirit of compromise and mutual concession.” The chancellor went on to counter the pessimism voiced by Cranborne and Lowe with a final confession of faith less in the qualities of Britain’s voters present or future than in the traditions and character of the country itself: “For my part, I do not believe that the country is in danger. I think England is safe in the race of men who inhabit her; that she is safe in something much more precious than her accumulated capital – her accumulated experience; she is safe in her national character, in her fame, in the tradition of a thousand years, and in that glorious future which I believe awaits her” (H 188: 1604, 1613-14). When he looked back on what he saw as one thousand years of stability, Disraeli offered a no-doubt blinkered account of British history; but he conjured up this vision to prove that there was no reason to fear the future, just as Gladstone had done by referring in 1866 to the working-class “attachment . . . to the Throne” as an asset greater than “gold and silver.”  Moreover, harkening back to the 1840s and his dreams of Young England, Disraeli tried to outdo Gladstone’s faith in the upright artisan by claiming that the “great body” of the people, not the superior “class” of skilled laborers, would have more sympathy with Tory values than with those of the great Whig landowners (H 188: 1609-10). Although he was in the short term to be disabused of this notion – in the election of 1868, the newly enfranchised electorate famously “said thank you” for franchise reform to Gladstone and the Liberals by returning a Liberal majority – in the long run Disraeli was right about the conservative tendencies of “the popular heart” of rank-and-file workers. (That was certainly the point that Bagehot made more acerbically in The English Constitution [1867] when he defined deference as the ignorant response of the masses to the glitz of the upper ten thousand and the monarchy.) Accused at the time of prevaricating and later on of exercising the worst sort of political cynicism – one historian has recently called Disraeli’s explanation “mere persiflage” (Hoppen 253; cf. Cox 255) – the chancellor had a point whenever he spoke of his basic adherence to Conservative principles or of the need in 1867 for “concession.”

When the Conservative bill became law on 15 August, it did so with a much-emended version of Hodgkinson’s amendment, and it created perhaps more than three times as many voters as Disraeli’s original bill would have enfranchised (Cox 201). In 1865-1866, the number of borough electors was around 515,000; by 1871 it had risen over 1,250,000 (Parry 335).  During the debates over the borough franchise, Disraeli had asked, “Who are these people to whom you are offering the franchise – this limited number which is confined only to the boroughs of England? . . .  They are Englishmen, who have been born and bred under the influence of the laws, the manners and customs and traditions of the country.” At this point a wag, perhaps of the Liberal party, gave out a “cry of ‘Our own flesh and blood,’” to which Disraeli, always the good Tory, responded, “Far beyond ‘flesh and blood,’ laws, customs, and traditions are far more effective.” Those formal and informal institutions would guarantee, as he had said on the day when he introduced his bill, that “this country is a country of classes, and a country of classes it will ever remain” (H 188: 1114; 186: 25). Although Lord Derby famously called the passage of the act a “leap in the dark,” as several other MPs before him had labeled the bill,[18] he tried in the House of Lords to offer comforting words, but Conservatives like the duke of Rutland were having none of it; as the latter said, “The Constitution, as settled by the Reform Bill of 1832, had suffered shipwreck, and gone down with her colours flying and all hands on the quarter deck.” Then, switching metaphors, Rutland returned to the Aeneid when he concluded, “Another city, like that of ancient Troy, had fallen” (H 188: 1830). From such a perspective, as Lowe had predicted, it was clear that MPs, “with [their] own rash and inconsiderate hands,” had “pluck[ed] down . . . the venerable temple” of Britain’s “liberty” and “glory.”

Punch cartoon

Figure 2: A Punch cartoon from August 1867 portraying the bill as a leap in the dark

The Result?

But had they? Should Bagehot have announced the fall of the citadel or Carlyle, the reign of a stinging “swarmery” of dirty workers? Disraeli, who had claimed in June of 1867 that “the elements of democracy do not exist in England,” consoled his fellow party members by telling them that only approximately a fifth of the men in the 1,500,000 houses in the boroughs would “qualify to exercise the franchise,” and other members of his party reassured themselves with the notion that working-class men would not “take the trouble” to pay their rates so that they could vote.[19] In 1832, T. B. Macaulay, then a young MP, famously urged his colleagues to “reform so that they could conserve,” and the Second Reform Act arguably conserved more than it reformed. Because any given parliamentary act does not alter any previous act unless explicitly stipulating that it does so, the £10 franchise survived the passage in 1867 of “An Act Further to Amend” the suffrage, but so too did many of the limitations that continued to exist after 1832. Some of these exclusions – along with the predictable categories of “women, idiots, criminals, and minors” – must seem to us odd: excise men, certain kinds of tax collectors, men who worked for such government services as the Post Office, policemen, and election agents were all deemed ineligible to vote. Moreover, various other forms of suffrage survived both the First and Second Reform Acts: the “ancient rights” voter was one who derived his eligibility from his location in a particular kind of borough or his membership in a specific group of men, such as “freemen, liverymen, burgage holders” or “potwallopers” (men who had both fireplaces and “pots” in which to “wallop” or cook their food). After 1867, there remained approximately 43,000 such electors (Seymour 282). These exclusions and inclusions, except in case of potwallopers, slowed the trends towards what Victorians defined as democracy; but there were other, more consistently effective ways of ensuring that the household suffrage about which Disraeli had boasted would remain more a political slogan than a political reality.

Conservatives crying doom did so without considering the often significant hurdles that stood between working-class men and the vote – hurdles so high that the stonemason Henry Broadhurst was elected to serve as an MP in the House of Commons before he himself could vote (Seymour 381). How many qualified working-class voters were turned away from or never went to the polls is impossible to know, though some estimates are as high as 50% (Cowling 380 n1). Such an outcome should not be surprising. In addition to the number of men who would not pay their rates in order to vote, as the Conservatives put it, were the men who could not pay or who were themselves so impoverished that they were excused from paying poor rates. At the end of 1867, there were in these categories more than 165,000 adult occupiers in boroughs of over 20,000 inhabitants (Smith 202). Since rates were no longer compounded in rents, a worker might be expected to pay in advance the amounts due for the next three months or for twice or even four times that long; and because workers, unlike their middle- or lower-middle-class counterparts, moved often, they were more unable or unwilling to come up with such large lump sums. Even more problematic was the ornate and unworkable system of registration, initiated by the First Reform Act, that had made a parish’s rate book the basis of the voting register. Among the many difficulties that this system posed were: multiple series of complicated deadlines, lists of rate payers compiled by often incompetent officials, elaborate forms, processes of claiming a vote for oneself or of objecting to another man’s vote, and two kinds of courts (one in London) in which claims and objections were adjudicated. A select committee investigating the workings of the registration system in 1869 found plenty of reasons to deplore its shortcomings. In one case, a barrister presiding over a local revision court summarily struck 2,400 men from the registers, even though he was repeatedly warned he had no legal right to do so (Report 44-45). Moreover, registration processes, like parliamentary debates, were replete with confusion and obfuscation. According to those testifying in front of the 1869 committee, registration was simply a “farce,” a “mass of blunders.” To the MPs on the committee, it was “a scandal to our representative system”; and the “grievances” of working men could be redressed only through a new statute, one that would be the “necessary complement and corollary to the Reform Act of 1867” (Report 24, 55, vi, v).

No such “complement and corollary” on the issue of registration was forthcoming. Even the famously controversial issue of how electors recorded their votes – by voice or by ballot – was dealt with in 1872 when the Ballot Act became law (see Elaine Hadley, “On Opinion Politics and the Ballot Act of 1872″), but for decades the registration system remained largely unreformed. The problems created by the elimination of compounding, however, were addressed more quickly than those caused by registration. Yet Hodgkinson had been wrong to think that compounding could be eliminated by a wave of his – or Disraeli’s – hand. Here, in a way typical of much Victorian legislation aiming at reform, theory and practice faced off; and here, as was also generally the case, practice won. A customary way of doing business was not likely to disappear if it worked to the advantage of every party involved. The flouting of the new law that eliminated compounding was widespread: landlords and overseers simply did just as they liked when it came to the poor rates that tenants owed. The language that MPs used in 1869 as they described the resulting situation might seem hyperbolic: the boroughs were experiencing “disturbances and rioting almost”; “parochial anarchy” reigned (H 197: 1369; 196: 1314). Yet conditions were often genuinely chaotic. Working men were expected to come up with relatively large sums of money, rate collectors had to badger them repeatedly and then issue summonses to those unable to produce such amounts, and workers’ “goods and chattels” could be seized and sold for nonpayment of rates. When a new MP for the borough of map iconHackney estimated that 100,000 summonses had been served in his constituency, he asked his listeners to recognize that this “great calamity” had caused “the greatest anxiety, distress, and serious loss to thousands of poor families.” As another member lamented, the new system was “the most inconvenient, irritating, and odious it was possible to conceive – and all this under the name of political reform” (H 196: 1314; 197: 363).

Such statistics and such rhetoric emerged in the spring and summer of 1869 after the Liberals, still in power, put forth legislation that would reintroduce or, rather, re-legitimize the practice of compounding. After only three debates, a bill passed, receiving the royal assent on 26 July 1869 as the Poor Rate Assessment and Collection Act, 1869, or, more formally, An Act for Amending the Law with Respect to the Rating of Occupiers for Short Terms, and the Making and Collecting of the Poor Rates (32 & 33 Vict., c. 41). The seventh clause of this measure, replacing the seventh clause of the Second Reform Act, mandated that rates paid by either the owner of a dwelling or its occupier “shall be deemed a payment of the full rate by the occupier for the purpose of any qualification or franchise which as regards rating depends on the payment of the poor rate.” A second crucial stipulation, set out in the nineteenth clause of this relatively brief act, was that the names of the occupiers should be entered into the rate book even if their landlords had paid the rates due on their dwellings; the occupier was in that case as “duly rated for any qualification or franchise aforesaid” as if there had been no compounding of rates. Another provision regularized the practice of compounding by allowing landlords of dwellings of certain values – £20 or less in London, £13 in Liverpool, £10 in Manchester or Birmingham, and £8 in other boroughs (clause 3) – to enter into written agreements about rate paying. In addition, according to a genuinely transformative stipulation, owners of dwellings and overseers of the poor were liable to summary convictions and fines of £2 for every name of an eligible voter omitted from the lists that officials were required to compile.

The most remarkable features of this act and of the parliamentary debates that led to its passage were the almost revolutionary effect of the former and the largely pedestrian, disengaged tenor of the latter. The rate-paying clauses of both the First and Second Reform Acts had been seen from the early 1830s through the 1860s as safeguards against democratic rule. Conservatives held that the personal payment of rates was the only way to prevent the disempowerment of the middle and upper classes, which together constituted less than approximately 20% of the population. Yet Gladstone now sounded a bit like Disraeli trying to reassure his Conservative colleagues after the passage of the Second Reform Act: the Liberal leader weakly contended that an assessed rates act would leave untouched the rate-paying clauses of the Second Reform Act (H 197: 528). Other Liberals also tried to downplay both the intention and effects of the bill under discussion. George Goschen, president of the Board of Trade, held that the bill involved matters of finance, not of politics (H 196: 1303). Why the tone of the debates in Parliament was so relatively subdued remains an open question. Some members on both sides of the House seem to have feared that the confusions and consternation of 1866 and 1867 might be revived. Moreover, “a great number” of the Liberal candidates in the election of 1868 had pledged to “disconnect, as soon as they possibly could . . . the suffrage from the payment of rates,” as one of them put it (H 194: 330); and any movement toward that goal might have seemed worthy of support.

The only MP who put some life into the debates over the poor-rate assessment bill, thereby offering at least one explanation of its successful passage, was William George Granville Venables Vernon Harcourt, a Liberal MP who had made a late entrance into Parliament in 1868 as a representative for Oxford after decades of working as a lawyer and as a writer for such periodicals as The Morning Chronicle, The Saturday Review, and The Times. Offering not quite the last word on this subject before the bill came to a vote, Vernon Harcourt noted that the abolition of compounding was widely acknowledged to have been “a great economical blunder,” and he then contributed to the debates their most vivid image:

[MPs] had been occupied [in the debate] last Monday in assisting at the obsequies of that once famous principle – “the personal payment of rates.” Besides the active part taken on the Liberal side in that proceeding, they had had the additional advantage of the tacit consent of hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite, who might be said to have assisted as mutes at the funeral of a personage who had been once so dear to them.

“Tacit consent” was the order of the day. As Vernon Harcourt put it, the “hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite,” the Conservatives, had been reduced to the role of clown-like professional mourners assisting in the “funeral” of what had been one of their most cherished principles. Yet he went further still: his colleagues “might call the Bill what they liked, but there could be no doubt it was a new Reform Bill,” one that had been “necessitated by the errors of the Bill of 1867” (H 197: 519, 521).

It is hard to argue with that assessment. The 1869 law was in effect a “new Reform Bill.” As conservative commentators rightly feared, the Poor Rate Assessment and Collection Act had a transformational effect simply because one of its clauses required that the names of all rate-paying occupiers be entered in the rate books. The great irony about the 1869 act was that it accomplished what Gladstone had proposed in 1866 when he excluded from the Liberal bill the personal payment of rates as a requirement for the suffrage: if the Liberals had been able to pass their bill in that year, its £7 fixed-line franchise might have been more limiting than the so-called household suffrage of the Conservative bill, but it clearly would have moved more quickly than did the act of 1867 toward the goal of separating voting from rate paying. Any liberalizing effects that the Second Reform Act might have had, therefore, actually depended on a little-known and less-heralded act dealing with assessed rates. This apparently minor piece of legislation arguably did more to move Britain toward a fully expanded suffrage than the 1867 act had done.

A comparable case might be made for the relation between the First and Second Reform Acts. Victorians often framed the distinction between them as a difference in magnitude, with the Great Reform Act of 1832 opposed to, as Punch archly noted, the “little” one of the 1860s (31 March 1866: 133). The record of the parliamentary debates in 1866 and 1867 might seem to justify that diminutive: in those years, the House rang less often than it had in the early 1830s with heroic speeches either condemning or extolling radical change. Yet the shift from an occupation franchise to a residential or so-called household suffrage could easily reverse the conventional valuation of the legislation of 1867 in relation to that of 1832: removing the fixed line was arguably a bigger step forward than instituting the £10 standard had been. And here we return, at least briefly, to the realm of historical generalization: in 1884, the Third Reform Act extended to the counties the suffrage of both the £10 occupier and the rate-paying householder; but universal manhood suffrage came only in 1918, the year in which all adult men, along with some women, were enfranchised. Long before the 1867 bill made its torturous way through the House of Commons, Disraeli voiced his opposition to “household democracy” (H 152: 985), but the Second Reform Act inched forward in that direction – albeit haltingly, unevenly, and hesitantly. There were still plenty of retrograde forces. There was much work left to be done to make registration a fair and consistent process. Redistricting in both 1832 and 1867 had assured that the landed interests, as the aristocracy and gentry were called, would prevail in most counties and in many of the more largely rural borough constituencies; and the proportion of MPs to the population in different electoral districts continued to be vastly unequal. Moreover, numbers of working-class votes continued to be disqualified. But by 1867 there was legislation in place that at least in theory redefined the phrase the representation of the people: by calling into question the assumption of the 1832 act that members of the middle classes were alone in constituting “the people,” the Second Reform Act recognized that some, if not all, working-class men were also among “the people” who were, as Gladstone put it in 1864, “entitled to come within the pale of the Constitution.”

published July 2014

Janice Carlisle, Professor of English at Yale University, has published books and articles on Victorian fiction and autobiography.  Most recently she has been exploring the intersections of art and politics in Picturing Reform in Victorian Britain (Cambridge UP, 2012) and in the study of Ford Madox Brown’s Work that she is currently completing.


Carlisle, Janice. “On the Second Reform Act, 1867.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].


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Carolyn Vellenga Berman, “On the Reform Act of 1832″

Elaine Hadley, “On Opinion Politics and the Ballot Act of 1872″

Herbert F. Tucker, “In the Event of a Second Reform”


[1] These numbers combine estimates offered by Hilton, 424; Evans, 483; Wright, 160; Hoppen, 50-51, 253. The question of whether the Second Reform Act was liberalizing or the reverse is often debated: see, for example, Hoppen 252-59; Parry 216-17; Saunders 1; Seymour, ch. 10; Vernon 21-24. This sentence and the substance of a few of the paragraphs in this essay are drawn from my Picturing Reform in Victorian Britain, which offers fuller references to the secondary literature on the Second Reform Act.

[2] The standard treatments of the 1866 and 1867 bills include those by Cox, Seymour, Smith, and Cowling; to which have been added more recently those by Vernon; Hall, McClelland, and Rendall; and Saunders. See Hoppen, ch. 8, for an excellent brief account.

[3] For the historiography of the act, see Hall, McClelland, and Rendall, 7-29.

[4] Bagehot, Works 6: 375; Ruskin, Works 17: 541; Parry 216; Saunders, ch. 8.

[5] Hansard 187: 1189. Subsequent references in the text are, like this one, to the third series of Hansard, and they are designated by an “H” before volume- and column-numbers.

[6] See Robson; Mill, Collected Works (28: lxvi-lxx).

[7] My account therefore confirms the conclusion of Saunders’s recent study, which credits Disraeli with having had the relatively high-minded goal of “reimagining . . . Toryism on a national and popular foundation” (278).

[8] See the Report of the Select Committee on Poor Rates Assessment, iii; Smith 194.  For a full account of rate-paying and the 1832 franchise, see Salmon, ch. 1 and 6.

[9] The changes in the country franchise legislated by the 1867 act involved lowering the occupation franchise to £12, and the leaseholder and copyholder franchise to £5. One historian called these reforms “almost aristocratic” in relation to the “radical characteristics of the new borough franchise” (Seymour 272).

[10] For the fullest recent account of this period, see Saunders, ch. 1-4.

[11] For this argument, see McClelland; Carlisle 134-83; Smith, ch. 1; Saunders 6-7, 180-83.

[12] My thanks to Timothy Robinson for these alternate translations and for his version of a line from the Aeneid that I later quote. For commentary on this exchange, see Meisel 100-102.

[13] Collected Works 28: 62. In this paragraph, I cite this edition rather than Hansard because the former collates at least one more source than the latter does, thereby offering a fuller transcript of the responses of Mill’s colleagues to his speeches. See Robson, 37-38.

[14] The explanatory footnotes in the election returns from 1865 for the borough of map iconFinsbury, for instance, reveal that its six parishes followed six different schemes for setting poor rates, and they were based on six different acts from the reign of George III through that of Victoria (Electoral Returns 125).

[15] Cox in his 1868 account explained the difference between these two values (68-79) by referring to the last two columns of the form in the rate book that was mandated by the 1862 Union Assessment Committee Act: the sixth column is labeled “Gross Estimated Rental” and the seventh, “Rateable Value.” He also cited the statute law that defines gross estimated rental as rent minus rates and taxes and “tithe commutation charges, if any” (25 & 26 Vict., c. 103) and rateable value as the gross estimated rental minus additional and “various deductions,” such as those for repairs or insurance (6 & 7 Will. 4, c. 96) (Cox 69, 74 note). Despite Cox’s clarity on this issue, the many varying definitions of these terms among MPs and onlookers often made it seem that those debating franchise reform were speaking in different languages.

[16] See 8 [18] June 1866, H 184: 639, House of Commons Parliamentary Papers. This crucial debate seems to be missing from the Historic Hansard; in House of Commons Parliamentary Papers, it is misdated 8 June (it is the second Commons debate so dated), and it therefore appears before other debates that it actually followed. Gladstone’s references to the vote taken at the end of the sitting of 18 June early on the morning of 19 June (H 184: 648) make evident these errors in the digital records.

[17] Daily Telegraph, 28 July 1866: 4; Marx quoted by Briggs, 195-96. See Carlisle (ch. 3) for scholarship on the events in Hyde Park and for a range of responses, some of the most compelling of which, I think, appeared in illustrated newspapers.

[18] Derby, H 189: 952; cf. H 188: 1834; 184: 400.

[19] Disraeli, qtd. Smith 232; H 188: 1114; Smith 159.