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Birmingham, passed the Lower House without difficulty, and was sent up to the Lords, where it was thrown out on the second reading. Meanwhile the bill disfranchising East Retford, and transferring its alienated seats to the circumjacent county, had passed through the first and second stage, and stood for committee on the 19th of May. The more liberal section of the Cabinet, feeling that the vote of the Lords did not exonerate the Government from its pledge, desired that the bill should be so far modified as to give the new representation to industrial wealth and population instead of to the landed interest. Being out-numbered however in the Cabinet, they agreed that all the members of the Government should vote for the bill going into committee, and that each of the clauses should be an open question. But when the order of the day was moved on the East Retford bill, Lord Sandon rose and addressed an appeal to Mr. Huskisson, so direct and irresistible, regarding the pledge before mentioned, that the ministerial leader found himself absolutely at fault as to the course which he ought to pursue. It was a curious scene; the House, roused from its torpor by the question of personal honour and good faith which had unexpectedly been raised, grew impatient and
excited; while Mr. Huskisson, puzzled by the subtleties of his own conscientiousness, and vacillating between his duty to the public and regard for the opinion of his colleagues, found it impossible to come to a decision. At length the debate closed, and the ayes were commanded to go to the right and the noes to the left.* Mr. Huskisson turned to Lord Palmerston, who sat beside him, and exclaimed, “What shall I do? It is impossible to resist the appeal which Sandon has made; yet what then becomes of our understanding of this morning ?” His colleague said he thought he ought to vote for the amendment, and that, if he decided upon doing so, he for one would vote along with him. It was necessary that those who resisted the amendment should cross the floor, while the opposition came over to the Treasury side; and such was the wavering of Mr. Huskisson up to the last moment, that had he been obliged to leave his seat on the right hand of the chair, and walk across the House in order to vote in the affirmative, it is doubtful whether he would have done so. As it was, he remained with two or three others on the ministerial bench, while Mr. Peel and the rest of those who held office voted
* The manner in which the divisions in committee were at that time taken.
in the negative. On returning home he wrote to the Duke, placing his office at his disposal. Somewhat to his surprise the offer was at once accepted, and a few days afterwards Lord Dudley, Mr. Grant, Lord Palmerston, and Mr. Lamb likewise quitted the ministry. Thus ended the third coalition Cabinet which had been formed within the space of a single year. Not long afterwards, in conversation with Lord Dudley and Lord Palmerston, Mr. Huskisson made use of these prophetic words, “Now, mark, the Catholic question is carried. I know the Duke and Peel well, and now that they have cleared the Cabinet of all of us, they will set about settling the question.”
Many days did not elapse before evidence seemed to be afforded of the truth of this prediction. On the 9th of June Lord Lansdowne moved a resolution in the Lords regarding the Catholic claims, similar to that which had been lately affirmed by the Commons; the debate lasted two nights, and at its close the Duke of Wellington, while resisting the motion on grounds of present expediency, not only abstained from the use of any arguments, founded on the old doctrines of sectarian or political exclusion, but significantly gave utterance to a wish that means could be
found for finally settling the question. Lord Lansdowne took care, in reply, to repeat, as clearly as possible, the expressions which had fallen from the Duke, but without hazarding any inference from them, which might possibly have had the effect of calling forth some qualification of their obvious meaning Close observers on both sides did not fail to mark the altered tone of the Prime Minister. They believed that they had heard the first sound of the breaking up of the ice, and were not disposed to believe it the less, because it was neither possible nor desirable that incredulous and impatient millions afar off could perceive or be persuaded that the fact was so.
The Duke of Wellington's speech was the subject of many comments on both sides of the Channel. Among the partisans of ascendency its tone was viewed with distrust, while to the more sagacious among the Whigs it indicated the approach of a change. In the Association, Mr. Sheil pronounced an elaborate appeal to the great soldier, for whom it might have been reserved by fortune to perform in legislation a deed as notable as the greatest of his feats of arms; but the advice of his Grace, that they should allow political excitement to subside, he rejected as wholly inadmissible.
“Has our policy been so rash as it has been represented ? Have we shown such a want of skill and prudence as has been attributed to us, and is it upon the Duke of Wellington's 'if;' coupled with his notable “perhaps,' that we are to be induced to shift our course, and render inoperative and ineffectual all that we have accomplished ? Are we to let down the spirit of the people ?—are we to allow the energy which we have called up to subside ?-are we to abandon all public assemblies, and to cease pouring forth our ardent and exciting appeals ? We are not so utterly weak as to give up the results of all our labours, and to fling the power which we have gained over the national mind away. I tell the Duke of Wellington, in the name of that great community to which I belong, that we know our duty and our influence too well. “If we cease to agitate,' forsooth!-We will not cease to agitate.
So far from denying that this Association (which in truth represents Ireland) governs the people, through the power of public opinion, I proclaim it. We are endowed with great authority. It is but needful that we should lift the signal, and seven millions, as if by the power of enchantment, start up at our command. If so much has been already done, is opportunity not to be afforded for effecting still more ? Do they think that nothing more can be effected ? Do they think that no further consolidation can take place? Do they think that our materials for excitement are exhausted, and that from this crater of the public passions, no more lava can be poured out ?"*
Knowing, as we now do, the sincerity of the wish expressed by the Duke, and the almost insuperable difficulties with which he had to contend, it is clear enough that this conflict of counsel, so far from being what it then seemed to be, an obstacle in itself insurmountable, afforded really the only chance of
Speech, 14th June, 1823.