In 1856, six years after Sir Robert Peel’s death, the journalist Walter Bagehot, wrote that
“No man [Sir Robert Peel] has come so near our definition of a constitutional statesman -- the powers of a first-rate man and the creed of a second-rate man.... Of almost all the great measures with which his name is associated, he attained great eminence as an opponent before he attained even greater eminence as their advocate. On the corn-law, on the currency, on the amelioration of the criminal code, on Catholic emancipation....He was not one of the earliest labourers or quickest converts.... His intellect, admirable in administrative routine, endlessly fertile in suggestions of detail, was not of the class which creates, or which readily even believes an absolutely new idea...”
Peel is generally recognised as the founder of modern Conservatism. He saw the need for the Tory party to adapt itself to the post-reform system after its disastrous showing in the 1832 general election. In successive elections in the 1830s the Conservatives increased their representation in the House of Commons soundly defeating Melbourne’s Whig government in 1841. Peel was prepared to put nation above party and on two occasions introduced policies that attacked the basic tenets of Toryism. In 1829 he ‘ratted’ on its spiritual core by pushing through Catholic Emancipation. Seventeen years later he confronted its belief in the need for protection for agriculture by repealing the Corn Laws.
Peel to 1832
Born in Bury, 5th February, first son of a cotton manufacturer Robert Peel
To Harrow School
Undergraduate at Christ Church, Oxford; academically gifted
MP for the Irish seat of Cashel City, County Tipperary, a borough with only twenty-four voters
Under-Secretary for War and the Colonies in the Tory government of Spencer Perceval
In May 1812, Liverpool became prime minister and invited Peel to join the Irish administration as Chief Secretary. Peel held the post for six years, the longest in the nineteenth century and served three lord lieutenants. Nothing in Peel’s upbringing gave him the historical imagination to question the legitimacy of British rule in Ireland, and he cheerfully joined a regime that was locked into reliance upon penal laws and the Protestant ascendancy. As chief secretary he was required to attend to business upon both sides of the water. In Ireland he stage-managed the election of sound Protestants to parliament in 1812 and 1818, and persuaded Whitworth to dissolve the principal organisation representing Catholics, the ‘Catholic board’, in 1814. In London, politicians were, in the eyes of the administration in Dublin, embarrassingly soft about Catholic claims for political rights and Peel opposed every proposal for relief. He delivered an outspoken expression of the case against the Catholics in 1817. Catholics owed allegiance to a foreign power, he was not prepared to erect the influence of the pope into ‘a fourth estate’, and he tied his belief in the future of the Union to his faith in the exclusive principle. What religion suggested was confirmed by political economy. Ireland was, in Peel’s opinion, a primitive and backward land, and at this stage in his career Peel appears to have felt that in the long run the best hope for the country was that popery was something which a more prosperous people would grow out of. In the meantime, Peel had to cope with the secret societies, the intimidation, and the crimes that resulted from the alienation of seven-eighths of the population. Like other chief secretaries he called for troop reinforcements and renewed an Insurrection Act in 1814, 1815, 1816, and 1817. More promisingly, he declared that he would always prefer an army of police to an army of soldiers, and established a new Peace Preservation Force, controlled by the government in Dublin. In 1817, he responded to a famine by the procurement of food and the distribution of money. As chief secretary Peel proved his capacity to serve the lord lieutenant as ‘his friend, his adviser, [and] his representative in parliament’. But the office had also begun to shape his life in other ways. His conduct in Ireland brought him the sobriquet ‘Orange’, bestowed by Daniel O’Connell, and led, in 1815, to a challenge to a duel, which did not take place, in Ostend. Peel was to carry with him for ever after a settled dislike for the great Irish patriot and all his ways. Peel’s antagonism to Catholic claims for relief secured him the invitation, brought by Charles Lloyd, to stand, in preference to George Canning, for one of the two Oxford University seats in 1818. Peel was elected, but he had, perhaps, allowed himself to be miscast. His Protestantism ran deep. But he acknowledged that Ireland had been misruled in the past. He had found the jobbing aristocracy with a ‘vortex of local patronage’, and loyalist associations distasteful, and he had spoken out in favour of the Protestant ascendancy because he had been called upon to govern Ireland ‘circumstanced as Ireland now is’.
Speaks in Parliament against Catholic Emancipation; becomes MP for Oxford University
Resigns as Chief Secretary as he was ‘tired’ with the post. Peel left Ireland in August 1818 and did not rejoin Lord Liverpool’s administration until January 1822.
In the meantime he chaired a committee considering the expediency of requiring the Bank of England to resume paying gold, on demand, for its notes, and in due course he drafted the report and introduced the bill embodying the committee’s proposals. The evidence taken before the bullion committee in 1811 had shown that the over-issue of paper currency since the suspension of cash payments in 1797 had resulted in a depreciation of the pound and a rise in the price of gold. The question was, did this matter? In 1811, the house had decided that the answer was yes, but not while there was a war on, and Peel himself had voted against resumption. Post-war experience persuaded him that over-issue also led to speculation, crises, unemployment, and political unrest. Now Peel thought the committee’s first responsibility was to protect the public creditor, who was morally entitled to be repaid in the coin which he had lent and not in a depreciated one. The committee moved swiftly into a consideration of the when and how the accumulation of a reserve of gold, and the successive steps by which, starting with the larger notes, paper was to be made convertible into gold bullion, a process completed by May 1823. In grappling with the theoretical complexities of an issue and effecting a solution, Peel was to have no equal
Returns to government as Home Secretary. Contemporaries gave Peel credit for reducing the number of offences that carried the death penalty. But there was no fall in the number of execution, and the most striking achievement of his period at the Home Office, and perhaps of his whole career, was the consolidation of the criminal law. He began in 1823 where his predecessor, Lord Sidmouth, had left off, with the law relating to prisons. The following year he attended to the laws relating to transportation, and began to coax the Scottish judges towards a reform of Scottish criminal law. In 1825 he consolidated eighty-five laws relating to juries into a single act. In 1826 he proposed to consolidate the laws relating to theft. Out of 14,437 persons in England and Wales charged with various crimes in the course of the previous year, 12,500 (at least) had been accused of theft, which was the most important category of crime. Consolidation was needed because, year by year throughout the eighteenth century, specific acts (he cited the stealing of hollies, thorns, and quicksets) had been made into crimes instead of species of acts. There were now ninety-two statutes relating to theft, dating from the reign of Henry III, and Peel sought to unite them in a single statute of thirty pages. Upon this occasion his attempt to reduce the law to a single act proved to be too ambitious, and the bill emerged, finally, as four separate acts in 1827.
Peel’s talents were never more apparent than during this process of consolidation. In 1824, a select committee had recommended that consolidation and amendment should be kept distinct. Peel decided that they were not separable. He interpreted consolidation to mean the collection ‘of dispersed statutes under one head’ followed by the rejection of what was ‘superfluous’, the clearing up of what was ‘obscure’, the weighing of ‘the precise force of each expression’, and ‘ascertaining the doubts that have arisen in practice and the solution which may have been given to those doubts by decisions of the courts of law’. Where he found any gap ‘through which notorious guilt escapes’ (he instanced the theft of stock certificates in the funds which was not at that time an offence), he would remedy it . In Peel’s hands, then, a consolidating act was a reforming act which incorporated case law and supplied omissions. As he turned from one aspect of the law to another, Peel circulated drafts of his consolidating bills among the judges, and took pains to win their support, flattering Lord Eldon with a bag of game (which perhaps he had shot himself). He succeeded because nine-tenths of criminal law was statute law, which judges loved to criticise, and one-tenth, only, common law, the anomalies of which judges might seek to preserve.
On 9th March 1826, Peel’s method of presenting a case came to maturity in his great speech on theft. There was an apology (a preference really) for a topic which could ‘borrow no excitement from political feelings’ and might appear ‘barren and uninviting’. There was a reference to a hypothetical fresh start (‘if we were legislating de novo, without reference to previous customs and formed habits’). There was a glance at more radical proposals for ‘rapid progress, which is inconsistent with mature deliberation’, and a promise that, if he was allowed to have his way, there would be ‘no rash subversion of ancient institutions’ and ‘no relinquishment of what is practically good, for the chance of speculative and uncertain improvement’. His own proposals were then presented as a middle way ‘between the redundancy of our own legal enactments and the conciseness of the French code’. Finally he avowed his ambition to leave behind him ‘some record of the trust I have held’, and to connect his name with ‘permanent improvements’ to the institutions of the country.
Liverpool resigned because of ill health. Peel refused to serve in a government led by Canning who favoured Catholic emancipation
Death of Canning in August 1827 and failure of the Goderich government results in Wellington becoming prime minister; Peel returned as Home Secretary. At the Home Office, Peel resumed consolidating where he had left off. In 1828, he dealt with the law of offences against the person, reducing it from fifty-seven acts to one, and in 1830 he turned the twenty-seven acts relating to forgeries punishable with death into a single statute. Even more important in his eyes, he began at last to make progress with the police. In 1822, a committee had refused to recommend any reform. In 1828, Peel secured a new inquiry into the police of the metropolis, and the following year he was able to legislate. He had already given an indication of the way his mind was working when he praised the small force of full-time professional magistrates and constables established in London in 1793. But this efficient superstructure rested upon a complex of autonomous parochial and district watches. Peel resolved to create a unified body under the control of the home secretary and paid for out of a general rate. The new force started patrolling the streets on 29th September 1829. They were not there to carry out sophisticated criminal detective work, but to restrain the thousands of vagrants, thieves, prostitutes, and drunks who tried to beg, steal or earn a living upon the streets of the capital, and to keep order. Peel’s ‘vigorous preventive police’ carried truncheons but not firearms and their secret (or innovatory) weapon was their military discipline. This ‘unconstitutional’ police force, as it was called in the Chartist petition, was bitterly resented, and there were many assaults upon policemen at first. But a force of just over 3000 men won control of the streets. Like so many of Peel’s reforms this one lasted. Fears of the police developing into a secret police on the continental model proved to have been exaggerated, and hostility to the very idea of an efficient police force ebbed away. By the mid-century, the policeman’s image was becoming a friendly, neighbourly one and constables were being called ‘bobbies’ or ‘Peelers’ after Peel.
As leader of the House of Commons, Peel was obliged to grapple with the Catholic question. In 1827, the Protestants had won the annual vote in the House of Commons. The following year, when the protestant dissenters and the Roman Catholics, in effect, came to terms, the government was heavily defeated on a motion for the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, and it was defeated again on a motion for Catholic emancipation. The first defeat was easy to deal with: Wellington and Peel gave way and brought in a bill of their own. The second was compounded by the rise of the Catholic Association and the defeat of Vesey Fitzgerald, a popular Protestant landlord and government minister, by O’Connell, who was not eligible to take his seat, at a by-election in County Clare. The protestant ascendancy had collapsed, and emancipation was now imperative. The only question was whether it should be undertaken by the king’s present ministers or by a new political combination. Once again Peel offered to resign and once again he was persuaded to stay. That decision taken, he offered to vacate his seat for Oxford University. His friends re-nominated him, but at the end of February he was defeated in a poll by Sir Robert Inglis by 609 votes to 755, and the government had to ask Sir Manasseh Lopes to vacate his pocket borough at Westbury in Peel’s favour. Peel was aware, then, when he rose on 5th March 1829 to introduce the cabinet’s bill to emancipate the Catholics, that he would be asked why he saw ‘a necessity for concession now, which was not evident before’. He answered that it was the condition of Ireland. ‘[The protestant] Reformation in Ireland’ had hitherto ‘made no advance’, and after twenty years he was convinced that ‘the evil’ was ‘not casual and temporary, but permanent and inveterate’. The time had come when less danger was to be apprehended from ‘attempting to adjust the Catholic Question, than in allowing it to remain any longer in its present state’. ‘I yield…unwilling to push resistance to a point which might endanger the Establishments that I wish to defend’. He ignored O’Connell, and saved face by announcing that the details of the measure had not been discussed with the Roman Catholics themselves. Catholics were to be allowed to enter both houses of parliament and to hold any office other than monarch, Lord Chancellor, and (more strangely) lord lieutenant of Ireland. In return, Peel asked the Irish to accept the disfranchisement of the 40s freeholders and a reduction of the electorate. The government did not ask for any control over the appointment of Roman Catholic bishops, because no British government, Peel said, could enter into negotiation with the Papacy
Peel lost office with defeat and resignation of Wellington’s government
Peel opposed Whig proposals for parliamentary reform
After the resignation of Whigs, Peel refused to serve in a Tory government pledged to reform [May]; Tories lost many seats in the first post-reform general election [December]
 W. Bagehot ‘The Character of Sir Robert Peel’, 1856, in Norman St. John-Stevas (ed.) Bagehot’s Historical Essays, 1971, page185.
 L. W. Cowie Sir Robert Peel, 1788–1850: a bibliography, Greenwood, 1996 provides an excellent overview of work on Peel. N. Gash Mr Secretary Peel: the life of Sir Robert Peel to 1830, 1965, 2nd ed., 1981 and Sir Robert Peel: the life of Sir Robert Peel after 1830, 1972, 2nd ed., 1986 remains the standard modern biography. Speeches of the late Rt. Hon. Sir Robert Peel, delivered in the House of Commons, 4 volumes, 1853, Memoirs by the Rt. Hon. Sir Robert Peel, ed. Lord Mahon [P. Stanhope] and E. Cardwell, 2 volumes, 1856–7, C. S. Parker, ed., Sir Robert Peel: from his private papers, 3 volumes, (1891–9), Life and letters of Sir James Graham, ed. C. S. Parker, 2 volumes, (1907) and The private letters of Sir Robert Peel, ed. G. Peel, 1920 give Peel’s voice. Correspondence and diaries of J. W. Croker, ed. L. J. Jennings, 3 volumes, 1884, The Greville memoirs, 1814–1860, ed. L. Strachey and R. Fulford, 8 volumes, 1938, A. R. Wellesley, second duke of Wellington Despatches, correspondence, and memoranda of Field Marshal Arthur, duke of Wellington, K.G.: in continuation of the former series, 8 volumes, 1867–80, The Creevey papers, ed. H. Maxwell, 3rd ed., 1905; reprinted, 1923, The letters of Queen Victoria, ed. A. C. Benson, Lord Esher [R. B. Brett], and G. E. Buckle, 9 volumes, 1907–32, T. Martin The life of the prince consort, 5 volumes, 1875–80, volumes 1–2 · B. Disraeli ‘Character of Sir Robert Peel’, Lord George Bentinck: a political biography, 2nd ed., 1852, pages 302–320, W. Bagehot ‘The character of Sir Robert Peel’, Biographical studies, ed. R. H. Hutton, 2nd ed., 1889, pages 1–39 and F. P. G. Guizot Memoirs of Sir Robert Peel, 1857, translated from the French provide invaluable contemporary comment. G. J. Shaw-Lefevre Peel and O’Connell: a review of the Irish policy of parliament from the Act of Union to the death of Sir Robert Peel, 1887 and S. Buxton Finance and politics: an historical study, 1783–1885, 2 volumes, 1888 look at particular aspects. G. Kitson Clark Peel and the conservative party, 1832–1841, 1929 remains essential Donald Read Peel and the Victorians, 1987 looks at Peel’s reputation. Important papers include: D. E. D. Beales ‘Peel, Russell and reform’, Historical Journal, volume 17 (1974), pages 873–882, D. R. Fisher ‘Peel and the conservative party: the sugar crisis of 1844 reconsidered’, Historical Journal volume 18 (1975), pages 279–302, R. Boyd Hilton ‘Peel: a re-appraisal’, Historical Journal volume 22 (1979), pages 585–614, I. D. C. Newbould ‘Sir Robert Peel and the Conservative party, 1832–1841: a study in failure?’, English Historical Review, volume 98 (1983), page 529–557, F. Herrmann ‘Peel and Solly: two nineteenth-century art collectors and their sources of supply’, Journal of the History of Collections, volume 3 (1991), pages 89–96 and V. A. C. Gatrell, ‘Mercy and Mr. Peel’, The hanging tree: execution and the English people, 1770–1868, 1994, chapter 21.
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