Sir James Graham (1792-1861) brought untiring industry and a powerful administrative brain to the Home Office. He was faced with great problems: social unrest, Chartism, the emergence of the ‘condition of England’ problem and a campaign in Ireland for the repeal of the Union. But was he a ‘good’ Home Secretary? He reacted with great conscientiousness and zeal, but with distinctly mixed success but his record of legislative success was poor.
Graham described the strikes and Chartist activity of 1842 as ‘the mad insurrection of the working classes’ and sought to intimidate the agitators by a display of state power. He ordered troops to turn out around the country, urged magistrates to use their powers to suppress meetings, and presided over a policy of widespread arrests and special trials. Radical antagonism was naturally excited against him, and this was exacerbated in 1844 by an incident involving the Italian nationalist Giuseppe Mazzini, who was living in exile in London. In the autumn of 1843 the Austrian ambassador in Britain, Baron Philipp von Neumann, had met Graham and asked him to locate Mazzini’s hiding-place. In March 1844, after further pressure from Neumann, Graham issued a warrant for the copying of Mazzini’s mail by the Post Office and agreed to pass to Lord Aberdeen, the foreign secretary, any information about suspected risings against the Austrian and other conservative regimes in the various Italian states, which Aberdeen could then communicate to the Austrians. By accommodating Austria in this way, Graham and Aberdeen hoped to get the pope to use his influence to dissuade the Irish Catholic clergy from fomenting the campaign for the repeal of the Corn Laws. Mazzini and his friends discovered that their mail was being tampered with, and in June a parliamentary furore arose. Graham defended the right of governments to open mail for political purposes. This right was upheld by a secret committee which investigated precedents, though it also revealed that Graham had been unusually assiduous in opening mail, and in the summer of 1842 had issued twenty warrants to inspect Chartists’ letters. The affair excited public revulsion at ministers’ behaviour; tampering with correspondence, especially at the behest of an illiberal foreign government, was deemed despicable and un-English. Although he was less to blame than Aberdeen, Graham suffered much more criticism because of his autocratic reputation; there was a fad for correspondents to write ‘Not to be Grahamed’ on their envelopes.
Graham’s zeal in defending order upset Liberals but it also managed to offend many propertied Conservatives. He criticised magistrates for their complacency and inefficiency during the unrest of 1842 and unsuccessfully proposed to the cabinet the appointment of salaried assistant barristers at quarter sessions in order to quicken and tighten up the law and order process in the localities. Back-benchers retaliated, interpreting much of his legislation as overbearing and destructive of traditional liberties. With personal sympathy for him among MPs scant, his controversial bills foundered, such as his measure to establish a central council to standardise qualifications for the medical profession. The British Medical Association accused him of seeking despotic control. His worst set-back came in the field of education. Graham saw the promotion of religious education as one of the principal means by which the state could combat the threat of social unrest. In particular, he sought to reduce the danger of disorder in the turbulent industrial districts by establishing a better education for factory children. In 1843 he introduced a bill requiring factory employees under thirteen to be given three hours of instruction daily. But he included securities for an Anglican presence in the schools. Dissenters were indignant, a vast petitioning campaign ensued, and the bill was withdrawn.
In Ireland, the repeal movement revived in 1842 and a series of monster meetings was planned for 1843. Graham’s initial response was one of intense alarm at ‘the reign of Terror’, the failure of juries to convict offenders, and the unwillingness of the Irish executive to assert itself to uphold the law. This anxiety helps to explain the government’s decision to proclaim the biggest repeal meeting, scheduled for Clontarf in October 1843, and, a week later, to arrest the repeal leader Daniel O’Connell on a charge of conspiring to incite disaffection. Unwisely the prosecuting authorities had Catholics removed from the trial jury. O’Connell appealed against the conviction and eventually, in September 1844, the House of Lords overturned it, on the votes of Liberal judges. Graham was very bitter and believed that the authority of government in Ireland had been gravely wounded. By this time, assisted by Peel’s influence, he had come to see the need for legislative activity in order to counter the propaganda of the repealers. Strongly convinced of the potency of religion as a bulwark of social order, he was particularly keen to increase the Catholic priests’ confidence in British rule. The Charitable Bequests Act of 1844 aimed to improve the Catholic Church’s financial position and to draw the bishops into the habit of communication with government through membership of a board of commissioners. The same strategy can be discerned in the educational policy of 1845, featuring an increased grant to the Catholic seminary of Maynooth and the establishment of the Queen’s colleges, non-denominational university colleges for Catholics and Protestants to use together. However, only a minority of bishops, from the older generation, defied O’Connell’s wishes and participated in the running of the charitable bequests board and the colleges. By the autumn of 1845 the government still did not feel confident of the loyalty of the Irish people, and this was to be of major significance in the corn tariff crisis of 1845-6.
Graham and Peel shared a staunch but controversial loyalty to the principles of political economy. When factory reformers called for reductions in the length of the adult working day to ten hours, the government resisted, arguing that it would make British factories uncompetitive internationally. In 1844, the factory reformers defeated the government, and the twelve-hour day had to be reasserted by the calling of a vote of confidence in government, a manoeuvre which embittered relations with back-benchers. Graham’s refusal to compromise with those who criticised the severity of the 1834 poor law was similarly contentious.
Into this fraught atmosphere, in the autumn of 1845, came news of the failure of the Irish potato crop. Graham saw the famine as a dispensation of providence which it was man’s duty to rectify in order to preserve social peace. Moreover, on political grounds some gesture was necessary in order to reassure sceptical Irishmen of the government’s concern for their survival. But if the Corn Laws were suspended temporarily, the strength of public agitation would prevent their re-imposition, giving the impression that government had surrendered to popular pressure. Though in the 1830s Graham had defended the sliding scale, he and Peel had agreed since 1842 that the corn laws were politically and economically counter-productive and that, despite their significance for most Conservative back-benchers, they must be repealed in the near future if economic stagnation was to be averted. The famine provided the occasion. The decision to press ahead with the repeal of the Corn Laws demonstrated great long-term administrative wisdom and great short-term political inflexibility. It reveals the extent to which the experience of government since 1841 had engendered in both Peel and Graham a conviction of the superiority and sufficiency of their judgement, condescension towards those who lacked their knowledge of affairs, and an overpowering concern with public order. Throughout the crisis, they seemed, in Punch’s words, ‘two persons with only one intellect’. After months of high drama, the Corn Laws were repealed in June 1846, the Conservative Party split, and Peel fell from office. Lord John Russell formed a Liberal government, which was kept afloat by the hundred or so Conservative MPs who remained loyal to Peel. Inevitably these included Graham, who became the leading member of the group in the Commons after Peel’s death in 1850.
Temperamentally, Graham was a man of superficial contradictions. Arthur Gordon described him as ‘rash and timid’ and belittled his judgement on both grounds. This was a widely held view. Graham’s outlook was dominated by an often excessive concern with the maintenance of public order, property, and government authority. But his arrogant manner sat uneasily with a tendency to overreact to social instability, ambivalence about responsibility and a susceptibility to depression and self-doubt. Distrusting the excesses of public opinion, he was inclined to exaggerate its radicalism and force. He was an efficient manager of a desk, a major influence on the professionalising of Victorian administration, and a contributor to the Peelite-Gladstonian fiscal tradition, but he lacked the character, the vision, and the warmth to be a successful political leader. Although he had the advantage of a large and powerful frame, and the detail of his parliamentary speeches was often forceful, their delivery could be monotonous and feeble, while his wit rarely rose above biting sarcasm and he disdained to cultivate either fashionable society or potential political supporters. Hard-working and serious, he seemed to believe that political power could rest entirely on administrative ability. Disinterested, devout, and genuinely alarmed for the future of his class, his religion, and his civilisation, he threw himself into public service. He did not intend to belittle party, but party kept belittling him, as he saw it, and this he found intolerable. In the course Peel’s ministry, he alienated the bulk of both sides of the Commons.
 The major published sources for Sir James Graham are: C. S. Parker Life and letters of Sir James Graham, 1792–1861, 2 volumes, 1907, J. T. Ward Sir James Graham, 1967, A. B. Erickson The public career of Sir James Graham, 1952, A. P. Donajgrodzki ‘Sir James Graham at the home office’, Historical Journal, volume 20 (1977), pages 97–120, F. B. Smith ‘British post office espionage, 1844’, Historical Studies, volume 14 (1969-71), pages 189–203, D. A. Kerr Peel, priests, and politics: Sir Robert Peel’s administration and the Roman Catholic church in Ireland, 1841–1846, Oxford University Press, 1982 and D. Spring ‘A great agricultural estate: Netherby under Sir James Graham, 1820–1845’, Agricultural History, volume 29 (1955), pages 73–81.