Robert Peel


Robert Peel
Robert Peel was a gifted and influential politician who was leader of the Tory party during the mid 19th century. Peel was a thoroughly British Victorian Gentleman complete with a Cambridge degree in Classics, a large and prosperous family, and a trust fund. Even so, he showed considerable courage and character in his political career. His evolution in political principles on several important issues, including Parliamentary reform (offering the franchise to middle-class as well as upper-class citizens), Catholic Emancipation (permitting Catholics to vote and to hold political office), and abolition of Corn-laws (ending protective tariffs on food-stuffs), was critical in transitioning the political division of Britain from Whig-Tory to Liberal-Conservative. By the end of this administration, a faction of the Tory Party had split off to become Peelites, and a within a generation, the Whigs and Radicals combined with the Peelites to form the Liberal party.

The terms "Liberal", "Conservative", "Tory" and "Whig" as party affiliations, mean quite different things today than they did in 19th century Britain so it is difficult to comprehend exactly what this transition meant without a solid understanding of political philosophy, but a few points of background can be pointed out. First, Peel and his cohorts came of age shortly after the French Revolution so the memory of revolution, anarchy, and bloodshed was still quite vivid, and the idea granting political power to an angry, dispossessed people such as the Irish struck many as exceedingly dangerous. Second, the ideas associated with the doctrine of "free-trade" as advocated by Adam Smith had been seeping into the political consciousness of both parties for decades, but the concept of applying these principles to agriculture and food-stuffs was utterly beyond the pale for many, and is still a highly contentious issue, (witness modern farm subsidies).

On the issues of both Catholic Emancipation, and Abolition of Corn Laws, Peel took a position in direct opposition to that of most of the Tory Party, of which he was a leader. In both cases he paid an immediate political sacrifice. Before he supported Catholic Emancipation he resigned from his position as MP of Oxford because he had been elected by Anglican priests who were uniformly opposed to the idea. When he supported abolition of the Corn Laws he knew perfectly well it would bring down his Tory Government and cost him his position as Prime Minister, and it did. He voted his conscience and paid the price.

Key events during the life of Sir Robert Peel:

Robert Peel born to a wealthy industrial family.
  Studies mathematics and classics at Oxford.
Election to the House of Commons from a 'rotten' borough. Ran as a Tory
Became MP for Oxford University.
Entered Cabinet as Home Secretary.
Established the "Scotland Yard", a municipal police force.
Supported Catholic emancipation and resigned as MP from Oxford.
Reform bill of 1832 reforms parliament and expands the franchise.
Elected Prime Minister but without a Tory majority. Withdrew after one year.
Elected as Prime Minister for six years.
Irish potato famine precipitates crisis in government.
Passed a bill abolishing the Corn laws against strong opposition. Collapsed Tory government.
Died following a horse accident in Hyde Park.

Other Resources

Story Links
Book Links
From Waterloo to Sevastopol  in  The Hanoverians  by  C. J. B. Gaskoin
Period of Reform (1815-1837)  in  The Story of England  by  Samuel B. Harding

Image Links

Sir Robert Peel
 in The Hanoverians

A noticable figure on his grey Arab mare.
 in Life of Gladstone

Sir Robert Peel
 in Life of Gladstone

Sir Robert Peel
 in The Reign of Queen Victoria

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