Government of the people, for the people, by the people' was Abraham Lincoln's famous definition of democracy-1852. At the beginning of the 19th century the term democracy' was feared, as it was associated with the anarchy and violence of the French Revolution. During the 19th century a sea change occurred. Democracy acquired a momentum so that by 1865 Gladstone could say the country not only demands reform but expects it'. This essay will examine how far Britain had progressed towards full democracy.
The Parliamentary system in Britain in the 1830s had hardly changed since the sixteenth century. Britain was still one of the few representative governments in Europe with most others being ruled by an autocratic monarch. Voting was not seen as a universal right but as a privilege for the wealthiest class of society. The right to vote depended on three things: gender; only men over the age of 21 were allowed to vote. Property. In order to vote, an individual had to own property over a certain value. And finally location. Small boroughs were represented while large industrial towns were not. The idea that all adults should have the right to vote had little support in Parliament, which was dominated by the aristocratic landowners. They argued that only people with "a stake in the country", that is people who paid taxes and held property, should take part in politics. Ordinary people, especially the poor, illiterate and the working classes, had no voice in Parliament.
In any case, Britain itself was changing more rapidly than at any time in its history. Its population was growing fast, and the lives of the people were changing as quickly. The agricultural and industrial revolutions changed the ways in which they worked, both in the countryside and in the huge towns and new cities. They gained in some ways - more food, better clothing, more goods to buy. But they also suffered greatly in the filthy slums of the cities and in harsh treatment in factory work.
The concentration of people in the towns and cities meant there was more chance of new political ideas spreading, especially with the railways and the development of national newspapers. All of these changes led reformers to argue that the British Parliament no longer represented the country properly. It was out of date and had to change, or be forced to do so.
The two main political parties of that time where the Whigs and the Tories. Out of the two the Whigs were more in favour for some limited reform than the Tories. Thus they introduced a reform act into the House of Commons. The Tory opposition fiercely opposed the bill. This lead to the bill being defeated at the committee stage that forced the government to resign. The Whigs were returned to power in the next general election and put forward a second reform bill. This time it passed through all the stages in the Commons but was defeated at the Lords. This lead to riots in some parts of the country. A third bill was put through, but once again the Tory Lords blocked it. Grey the leader of the Whigs, requested that the king create fifty new Whig Lords so the bill could be passed. His request was rejected and so once again the Whigs resigned from government. A new government had to be formed. The king asked the Duke of Wellington, the leader of the Tories to form one but he was unable to due to disunity in the party. As a result the Whigs were returned to office and on the 2nd of June 1832 the Great Reform Act was made law.
The Great Reform Act of 1832 was not intended as a first step towards democracy. Earl Grey himself described it as the most aristocratic and reactionary measure ever to pass the House' (of Lords). The electorate was marginally increased after the reform act. It appeared that the franchise was similar throughout the country. In boroughs every man who rented or owned a property of more than ten pounds was enfranchised...