Home  »  Volume XIV: English THE VICTORIAN AGE Part Two The Nineteenth Century, III  »  § 74. Orators of the Reform Bill period

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

II. Historians, Biographers and Political Orators

§ 74. Orators of the Reform Bill period

In the great reform movement, with whose triumph a new era in English political life began, the foremost figure is that of Charles second earl Grey, to whose courage and sincerity the chief credit of the passing of the bill, is above all, due. Since, in 1786, he had (though matters of finance were never much to his taste) in an admired maiden speech attacked Pitt’s commercial treaties, he never faltered, either in the days of the eclipse of the whig party, or in those of catholic emancipation (in which he delivered a speech which Stanley (Derby) said he would rather have made than four of Brougham’s) and of reform. It was thought regrettable that lord Grey allowed the fiery nature of John George Lambton, first earl of Durham, to domineer over him; but this was, chiefly, a matter of temper. Durham’s own career was brief and stormy; the celebrated report on Canadian affairs by which he is most generally remembered is said to have been mainly written by his secretary Charles Buller, a young liberal of great personal popularity, a lively orator and an acute reasoner in both speech and pamphlet.

In the debates on the Reform bill, Macaulay’s renown as an orator was first established; although, perhaps, he never quite fulfilled the exorbitant expectations formed of him at the time of his first entrance into the parliamentary arena. It was but natural that what was most admirable in his speeches should be their literary qualities; they were usually of the nature of harangues or set orations, carrying away in their rush the arguments of his adversaries. But they were not designed as replies, and, thus, lack some of the most stimulating qualities of parliamentary oratory. Among his later speeches, those on the question of copyright, to which he could contribute a most extraordinary wealth of illustration, are notable as having not only influenced but actually determined legislation.

Outside parliament, the Reform bill campaign was carried on in innumerable speeches, among which those of Henry (“Orator”) Hunt should, perhaps, not be passed by. When, after the great bill had passed, he entered parliament, he soon sank into a nonentity, and was said by Cobbett to be “really as inoffensive as Pistol or Bardolph.” Hunt and Cobbett died in the same year (1835); but no comparison is possible between their powers.