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

§ 79. Sir Robert Peel

With the great name of Wellington is inseparably associated that of Sir Robert Peel, whose political life more distinctly, perhaps, than that of any English statesman since Walpole, centred in the house of commons. Outside that assembly, a certain stiffness, born of reserve rather than of haughtiness, may, at times, have stood in his way; and he could be set down as “a cold feeler and a cautious stepper.” But the house of commons he knew, and came to sway for a long time with an undisputed pre-eminence; and the list is long of his speeches which mark momentous advances in our political history and attest his extraordinary personal ascendancy. His maiden speech, delivered in 1810 at the age of twenty-two, was thought to have been the best since the younger Pitt’s; and, nine years afterwards (when the question was under discussion whether Canning or he was fittest for the leadership of the house), Canning described the speech in which Peel introduced the resolutions providing for the resumption of cash payments, on which “Peel’s act” was founded, as the greatest wonder he had ever witnessed. Ten years later, in March, 1829, Peel delivered one of the greatest, and, at the same time, one of the most characteristic, speeches of his entire career—that on catholic emancipation, ending with a noble peroration fitly described as eloquent with the spirit of duty. Yet, the most memorable part of his career as a parliamentary statesman and orator only set in with his definitive return to office in 1841. In the following year, he made his first great budget speech—“a complete course of political economy”—and to this period, too, belongs his speech (1843) on the Factory acts and the existing distress, which, to baron Brunnow, seemed “eloquence as the ancients understood the word.” After his historic resignation, he made one further great speech—on 28 June, 1850, the day before that of his fatal accident—against the vote of confidence in Palmerston’s foreign policy. Bright commemorated it as Peel’s “last, most beautiful and most solemn” utterance; and it was as worthy of him in its moderation as it was in its truthfulness. Peel’s greatest quality—his moral courage, to which he owed the self-confidence that made him, in his own words, “pique himself on having never failed in carrying anything proposed by him”—is reflected in his oratory. It is neither impassioned nor richly ornamented (though he was a good scholar); but it never falls short of its purpose and can rise with the greatness of the issues which it is directly designed to bring about.