39 Pages

Hints for the Hustings

WithGrevel Lindop

First published in Blackwood’s, September 1840, pp. 289–315 and never reprinted. There is no known manuscript. For the attribution, see W. E. A. Axon, ‘The Canon of De Quincey’s Writings’, Transactions of the Royal Society of Literature of the United Kingdom, 32 (1914), pp. 1–46.

The essay’s context is the final, failing months of the Whig administration that had governed precariously but almost continuously since 1832. By September 1840 it appeared inevitable that a Conservative government under Peel would soon succeed, and only the timing remained uncertain.

De Quincey concentrates on five issues. The first is reported Conservative disparagement of the new monarch, Victoria, on the grounds of her Whig partisanship, a result of her close friendship with the Whig Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne. This had led to the so-called ‘Bed-chamber Crisis’ in May 1839 when Peel, on forming a short-lived Conservative government, had asked her to dismiss her ladies-in-waiting (nearly all close relatives of leading Whig politicians) in favour of his own nominees, and the Queen had refused. Such positions were regarded as political appointments, and it was assumed that the Whig ladies would influence the Queen against the government.

Second is the crisis over Canada. There had been armed revolts in 1837 in both Upper and Lower Canada (the southern portions of present-day Ontario and Québec) by small farmers and tenants in favour of a greater degree of self-government and against the wealthy groups who dominated the executive and legislative assemblies. Lord Durham had been sent on a fact-finding mission from Britain and his report of 1839 had recommended assimilation of the French-speaking population (whom he regarded as economically backward) and the economic development of the St Lawrence River and its shores. De Quincey echoes the terms of the report.

Thirdly, De Quincey turns to the vexed debate over the Corn Laws, a series of fiscal measures that had been introduced at intervals since 1791 to protect British agriculture by maintaining the price of corn and taxing foreign grain imports. The Corn Laws were widely blamed for raising the cost of living and were opposed by working-class opinion and by politicians from urban and manufacturing areas. They were equally stoutly defended by landowners and farmers. The Anti-Corn Law League had been founded at Manchester in 1839 to campaign for their repeal.

Fourthly comes Ireland and the question of ‘Ribandism’, a supposed network of secret societies in Irish agricultural areas thought to be working, always illegally and sometimes by violence, for the interests of the Catholic peasantry 100against the government and Protestant landowners. This was a sensitive issue for the Whigs, who were dependent upon support from Irish MPs and their massively popular leader, Daniel O’Connell, who had recently founded the Repeal Association.

Lastly De Quincey addresses popular views on poverty, which he links with Chartism, the working-class movement for political reform which had crystallised around the People’s Charter, formulated in 1838. The Charter’s main demands were for universal manhood suffrage, annually-elected Parliaments, payment for MPs and voting by secret ballot at elections. Supporters of the Charter had rioted in Birmingham in May 1839 and presented a strongly supported petition to Parliament in July. On its rejection, a small number had staged an armed uprising at Newport in November, whose leaders had been transported or imprisoned. Chartism continued to flourish, and in late 1840 Conservative fears of an aggressive working-class movement were still acute.