Sir Robert Peel

The English statesman Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850) served as prime minister during 1834-1835 and 1841-1846. He played an important role in modernizing the British government's social and economic policies and sponsored the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846.

Sir Robert Peel was in the great tradition of 19th-century administrative reformers. Though not a doctrinaire, he drew on the most advanced thinking of his day in his reform of British criminal law, the prisons, the police, and fiscal and economic policies. By making government a positive instrument in social reform and by his pragmatic approach to social and political problems, Peel also made an important contribution to shaping the philosophy of the modern Conservative party. Despite the fact that his repeal of the Corn Laws broke his party, Peelite traditions lingered on. Peelites such as William Gladstone also carried these traditions into the Liberal party.

Robert Peel was born on Feb. 5, 1788, at Chamber Hall, Bury, Lancashire, close to the cotton mills that had made his father's immense fortune. The elder Peel had become one of the greatest manufacturers in England. He was not, however, content with business success. In 1790 he bought a great agricultural estate in Staffordshire, and in the same year he entered Parliament for the neighboring borough of Tamworth, where he had also acquired property and parliamentary influence. The younger Peel was brought up as a country gentleman. In 1800 his father was made a baronet, the title his son later inherited.

Sir Robert intended his son for the governing class, and he gave him an aristocratic education at Harrow and at Christ Church, Oxford. At both institutions the younger Peel distinguished himself as a scholar. Oxford was only commencing to offer the opportunity for a rigorous education, and Peel chose the harder path. He was the first scholar in the history of the university to graduate with first-class honors both in the classics and in mathematics.

Early Political Career

In 1809, the year after his graduation from Oxford, Peel's father bought him entry into Parliament for the borough of Cashel in Ireland. His maiden speech in the House of Commons was generally acclaimed. The next year, at the age of 22, Peel joined the government as undersecretary for war and the colonies.

Peel's chief at the War Office was Lord Liverpool, and when Liverpool became prime minister in 1812, he offered his young subordinate the critical post of chief secretary for Ireland. Though the office did not carry a Cabinet seat, it was one of the most challenging the government had to offer. After the English union with Ireland in 1801, the chief secretary had become not only a key figure in the administration of Ireland but also the representative of the Irish government in the British Parliament. The social and religious conflicts that rent Ireland throughout the 19th century made it almost impossible to govern. Peel achieved the impossible. As chief secretary for 6 years, until 1818, he established a reputation for a happy mixture of firmness and compassion. Among other reforms, Peel pioneered in the establishment of a permanent Irish police force and laid the foundations for famine relief.

After his retirement from the chief secretaryship, Peel stayed out of office for 4 years. He remained, however, one of the government's most distinguished supporters on the back benches. In 1817 Oxford had conferred on him its highest honor by electing him to one of the university's two parliamentary seats. In 1819 Peel chaired the committee of the House of Commons that made the crucial recommendation that Britain return to the gold standard, and the statute that accomplished this was commonly known as "Peel's Act." It was also during this period that Peel made a singularly happy marriage with society belle Julia Floyd.

Home Secretary

In 1821 Peel was recalled to high office as home secretary in Lord Liverpool's government. He remained in that office, with one brief interlude in 1827-1828, until 1830. In large part because of him, this period is known as the "age of liberal Toryism." Benthamite and evangelical reformers had long argued against Britain's legal and penal system which attempted little more than frightening citizens not to commit crimes. Peel went a long way toward meeting their demands by establishing a system aimed at preventing crimes and at reforming criminals rather than simply punishing them. Savage death penalties for minor crimes were largely abolished, and the criminal laws were made simpler and more humane. Prisons were also reformed and brought under the supervision of the central government. And, in the Metropolitan Police Act of 1829, Peel laid the foundations of a modern professional police force. This act established the London police force, whose members were called, after him, "Peelers" or "Bobbies."

Catholic Emancipation

Though Peel helped to introduce liberal elements into Toryism, he was also long associated with the illiberal opposition to full civil and political rights for Roman Catholics. There were few Catholics in England; but they were in the overwhelming majority in Ireland, and the Catholic question became closely tied with the Irish question. Those who favored Catholic emancipation became known as "Catholics." The people who opposed were known as "Protestants." Peel, a fervent Anglican, became the leading "Protestant" spokesman. He argued that emancipation would exacerbate the already bitter feelings between Roman Catholics and Protestants in Ireland and that it would weaken the established Anglican Church in both countries. It was largely for his stand on this topic that Peel refused to join the government of the "Catholic" Tory George Canning in 1827. In 1829, however, as home secretary and leader of the House of Commons in the government of the Duke of Wellington, Peel played a leading role in carrying Catholic emancipation. The reason for his reversal was simple. In 1828 the Irish had demonstrated their ability to return Roman Catholic members to a House of Commons in which they could not legally sit. Wellington argued that to enforce the law would mean civil war. Peel agreed with him. The specter of civil war overcame their scruples. They felt that it was their duty to King and to country to avert that disaster by carrying emancipation. By so doing they splintered the Tory party. Peel particularly was denounced as a turncoat, and strongly "Protestant" Oxford humiliated him by defeating him for reelection.

Peel's First Ministry

Peel was deeply wounded. About this time he began commonly to be described as cold and haughty. However, his reputation among his close friends was very different. Strikingly tall and handsome, with curly red hair, he was a plesant and jovial companion. In his immediate circle, he was much loved. He had always been sensitive and shy with strangers, and his experiences in 1829 only increased these tendencies; Peel retreated behind a cold and reserved exterior.

Attacked by some of its own former supporters and under pressure from the advocates of parliamentary reform, the government of Wellington and Peel staggered to its dissolution late in 1830. Its place was taken by the Whig administration of Lord Grey of Reform Bill fame. Peel led the battle against the bill in the Commons, but it became law in 1832. For a brief period in 1834-1835 the King quarreled with his Whig ministers and called on Peel to head a Tory government. But the King could no longer appoint whom he wished to office, and Peel's government was soon defeated by a hostile majority in the Commons and by the electorate in 1835. Peel's first government is notable mainly in that it allowed him to redefine Tory goals, particularly in the Tamworth Manifesto, which he issued to his constituents on the eve of the general election. On behalf of what he now called the Conservative party, Peel accepted the Reform Act and its implications and pledged constructive reforms that would strengthen the basic institutions of the country. And though he was in opposition, Peel came to play a dominating role in the years after 1835 as Whig support in Parliament and in the country steadily diminished. The government of Lord Melbourne came to exist largely on Peel's sufferance. Hence the great reforms of the period, particularly municipal and Church reforms, bore Peel's imprint and filled in the outlines of the Tamworth Manifesto.

The Great Years

Peel might easily have come to power in 1839 had not his coldness offended the young Queen Victoria. By 1841, however, the Whig government had reached the end of the road, and the Queen was forced to accept Peel as her prime minister. The greatest achievement of Peel's ministry was to establish the principle of free trade. The best economic thought of the day favored it, and the academics were backed by the vociferous demands of the industrial middle classes. Peel favored it because he thought it was in the best interests of the country. He felt that free trade would bring prosperity to manufacturers and increased employment to the working classes, and that it would lower the cost of living. Gradually from 1842 onward trade was freed, and by 1845 the only outstanding anomaly in the system was the protection of agriculture afforded by the Corn Laws. These laws were ardently supported by Tory squires, who composed a large section of Peel's support in Parliament. Peel was therefore not anxious to press this issue, but he was ready to do so if the Corn Laws caused real suffering. In the autumn of 1845 the Irish potato crop rotted in the ground. There was not enough grain in the British Isles to fill the need. The alternatives were quite simply repeal of the Corn Laws or starvation. Peel would have preferred the Whigs to carry repeal, but they would not. He therefore did it himself in 1846. Once more he was denounced as a traitor, and the party broke apart. Again Peel had done his duty to Queen and to country, knowing full well that in so doing he was probably ending his brilliant political career.

This time it was the end. For 4 years after 1846 Peel remained active and influential as the leader of a loyal Peelite remnant of his party. But on July 2, 1850, he died following a riding accident, and his great career was ended.

Further Reading on Sir Robert Peel

Norman Gash is engaged on a modern biography of Peel, only the first volume of which has been completed: Mr. Secretary Peel: The Life of Sir Robert Peel to 1830 (1961), a superb study. An excellent assessment of Peel's whole career as a statesman is in Asa Briggs, The Age of Improvement (1959).

Additional Biography Sources

Evans, Eric J., Sir Robert Peel: statesmanship, power, and party, London; New York: Routledge, 1991.

Gash, Norman, Peel, London; New York: Longman, 1976.

Gash, Norman, Sir Robert Peel: the life of Sir Robert Peel after 1830, London; New York: Longman, 1986.

Read, Donald, Peel and the Victorians, Oxford, UK; New York, NY, USA: B. Blackwell, 1987.