History of Great Britain

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Despite the defeat of the French in the Battle of the Nile in 1798, the war did not go well for Britain. The Second Coalition collapsed in 1801, and Britain made peace with Napoleon at Amiens the following year. War broke out again the following year, but between 1805 and 1807 the Third Coalition also collapsed. Napoleons plans to invade Britain were foiled by the British naval victory under Horatio Nelson at Trafalgar. Napoleon then sought to drive Britain into bankruptcy with his Continental System. Difficulties in enforcing that system prompted Napoleons invasion of Russia in 1812. This led to the Fourth Coalition (Britain, Russia, Austria, and Prussia) and to Napoleons downfall two years later. Britains contribution included an army led by the duke of Wellington fighting in Spain and, after Napoleons return from exile in Elba, the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815. The War of 1812 with the United States was for Britain a sideshow that brought no territorial changes.

A Century of Peace

At the end of the Napoleonic Wars, King George III, by then insane, had been succeeded by his eldest son, who reigned first as prince regent and then as King George IV. Although a patron of art and Regency architecture, the prince regent became unpopular because of his gluttony and his personal immorality. His attempt to divorce his wife, Caroline of Brunswick, provided much cause for scandal.

Postwar Government (1815-1830)

Robert Banks Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool, presided as Tory prime minister from 1812 to 1827, over a cabinet of luminaries including Viscount Castlereagh, the foreign secretary, who represented Britain at the Congress of Vienna (1815). Former Dutch possessions such as the Cape of Good Hope and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) were added to the British Empire, and a balance of power was restored to continental Europe. Although eager to consult its European partners about possible territorial changes, Britain soon made it clear that it had no desire to join the Holy Alliance (Russia, Austria, and Prussia) in policing Europe.

Rapid demobilization after the wars, economic depression, and bad harvests led to rioting in 1816. The Liverpool government sought to aid landlords with protective tariffs (the Corn Laws of 1815) and to aid other supporters by repealing the wartime income tax in 1817 and restoring the gold standard in 1819. The so-called Six Acts in 1819 curbed the freedom of the press and the rights of assembly. A giant political protest demonstration near Manchester that year was broken up by the militia. The economy recovered during the early 1820s, and government policies became more moderate. George Canning, who replaced Castlereagh as foreign secretary, welcomed the independence of Spains South American colonies and aided the Greek rebellion against Turkish rulea cause also hailed by romantic poets such as Lord Byron. William Huskisson at the Board of Trade cut tariffs and eased international trade. Robert Peel, the home secretary, reformed the criminal law and instituted a modern police force in London in 1829. Barriers to labor union organization were also reduced during this time.

Despite an early 19th-century religious revival, especially among Methodists and other non-Anglican Protestants, Tory ministries remained reluctant to challenge religious and political fundamentals. In 1828 Parliament agreed, however, to end political restrictions on Protestant dissenters, and one year later the government of the duke of Wellington was challenged in Ireland by a mass movement called the Catholic Association. Wellington bought peace in Ireland by granting Roman Catholics the right to become members of Parliament and to hold public office, but in so doing split the Tory Party. In November 1830, after the election prompted by the death of George IV and the accession of his brother, William IV, a predominantly Whig ministry headed by the 2nd Earl Grey took over.

Reforms of the 1830s

The great political issue of 1831 and 1832 was the Whig Reform Bill. After much debate in and out of the House of Commons and after a threat to swamp a reluctant House of Lords with new and sympathetic peers, the measure became law in June 1832. It provided for a redistribution of seats in favor of the growing industrial cities and a single property test that gave the vote to all middle-class men and some artisans. In England and Wales the electorate grew by 50 percent. In Ireland it more than doubled, and in Scotland it increased by 15 times. The bill set up a system of registration that encouraged political party organization, both locally and nationally. The measure weakened the influence of the monarch and the House of Lords. Other reforms followed. The Factory Act of 1833 limited the working hours of women and children and provided for central inspectors. Slavery was abolished in the same year, and the controversial New Poor Law, enacted a year later, also involved supervision by a central board. The Municipal Corporations Act (1835) provided for elected representative town councils. An Ecclesiastical Commission was set up in 1836 to reform the established church, and a separate statute placed the registration of births, deaths, and marriages in the hands of the state rather than the church.

: 14/02/2008