British Parliament Passes the Reform Act of 1832

The Reform Act altered the system of political representation in Great Britain by extending the franchise to members of the middle class and middle-class controlled cities, thus increasing their influence within Parliament, while weakening the power of both the peers and the monarchy.

Summary of Event

Through almost a century and a half, the mechanism of Great Britain’s unwritten Constitutions;British constitutional structure had remained unaltered. The counties and boroughs of England, Wales, and (after 1707) Scotland were represented in the House of Commons by the same numbers of members as at the time of William and Mary in the late seventeenth century, even though Britain’s population had grown greatly and shifted geographically. Reform Act of 1832
Great Britain;political reforms
Whig Party (British);and reform[Reform]
Voting rights;in Great Britain[Great Britain]
[kw]British Parliament Passes the Reform Act of 1832 (June 4, 1832)
[kw]Parliament Passes the Reform Act of 1832, British (June 4, 1832)
[kw]Passes the Reform Act of 1832, British Parliament (June 4, 1832)
[kw]Reform Act of 1832, British Parliament Passes the (June 4, 1832)
[kw]Act of 1832, British Parliament Passes the Reform (June 4, 1832)
[kw]1832, British Parliament Passes the Reform Act of (June 4, 1832)
Reform Act of 1832
Great Britain;political reforms
Whig Party (British);and reform[Reform]
Voting rights;in Great Britain[Great Britain]
[g]Great Britain;June 4, 1832: British Parliament Passes the Reform Act of 1832[1740]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;June 4, 1832: British Parliament Passes the Reform Act of 1832[1740]
[c]Social issues and reform;June 4, 1832: British Parliament Passes the Reform Act of 1832[1740]
Attwood, Thomas
Cobbett, William
Grey, Second Earl
Peel, Sir Robert
[p]Peel, Sir Robert[Peel, Robert];and Reform Act[Reform Act]
Place, Francis
Russell, John
Wellington, duke of
[p]Wellington, duke of;and Reform Act[Reform Act]
William IV (king of Great Britain and Hanover)

Each borough retained its own particular tradition for choosing its representatives. “Pocket boroughs” voted at the beck and call of their wealthy patrons; corporation boroughs were in the careful hands of small groups of leading town fathers. Democratic boroughs, such as Preston, experienced violent electioneering, since their entire adult male populations possessed the vote. The borough franchise was a matter of local “liberty” and custom rather than of parliamentary statute.

The English county franchise, on the other hand, was somewhat more uniform; since 1432, each forty-shilling freeholder (the owner of land worth that much in annual rental) had had the right to vote. By the early nineteenth century, this provision would have created virtual universal manhood suffrage in the counties if the vast majority had been freeholders. Most residents were leaseholders, tenants, or day laborers and were thus excluded from the franchise. This exclusion was the result of the enclosure movement of the previous century, which had deprived many of their land.

This diverse system had come under repeated attack during the later years of the eighteenth century. Some reformers argued simply that the democratic element of the “mixed” British constitution, Constitutions;British
Great Britain;constitution the House of Commons, ought to be made more democratic and more obviously and justly representative of the population, while the aristocratic and monarchal elements represented in the House of Lords and the king should be allowed to retain their due influence on the government. A reform bill embodying significant changes in borough representation and franchise requirements came close to success during the 1780’s. The outbreak of the French Revolution French Revolution (1789);and Great Britain[Great Britain] in 1789 led to more extreme proposals; men such as Thomas Paine Paine, Thomas , Joseph Priestley Priestley, Joseph (cleric) , and William Godwin Godwin, William demanded not only that the House of Commons be democratized but also that the House of Lords and the Crown itself ultimately be abolished.

The French Revolution (1789) briefly inflamed the British reform spirit, only to squelch it after the worst abuses of the revolution became known. Calls for reform became associated with the guillotine and France’s Reign of Terror. When Britain and France went to war in 1793, a strong political reaction against reform set in. As an embattled island, standing at times alone against the Napoleonic empire, Britain seemed to require political stability rather than change. Thus, the social processes that literally altered the British landscape and contributed greatly to the ultimate military triumph in 1815 remained unreflected in the country’s political structure. By 1820, however, reform was once again before the public consciousness and political radicals, moderate Whigs, and ambitious industrialists all clamored in a multitude of ways for a fundamental change in the political system.

The practical problem was that if a far-reaching political shift were to come about, barring revolution, it had to take place inside Parliament itself, and that would require members of Parliament to vote themselves out of power. This situation explains, as readily as any abstract principle, why men who had tackled other difficult political questions were unwilling to take on a measure of general political reform. However, if nothing were done, there was the intermittent fear that the patience of the unenfranchised—especially members of the new industrial classes—might wear out and that the nineteenth century, like the seventeenth, would become a century of revolution.

King William IV.

(Library of Congress)

Opposition to the old electoral system arose gradually from several overlapping sources. Democratic radicals, such as William Cobbett Cobbett, William , Sir Francis Burdett Burdett, Sir Francis , and Daniel O’Connell, favored wide suffrage and had the support from the workers. Benthamite utilitarians, such as Joseph Hume Hume, Joseph and James Mill, sought a more “rational” system. Whig-Liberals, such as Lord Russell Russell, John and Earl Grey Grey, Second Earl , and progressive Tories, such as Lord Chandos, desired a more representative House of Commons. Finally, middle-class leaders, such as Thomas Attwood Attwood, Thomas and Francis Place Place, Francis , sought a wider political role for the rising industrial middle class.

Several events led to increase the hitherto lagging agitation. One of these events was the 1829 crisis over Roman Catholic emancipation Roman Catholic emancipation , which weakened Wellington’s Wellington, duke of
[p]Wellington, duke of;and Reform Act[Reform Act] Tory government by alienating diehard anti-Catholics and further crumbling the fragile structure of English political parties. Catholic emancipation also brought Daniel O’Connell and his Irish pro-Reform followers into Parliament.

The success of O’Connell and the success of his Catholic Association’s methods of mass agitation led advocates of parliamentary reform to form similar groups. The July Revolution of 1830 in France and similar revolts on the Continent moved many British people to push for reform in order to avoid revolution in Great Britain. This fear was increased by a few minor outbreaks in England itself. The death of King George IV George IV
[p]George IV[George 04];death of in June of 1830 also removed an implacable foe of reform.

Wellington’s Wellington, duke of
[p]Wellington, duke of;and Reform Act[Reform Act] flat opposition to reform and his statement that the existing representation system could not be improved helped to cause the fall of his government on November 15, 1830. Earl Grey Grey, Second Earl , the Whig leader, formed a new government that included the progressive Tory Canningite faction. Since reform had long been a Whig platform, a Reform Bill of some type was certain and a committee was set up to prepare such a bill.

On March 1, 1831, Lord John Russell’s Russell, John committee presented the First Reform Bill to the Commons. It disenfranchised all boroughs with fewer than two thousand inhabitants and cut in half the representation of the boroughs with fewer than four thousand inhabitants. The 168 seats abolished by these means were allotted to large cities such as Manchester Manchester, England , Birmingham, Birmingham, England and London, and to some of the larger counties. Qualifications for the franchise were standardized to include male adults who rented or owned quarters worth ten pounds in the boroughs or owned property worth forty shillings in the counties. This last provision increased the number of voters, especially those of the middle classes, in some areas but also disenfranchised poorer voters in some places.

New extraparliamentary organizations urging acceptance of reform included the Political Unions, modeled after O’Connell’s Catholic Association, which were organized throughout England and Scotland, especially in the large cities. The first and most important was the Birmingham Union led by Thomas Attwood Attwood, Thomas and supported by Cobbett Cobbett, William and Burdett. It was dominated by middle-class elements, but it was also supported by radicals, workers, utilitarians, and some progressive Tories. The London organization led by Francis Place Place, Francis was also influential. A certain amount of friction developed between the Political Unions and the Whigs over some of the provisions of the Reform Bill and over stern Whig suppression of unrest.

In the parliamentary debates on the bill, the Tories, led by Sir Robert Peel Peel, Sir Robert
[p]Peel, Sir Robert[Peel, Robert];and Reform Act[Reform Act] , argued that the bill’s provisions would destroy the aristocracy and lead to revolution, middle-class control, and universal suffrage. Some radicals objected that the bill did not go far enough, since it excluded workers and did not provide for the secret ballot. The Whigs defended their bill by claiming that it was a reasonable reform that would protect the aristocracy from more revolutionary changes. The First Reform Bill passed its second reading in the House of Commons by a single vote. When a Tory motion against reducing the number of seats passed, Grey dissolved Parliament and called for new elections.

In the heated political campaign that followed, elements advocating reform won a sweeping victory, and the Tories lost more than one hundred seats in Parliament. Consequently, a similar Second Reform Bill was introduced on June 24, 1831, and passed by more than one hundred votes, although a Tory amendment giving the vote to tenant-farmers, often dependent on aristocrats, was passed over government opposition. However, the House of Lords rejected the bill on October 8, 1831. The action of the House of Lords unleashed a wave of protest from the Political Unions and some outbreaks of violence.

The Whig government then introduced a Third Reform Bill, which saved a few smaller boroughs and allowed some freemen without property to retain their votes. This bill passed the Commons by a larger margin, 324 to 162, and was sent up to the Lords. There it passed its second reading by nine votes, but an amendment was carried that would have split the enfranchising clauses from the disenfranchising clauses on the final vote. Earl Grey Grey, Second Earl then asked King William IV William IV (king of Great Britain and Hanover) to create enough peers to pass the bill through the Lords. However, the king instead demanded Grey’s resignation and asked Wellington Wellington, duke of
[p]Wellington, duke of;and Reform Act[Reform Act] to form a new government. This demand was greeted with widespread opposition and threats of revolution from the Political Unions if Wellington were to return to office. However, Wellington could not form a ministry, and the king was forced to recall Grey. With the threat of having new peers created hanging over them, the House of Lords finally passed the Reform Bill on June 4, 1832, by a considerable margin, and it received the royal assent on June 7. Grey, Second Earl

The effects of the Reform Act of 1832 were not as radical as many of its supporters had hoped or its opponents had feared. The total electorate was increased by only 50 percent. The middle classes and middle-class-controlled cities were largely enfranchised and increased their influence in Parliament. Although some workers maintained their votes, the working classes on a whole lost both votes and influence. The aristocracy also lost some power, but the increased rural vote, which they controlled, maintained their dominant role in politics.

The end of the so-called rotten boroughs lessened political corruption to some extent. The redistribution of seats removed the most glaring inequities, but it came nowhere near equalizing districts. The organized, popular-based agitation of the Political Unions set a precedent for future political activity. The Reform Act strengthened the Whigs, but the continually growing middle-class influence transformed their party into the Liberal Party Liberal Party (Great Britain);formation of . Despite the intention that the Great Reform Bill, or Victorian Compromise, would be final, the Reform Act was only the first step toward eventual universal suffrage and democracy.

The monarchy Great Britain;monarchy lost much prestige and power as a result of the Reform Act because three successive kings had not been able to unite the nation behind their own view of government. The crystallization of an increasingly disciplined two-party parliamentary system also weakened the monarchy. In a Parliament composed of numerous small factions with no deep ideological issues dividing them and many members owing their jobs to royal favor, the king had much room to maneuver. By contrast, with party organizations stronger and party leaders more clearly defined, the king had much less choice.

By engaging the electorate, by imposing uniform franchise requirements, and by instituting a system of registering electors, the Reform Act encouraged not only the strengthening of the parliamentary party but also the beginning of a national party organization. The more clearly the House of Commons could be seen to reflect the will of the British people, the less plausible could a monarch oppose it in the name of the “true” interests of his or her subjects. Thus the Reform Bill clearly weakened the political influence of the monarch.

The bill also had a comparable effect upon the House of Lords. The course of the struggle had demonstrated that, in a showdown, the House of Commons was the more powerful of the two chambers as well as the arena in which the more vital political personalities engaged in debate. The bill had also very much limited the influence that the peers could exercise as borough mongers with numerous House of Commons seats at their disposal.

At the same time that the Reform Bill had weakened the prestige of king, peers, and gentry, it had notably strengthened the position of the new custodians of commercial and industrial wealth. They now shared with old-line oligarchs the rule of the kingdom. The fundamental political imbalance caused by industrialization had largely been rectified, and it is no coincidence that these elements would reshape British politics in their own images.


It was the peaceful manner in which the bill was passed by the force of public opinion and extraparliamentary agitation that made the Reform Bill a landmark toward full democracy. Perhaps the ultimate significance of the bill lies in that it was passed at all, and without revolution. It proved, as Peel Peel, Sir Robert
[p]Peel, Sir Robert[Peel, Robert];and Reform Act[Reform Act] and Wellington Wellington, duke of
[p]Wellington, duke of;and Reform Act[Reform Act] had rightly predicted, the first act of the play and not the last. However, within a very short time it was accepted by even diehard Tories who had dreaded its passage. Radicals, Whigs, and Tories had all learned one crucial lesson, which was to apply repeatedly during the century that followed. When the object was reform, it was possible in the last resort to gain fundamental change peacefully. Henceforth, whatever the grievance, political agitation was not merely a legitimate but also a practical means to achieve reform. The battle might be long and the opposition strong but, provided the grievance was real and enough people truly wanted change, a remedy by means of legislation rather than revolution was possible.

Further Reading

  • Arnstein, Walter L. “Reform or Revolution.” In Britain Yesterday and Today: 1830 to the Present. Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1994. This chapter provides a concise narrative of the issues surrounding the 1832 Reform Act and places the act into a historical context of British and European development.
  • Burton, Anthony. William Cobbett, Englishman: A Biography. London: Aurum Press, 1997. Biography of one of the leading radical supports of the Reform Act.
  • Dinwiddy, John R. From Luddism to the First Reform Bill: Reform in England, 1810-32. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. This work places the Reform Act into the context of working-class struggle for rights within British society. As such it provides a critical assessment of the Reform Act.
  • Jupp, Peter. British Politics on the Eve of Reform: The Duke of Wellington’s Administration, 1829-1830. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. Analysis of the British monarchy, office of prime minister, Parliament, and other political institutions on the eve of Britain’s adoption of the Reform Act of 1832.
  • Parry, Johnathon P. The Rise and Fall of Liberal Government in Victorian Britain. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1993. Identifies the Reform Act as the precursor of the rise of Liberal government in Britain and asssesses the act and its provisions in terms of their influence on the political composition of British government and as a model for further reform during the early and middle Victorian period.
  • Phillips, John A., and Charles Wetherell. “The Great Reform Act of 1832 and the Political Modernization of England.” The American Historical Review 100 (April, 1995): 411-436. Details the impact of the Reform Act of 1832 on the development of political parties during the nineteenth century.
  • Scherer, Paul. Lord John Russell: A Biography. Selinsgrove, Pa.: Susquehanna University Press, 1999. Scholarly biography of the great Liberal leader who supported the Reform Act and later served as prime minister during a period of further reforms.
  • Seymour, Charles. Electoral Reform in England and Wales. London: Oxford University Press, 1925. Despite its age, Seymour’s work remains the most thorough and extensive study of the provisions of the Reform Act. It takes the provisions of the Reform Bill, point by point, discussing the old electoral law, the debates, and the new provisions.
  • Smith, E. A., ed. Reform or Revolution? A Diary of Reform in England, 1830-2. Wolfeboro Falls, N.H.: Alan Sutton, 1992. Focuses on the critical period 1830 through 1832 during which the Reform Bill was before the British parliament. It provides a critical analysis of the events surrounding the passage of the act and detailed coverage of the most important questions of reform raised by the act.

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