British Parliament Passes the Reform Act of 1867 Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Reform Act of 1867 extended a basically democratic franchise to the boroughs, giving the British urban and middle classes a major role in politics. It nearly doubled the number of eligible voters in Great Britain.

Summary of Event

Since the passing of the Great Reform Act of 1832, various opinions had existed about the furtherance of franchise reform in Great Britain. Chartists and working-class Radicals, such as Ernest Jones, proposed universal manhood suffrage, annual parliaments, the abolition of the property qualifications for election to Parliament, the secret ballot, and salaries for elected members. Liberals, such as William Ewart Gladstone and John Russell, sought reduction in the existing property qualifications from an annual rent payment of ten pounds sterling to six pounds. Middle-class Radicals, such as John Bright and Joseph Hume Hume, Joseph , sought a modified household suffrage franchise. Progressive Tories, such as Benjamin Disraeli, wanted to create a more balanced Parliament of “the more meritorious classes” by extending the vote to some workers by the so-called fancy franchises based on savings, tax payments, and education. Reform Act of 1867 Great Britain;political reforms Disraeli, Benjamin [p]Disraeli, Benjamin;and Reform Act of 1867[Reform Act of 1867] Derby, fourteenth earl of Gladstone, William Ewart [p]Gladstone, William Ewart;and Reform Act of 1867[Reform Act of 1867] Bright, John Voting rights;in Great Britain[Great Britain] [kw]British Parliament Passes the Reform Act of 1867 (Aug., 1867) [kw]Parliament Passes the Reform Act of 1867, British (Aug., 1867) [kw]Passes the Reform Act of 1867, British Parliament (Aug., 1867) [kw]Reform Act of 1867, British Parliament Passes the (Aug., 1867) [kw]Act of 1867, British Parliament Passes the Reform (Aug., 1867) [kw]1867, British Parliament Passes the Reform Act of (Aug., 1867) Reform Act of 1867 Great Britain;political reforms Disraeli, Benjamin [p]Disraeli, Benjamin;and Reform Act of 1867[Reform Act of 1867] Derby, fourteenth earl of Gladstone, William Ewart [p]Gladstone, William Ewart;and Reform Act of 1867[Reform Act of 1867] Bright, John Voting rights;in Great Britain[Great Britain] [g]Great Britain;Aug., 1867: British Parliament Passes the Reform Act of 1867[4080] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Aug., 1867: British Parliament Passes the Reform Act of 1867[4080] [c]Social issues and reform;Aug., 1867: British Parliament Passes the Reform Act of 1867[4080] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Aug., 1867: British Parliament Passes the Reform Act of1867[4080] [c]Government and politics;Aug., 1867: British Parliament Passes the Reform Act of 1867[4080] Russell, John [p]Russell, John;and Reform Act of 1867[Reform Act of 1867]

A number of reform bills introduced by Liberals or Radicals or Conservatives during the 1850’s failed for a variety of reasons, including public apathy. A Conservative bill proposed by the fourteenth earl of Derby and by Disraeli failed in 1859 by only thirty-nine votes. Henry John Temple Temple, Henry John , Lord Palmerston Palmerston, Lord [p]Palmerston, Lord;and political reform[Political reform] , was prime minister from 1855 to 1865, and he dominated the political scene. Because he was strongly opposed to any reform, the matter was temporarily dropped.

The year 1864 witnessed a revival of Radicalism and agitation over reform because of Northern victories in the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) and a visit to London by Giuseppe Garibaldi Garibaldi, Giuseppe [p]Garibaldi, Giuseppe;in England[England] , the Italian patriot and revolutionary. Until then, prosperous times had lessened appeals for reform. Also in 1864, Gladstone, a leading Liberal, announced his conversion to franchise reform. In March, 1864, John Bright formed the Reform Union at Manchester and soon started formidable agitation. This middle-class Reform Union was joined in February, 1865, by the working Reform League led by Edmond Beales Beales, Edmond . Despite occasional class differences and some disagreements about methods of enfranchisement, the two reform groups cooperated well, since they both sought the enfranchisement of working men.

A bad harvest and economic problems gave rise to more agitation. Palmerston’s Palmerston, Lord [p]Palmerston, Lord;death of death in October of 1865 made some reform almost certain. The succeeding Liberal government, with Lord Russell as prime minister and Gladstone as Chancellor of the Exchequer and leader of the House of Commons, set to work to prepare a reform bill. On March 12, 1866, Gladstone introduced a mild reform bill, which lowered the borough franchise from those who paid an annual rent of ten pounds sterling down to seven pounds. Gladstone’s bill, however, ran into stiff opposition from a group of Whig-Liberals led by Robert Lowe Lowe, Robert , who objected strongly to any change toward democracy or working-class votes. A Conservative motion to change the voting system from ownership or rental of property to mere payment of tax passed with Lowe’s aid, by 315 votes to 304 in June of 1866, and Russell’s Russell, John [p]Russell, John;and Reform Act of 1867[Reform Act of 1867] cabinet resigned over the defeat.

The Liberal ministry was succeeded by a minority Conservative government led by Lord Derby as prime minister and Disraeli as Chancellor of the Exchequer and leader of the House of Commons. The Reform Union and Reform League continued their agitation, which was aided by worsening economic conditions. A minor riot at a Reform League meeting at Hyde Park in London on July 23, 1866, caused considerable alarm. By the end of 1866, Disraeli and Derby agreed on the need for a reform bill, and general resolutions were introduced on February 23, 1867. Disraeli and Derby sought extensive reform, but part of the cabinet, led by Lord Cranbourne, threatened to resign. In an attempt to maintain unity in the cabinet, a milder bill was introduced but was quickly withdrawn. Disraeli then introduced the more extensive original Reform Bill on March 18, 1867, and Cranbourne and two other ministers resigned.

The Reform Bill established household suffrage in the boroughs or towns for those paying any Poor Law taxes directly and for those qualifying for the “fancy franchises” (fifty pounds in savings, a university degree, professional status, or payment of one pound in annual taxes). It also lowered property qualifications in the counties. In its original form, the Reform Bill would have enfranchised about five hundred thousand new voters and given double votes to two hundred thousand. The purpose was to create social balance in the electorate, since the workers and the aristocrats would each have one-fourth of the votes and the middle classes would have nearly one-half.

Gladstone, the leader of the Liberal opposition, tried at first to weaken the bill, but many Liberals refused to support him; he then tried to liberalize it further, intending to extend the vote to the entire middle class. John Bright and the Radicals also sought additional extensions. Lowe and Cranbourne bitterly opposed the bill. Disraeli took advantage of the confusion of the opposition and steered the bill through the Second Reading, the stage before voting amendments, by twenty-one votes. A number of Radical amendments were then offered. Disraeli declined some but decided to accept one that abolished compounding, a practice by which landlords paid the Poor Tax for their tenants. This amendment made all tenants taxpayers, thus adding almost five hundred thousand urban voters, most of whom were workers.

Editorial cartoon by John Leech (1817-1864) commenting on William Ewart Gladstone and John Russell’s failed attempt to lower the property requirements for the franchise from ten to six pounds in 1860. The cartoon is captioned, “The new Russell six-pounder.” “Six-pounder” was also a term for a cannon that fired six-pound balls.

The change was consistent with the tax-rating basis of the bill, but it transformed the bill from a class-balanced measure to a democratic measure. Disraeli then dropped the now unnecessary “fancy franchises” and the dual votes. A mild redistribution of seats was added, and the county franchise was lowered to twelve pounds in property qualifications. In this form, the Reform Bill of 1867 passed the Commons by a comfortable margin. Lord Derby then steered it through the Conservative-controlled House of Lords by August, 1867, with only one minor change—a system of minority representation in three-member districts. Derby conceded some uncertainty about the results of the bill, using a phrase earlier coined by Disraeli, that it was “a leap in the dark.” A separate Reform Bill in 1868 brought Scottish and Irish voting qualifications more in line with English ones and gave some extra seats to Scotland and Ireland.

Significance

The Representation of the People Act of 1867 was one of the most important political reforms in modern British history. This Reform Act was significant for bringing a basically democratic franchise to the English boroughs. It also gave the urban working classes a major role in politics and completed the franchisement of the middle classes. The electorate was almost doubled by the addition of approximately 938,000 voters to the one million already voting. The Reform Act of 1867 also made Parliament more responsible to the electorate and led to strengthened party organization. The changed electorate did not radically change relative party strength, although it probably aided the Conservatives to some extent. The role of the Conservative Party in the reform helped to make it a more forward-looking party capable of enough popular appeal to remain a powerful party. As Conservative leader, Disraeli seemed unperturbed by a measure viewed as radical by many proponents of reform, and he was confident that he had secured his party’s dominance.

The reform also struck a further blow at the still-common election-by-arrangement in small boroughs. The electorate was doubled in the boroughs, with a part of every class now entitled to vote. Long-term effects of the Reform Act of 1867 included the growth of party organization. The influence of constituents on their members of Parliament grew, and outside opinion came to have more influence on Parliament’s actions. Since both parties now had many working-class members, the workers were in a position to demand democracy from both parties. These effects, however, came about only gradually. The Reform Act of 1867 did not bring democracy to the counties of England. It added some voters in rural regions, but among those still lacking a vote were agricultural workers, miners in rural areas, and poorer suburbanites. Worker influence did not immediately become significant, and aristocratic and middle-class dominance continued. Although historians disagree about who was responsible for it among Disraeli, Bright, Derby, and Gladstone, it is nevertheless clear that the Reform Act of 1867 was an important step toward democracy.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blake, Robert. Disraeli. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1967. Less of a psychological study than Weintraub’s work listed below, this biography includes a good summary of the course of the Reform Bill of 1867 through Parliament, emphasizing the role played by Lord Derby.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Briggs, Asa. Victorian People: A Reassessment of Persons and Themes, 1851-1867. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955. Excellent studies of Disraeli, Bright, and Lowe are included in an analysis of the Reform Bill of 1867 and a narrative of its passage.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Langley, Helen, ed. Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield: Scenes from an Extraordinary Life. Oxford, England: Bodleian Library, 2003. Anthology of essays written to accompany an exhibit of Disraeli’s papers at Oxford University’s Bodleian Library.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Park, Joseph. The English Reform Bills of 1867. New York: Columbia University Press, 1920. A detailed account of the political and parliamentary development of the Reform Bill, and the relationship of English reform efforts to movements in the United States, France, Germany, and Italy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Richmond, Charles, and Paul Smith, eds. The Self-Fashioning of Disraeli: 1818-1851. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Collection of essays by historians, psychiatrists, and experts in literature that combine to profile the “self-made” Disraeli. Topics include his educational background and politics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Seymour, Charles. Electoral Reform in England and Wales. London: Oxford University Press, 1925. Five chapters about the Reform Bill of 1867 give the best account of the actual provisions of the measure as well as able summaries of the earlier reform bills of the 1850’s and 1860’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shannon, Richard. The Age of Disraeli, 1868-1881: The Rise of Tory Democracy. New York: Longman, 1992. See especially part 1, “From Derby to Disraeli,” in which Shannon succinctly shows how Disraeli successfully challenged the supremacy of the Liberals in the boroughs and used the Reform Bill to establish himself as a new kind of Tory leader.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weintraub, Stanley. Disraeli: A Biography. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1993. Chapter 21 emphasizes Disraeli’s commitment to the Reform Bill and his insistence that only a “bold line” would succeed. An excellent narrative of the legislative process and political maneuvering that resulted in Disraeli’s triumph.

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