William IV.—The Story of Two Peaceful Victories
G EORGE IV had only one child, a daughter, and she died some time before her father, so he was succeeded by his brother William, who was sixty-five years old when he came to the throne.
William was called the Sailor King because he had served in the navy. He was bluff and rough and good-natured, not at all like a King. He used to be fond of strolling about London with a walking-stick or an umbrella just like an ordinary man. But British people have always loved a sailor, so they were glad when William became King, and hoped that he would prove a better one than George IV.
That some of his people had not much reverence for him, is shown by one man who wrote of him, "He seems a kind-hearted, well-meaning, not stupid, bustling old fellow, and if he doesn't go mad, may make a very decent King." Later the same man called him, "One of the silliest old gentlemen in his dominions." If he had been left to himself, the "Well-meaning old fellow" would have been quite pleased to jog along without troubling about his kingdom or his duties. But that was not to be. The days of the clatter and jangle of steel armour were over, the roar and crackle of musket and cannon were silent for the time, but in the peace and silence men were thinking and planning and working for the good of the nation.
For hundreds of years the people of Britain had had the right of choosing men to send to Parliament to tell their troubles and their wrongs, and to help to make just laws for the ruling of the country. The whole nation, of course, cannot go to Westminster, for no building would be large enough to contain them all, and the talking would never be finished, and no laws would ever be made. So each county and each big town chooses a man who goes to Parliament to speak and vote in the name of those who send him.
That is what is intended, but at this time the reality was something quite different.
During the hundreds of years which had passed since it had been first arranged which towns should send members to Parliament, there had been many changes. Places which had once been large towns had for some reason or another become deserted. Where there had been houses, churches, shops, and crowded, busy streets, there was now perhaps only one lonely house, or perhaps only a deserted hillside. Yet that lonely house or deserted hillside continued to send a member to Parliament. On the other hand since factories had been built, great towns had sprung up, where a hundred years before there had been perhaps only a single cottage. But these great towns with all their hard-working people had no right to send a member to Parliament, and could have no voice in making the laws.
This seems very absurd. Nowadays, we think it would be quite easy for any sensible man to see that this state of affairs was wrong. But a hundred years ago many sensible people did not see it. They were pleased with things as they were, and very angry with those who tried to alter them.
But some people were quite determined they should be altered, and two men called Lord Grey and Lord John Russell, brought into Parliament what is called the Reform Bill. This Bill took the right of sending any one to Parliament away from the bare and lonely hillsides, and gave the right to the new and busy towns, so that the people should really be represented, that is, should have some one in Parliament to act and speak for them.
There was a long and fierce struggle before this Bill became law. You know that there are two Houses of Parliament, the House of Commons and the House of Lords. A bill to become law must be read in both Houses, and must be voted for by the greater number of the members in each. That is, more than half the members must vote for it. For instance, if there were only one hundred members, at least fifty-one must vote for a bill before it is said to have passed. Having passed both Houses, it must receive the consent of the King, before it can become law.
After a great deal of difficulty the Commons were made to consent to the Reform Bill, but the Lords did not want it, neither did the King, and again and again they refused consent.
The country, however, had become so determined about it that there were riots everywhere when it became known that the Lords would not pass the Bill. The people who had been quite ready to love their King began to hate him, and instead of cheering when he appeared, they hissed and groaned.
So bitter did the feeling become that the friends of the Bill feared there would be another revolution, and at last they forced the King to give his consent. The Lords followed, and the Bill became law.
One more step toward liberty had been taken.
Another great thing which happened during the reign of William IV. was the freeing of slaves.
For many years people had been in the habit of stealing black people from their homes in Africa, and selling them as slaves in the colonies. People had grown so used to it that they did not see how wicked and cruel this was. These poor black people were taken to market and sold like cattle, they were branded like cattle, and beaten like cattle. They had to work very hard, were paid no wages, and were often very cruelly treated. All masters, of course, were not cruel, some of them were even kind to their poor slaves, but still they had very unhappy lives. They had no rights whatever, their children might be taken from them and sold, sometimes even husbands and wives were sold to different masters, and never saw each other again. A master might treat his slaves as badly as he chose, and no one could punish him.
In the old, rough, wild days no one cared about the sufferings of these poor black people. They were only niggers, and made for work and suffering, and nothing was thought about it.
But, as time went on, people became less rough and more kind-hearted, and good men began to try to make people see the wickedness of slavery. For some years, a man called Wilberforce had been doing his best, and now he was joined by others, among whom was Macaulay, the father of the great writer. Mr. Macaulay had himself been a manager of a sugar plantation in the West Indies where slaves worked. But he gave up his post because he could not bear to see the misery and unhappiness of the slaves, and came home to try to do something for them.
It was not a very easy thing to do, because all the work on the sugar and coffee plantations in the West Indies was done by slaves. The planters said they would be ruined if the slaves were made free, as the black people would not work unless they were forced to do so. Besides, they had paid a great deal of money for their slaves, and it seemed unfair that they should be made to lose it all.
But, at last, all difficulties were smoothed away. The British Parliament said they would give twenty millions of money to the planters to make up for what they would lose in freeing their slaves, and, in the year 1834 A.D., most of them were set free.
Many other things were done during the reign of William IV., which you will find more interesting when you grow older. He died on 20th June 1837 A.D., having reigned seven years.