Integrity, Institutions and the Transatlantic Age of Reform

The following text was used to introduce a panel on ‘Integrity and the Reform of Public Life in the Nineteenth-Century Transatlantic World’  at the ‘Integrity Lost; Integrity Gained: Social Conditions and Institutional Pressures’ conference, April 2014.


The panel today considers the place which integrity played in the debates surrounding the reform of institutions and public life in Britain and the United States in the first half of the nineteenth century. What drew me to this topic was the current debates about the reform of institutions such as the police, the judiciary, the press, the banking sector and parliament (we had Nick Clegg talking about parliamentary and electoral reform, but I think the expenses scandal was more far-reaching and interesting for what it told us about corruption and public perceptions of politics). Of course our current age has not been the only one to question and challenge the institutions that claim to educate us, speak for us, care for us and punish us. The early nineteenth century also saw a sustained ‘age of reform’, one which exposed established institutions and public officials to a range of critiques from a broad community of improvers, reformers, revolutionaries, radicals and utopians. This age of reform, as we shall see, can be said to have reached beyond Britain to elsewhere in the English-speaking world, notably America. But if ‘reform’ is a watchword of both our age and the early nineteenth century, then what of about another keyword: integrity? If integrity is a keyword of our current institutional crisis, then to what extent did the term crop up in the early nineteenth century, and how was it used by both those who advocated institutional reform and those who tried to justify and legitimate the status quo?

Thankfully I have three academics here today who are going to help me to investigate this question. But before we start with the papers proper, I wanted to do two things: first, I want to introduce you to the early nineteenth-century transatlantic ‘age of reform’; second, I want to offer some introductory examples of how the concept of integrity did play a role in shaping the contests, discussions and debates which made the first decades of the nineteenth century such an interesting period.

Integrity and the Age of Reform

As every schoolchild knows, the year 1832 was the year when Britain witnessed the passage of the famous Reform Act, or ‘Great’ Reform Act, as some subsequent commentators liked to call it. The optimistic historian would interpret the Reform Act as the moment when Britain was launched into political modernity. The Act – it was the first major alteration to a political system that had existed since medieval times – saw the expansion of the British electorate (from 3.2 to 4.7% of the population), the creation of a new kind of town-dwelling middle-class voter, and a redistribution of seats so that urban areas that had little or no representation in parliament, such as south-east Lancashire, now returned more MPs. 1832 represented the culmination of decades of reform debate: since the 1780s a range of radicals, reformers, utopians and even Tory gentry offered a variety of antidotes to the political and social problems that faced Britain in the era of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. A number of institutions and structures were seen as in need of ‘reform’, ‘improvement’ or ‘amendment’, but the key one was parliament. Parliamentary reformers were extraordinarily optimistic about the benefits that would come with an extension of the franchise and a redistribution of parliamentary seats: MPs would become responsive to public opinion; electoral and administrative corruption would decline; and previously un-represented interests such as manufacturing would be brought into the political nation. Modern historians have endlessly debated the question of how much the Reform Act achieved (was it really all that ‘great’?), but what is certain is that 1832 marked a moment when reformers went from calling for reform to being able to make reform actually happen. The 1830s ushered in an ‘age of reform’, one which saw the abolition of slavery and the introduction of a new system of welfare under a Poor Law Amendment Act, to name just two examples.

Running through the debates about parliamentary reform in the early 1830s was the issue of integrity. Indeed the word pops up again and again in Hansard, the record of the parliamentary debates: I know this because the debates are now available online and all the lazy historian has to do is press ‘Control-F’ to find key words! There were, I think, at least two ways in which the issue of integrity appeared in reform debates.

First, there was the question of what the voter of integrity looked like; or, more specifically, what kind of person demonstrated the integrity, independence and respectability that was associated with the vote. A considerable amount of parliamentary time – the Reform Act took fifteen months to become law – was given over to the question of who could be safely entrusted with the vote (we should remember that almost nobody in parliament considered universal suffrage). Was the voter of integrity a property owner or a renter of property? If property owners were best, then what value of property gave one the requisite virtue, disinterestedness and integrity that was considered necessary if one was to undertake the great community responsibility of wielding the vote? How old was the voter and where did they live – in towns (called borough seats) or in agricultural areas (called counties)? Very broadly, the Reform Bill would come to define the voter as one who either owned property or occupied property of a certain value: in counties ownership of property valued at £2 got you the vote, in boroughs you had to own or occupy property with a rental value of £10.

The question of the relative integrity of the denizens of town and country was raised in August 1831 when a Tory grandee, the Marquess of Chandos, attempted to push the Reform Act in a conservative direction by adding a clause which would give the vote to tenants who rented property worth £50 per annum in the county or agricultural seats. Tories who wanted to maintain the power of the agricultural interest over the urban supported the amendment on the grounds that agriculture, and not manufacturing and commerce, bred individuals of integrity – largely because they stayed loyal and voted for the landed gentry who gave them jobs, land and homes. Colonel Sibthorp, an ultra-Tory who sat for Lincoln and who hated the Reform Act (so much so that his constituents burnt him in effigy), described such tenants – they were sometimes called ‘opulent serfs’ – as a ‘truly respectable and influential class […] whose loyalty, whose integrity, and the amount of whose contributions to the State’ were comparable to any other enfranchised group. While most Whigs agreed that the landed interest should be maintained over commerce and manufacturing (note that the Act increased the number of county seats from 82 to 144), and while some Whigs believed that county MPs were far less subservient to government than MPs from small boroughs, their overall aim was to enfranchise particular kinds of independent and property-owning agrarians, and Sibthorp’s tenants were not those people. Lord Althorp, one of the Act’s architects, argued that agricultural tenants were always dependent on their landlords and hence never had the space to act with independence or integrity. As Althorp explained, those who voted against the will of their landlords could expect to be turned out of their homes and lose any capital that they had ploughed into the land. The urban property owners who Althorp wanted to enfranchise – they were coming to be called the middle class – were not so circumstanced: property ownership meant economic independence, and economic independence meant one was able to act independently and with integrity.

In addition to debating the question of the integrity of voters, members also discussed the issue of whether particular political systems were likely to compromise the integrity of voters and their representatives. Here the debate focussed on the relative merits of two different kinds of constituency (we must remember that the equal, or at least nearly equal, electoral district is a very modern invention). The first was the ‘rotten borough’ that had hardly any electors (some, such as the much-maligned Old Sarum, had as few as seven), and which returned MPs who had bought, influenced or intimidated their way into parliament. The Reform Act would reduce the number of these rotten or pocket boroughs (56 borough seats were completely disenfranchised), but it would also make a second kind of constituency much more important: these were the large towns that returned members of Parliament in popular elections involving thousands of male electors (seven boroughs with over 5,000 voters existed before 1830). Conservatives and reformers had very different views on which kind of seat was preferable and which was more likely to return MPs of integrity and virtue – by which they meant individuals who could work through the problems of the day to the satisfaction of both their own consciences and the interests of the wider public and nation. The conservatively-inclined Alexander Baring took the Tory line in early August 1831 when he argued that large borough seats ‘would not make the best choice of Representatives’ as the MPs from such places would be forced to become agents of popular will: as Baring put it, MPs who had to struggle through elections and maintain majorities would regard ‘not arguments, but numbers’.

If large electorates meant the end of a politics of integrity and the rise of a new kind of popularity politics, then the only way to stop the rot was to preserve the influence of the rotten and pocket boroughs, as these were the means by which men of integrity and virtue could slip easily into politics and maintain an independent stance once there. Whigs would have none of this: in early July 1831 the attorney general rubbished all talk of a public-spirited aristocracy when he reminded the Commons that the aristocratic patrons who controlled small boroughs were frequently prepared to sell their seats in a ‘borough-market’ to whoever had the most cash. Such a system, according to the radical Whig Lord William Lennox, ‘undermined the very principles of integrity’ and spread ‘degeneracy, hypocrisy, and sordid fraud over the country’. Even some conservatives opposed the kind of compliance that landed families and patrons expected of voters in their pocket boroughs: Marmaduke Lawson, a mentally-unstable conservative who successfully challenged the Duke of Newcastle’s influence at Boroughbridge in 1818, complained that Newcastle’s cronies had told the 64 voters – most occupied property owned by the Duke – that ‘to give both your votes to your landlord is integrity, and a just sense of gratitude for being allowed to pay for a house or field’. Lawson – who himself bribed 12 voters at £20 a head – retorted that ‘My idea of integrity is, that a man should judge for himself, and banish all such feudal considerations from his mind’.1 But as Philip Harling has pointed out, most anti-reformers claimed that actually rotten and pocket boroughs did allow the people who mattered – the MPs – to judge for themselves. Those merchants and colonists who purchased a rotten borough were likely to be more disinterested and independent than those demagogues whose dependence on the ‘will of the people’ was such that they could not stand against any popular prejudice. Alexander Baring noted that those who got in via pocket boroughs were far superior to those ‘who went about among the £10 householders, exaggerating all the defects of the Constitution, promising things that could not be performed, […] and thus finding their way, by hypocrisy and deceit, and by encouraging false hopes and fatal delusions, into a seat in Parliament’. The debate shows that for most Tories – and many Whigs – the Reform Act was primarily about finding the best way to shield men of ‘integrity and intellect’ from the pressures of democracy outside parliament: it was not about purifying the political system by increasing the number of voters.

I have introduced you to these Parliamentary debates because they provide us with a useful starting point for thinking about the way in which the concept of integrity entered reform discussion. Before moving on to introduce my speakers and their topics, I wanted to briefly offer two further examples of how integrity surfaced in discussions about two other institutions: one was the justice system, the second was the Church of England. Of course to understand the age of reform we have to look beyond parliament and consider the variety of ways in which the word ‘reform’ was used: a range of institutions were thought to be in need of reform, but it was also true that individuals, classes, morals, manners and even nations were considered as fit subjects for reform. After drawing links between the way in which integrity was used in these reform debates, I will then introduce Heath’s paper by exploring the idea that America too experienced an ‘age of reform’ that was connected to Britain’s.

Various calls were made for the reform of law and justice in early-nineteenth century Britain: justice was thought to be too expensive as legal fees were set too high; there were calls for a reduction in the number of capital crimes on the statute book; and utilitarians wanted to replace an arcane and unwritten common law with an up-to-date legal code – the kind France, Austria and Bavaria had received in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Questions were also raised about the integrity of judges. Questions of this sort surfaced when utilitarian reformers began to advocate a new legal system that was based on fixed punishments and a scientific code of law, and not on the judge’s interpretation of a centuries-old common law. Important here were the bills which the utilitarian reformer Samuel Romilly brought forward after 1808 for a reduction in the number of capital crimes (Romilly wanted to start with pick-pocketing). Romilly saw two problems with the existing criminal law. First, it was too draconian, with inhumane and disproportionate punishments being attached to minor crimes, such as pick-pocketing and, though he did not point to this one, impersonating a Chelsea Pensioner. Second, the system of justice was irrational: not only could judges dole out less severe punishments at their discretion, they could also deliberately underestimate the value of good stolen so that the accused did not fall with the terms of the capital crime (this was called ‘pious perjury’). For Romilly, judicial discretion of this kind removed all terror and all hope of deterrence from the judicial system. As one of his supporters put it in the Commons in 1813, punishments that were certain and predictable were more humane and more effective than a system in which disproportionate and excessive capital punishments were rarely used.

Interestingly, Romilly’s demand for a more precise and prescriptive criminal law brought down a hail of opposition from lawyers and conservative MPs who claimed that any attempt to codify crimes and punishments would circumscribe the role of the judges, as well as cast doubt on their integrity. They preferred to emphasise the authority of judges who interpreted parliamentary statutes and the layers of cases and precedents that had been built up through the common law. Tories like Charles Wetherell, MP for Shaftesbury, was one who dismissed philosophical theories of punishment, hated the idea that the legislature would tell judges how to do their jobs, and generally preferred to put his faith in ‘the integrity and wisdom of those exalted personages who filled the judicial situations’. Another of Romilly’s critics thought ‘that one of the most prevalent faults of the present day was a want of reverence for those high magistrates who were not more useful to the community than they were venerable for their private virtues’, while Lord Ellenborough, the Tory chief justice, tried to torpedo the whole utilitarian project in 1810 when he argued that it would be impossible to frame a law ‘so that the punishment should be always applied in exact conformity to the nature, the extent and aggravation of the offence’. In the long term, however, Ellenborough and others who emphasised the discretion and integrity of judges would lose out: a criminal law commission appointed in 1833 was predicated on the notion that discretion would be limited and distinct punishments should be attached to particular degrees of crime.

My third institution is the Church of England. If any institution was routinely criticised for lacking integrity, then the Church was it. In 1834 the reformist Westminster Review admitted that there were ‘many men of piety, integrity, and singular virtues’ in the Church, but these had to be set against the ‘political bishops, the pluralist incumbents, the fox-hunting, the trout-fishing, the quarter-session and justice-of-the-peace-law making, the game preserving parsons of England’. The radical John Wade claimed in his Black Book – a kind of audit of institutional corruption first published in 1820 – that the Church needed reforming as it failed to recognise ‘preferment, talents, and integrity’, but rewarded those clergy and bishops who had the right patrons, contacts and political connections. Attacks on non-resident clergy who held multiple benefices were of course very common, but what we also have to recognise is that the age of reform also saw the emergence of a debate about how an established Church – a Church that was allied to the state – could maintain its integrity in an age when the state was being transformed: first by the march of the democratic principle (or liberalism as some worried churchmen called it), and second by the admission of non-Anglicans into parliament (Catholics could take up seats after they were ‘emancipated’ in 1829).

The group of Anglican high churchmen who led the famous ‘Oxford Movement’ (or Tractarianism as it is sometimes called), followed John Keble in arguing that the Church would be ‘forsaken, degraded, nay trampled on and despoiled by the State and people of England’ if it continued to ally itself with a state that now represented a multitude of Christian denominations. One of the Oxford Movement’s key principles was that the Church could only preserve its integrity if it rediscovered its spiritual identity, firstly by cutting its ties with an ‘infidel state’, and secondly by reconnecting with catholic doctrines such as the apostolic succession, the authority of the ordained ministry and sacramental ritual. As the historian Simon Skinner has shown, this Tractarian emphasis on the integrity of an independent Church worked on several levels: while the Church would realise its spiritual identity by freeing itself from a state that no longer represented its interests, individual clergy would stand a better chance of expressing their authority and realising their pastoral mission if they built autonomous parishes that brought priest and people closer together. The Tractarian period would raise integrity questions for different kinds of Anglicans: moderates would ask whether any kind of church-state connection could be justified, prominent figures like John Henry Newman would ask whether they could remain within the Church of England at all, and Tractarian politicians, the most notable was William E. Gladstone, would have to find a way of justifying their future parliamentary careers when it was obvious to everyone that they would not be able to further the interests of the Church through government.

What I have tried to do here is consider some of the ways in which the integrity concept entered into reform debate in the early nineteenth century. As far as I know, integrity has never been a key word in examinations of this period: it has been terms such ‘reform’, ‘improvement’, ‘independence’, ‘virtue’, ‘corruption’, ‘moral reform’ and concepts like ‘the rise of the middle class’ that have framed historians’ discussion of the age of reform. My attempt to insert integrity into the age of reform has been rather narrow and limited, as my focus has been on a strand of Toryism that sought to maintain the integrity of established institutions, institutions that were being challenged in an age of revolution that promised to uproot establishments altogether. The conservatives and anti-reformers that we have considered thought that the integrity of ancient establishments – in our case the common law, the unreformed system of representation and the Church of England – could be preserved if the independence of the specialist was maintained. Clergy and bishops had to be shielded from state interference, judges had to carve out an independent sphere free from parliamentary directives, and rotten boroughs had to be preserved as these seats were, anti-reformers claimed, the means by which men of talent, independence and public-spiritedness got into parliament. I think this was what Benjamin Disraeli, a future prime minster, was getting at when he drew a distinction between the worlds of the Whigs and Tories in his Vindication of the English Constitution in 1835. In Disraeli’s mind, the Whigs were threatening to replace ‘all those great national institutions’ with a centralised government bureaucracy, one filled by salaried civil servants who were ‘the ablest and most unprincipled of a corrupted people’. Tory Britain, by contrast, was made up of old established national institutions, lower orders that knew their place, and a privileged and public-spirited elite who were unpaid and independent of a state bureaucracy.

My colleagues will develop my rather narrow approach by looking at some other contexts in which integrity was deployed in this period; however, before closing, I want to offer some comments on America and why it makes sense to bring the United States into our discussion. American historians have used the phrase ‘age of reform’ to refer to epochs in United States history – Richard Hofstadter used the term to describe late nineteenth and early twentieth century America – but as far as I know US historians attach different labels to the early nineteenth century. This period has been called the age ‘information revolutions’, ‘internal improvements’, ‘evangelical revivalism’, ‘Jacksonian Democracy’, but not, I think, an ‘age of reform’. But reform was a watchword of the period: early nineteenth century saw a gamut of movements that sought to reform American morals in countless ways, and it is significant that President Andrew Jackson – ‘Old Hickory’ as he was called – committed himself to what he called ‘reform’ in his inaugural presidential address in 1829. Jackson’s reformism was primarily concentrated on removing corrupt federal officers and replacing them, not by a meritocracy, but by firm Jacksonian supporters. Heath’s paper will explore how Jackson’s reform of the federal officers raised issues connected with integrity: how could Jacksonians present themselves as reformers of integrity when what they were doing was making partisan appointments that had little to do with professionalism or probity? And how did the development of the presidential ‘spoils system’ sit alongside the development of a disinterested civil service? Questions of independence, integrity and virtue were in many ways at the heart of Jacksonian democracy, as for Jackson and his supporters, democracy rested on the rustic virtue of the white American male who was allowed to act independently: what threatened this social order were special interest groups and an overbearing executive government. In this way we can find commentators on both side of the Atlantic – both British Tories and American democrats – who were felt that virtue, independence and integrity could not exist in a world where individuals, whether they were Disraeli’s hereditary peerage or Jackson’s independent yeomen, were dependent on central government and pressured by external forces.

1 Quoted in E. A. Smith, ‘Earl Fitzwilliam and Malton: a proprietary borough in the early nineteenth century’, English Historical Review, 80:314 (1965), p. 51.

About Joseph Hardwick

Joseph Hardwick is Lecturer in History at University of Northumbria.
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