CHAPTER IV. THE CRIMEAN WAR.
The "Exhibition year," 1851, appears to our backward gaze almost like a short day of splendid summer interposed between two stormy seasons; but at the time men were more inclined to regard it as the first of a long series of halcyon days. Indeed, the unexampled number and success of the various efforts to redress injury and reform abuses, which had signalised the new reign, might almost justify those sanguine spirits, who now wrote and spoke as though wars and oppression were well on their way to the limbo of ancient barbarisms, and who looked to unfettered commerce as the peace-making civiliser, under whose influence the golden age - in more senses than one might revisit the earth.
We have already referred to certain of the new transforming forces whose action tended to heighten such hopes; there are two reforms as yet unnamed by us, distinguishing these early years, which are particularly significant; though one at least was stoutly opposed by a special class of reformers. We refer to the legislation dealing with mines and factories and those employed therein, with which is inseparably connected the venerable name of the late Lord Shaftesbury; and to the abolition of duelling in the army, secured by the untiring efforts of Prince Albert, who had enlisted on his side the immense influence of the Duke of Wellington.
That peculiar modern survival of the ancient trial by combat, the duel, was still blocking the way of English civilisation when Her Majesty assumed the sceptre. A palpable anachronism, it yet seemed impossible to make men act on their knowledge of its antiquated and barbarous character; legislation was fruitless of good against a practice consecrated by false sentiment and false ideas of honour; but when dislodged from its chief stronghold, the army, it became quickly discredited everywhere, with the happy result noted by a contemporary historian, that now "a duel in England would seem as absurd and barbarous as an ordeal by touch or a witch-burning." Militarism, that mischievous counterfeit of true soldierly spirit, could not thrive where the duel was discountenanced; and the friends of peace might rejoice with reason.
But those peaceful agitators, the sagacious, energetic Cobden and his allies, resented rather sharply the interference of the Lord Ashley of that day with the "natural laws" of the labour market - laws to whose operation some of the party attributed the cruelly excessive hours of work in factories, and the indiscriminate employment of all kinds of labour, even that of the merest infants. Undeterred by these objections, convinced that no law which sanctioned and promoted cruelty did so with true authority, Lord Ashley persisted in the struggle on which he had entered 1833; in 1842 he scored his first great success in the passing of an Act that put an end to the employment of women and children in mines and collieries; in 1844 the Government carried their Factories Act, which lessened and limited the hours of children's factory labour, and made other provisions for their benefit. It was not all that he had striven for, but it was much; he accepted the compromise, but did not slacken in his efforts still further to improve the condition of the children. His career of steady benevolence far outstretched this early period of battle and endurance; but already his example and achievement were fruitful of good, and his fellow-labourers were numerous. Nothing succeeds like success: people had sneered at the mania for futile legislation that possessed the "humanity-monger" who so embarrassed party leaders with his crusade on behalf of mere mercy and justice; they now approved the practical philanthropist who had taken away a great reproach from his nation, and glorified the age in which they lived because of its special humaneness, while they exulted not less in the brightening prospects of the country. Sedition overcome, law and order triumphant, the throne standing firm, prosperity returning - all ministered to pride and hope.
In 1850 there had been some painful incidents; the death by an unhappy accident of Sir Robert Peel, and the turbulent excitement of what are known as the "No Popery" disturbances, being the most notable: and of these again incomparably the most important was the untimely loss to the country of the great and honest statesman who might otherwise have rendered still more conspicuous services to the Sovereign and the empire. The sudden violent outburst of popular feeling, provoked by a piece of rash assumption on the part of the reigning Pope, was significant, indeed, as evidencing how little alteration the "Catholic revival" had worked in the temper of the nation at large; otherwise its historic importance is small. At the time, however, the current of agitation ran strongly, and swept into immediate oblivion an event which three years before would have had a European importance - the 'death of Louis Philippe, whose strangely chequered life came to an end in the old palace of Claremont, just before the "papal aggressions" - rash, impolitic, and mischievous, as competent observers pronounced it, but powerless to injure English Protestantism - had thrown all the country into a ferment, which took some months to subside. We are told that Her Majesty, though naturally interested by this affair, was more alive to the quarter where the real peril lay than were some of her subjects; but in the universal distress caused by the death of Peel none joined more truly, none deplored that loss more deeply, than the Sovereign, who would willingly have shown her value for the true servant she had lost by conferring a peerage on his widow - an honour which Lady Peel, faithful to the wishes and sharing the feeling of her husband, felt it necessary to decline.