Untitled - British Reform Bill of 1867

May 11, 1867

W. F. (?)

Untitled - British Reform Bill of 1867

Anglo-American Relations; Symbols, British Lion; Symbols, John Bull; Symbols, Uncle Sam; Voting Rights;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

Great Britain;

J. B. (to the Workingmen of England). "If we do grant this privilege of suffrage, it must be taken as a privilege, not a right--you understand."

Uncle Sam. "Stick to him, boys. The mountain is giving way by degrees."

The topic of this Harper's Weekly cartoon is the Reform Act of 1867, which expanded the electorate in Great Britain.

By the nineteenth century, Great Britain was a constitutional monarchy that was based on a mixed form of government:  monarchy (the king or queen), aristocracy (the House of Lords), and democracy (the House of Commons).  Under this system, voting was considered a privilege of the few, not a natural or constitutional right of the many.  It was assumed that government officials acted upon what they thought was the best interest of the nation when they crafted public policy; therefore the interests of all British subjects were represented in Parliament, whether they were allowed to vote or not.  

In 1832, the Whig government of Charles Grey (2nd Earl Grey) sponsored a Reform Act to quell popular unrest.  It altered the grossly malapportioned Parliament by transferring seats away from the over-represented countryside (where wealthy landowners dominated) to the under-represented industrial cities.  Before its passage, for example, the thinly populated Cornwall County elected 44 Members of Parliament, while London, with more than 100,000 residents, could elect only 4.  The Reform Act of 1832 also expanded the electorate by 217,000 by lowering the amount of property a man needed to own in order to vote.  This brought most of the middle class into the electorate, but neglected the urban and rural working classes.

The chief proponent of the Reform Act of 1867, featured in this cartoon, was Benjamin Disraeli, Chancellor of the Exchequer (treasury secretary) in the Tory administration of Lord Derby.  He skillfully steered the measure through Parliament, where amendments by Liberal members produced a bill that almost doubled the electorate by extending the suffrage to 938,000 urban workingmen.  In 1884-1885, a Third Reform Act expanded the electorate again by granting agricultural workers access to the ballot, while another law further equalized representation between districts.

In this American cartoon, Uncle Sam points to the Magna Carta, England's ancient charter of rights, and urges the British workingmen to continue to push for their right to vote under the proposed Reform Bill of 1867.  Even the proponents of the British Reforms Acts, however, still considered voting to be a privilege.  John Bull, the personification of Great Britain, who holds the Reform Bill, reflects that attitude in this cartoon.  In the United States, property requirements for voting had given way in the Antebellum Era to the idea and practice of voting rights for all white, adult, male citizens.  In the postwar time of this cartoon, reformers in the United States were struggling for the recognition of voting rights for black men (and, in some cases, for women, too).

Robert C. Kennedy

Untitled - British Reform Bill of 1867
June 17, 2024

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