Many historians have justly seen the 1832 Reform Act as a turning point in British political History. This was the first major reform of the electoral system in almost six hundred years, and thus deserves to be seen as a significant event. Although some historians1 have attempted to downplay the significance of the passing of the bill, it can be seen as a triumph for the Whig party.

Since the reign of George III, and his astute political manipulation, Foxite Whigs had become increasingly convinced of the ever-growing malevolent power of the crown. George's staunch Toryism and political ability had kept them from the power they felt they deserved. They needed a way to check the power of the king, so as to return to their former position of pre-eminence.

That is not to say that Whig motives for reform were entirely self interested. Their belief in liberty' as a crucial right seemed to be threatened by this almost despotic behaviour. Over the next fifty years, the Whigs were exceptionally rarely in office, and their conviction in favour of reform strengthened.

After Pitt's creations the House of Lords had become a Tory bastion, so Whig hopes for a balanced constitution fell entirely upon the House of Commons. This was fruitful ground for reform; the abuses and corruption inherent in the electoral system were patently unfair and inherently attractive to Whiggish reform, on a more scientific basis.

This is not to say that the Whigs had not exploited the system of rotten boroughs and uncontested elections as much, if not more than the Tory's. It was merely that their more liberal inclinations encouraged them towards reform as a response to their catastrophic political fortunes.

Although the power of the crown was not ever growing, and indeed began to decline during the early part of the 19th century, this Whiggish perception of an ever increasing monarchical despotism proved powerful among the older, Foxite whigs who had experienced the party's darkest days.

The Whigs had two overarching concepts that defined their ideology, the defence of property' and the protection of liberty'. Tensions emerged among their supporters when the two came into conflict, the classic example of this being the slave trade. A similar conflict occurred on the issue of reform. A rotten borough was seen as property', to be bought, sold and utilized as the owner wished. Yet this property' was, in their opinion, acting as a pawn of the King to deprive them, and all Britons of their liberty'. The only way to ensure this liberty' was reform, yet it would have to be a careful reform to defend the concept of property'.

The Reform Bill of 1832 was not strictly a revolutionary measure. It did not propose any grand new ideas for representation. It did not introduce the secret ballot, dear to the heart of many Whigs. It did not eliminate corruption or lead to a vast new popular electorate. What it did do was protect property. All major politicians in the early 19th century feared the uproar and tumult of democracy. They, especially the Whigs, as guardians of the enlightenment, believed that they were set apart to govern, by their ownership of property, and thus a stake in the country. The £10 householder was the qualification needed to vote, because it restricted the vote to the right thinking' propertied classes.

Yet, in the end, reform was carried by the will of the people. Popular pressure behind the bill was so strong that many wavering Whigs were forced to support it to retain their seats. As JN Fazerlacky, Whig MP for Peterborough said: "The country is tired of the conflict of parties and wants certain measures, and will support whoever brings them forward. Among these the principal is a reform for parliament-2

This public support allowed the Whigs to sweep to their magisterial victory in 1831, ensuring the bill would progress through the commons. It also threatened a revolution, which was finally enough to cower the King and Tory leadership. This was one of the first great exercises of public opinion. The Whigs were unafraid of revolution. Indeed, they welcomed it abroad in 1830 when their allies put a constitutional, monarchical government on the throne in Paris. They were quite happy to conjure the spectre of revolution in debate to scare the Tories.

Although it is debatable whether a revolution would have occurred in 1832 had reform not been passed I think that one may have emerged eventually, especially given the shocks the reformed' government was going to have to face. Speculation is of little use in these matters and the fact remains that there was a widespread fear of revolution if the bill was not passed. Although fear itself was unlikely to persuade anyone of the merits of the reform case it did set the tone for William IV to decide that reform was inevitable and than any government would have to introduce some sort of reform, scuppering the abortive Tory ministry of May 1832.

Parliamentary reform was intended to restrict royal influence within proper boundaries and to provide some sort of representation to those who had a significant stake in the countries prosperity (such as Northern mill owners) but whom had not until then been properly recognised by the electoral system. It was thus a profoundly Whiggish measure designed to protect liberty and property, the Whig's two ideological obsessions.