Peel, Robert

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PEEL, ROBERT (1788–1850), English politician.

Robert Peel was born in Bury, Lancashire, the son of Robert Peel, a wealthy calico manufacturer and landowner, and Ellen Yates. Peel spent his formative years in Lancashire before the family removed in 1796 to Tamworth, Staffordshire, where his father had purchased an estate and become the local member of Parliament (MP). Peel did well at school and in 1805 he became a student of Christ Church, Oxford. After three years he graduated with a double first in classics and mathematics.

At age twenty-one, Peel joined his father in Parliament as the MP for Cashel in Tipperary. Peel's entry into public life was accomplished in the familiar way for pre-Reform Britain: his father purchased the right to nominate the member for the seat in southern Ireland.

Peel accepted his first office, undersecretary for war and the colonies, a few months after becoming an MP, and in May 1812 he joined the administration of Lord Liverpool (1770–1828) as chief secretary for Ireland. Peel's six year tenure in the Irish post was marked by a protracted confrontation with the leading Catholic politician of the day, Daniel O'Connell (1775–1847), in opposition to the demand for Catholic emancipation; by his ardent support for the Protestant ascendancy in Parliament and through government patronage; and by his largely successful attempts to quell Irish unrest and maintain order that included the creation of a police force—a forerunner to the royal Irish constabulary—which became known colloquially as the "peelers."

Peel's hard-line attitude to Ireland made him the favorite of many Tories and earned him a new seat in Parliament as the representative of Oxford. Despite his success, he decided to return to the back-bench in 1818. Although he rejected numerous offers to return to the cabinet, Peel was not idle. In 1819, he chaired an enquiry into the Bank of England, which by 1823 had entirely reformed the currency system.

Early in 1822, Peel returned to Liverpool's cabinet as home secretary, a post he held (with a short interval) until 1830. As home secretary, Peel oversaw a wide-ranging program of reform in the administration of law and order. The central element was a consolidation of the criminal law and the repeal of a plethora of old statutes, as well as the creation of an effective police force for London whose members are known to this day as "bobbies."

The first major crisis of Peel's political life occurred over Catholic Emancipation. In 1827, he had resigned from the government—then headed by George Canning (1770–1827)—over the issue, only to be coaxed back to the Home Office as part of the cabinet of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1769–1852) early in 1828. In the months that followed, Peel reversed his stance, steering a bill granting some of the privileges of citizenship to Catholics through the House of Commons. Peel's supporters defended his change of heart as an act of statesmanship, but many of his colleagues reacted bitterly. When he resigned from parliament to test the views of his constituents he lost his seat, only returning to the House a month later when a vacancy occurred at Westbury. It would not be last time that Peel would undergo a political conversion that lost him the support of many colleagues and divided his party.

In 1830, Peel succeeded to his father's baronetcy and became the member for Tamworth in his place. Following the defeat of Wellington's government, Peel became a member of the opposition. During the crisis that gripped the nation over reform of the House of Commons, Peel was a vehement defender of the existing system, including the so-called rotten boroughs that contained a handful of electors. His intransigence won him back the support of many Tories.

Following the resolution of the crisis and the election of the Whigs, Peel accepted the new system and set about rejuvenating his party, called Conservative for the first time in 1831, as a political force. Although he was out of office, his influence hardly diminished, and on numerous occasions during 1833–1834 he voted with the government, removing the need for them to seek support among the radicals and O'Connell's Irish members. With the resignation of Charles Grey (1764–1845) in 1834, Peel became prime minister. Without a majority in the House of Commons, he dissolved Parliament and at the subsequent election the ranks of the Tories were substantially increased. Peel still did not command a majority, however, and by April 1835 he resigned, returning to the opposition benches for the second time.

Peel's second opportunity for the premiership came after the resignation of the government of William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne (1779–1848) in 1839. Peel had the composition of his cabinet finalized but he stumbled when he sought to effect changes in the staff of the household of Victoria (r. 1837–1901). The young queen reacted strongly against Peel's suggestion that some of her ladies in waiting be replaced by those more favorable to the Tories, and what became known as the "bedchamber crisis" resulted in the return of Melbourne's government. Peel knew that he was right in constitutional terms, but he did not have a parliamentary majority to back him and he did not desire further confrontation with Victoria. On the contrary, over the coming months Peel and his associates devoted considerable effort to smoothing over the rift with the palace in anticipation of the day when they would command the floor of the House of Commons. He did not have long to wait. In 1841, Melbourne's Whig government again fell and at the subsequent general election Peel and the Conservative Party were swept to power with a substantial majority.

Peel faced many difficulties when coming to office, from war in China and Afghanistan to poverty and unrest throughout the British Isles. Over the next five years, Peel's government was renowned for facing the threats of Chartism and Irish Repeal; for introducing an income tax; for extensive reform of the Bank of England; and, preeminently, for repealing the Corn Laws. The regime that governed the importation of corn and other grain products had been established in 1815 in the aftermath of the French wars. The Corn and Provision Laws prohibited the importation of corn at a price below the very high price of the domestic product, thereby buttressing the political and social power of the landowning class with a guaranteed income.

From the beginning the system was unpopular with the majority of the people who paid for it in the form of higher bread prices. It was also increasingly unpopular with the growing middle class that derived its income from manufacturing. Industrialists, manufacturers, and merchants complained that their trade with Europe was being hampered by protectionist measures implemented in retaliation for the Corn Laws. Increasingly they called for free trade. Prohibition was replaced in 1828 by a sliding scale, but this had little practical effect and did little to silence the rising chorus of opposition. By the end of the 1830s, a nationwide campaign for the "total and immediate repeal" of the Corn Laws had been commenced.

Corn Law repeal was only one of a number of challenges that the failing Whig government was unable to meet. The Whigs clung doggedly to the sliding scale until 1841, when they opted for a fixed duty; the Tories remained committed to protection. After coming to government, Peel attempted to address the issue by introducing a revised sliding scale. His approach satisfied neither opponents nor supporters of the Corn Laws, and, although it bought him some time, within three years the revised system was overtaken by circumstances. In 1845 the potato blight plunged Ireland into famine. The extent to which Peel had already become convinced of the merits of free trade is a moot point; the national emergency in Ireland forced his hand.

Between October and December 1845, Peel sought unsuccessfully to convince his cabinet colleagues of the need to freely import grain to meet the food crisis, and on 9 December he resigned. This allowed a Whig government headed by John Russell (1792–1878) (who had committed himself to repeal a month previously) to briefly come to office. Peel resumed the prime ministership on 20 December, and in January 1846 he introduced a corn bill into the House and advocated free trade in a series of speeches. About 120 of Peel's Conservative colleagues supported his change of heart; the rest remained staunchly protectionist and assailed him as a traitor who had betrayed a foundational principle of the party. In June 1846, Peel resigned a few days after the House of Lords passed the bill repealing the Corn Laws. Over the next four years, Peel and his associates supported Russell's Whig administration.

Peel died in July 1850 following a riding accident. His actions in relation to the Corn Laws earned the ire of die-hard Tories, but were tremendously popular in the nation at large. After Peel's death, many monuments were erected to the memory of the man who had secured the people's bread. Peel's political career was marked by a determination to do what he felt was right regardless of its popularity or political ramifications. As a consequence, he both built and wrecked the Conservative Party as a political force during his public life. Peel was remembered for his political courage over the Corn Laws, but his reforms of the administration of justice and the introduction of an income tax in peace time had a far more lasting effect on the lives of Britons.

See alsoConservatism; Corn Laws, Repeal of; Great Britain; Tories.


Cowie, L. W. Sir Robert Peel, 1788–1850: A Bibliography. Westport, Conn., 1996.

Gash, Norman. Mr. Secretary Peel: The Life of Sir Robert Peel to 1830. London, 1961.

——. Sir Robert Peel: The Life of Sir Robert Peel after 1830. London, 1972.

Hilton, Boyd. "Peel: A Re-appraisal." Historical Journal 22 (1979): 585–614.

Peel, G. V. "Sir Robert Peel (1788–1850)." Dictionary of National Biography, Vol. 15, edited by Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee, 655–668. London, 1972. Entry by Peel's grandson.

Prest, John. "Sir Robert Peel, Second Baronet (1788–1850), Prime Minister." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Vol. 43, edited by H. G. C. Matthew and Brian Harrison, 406–418. Oxford, U.K., 2004.

Read, Donald. Peel and the Victorians. Oxford, U.K., 1987.

Paul A. Pickering