In London on this date 170 years ago—July 2, 1850—a good man died from injuries suffered when thrown from his horse three days before. His death prompted the greatest outpouring of public sorrow in nearly half a century. Queen Victoria wrote, “Everyone seems to have lost a personal friend.” He was only 62.
His name was Sir Robert Peel, one of the best of Britain’s 55 Prime Ministers. He served in that position twice, 1834-35 and 1841-46, for a total of five years and 57 days. A sketch of him hangs proudly in my home office. Why? Because he was an example of something common with cheese or wine but rare in politicians: He improved with age.
To this day, London policemen are still called “bobbies” in deference to Peel, who, as Home Secretary, created the Metropolitan Police Force in 1829. Its widely used metonym almost two centuries later is none other than Scotland Yard. The principles Peel introduced at its formation are collectively known as “policing by consent” (in contrast to policing by fear) and deserve to be revisited in light of present-day controversies.
“The police are the public and the public are the police,” Peel famously declared. He argued that policing should be professional, transparent, accountable, and rooted in a broad, public consensus. Its effectiveness should be measured by a lack of crime and a high degree of public support, not the number of arrests. Police, he argued, should be citizens in uniform as opposed to agents of a hostile, concentrated power. Whenever possible, physical force should be a measured last resort, deployed after persuasion and warning prove futile. Defense of life, rights, and property should be the objective of policing.
Peel’s views on criminal justice matters started out as liberal (in the classical, British sense) and changed little over his lifetime. He sought to streamline the system and make it more obvious and predictable. Fewer rules, he believed, would foster respect for those that remained. Toward that end, he began the process of vastly reducing the huge number of capital offenses in Britain. You could be hanged just for cutting down somebody’s hop vines until Peel cleared the books of such draconian penalties.
When Peel changed his mind on the major issues of the day, it was almost always in the right direction—toward liberty. When he was first elected to Parliament in 1809 at the age of 22, he maintained at best an indifference to the abandonment of the gold standard and the adoption of paper fiat money during the war with Napoleon. He supported legal discrimination against Catholics (such as the longstanding ban on their serving in Parliament). And he endorsed the trade protectionism that benefited the landed aristocracy of his own Tory Party. With time, reflection, and the influence of the classical liberals of the time, he “grew” in office and reversed himself.
When Waterloo ended hostilities with France in 1815, some politicians wanted to keep the paper money system of the war years. Robert Peel chaired the Bullion Committee and introduced the bill that restored the gold standard. He had become a convert to the cause of honest money.
“Catholic emancipation” as it came to be known in the 19th Century was the idea that Anglican Britain should rid itself of laws that denied equal rights to Catholics and other “nonconformists.” Many public offices from Parliament on down were closed to all but those of the Anglican faith. In the late 1820s, Robert Peel led the efforts in Westminster to repeal those laws.
In the 1840s, the cause of free trade burst onto the political scene. The culmination of decades of hard work by the Anti-Corn Law League of John Bright and Richard Cobden, the issue came to a head with crop-destroying rains in Britain and the disastrous potato famine in British-ruled Ireland. What sense did it make for Britain to prevent foreign grain from entering the country when cheaper imports could feed hungry people? It was Robert Peel, as Prime Minister, who convinced Parliament to repeal the protectionist Corn Laws in 1846, though it cost him his job on the very same day. He had founded the modern Conservative Party but it turned him out of office over the issue of free trade. He never regretted that he had put principle above party.
Announcing his resignation, Peel was defiant. He had secured “cheap bread” for the people and that was worth so much more than the applause of the vested interests he once supported but later fought. He declared,
I shall leave a name execrated by every Monopolist…but it may be that I shall leave a name sometimes remembered with expressions of good-will in the abodes of those whose lot it is to labour…when they shall recruit their exhausted strength with abundant and untaxed food, the sweeter because it is no longer leavened by a sense of injustice.
Peels’ good friend and colleague in government, William Ewart Gladstone, would go on to found the Liberal Party, serve four times as Prime Minister, and get rid of almost every remaining tariff.
On the very morning he died, Peel attended a meeting of the commission that would oversee the magnificent Exhibition of 1851. It was a glorious tribute to the economic freedoms he helped to bring about.
Millions of Brits were distraught over his untimely death in 1850. Taken from them was a man unsullied by scandal and unyielding in his desire to get bad government out of the way of good people.
During my research for this article, I was dismayed to discover that Sir Robert Peel is under attack by the radical Left in Britain at this very moment. A statue of him in Glasgow was vandalized in early June. An online petition seeks removal of statues of him in Manchester and across Britain. The main reason? His father—repeat, his father, not him—opposed the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. Peel himself campaigned to abolish slavery entirely in 1833. He likely did more to liberate people from oppression and ignorance than the nihilistic radicals of today will ever do in their combined lifetimes.
The name of Robert Peel deserves the admiration of good people everywhere, not only on this anniversary of his death, but forever.
For additional information, see:
"The Humble Farm Boy Who Made Britain Great" by Lawrence W. Reed
"John Bright: Voice of Victorian Liberalism" by Nicholas Elliott
"How Free Trade Triumphed and Made Britain Great" by Richard Ebeling
"Free Trade and the Irish Famine" by John P. Finneran
"From Crystal Palace to White Elephant in 150 Years" by Lawrence W. Reed
"William Ewart Gladstone: A Decades-Long Defense of Liberty" by Lawrence W. Reed
Sir Robert Peel by T. A. Jenkins
Robert Peel: A Biography by Douglas Hurd