Reform Acts

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Reform Acts

or

Reform Bills,

in British history, name given to three major measures that liberalized representation in ParliamentParliament,
legislative assembly of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Over the centuries it has become more than a legislative body; it is the sovereign power of Great Britain, whereas the monarch remains sovereign in name only.
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 in the 19th cent. Representation of the counties and boroughs in the House of Commons had not, except for the effects of parliamentary union with Scotland (1707) and Ireland (1800), been materially altered since the 17th cent. The system was very irregular and greatly restricted the franchise; it failed to take into account the great shifts of population and the growth of new social classes that attended the Industrial RevolutionIndustrial Revolution,
term usually applied to the social and economic changes that mark the transition from a stable agricultural and commercial society to a modern industrial society relying on complex machinery rather than tools.
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. "Pocket boroughs," controlled by the crown or large landholders, and "rotten boroughs," whose populations had declined (the most notorious was Old SarumOld Sarum
, site of a former city, Wiltshire, S England, just N of Salisbury (New Sarum). Excavations and scanning technologies have revealed remains of a British Iron Age fort, the Roman station Sorbiodunum, and a later Saxon then Norman town in the old settlement's mound.
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, which had virtually ceased to exist) were amply represented. Yet large cities such as Manchester and Birmingham returned no members of their own. Out of a population of about 24,000,000 in the British Isles (including Ireland), only about 435,000 were qualified to vote. Corruption and the sale of seats flourished. Reform agitation, beginning to develop in the 1760s, was supported by William Pitt and others, but the emergency period of the French Revolution interrupted it. Revived c.1807, it had become the leading issue of the day by 1830.

The Reform Act of 1832, enacted under the Whig administration of the 2d Earl GreyGrey, Charles Grey, 2d Earl,
1764–1845, British statesman. Elected to Parliament in 1786, he was one of those appointed to manage the impeachment of Warren Hastings.
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, redistributed seats in the interest of larger communities; it also extended the franchise in the boroughs to those who occupied premises of an annual value of £10 and in the counties to similar leaseholders—to the advantage of shopkeepers and other middle-class men—and it simplified registration and voting procedure. The bill was passed in the House of Lords only as a result of the government's threat to overcome opposition by creating enough Whig peers to ensure passage. The electorate was increased by about 50%, but the new distribution of seats still allowed the rural areas to retain their supremacy.

Agitation by the advocates of ChartismChartism,
workingmen's political reform movement in Great Britain, 1838–48. It derived its name from the People's Charter, a document published in May, 1838, that called for voting by ballot, universal male suffrage, annual Parliaments, equal electoral districts, no
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 and others for further reform produced no results until Benjamin DisraeliDisraeli, Benjamin, 1st earl of Beaconsfield
, 1804–81, British statesman and author. He is regarded as the founder of the modern Conservative party.
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 made a bid for the support of the working classes by enacting the Reform Act of 1867. This act, which further redistributed the seats and more than doubled the electorate, gave the vote to many workingmen in the towns. The Reform Act of 1884, passed during the administration of William GladstoneGladstone, William Ewart,
1809–98, British statesman, the dominant personality of the Liberal party from 1868 until 1894. A great orator and a master of finance, he was deeply religious and brought a highly moralistic tone to politics.
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, removed the distinction between county and borough franchises and, by the reduction of rural qualifications, added about 2,000,000 more men to the electorate. A redistribution act in 1885 rendered representation nearly proportional to population. It was not, however, until the passage of the Representation of the People ActsRepresentation of the People Acts,
statutes enacted by the British Parliament to continue the extension of the franchise begun by the Reform Bills (see under Reform Acts).
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 in the 20th cent. that the British Parliament adopted universal male and female suffrage.

Bibliography

See studies of electoral reform by C. Seymour (1915, repr. 1970) and H. L. Morris (1921, repr. 1971); N. Gash, Politics in the Age of Peel (1953); F. B. Smith, The Making of the Second Reform Bill (1966); see more general studies by A. Jones (1972), J. Cannon (1973), M. Barker (1975), and T. A. Jenkins (1988).

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