Peel, Sir Robert

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Peel, Sir Robert

Sir Robert Peel, 1788–1850, British statesman. The son of a rich cotton manufacturer, whose baronetcy he inherited in 1830, Peel entered Parliament as a Tory in 1809. He served (1812–18) as chief secretary for Ireland, where he maintained order by the establishment of a police force and consistently opposed Irish demands for Catholic Emancipation. In 1819 he was chairman of the parliamentary currency committee that recommended and secured Britain's return to the gold standard. As home secretary (1822–27, 1828–30) Peel succeeded in reforming the criminal laws and established (1829) the London police force, whose members came to be called Peelers or Bobbies. Early in his career Peel scrupulously defended Tory interests, but he gradually came to believe in the need for change. The first sign of a modified outlook was in his sponsorship (1829) of the bill enabling Roman Catholics to sit in the House of Commons. In opposing parliamentary reform he recovered some of the Tory support that he lost by this position, and after the Reform Bill of 1832 (see Reform Acts) had passed despite his opposition, he rallied the party and was prime minister for a brief term (1834–35). In 1834, however, Peel made the election speech known as the Tamworth manifesto, in which he explained that his party accepted the Reform Bill and would work for further changes but "without infringing on established rights." This statement came to be regarded as the manifesto for the Conservative party now emerging, under Peel's leadership, from the old Tory party. Among the able young men who rallied around Peel were William Ewart Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli. Peel was asked to form a cabinet in 1839 but declined when the young Queen Victoria refused to make requested changes in her household. He returned to power in 1841, however, and the reshaped party attitudes were very apparent in his new ministry, which introduced an income tax and a revised system of banking control, gave aid to the Irish Catholic Church, and attempted Irish land reform. Of far greater importance were the virtual abandonment of custom duties and the repeal of the corn laws. Peel had formerly defended these laws, which protected Tory agricultural interests, but he was impressed by the arguments of Richard Cobden against them and convinced by the disastrous effect of the potato famine in Ireland. The laws were repealed in June, 1846, but Peel's action split his party, and he resigned from office after a tactical defeat within the same month. Much abused as an apostate during his lifetime, Peel is now recognized as a practical statesman of forward-looking views and great courage. His memoirs were posthumously published (1856). His correspondence and private letters were edited by C. S. Parker (3 vol., 1891–99) and later by George Peel (1920).

See biographies by N. Gash (2 vol., 1961–72) and D. Read (1987).

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