Austen’s lifetime knew political intrigue that came to light with the splintering of the Whig party and the formation of a Conservative element. From 1788 to 1812, England experienced war after war, King George III’s madness, and the decadent lifestyle to the Prince Regent. The Radical movement had taken root among the disenfranchised lower classes. By 1822, the Reform Act had come to fruition.
The struggle between monarchy and Parliament became more prevalent during George III’s reign. The King shrewdly used the Act of Settlement to choose ministers and emissaries. In doing so, George III carved out a political legacy. In theory, the Whigs represented the aristocracy and the Tories the landed gentry, the class to which Jane Austen’s family belonged. No one represented those who did not own land: the struggling middle and lower classes.
A balance of power did exist to a certain extent during this time of change. For example, George III purposely supported many Tory-sponsored policies in order to keep the Whigs from taking away his power. There was also a system of “checks and balances” in place. The House of Lords controlled most offices of state, but the House of Commons controlled the offices of finance and taxation. Chancellors of the Exchequer had to be appointed from among commoners.
One of the areas of concern was the lack of representation among many of the newly formed cities in the North. The industrialized areas lacked proper representation in Parliament. For example, Cornwall had forty-four seated members, while cities such as Manchester, Leeds, and Birmingham were lucky to have representation of any kind. There was also no standard voting qualifications. Boroughs set their own standards. By 1800, fewer than one in ten men could vote, and no woman held that privilege.
The 1790s saw the first political movement in over 150 years. Thomas Paine called for Radical reform in his book, The Rights of Man (published in two parts in 1791 and 1792). Paine targeted inherited wealth. He made an appeal for universal male franchise and the end of all wars. He even advocated old-age pensions, a system of welfare, and a free education. By 1795, Radicalism had been driven “underground” by repressive policies instituted by William Pitt.
Speaking of Pitt, William Pitt the Younger was Prime Minister throughout much of Austen’s life. A Tory by nature, he was a favorite of George III and of the landed gentry. Pitt was Prime Minister from 1783 to 1801 and from 1804 to his death in 1806.
While George III supported Pitt, his son, George IV, the Prince Regent, offered a nominal support to Charles James Fox, the leader of the Whigs. Pitt and Fox faced off often. For example, with George III’s first bout of madness in 1788, a constitutional crisis arose. The Pittites were had thought that their man might be ousted, but the King recovered before that could happen. The French Revolution also brought changes in the English governmental policies. The Pittites formed a coalition with many Whigs, who were frightened of internal sedition, to conserve property and the “old order.”
Meanwhile the Foxites pushed for mild reforms. One would like to think they did this because of their civic conscience; however, it was more likely that the Whigs feared the growing power of the King more than they cared for the disadvantaged.
Pitt’s death in January 1806 brought the so-named “Ministry of all the Talents,” in which Fox served as Foreign Secretary. It was his first “official” office in 23 years, but he, too, died in September of the same year. By March 1807, the “Ministry” had disintegrated. Five weak governments followed. 1812 saw the assassination of Spencer Percival, the only British Prime Minister to be killed in office.