‘Standing between two extremes’: James Wentworth Buller MP and the politics of moderation

The development of a more rigid party system has been a recurrent theme in many of our blogs about Victorian politics, including this one about ‘Defying the Whip‘. Few MPs, however, had their political careers destroyed and then resurrected quite so spectacularly on account of their refusal to adhere to a strict party line as James Wentworth Buller. His career, first as MP for Exeter, 1830-35 and then North Devon, 1857-65, neatly illustrates the fluctuating and sometimes extreme attitudes to party alignments that make early Victorian politics so compelling for historians.

James Wentworth Buller (1798-1865)

A wealthy Devon landowner and Oxford academic, Buller first entered the Commons in 1830 aged 32. Elected for Exeter, which his father had represented as a Tory, many assumed he would adopt the same line in politics. Instead he cautiously supported the Whig ministry’s reform bill, backing it in some of its key stages. Standing on ‘Whig principles’ at the 1832 general election, he praised the measure as the ‘most important act’ of the century and topped the poll, aided by cross-party support in the form of second votes shared with both the Tory and Radical candidates. He soon upset both camps, however, by backing some radical causes, such as a revision of the corn laws, but also opposing further religious reforms, including the admission of Dissenters to Oxford and Cambridge universities.      

The unexpected 1835 election caught him off guard. Attacked for his views by both supporters of the corn laws and by local Dissenters, a ‘false and scandalous’ handbill also charged him with indifference towards the poor and saying that labourers could survive on lower wages. However, it was his willingness to give the incoming Conservative ministry of Sir Robert Peel ‘a fair trial’ which created the most controversy. Protesting that ‘he had never attached himself to any party’, Buller insisted:

‘it was most important that there should be a large number of independent men in Parliament, anxious to mediate between contending parties’.  

Defeated in third place after a heated contest, Buller blamed the loss of his seat on ‘standing, as he did, between two extremes’. ‘His moderate and cautious bearing did not satisfy the feeling of the day’, it was later noted. ‘In the fervor of the reform era, moderation was no recommendation’.

Four years later, when Buller tried to return to the Commons in a North Devon by-election, he faced even more staunch opposition. His reservations about co-operating with the Tories triggered a savage attack by the local party, who accused him of  ‘chameleon like properties’ and a lack of ‘fixed political principles’. Mocking him as a ‘shilly shally man’, the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette observed:

‘He began by soliciting the suffrages of the electors of Exeter, in 1830, as a staunch Conservative … Afterwards he became metamorphosed into “a Whig” and supported Lord Grey’s administration. From a ‘Grey-Bird’ he changed into ‘a Peelite’ … Subsequently he relapsed into a crepusculous state, and became a ‘Nonedescript’ – since that it seems he has degenerated into ‘a Radical’ and … is ready to bolster up the O’Connell Melbourne ministry’.

Extract from an 1839 election squib.
Credit: Devon Heritage Centre

Basing his decision to stand on the state of the voter registration – in a memorable phrase he declared ‘I wait for the registration before I pass the Rubicon’ – Buller was convinced he had a chance. What he could not have predicted, however, was the savagery of the campaign that followed. Faced with Tory accusations that he was ‘an enemy to the farmers’, because of his earlier vote to lower the corn duties, he found that his work in the county as ‘a noted breeder’ and ‘agriculturalist’ counted for nothing. Worse still, his marriage to a Catholic allowed the Tories to raise the ‘Church in danger’ cry. As well as the ‘poison of the corn laws’, noted one of his agents, they ‘raise a cry of Popery because Mr. Buller has married a Papist!’.

After an extremely bitter campaign, in which the Anglican clergy actively canvassed against him, morally ‘releasing’ voters from any earlier promises of support, Buller was defeated. The Bishop of Exeter subsequently expressed his outrage at Buller’s ‘ill-treatment’, noting how knowledge of his ‘most generous’ patronage of St. Thomas the Apostle’s church in Exeter might ‘have prevented the parsons from joining the indignant farmer against him’. Others were appalled at the ‘falsehoods’ circulated against him. Rumours that he would offer again for Exeter at the 1841 general election and at a subsequent by-election came to nothing.

Sixteen years later, however, the blurring of national party alignments and the memory of Buller’s attempts to chart a middle course helped him top the poll at the 1857 general election for North Devon. The political moderation and independence that had been viewed as a liability in the 1830s had become an electoral asset in the aftermath of the Conservative split of 1846. His victory was widely viewed as a vindication of his earlier political principles. It showed ‘he was on the right road of public life’, declared one observer. Campaigning under the ambiguous banner ‘Liberalism was the best Conservatism’, Buller promised ‘to support the institutions of the country’ and ‘whatever amendments they required … not for the purpose of revolutionizing and destroying, but of strengthening and perpetuating these institutions’. He also offered his ‘decided support to Protestantism’, a stance perhaps made less complicated following the death of his Catholic wife in 1855. ‘Never was there a more signal act of atonement for a public wrong than the election of 1857 was for the rejection of 1835’, the Western Times later declared.

Buller continued to sit for North Devon until his death in 1865, backing Palmerston and the Liberals on many issues, but also continuing to take his own independent line as an MP.

A draft version of our full biography of Buller for the 1832-68 project is available on request.

Further reading:

‘North Devon’, in P. Salmon, Electoral Reform at Work (2002), pp. 146-56.

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