In the election campaign of 1859, after twenty-five years of tirelessly defending the church rate principle that ratepayers of all religious denominations were liable to the rate levied for the maintenance of Anglican parish churches, Lord John Russell declared that he had come to favor abolishing church rates. The Tory Standard railed that the aging statesman had caved in to “senile ambition,” while another conservative critic charged that Russell had agreed to sacrifice church rates at the Willis's Rooms meeting in 1859 as part of a deal made to win the political support of Protestant Nonconformists. Spencer Walpole, the High Church chancellor of the Exchequer, was more charitable and more accurate, however, when after the election he responded to Russell's decision by acknowledging that the establishment was indebted to Russell for stalwartly having defended the church rate for decades as a bulwark of the church establishment.
Although Russell was too clever a politician to disregard political advantage or public opinion during his quarter-century fight to retain church rates, it was not his Whig politics but his Broad Church ecclesiology that best accounts for his long and dogged defense of the church rate. From 1834 through 1837, during the first four years of the church rate conflict, Russell's stance appeared to be that of the Whig statesman. First in Earl Grey's administration and then in Lord Melbourne's, he attempted to reform the church rate system sufficiently to satisfy Dissenters that they could count on the Whig party as the party of reform.
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