« PreviousContinue »
plies for short terms, and appropriating them 10 particular services, il has rendered its approbation as necessary in practice to all the measures of the executive government as it is in theory to a legislative act.
Mr. llaflam appears to have began with the reign of Henry the Seventh, as the period at which what is called modern history, in contradistinction to the history of the middle ages, is generally supposed to commence. He has stopped at the accession of George the Third, "from unwillingness," as he says, "to excite the prejudices of modern politics, especially those connected with personal character." These two eras, we think, deserved the distinction on other grounds. Our remote posterity, when looking back on our history in that comprehensive manner in which remote posterity alone can without much danger of error look back on it, will probably observe those points with peculiar interest. They are, if we mistake not, the beginning and the end of an entire and separate chapter in our annals. The period which lies between them is a perfect cycle, a great ytar of the public mind.
In the reign of Henry the Seventh, all the political differenc«tfwhich had agitated England since the Norman conquest seemed to be set at rest. The long and fierce struggle between the crown and the barons had terminated. The grievances which had produced the rebellions of Tyler and Cade had disappeared. Villanage was scarcely known. The two royal houses whose conflicting claims had long convulsed the kingdom were at length united. The claimants whose pretensions, just or unjust, had disturbed the new settlement were overthrown. In religion there was no open dissent, and probably very little secret heresy. The old subji-cts of contention, in short, had vanished; those which were to succeed had uot yet appeared.
Soon, however, new principles were announced; principles which were destined to keep England during two centuries and a half in a state of commotion. The Reformation divided the people into two great parties. The Protestants were victorious. They again subdivided themselves. Political systems were engrafted ou theological doctrines. The mutual animosities of the two parties gradually emerged into the light of public life. First came conflicts in Parliament; then civil war; then revolutions upen revolutions, each attended by its appurtenance of proscriptions, and persecutions, and tests; each followed by severe measures on the part of the conquerors; each exciting a deadly and festering hatred in the conquered. During the reign of George the Second things were evidently tending to repose. At the close of it the nation had completed the great revolution which commenced in the early part of the sixteenth century, and was again at rest. The fury of sects had died away. The Catholics themselves priictically enjoyed toleration; and more than toleration they did not yet venture even to desire. Jacobitism was a mere name. Nobody was left to fight for that wretched cause, and very few to drink for it. The constitution,
purchased so dearly, was on every side extolled and worshipped. Even those distinctions of party, which must almost always be found in a free state, could scarcely be traced. The two great bodies which from the lime of the Revolution had been gradually tending u> approximation, were now united in emulous support of that splendid administration which smote tc the dust both the brandies of the house of Bourbon. The great battle for our ecclesiastical and civil polity had been fought and won. The wounds had been healed. The victors and the vanquished were rejoicing together. Every person acquainted with the political writers of the last generation will recollect the terms in which they generally speak of that time. It was a glimpse of a golden age of union and glory—a short interval of rest which had been preceded by centuries of agitation, and which centuries of agitation went destined to follow.
How soon faction again began to ferment, is well known. In the Letters of Junius, in Burke's Thoughts on the Cause of the Discontents, and in many other writings of less merit, the violent dissensions, which speedily convulsed the country, are imputed to the system of favouritism which George the Third introduced, to the influence of Bute, or the profligacy of those who called themselves the king's friends. With all deference to the eminent writers to whom we have referred, we may venture to say that they lived too near tho events of which they treated, to judge of them correctly. The schism which was then appearing in the nation, and which has been from that time almost constantly widening, had little in common with those which had divided it during the reigns of the Tudors and the Stuarts. The symptoms of popular feeling, indeed, will always in a great measure be the same; but the principle which excited that feeling was here new. The support which was given to Wilkes, the clamour for reform during the American war, the disaffected conduct of large classes of people at the time of the French Revolution, no more resembled ihe opposition which had been offered to the government of Charles the Second, than that opposition resembled the contest between the Roses.
In the political as in the natural body, a sensation is often referred to a part widely different from that in which it really resides. A man, whose leg is cut off, fancies that he feels a pain in his toe. And in the same manner ilie people, in the earlier part of the late reign, sincerely attributed their discontent to grievance* which had been effectually lopped off. They imagined that the prerogative was too strong for the constitution, that the principles of the Revolution were abandoned, and the system of the Stuarts restored. Every impartial man must now acknowledge that these charges were groundless. The proceedings of the government with respect to the Middlesex election would have been contemplated with. delight by the first generation of Whigs. They would have thought it a splendid triumph of the cause of liberty, that the King and the Lords should resign to the House of Commons a portion of their legislative power, and allow It to incapacitate without their consent. This, indeed, Mr. Burke clearly perceived. "When the House of Commons," says he, " in an endeavour to obtain new advantages at the expense of the other orders of the state, for the benefit of the commons at large, have pursued ong measures, if it were not just, it was at t natural, that the constituents should connive at all their proceedings ; because we ourselves were ultimately to profit. But when this submission is urged to us in a contest between Hit ltprttentativei and oursefcra, and where nothing can be put into their scale which is not taken from ours, they fancy us to be children when they tell us that they are our representatives, our own flesh and blood, and that all the stripes they give us are fur our good." These sentences contain, in fact, the whple explanation of the mystery. The conflict of the seventeenth century was maintained by the Parliament against the crown. The conflict which commenced in the middle of the eighteenth century, which still remains undecided, and in which our children and grandchildren will probably be called to act or suffer, is between a large portion of the people on the one side, and the crown and the Parliament united on the other.
The privileges of the House of Commons, those privileges which, in 1642. all London rose in arms to defend, which the people considered as synonymous with their own liberties, and in comparison with which they took no account of the most precious and sacred principles of English jurisprudence, have now become nearly as odious as the rigours of martial law. That power of committing, which the people anciently loved to see the House of Commons exercise, is now, at least, when employed against libellers, the most unpopular power in the constitution. If the Commons were to suffer the Lords to amend money-bills, we do not believe that the people would care one straw about the matter. If they were to surfer the Lords even to originate money-bills, we doubt whether such a surrender of their constitutional rights would excite half so much dissatisfaction as the exclusion of strangers from a single important discussion. The gallery in which the reporters sit has become a fourth estate of the realm. The publication of the debates, a practice which seemed to the most liberal statesmen of the old school full of danger to the great safeguards of public liberty, is now regarded by many persons as a safeguard, tantamount, and more • thin tantamount, to all the rest together. . Burke, in a speech on parliamentary reform, which is the more remarkable because it was delivered long before the French Revolution, has described, in striking language, the change 'in public feeling of which we speak. "It sug"■ fcests melancholy reflections," says he, "in 'consequence-of the strange course we have 'long held, that we are now no longer quarrelling about the character, or about the conduct '•f men, or the tenour of measures; but we 'are grown out of humour with the English constitution itself; this is become the object of the animosity of Englishmen. This consiuuV»t» L—13
tion in former days used to be the envy of the world; it was the pattern for politicians; the theme of the eloquent; the meditation of the philosopher in every part of the world.—As to Englishmen, it was their pride, their consola tion. By it they lived, and for it they were ready to die. Its defects, if it had any, were partly covered by partiality, and partly borne by prudence. Now all its excellencies are forgot, its faults are forcibly dragged into day, exaggerated by every artifice of misrepresentation. It is despised and rejected of men; and every device and invention of ingenuity or idleness is set up in opposition, or in preference to it." We neither adopt nor condemn the language of reprobation which the great orator here employs. We call him only as witness to the fact. That the revolution of public feeling which he described was then in progress is indisputable; and it is equally indisputable, we think, that it is in progress still To investigate and classify the cause of so great a change, would require far more thought, and far more space, than we at present have to bestow. But some of them are obvious. During the contest which the Parliament carried on against the 8tuarts, it had only to check and complain. It has since had to govern. As an attacking body, it could select its points of attack, and it naturally chose those on which it was likely to receive public support. As a ruling body, it has neither the same liberty of choice, nor the same interest to gratify the people. With the power of an executive government, it has drawn to itself some of the vices and all the unpopularity of an executive government. On the House of Commons, above all, possessed as it is of the public purse, and consequently of the public sword, the nation throws all the blame of an ill-conducted war, of a blundering negotiation, of a disgraceful treaty.of an embarrassingcommercial crisis. The delays of the Court of Chancery, the misconduct of a judge at Van Diemen's land, any thing, in short, which in any part of the admi nistration any person feels as a grievance, is attributed to the tyranny, or at least to the negligence, of that all-powerful body. Private individuals pester it with their wrongs and claims. A merchant appeals to it from the courts of Rio Janeiro or St Petersburg. A painter, who can find nobody to buy the acre of spoiled canvass, which he calls an historical picture, pours into its sympathizing ear the whole story of his debts and his jealousies. Anciently the Parliament resembled a member of opposition, from whom no places are expected, who is not required to confer favours and propose measures, but merely to watch and censure; and who may, therefore, unless he is grossly injudicious, be popular with the great body of the community. The Parliament now resembles the same person put into office, surrounded by petitioners, whom twenty times his patronage would not satisfy, stunned with complaints, buried in memorials, compelled by the duties of his station to bring forward measure;, similar to those which he was formerly accustomed to observe and to check, and perp-tually encountered by objections similar to those which it was formerly his business to raise.
Perhaps it may be laid down as a general rule, that a legislative assembly, not constituted on democratic principles, cannot be popular long after it ceases to be weak. Its zeal for what the people, rightly or wrongly, conceive to he their interest, its sympathy with their mutable and violent passions, are merely the effects of the particularcircurnstances in which it is placed. As long as it depends for existence on the public favour, it will employ all the means in its power to conciliate that favour. While this is the case, defects in its constitution are of little consequence. But as the close union of such a body with the nation is the effect of an identity of interest, not essential, but accidental, it is in some measure dissolved from the time at which the danger which produced it ceases to exist.
Hence, before the Revolution, the question of parliamentary reform was of very little importance. The friends of liberty had no very ardent wish for it. The strongest Tories saw no objections to it It is remarkable that Clarendon loudly applauds the changes which Cromwell introduced, changes far stronger than the Whigs of the present day would in general approve. There is no reason to think, however, that the reform effected by Cromwell made any great difference in the conduct of the Parliament. Indeed, if the House of Commons had, during the reign of Charles the Second, been elected by universal suffrage, or if all the seats had been put up to sale, as in the French Parliaments, it would, we suspect, have acted very much as it did. We know how strongly the Parliament of Paris exerted itself in favour of the people on many important occasions; and the reason is evident. Though it did not emanate from the people, its whole consequence depended on the support of the eople.. From the time of the Revolution the louse of Commons was gradually becoming what it now is—a great council of state, containing many members chosen freely by the people, and many others anxious to acquire the favour of the people; but, on the whole, aristocratical in its temper and interest. It is very far from being an illiberal and stupid oligarchy, but it is equally far from being an express image of the general feeling. It is influenced by the opinion of the people, and influenced powerfully, hut slowly and circuitously. Instead of outrunning the public mind, as before the Revolution it frequently did, it now follows with slow steps and at a wide distance. It is therefore necessarily unpopular; and the more so, because the good which ii produces is much less evident to common perception than the evil which it inflicts. It bears Ihe blame of all the mischief which is done, or supposed to be done, by ils authority or by its connivance. It does not get the credit, on the other hand, of having prevenied those innumerable abuses which do not exist solely because the House of Commons exists.
A large part of the nation is certainly de*irous of a reform in the representative system. How large that part may be, and how strong 'is desires on the subject may be, it is difficult to say. It is only at intervals that the clamour
on Ihe subject is loud and vehement. But it seems to us that, during the remissions, the feeling gathers strength, and that every successive burst is more violent than that which preceded it. The public attention may be for a time diverted to the Catholic claims or the mercantile code; but it is probable that at no very distant period, perhaps in the lifetime of the present generation, all other questions will merge in that which is, in a certain degree, connected with them all.
Already we seem to ourselves to perceive the signs of unquiet times, the vague presentiment of something great and strange which pervades the community; the restless and turbid hopes of those who have every thing to gain, the dimly-hinted forebodings of those who have every thing to lose. Many indications might be mentioned, in themselves indeed as insignificant as straws; but even the direction of a straw, to borrow the illustration of Bacon, will show from what quarter the hurricane is setting in.
A great statesman might, by judicious and timely reformations, by reconciling the two great branches of the natural aristocracy, the capitalists and the landowners, by so widening the base of the government as to interest in its defence the whole of the middling class, that brave, honest, and sound-hearted class, which is as anxious for the maintenance of order and the security of property as it is hostile to corruption and oppression, succeed in averting a struggle to which no rational friend of liberty or of law can look forward without great apprehensions. There are those who will be contented with nothing but demolition; and there are those who shrink from all repair. There are innovators who long for a President and a National Convention; and there are bigots who, while cities larger and richer than the capitals of many great kingdoms are calling out for representatives to watch over their interests, select some hackneyed jobber in. boroughs, some peer of the narrowest and smallest mind, as the fittest depositary of a forfeited franchise. Between these extremes there lies a more excellent way. Time is bringing around another crisis analogous to that which occurred in the seventeenth century. We stand in a situation similar to that in which our ancestors stood under the reign of James the First. It will soon again be necessary to reform, that we may preserve; to save the fundamental principles of the constitution, by alterations in the subordinate parts. It will then be possible, as it was possible two hundred years ago, to protect vested rights, to secure every useful institution—every institution endeared by antiquity and noble associations; and, at the same time, to introduce into the system improvements harmonizing with th. original plan. It remains to be seen whether two hundred years have made us wiser.
We know of no great revolution-which might not have been prevented by compromise early and graciously made. Firmness is a great virtue in public affairs, but it has its proper sphere. Conspiracies and insurrections in which tmall minorities are engaged, the outbreakings of popular violence unconnected with any extensive project or any durable principle.are best repressed by vigour and decision. To shrink from them is to make.them formidable. But no wise ruler will confouud the pervading taint with the slight local irritation. No wise ruler will treat the deeply-seated discontents of a great party as he treats the conduct of a mob which destroys mills and poweraums. The neglect of this distinction has bt-»"n fatal even to governments strong in the p.>uer of the sword. The present lime is indeed a time of peace and order. But it is at such a time that fools are most thoughtless, and wise men most thoughtful. That the dis
contents which have agitated the country during the late and the present reign, and which, though not always noisy, are never wholly dormant, will again break forth with aggravated symptoms, is almost as certain as that the tides and seasons will follow their appointed course. But in all movements of the human mind which tend to great revolutionWhere is a crisis at which moderate concessit may amend, conciliate, and preserve. Happy will it be for England if, at that crisis, her interests be confided to men for whom history has not recorded the long series of human crimes and follies in vain.
SOUTHEY'S COLLOQUIES ON SOCIETY.'
[edinburgh Review, 1830.]
It would be scarcely possible for a man of Mr. Southey's talents and acquirements to write two volumes so large as thos" before us, which should be wholly destitute of information and amusement. Yet we do not remember to have read with so little satisfaction any equal quantity of matter, written by any man of real abilities. We have, for some time past, observed with great regret the strange infatuation which leads the Poet-laureate to abandon those departments of literature in which he might excel, and to lecture the public on sciences of which he has still the very alphabet to learn. He has now, we think, done his worst. The subject, which he has at last undertaken to treat, is on* which demands all the highest intellectual and moral qualities of a philosophical statesman—an understanding at once comprehensive and acute—a heart at once upright and charitable. Mr. Southey brings to the task two faculties which were never, we helieve, vouchsafed in measure so copious to any human being ; the faculty of believing without a reason, and the faculty of hating without a provocation.
It is, indeed, most extraordinary that a mind like Mr. Southey's, a mind richly endowed in many respects by nature and highly cultivated by study, a mind which has exercised considerable influence on the most enlightened generation of the most enlightened people that ever existed, should be utterly destitute of the power of discerning truth from falsehood. Yet such is the fact. Government is to Mr. Southey one of the fine arts. He judges of a theory or a public measure, of a religion, a political party, a peace or a war,as men judge of a pictare or a statue, by the efTecl produced on his imagination. A chain of associations is to him what a chain of reasoning is to other men; and what he calls his opinions, are in fact merely his tastes.
• Sir Thomas Mitre ,* or Colloquies on the Progress and
Prompters of Soci tit. By Robert South Ky, Esq., 1.I..O. Poet Laureate. 2 vols. 8vo. London. 1670.
Part of this description might, perhaps, apply to a much greater man, Mr. Burke. But Mr. Burke, assuredly possessed an understanding admirably fitted for the investigation of truth—an understanding stronger than that of any statesman, active or speculative, of the eighteenth century—stronger than every thin?, except his own fierce and ungovernable sensibility. Hence, he generally chose his side like a fanatic, and defended it like a philosopher. His conduct, in the most important events of his life, at the time of the impeachment of Hastings, for example, and at the time of the French Revolution, seems to have been prompted by those feelings and motives which Mr. Coleridge has so happily described:
*' Slnrmy pily, and the cherish'd lure
Hindostan, with its vast cities, its gorgeous pagodas, its infinite swarms of dusky population, its long-descended dynasties, its stately etiquette, excited in a mind so capacious, so imaginative, and so susceptible, the most intense interest. The peculiarities of the costume, of the manners, and of the laws, the very mystery which hung over the language and origin of the people seized his imagination. To plead in Westminster Hall, in the nameof the English people, at the bar of the English nobles, for great nations and kings separated from him by half the world, seemed to him the height of human glory. Again, it is not difficult to perceive, that his hostility to the French Revolution principally arose from the vexation which he felt, at having all his old political associations disturbed, at seeing the well-known boundarymarks of slates obliterated, and the names and distinctions with which the history of Europe had been filled for ages, swept away. He felt like an antiquary whose shield had been scoured, or a connoisseur who found his Ti tian retouched. Bui however he came oy aa opinion, he had no sooner got it than he did liis^ besl to make out a legitimate title to it. Hi» reason, like a spirit in the service of an enchanter, though spell-bound, was still mighty. It did whatever work his passions and his imagination might impose. But it did that work, however arduous, with marvellous dexterity and vigour. His course was not determined by argument; but he could defend the wildest course by arguments more plausible than thosflfky which common men support •pinions wrnBTthey have adopted, after the fullest deliberation. Reason has scarcely ever displayed, even in those well-constituted minds of which she occupies the throne, so much power and energy as in the lowest offices of that imperial servitude.
Now, in the mind of Mr. Sou they, reason has no place at all, as either leader or follower, as either sovereign or slave. He does not seem to know what an argument is. He never uses arguments himself. He never troubles himself to answer the arguments of his opponents. It has never occurred to him, that a man ought to be able to give some better account of the way in which he has arrived at his opinions, than merely that it is his will and pleasure to hold them, that there is a difference between assertion and demonstration, that a rumour does not always prove a fact, that a fact does not always prove a theory, that two contradictory propositions cannot be undeniable truths, that to beg the question is not the way to settle it, or that when an objection is raised, it ought to met with something more convincing than "scoundrel" and "blockhead."
It would be absurd to read the works of such a writer for political instruction. The utmost that can be expected from any system promulgated by him is, that it may be splendid and affecting, that it may suggest sublime and pleasing images. His scheme of philosophy is a mere daydream, a poetical creation, like the Domdaniel caverns, the Swerga, or Padalon; and, indeed, it bears no inconsiderable resemblance to those gorgeous visions. Like them it has something of invention, grandeur, and brilliancy. But, like them, it is grotesque and extravagant, and perpetually violates that conventional probability which is essential to- the effect even of works of art.
The warmest admirers of Mr. 8outhey will scarcely, we think, deny that his success has almost always borne an inverse proportion to the degree in which his undertakings have required a logical head. His poems, taken in the moss, stand far higher than his prose works. The Laureate Odes, indeed, among which the Vision of Judgment must be classed, are, for the most part, worse than Pye's and as bad as Cibber's; nor do we think him generally happy in short pieces. But his longer poems, though full of faults, are nevertheless very extraordinary productions. We doubt greatly whether they will be read fifty years hence; but that if they are read, they will be admired, wc have no doubt whatever.
But though in genera! we prefer Mr. SouIhey's poetry to his prose, we must make one exception. The Life of Nelson is. beyond all doubt, the most perfect and the most delightful , flf his works. The fact is, as his poems most j abundantly prove, that he is by no means so •kilfnl in designing as Oiling up. It was I
therefore an advantage to him to be furnished with an outline of characters and events, and to have no other task to perform than that of touching the cold sketch into life. No writer, perhaps, ever lived, whose talents so precisely qualified him to write the history of the great naval warrior. There were no fine riddles of the human heart to read, no theories to found, no hidden causes to develope, no remote consequences to predict. The character of the hero lay on the surface. The exploits were brilliant and picturesque. The necessity of adhering to the real course of events saved Mr. Southey from those faults which deform the original plan of almost every one of his poems, and which even his innumerable beauties of detail scarcely redeem. The subject did not require the exercise of those reasoning powers the want of which is the blemish of his prose. It would not be easy to find, in all literary history, an instance of a more exact hit between wind and water. John Wesley, and the Peninsular War, were subjects of a very different kind, subjects which required all the qualities of a philosophic historian. In Mr. Southey's works on these subjects, he has, on the whole, failed. Yet there are charming specimens of the art of narration in both of them. The Life of Wesley will probably live. Defective as il is, it contains the only popular account of a most remarkable moral revolution, and of a man whose eloquence and logical acuteness might have rendered him eminent in literature, whose genius for government was not inferior to that of Richelieu, and who, whatever his errors may have been, devoted all his powers, in defiance of obloquy and derision, to what he sincerely considered as the highest good of his species. The History of the Peniusular War is already dead: indeed the second volume was deadborn. The glory of producing an imperishable record of that great conflict seems to be reserved for Colonel Napier.
The Book of the Church contains some stories very prettily told. The rest is mere rubbish. The adventure was manifestly one which could be achieved only by a profound thinker, and in which even a profound thinker might have failed, unless his passions had been kept under strict control. In all those works in which Mr. Southey has completely abandoned narration, and undertaken to argue moral and political questions, his failure has been complete and ignominious. On such occasions his writings are rescued from utter contempt and derision, solely by the beauty and purity of the English. We find, we confess, so great a charm in Mr. Southey's style, that, even when he writes nonsense, we generally read it with pleasure, except indeed when he tries to be droll. A more insufferable jester never existed. He very often attempts to be humorous, and yet we do not remember a single occasion on which he has succeeded farther than to be quaintly and flippantly dull. In one of his works, he tells us that Bishop Sprat was very properly so called, inasmuch as he was a very small poet. And in the book now before us, he cannot quote Francis Bugg without a remark on his unsavory name. A man might talk folly like 'hi*