Front Page Titles (by Subject) THE DEATH OF LORD BROUGHAM. ( From The Economist, 16 th May, 1868.) - The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review)
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THE DEATH OF LORD BROUGHAM. ( From “ The Economist, ” 16 th May, 1868.) - Walter Bagehot, The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review) 
The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, ed. Mrs. Russell Barrington. The Works in Nine Volumes. The Life in One Volume. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1915). Vol. 9.
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THE DEATH OF LORD BROUGHAM.
Some one said of the quiet old age of Wilkes that he was a “Volcano burnt out,” and much the same is true of Brougham. Of so little importance was his death, and so natural was it that a man of nearly ninety should die, that the event was not even telegraphed to England from the South of France where it happened. Perhaps, if years ago, in the eager vigour of his genius, he had been told that such would be the end, it would have been one of the keenest pains he ever could have felt. His love of fame, as his friends would call it; his vanity, as his enemies would say (if, indeed, his real enemies have not now all died out),—would have felt more than most things the fact of quiet and silent extinction.
No one, however, who knows, whether by memory or by study, the recent political history of England, can hear with indifference that “Henry Brougham,” as men used to call him, is no more. His name carries us back to a period which seems far longer ago than in years it is, to the time before the Reform Bill of 1832. It was in the reign of Toryism, after the peace, that Lord Brougham gained his renown, and those are the years of his life that will live in history. What the Toryism of that time was—how short-sighted and how ignorant—is almost forgotten. Dr. Arnold used to call the eighteenth century the “misused trial time of modern Europe”; it would be much truer to call the years from 1815 to 1832 the misused trial time of the Tory party in England. They had a remarkable advantage; the French war had ended in a splendid victory; and the ministry who had managed the war naturally gained the credit. Their rule was popular in the country. If they had governed with intelligence and moderation—if they had governed as Mr. Pitt governed before, and Mr. Canning tried to govern afterwards—subsequent history might have been much changed. But they governed in the spirit of Lord Eldon and Lord Sidmouth; they made no concessions; they tried to keep everything as it was; they made the existing Government responsible for every kind of abuse; they not only upheld the prerogative of the Crown and the power of the House of Lords, but cheating in charities and death for petty larceny. We wish the Marquis of Salisbury would leave the Great Eastern Railway to other hands, and write the history of the Tories after the peace. We should then know—not from a Liberal who must be prejudiced, but from a Tory attached to real Toryism—how narrow were the opinions, and how pernicious was the conduct, of those who ruled when Toryism was predominant. They would amend no grievance, because it might impair the English Constitution, and so they made themselves and the Constitution responsible for all grievances.
This was just the opportunity for a great agitator, and Lord Brougham had the gifts of a great agitator. If you take up the volumes of the old debates in Parliament, you will not turn many pages without finding Mr. Brougham calling attention to some grievance, and proposing some reform. Slavery, the state of the representation, the cruelty of the criminal law, the cost of the civil law, the harsh acts of an unsympathising administration—all these, and a hundred similar subjects, were for ever on his lips. A wonderful versatility and vast physical power were at his command, and he used them in the cause of the people. There was nothing democratic in his principles; on the contrary, like most of the original Edinburgh reviewers, he held some opinions which would now be thought much too inclined to aristocracy. But he had a strong sense of justice, an intense dislike of human misery, an overpowering impulse to expose fraud, an utter contempt for stupid administration; and these were the qualities then wanting. A liberal politician is said to have observed in Lord Palmerston’s time, when some one regretted the decline of energy in the Liberal party—“Ah! we could be as great men as our fathers if we had but their grievances”; and in this respect Lord Brougham was very happy, for he lived in the age of grievances, and had every faculty fitted to expose them.
Lord Brougham had the first great essential of an agitator—the faculty of easy anger. He was sure that he did well to be angry on a hundred occasions. To the end of his life—in the peaceful repose of a long old age—he kept this faculty. There was a vicious look about him always; “if he was a horse, no one would buy him with that eye,” some one is reported to have said; and many persons who joined with him in benevolent undertakings were unpleasantly reminded by sudden outbreaks that philanthropy and conciliation are by no means always united. To the last, a sudden eruption was apt to terrify his quiet co-operators. But in his zenith, a bad temper was of singular use. He could, without any notice, state a grievance with appropriate indignation: most men require an interval to prepare their wrath, but Lord Brougham’s was always boiling and only needed a vent. If others could find the occasion of complaint he could always add the vehemence.
In later life, his natural gifts were not so suited to his circumstances. There was something unfitting—so it was thought and so perhaps it was—in making a great agitator Lord Chancellor; it seemed like making a field preacher Archbishop of Canterbury. No doubt Lord Brougham was a very fair judge, and the stories which were once circulated as to his incompetence have long ceased to be believed. But, at the same time, he was not a great judge. No one will ever refer to his judgments as materials for future decisions; they contain long and rolling sentences, but they are defective in compact principle. It requires the meditation of a life to be a master of legal principle, and Lord Brougham never meditated, least of all upon law. Nor had he the fine tact for truth, in fact, which has distinguished some judges. At the bar he never was a good “verdict getter,” as the phrase is; he never had the precise instinct of the very words in which to present to a jury the particular case, which some men, otherwise greatly his inferiors, largely possessed. He talked about and about the point, but he did not delicately hit it without apparent effort, and as if by accident. The same want of intuitive perception followed him to the bench; he was inferior to Lyndhurst as a judge, just as he was inferior to Scarlett as an advocate.
In Brougham’s case, as in so many, his defects were the exaggerations of his merits. Versatility was his great power, and he was always trying to do everything and to do everything at once. When he was Chancellor he wrote a treatise on Hydrostatics, which had to be much altered, if not rewritten, before it could see the light; and the records of the time are full of anecdotes, in part exaggerated but in substance true, of the universality of his efforts and the eccentricity of his transitions. Why precisely he had to leave political life has never been stated on authority; but it was, doubtless, connected with the feverishness of his energy, and the incalculability of his actions.
A still more evil genius induced him to attempt “political philosophy”. A poorer book or a worse was never written by a man of great abilities and great political experience than his elaborate treatise on that subject. The Tory lawyers used to say of him—“He means to decide well; he tries to think, but he can’t”. And his political philosophy proves that upon remote, abstract subjects he really could not think. He was not quiet enough, and could not keep still. His philosophical reflections are always pompous, and when new mostly nugatory. By a happy thought, however, he has attained a literary fame likely to last. He roughly sketched for the Edinburgh Review some outlines of men whom he had known. This was some thirty years ago; but even then he was an old statesman dwelling on the past, and losing his hold upon the present. These sketches have been expanded and republished, and are as pleasant reading as anyone is likely to find. He had, so to say, knocked against every considerable man of his time, and his retentive memory preserved an accurate note of the collision. Upon history these “sketches” will probably have a decisive effect, for the agreeable books are those which historians read most thoroughly, and which fasten most upon their minds. Probably Lord Brougham little thought that it was by these hasty sketches—the casual task of some waste hour—that he would gain his most lasting influence, yet even now they are the only writings of his which are read; his treatises and speeches no one touches.
In quality Lord Brougham’s life may be easily rivalled, but not in quantity. No one is likely to press so much life into the same time as he did into his first fifty years. There was in him, and in some of his contemporaries too, a certain Titanic energy, an unresting, superfluous, nervous power, which the present generation do not possess, and which some of them envy. The race seems to have grown smaller and weaker if finer, like the second race of Greek deities as compared with the first. There are many men who can do better things than Lord Brougham, but no living Englishman is probably his equal in incessant vigour, vehement passion, and many-handed energy.