Front Page Titles (by Subject) MR. BRIGHT'S RETIREMENT. ( From The Economist, 24 th December, 1870.) - The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review)
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MR. BRIGHT’S RETIREMENT. ( From “ The Economist, ” 24 th December, 1870.) - 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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MR. BRIGHT’S RETIREMENT.
The retirement of Mr. Bright from the Cabinet, owing to failing health, will give all the older readers of The Economist a peculiar feeling of sadness. A new generation is attaining life and vigour to whom the “Anti-Corn Law League” is a matter of history. If you chance to speak of it as “the League,” as we always used to speak of it, they ask “what League?” But the great majority of active men still remember the details of that great agitation, the triumphs of “Drury Lane and Covent Garden” meetings, and how Mr. Bright’s voice rung full and penetrating, second in power only to one, if second to any, over those great open stages. That Mr. Bright has to abandon active administration will come home to many as an unwelcome hint that it is time for them to give up themselves.
If, as has been said, “it is a proud thing to have millions of opponents and no enemy,” Mr. Bright has a full right to be proud. Persons at a distance who disapprove of his principles, and who only think of him as an incarnation of them, undoubtedly hate him with a strong political hatred; but no one brought close to him does so. There is an evident sincerity and bluff bona fides about him, which goes straight to the hearts of Englishmen. We have been often amused to see how much, in the depths of Tory districts where “John Bright” was bitterly execrated, the regular residents were puzzled because their own M.P.’s and the most conservative people who went to London always mentioned him with geniality and toleration, and if young, would say, in the modern dialect—“Well, after all, he is a great institution”.
Perhaps great orators, more than any other men, are liable to be utterly misconceived. Their power—more penetrative at the moment than any literature—brings home to thousands and thousands some notion, but it can never be a true notion. An orator works under severe conditions. He can only express the sort of thoughts an audience will hear, and the sort of feelings they will apprehend; and every orator of finer nature has much sentiment which is too subtle for the multitude, and many conclusions which will not suit public meetings. There are many things, too, which can only be said in a still, small voice, and not in the stentorian tones which alone public meetings can take in. No audience, still less any distant hearer of a speech, gives an orator credit for that which he has to leave out in order to speak effectually. They fancy that there is nothing in him but the sort of things which he says, especially if he is continually saying them; but an orator of finer genius feels much which he never says, much which under the inevitable conditions of his art he could not say. It is the pursuing penalty of every great orator that he is, in a sense, misknown everywhere, for he is compelled to diffuse among mankind a picture of himself drawn in a deceiving light, with some traits aggravated, with other traits diminished—like him of course in many respects, yet to those who have real knowledge, in nearly as many utterly unreal and unlike.
Mr. Bright has had his full share of such misconceptions. In the agricultural districts he is even yet looked upon as an excessively pacific person, who cared little for the honour of England, and who would sacrifice that or anything else for peace at any price; but as Lord Granville said—“There are not many persons who have more of the popular John Bull character” than Mr. Bright, and among the many ingredients of that character, a certain pugnacity is not the one for which he is the least remarkable.
Again, Mr. Bright is often imagined to be a wild incendiary, who would be glad to pull down every present institution, and who would not much care to inquire with what substitutes these institutions were to be replaced. But in the present Cabinet, unless consistent rumour speaks false, his voice has more usually been a Conservative voice than the contrary. And, in fact, though Mr. Bright has wanted much to change many things, and still may want to change them, he is much too characteristic an Englishman to like change for change’s sake, or not to have a full share of the Conservative instinct which if possible clings to the “tried,” and will not without plain and clear reason consent to migrate to the unknown and inexperienced.
If Mr. Bright has been somewhat misconceived in his own time, he will probably have the compensation of being—we may risk a prophecy—of all our own contemporary politicians the best known to posterity. His speeches are very amusing reading, and, as a rule, those are best known to posterity who can amuse posterity. Nothing can in general be more fleeting than the fame of an orator. A great Budget speech is heard with the most eager attention, and criticised at the time with vehement interest. But who cares for it a few years afterwards? Who but a very few economical inquirers has the slightest remembrance of the financial speeches of Pitt or Peel? But there is a certain mixture of racy fun and sentiment in Bright’s speeches which make them capital reading even now—reading which you can read when you are tired, but which yet has something in it; and this is the sort of literature which travels farthest and lives longest.
We are not now reviewing Mr. Bright’s career. It is not yet closed. Though we trust he will never again attempt administrative labours, we hope that his powerful tones may often be heard again in the great assemblages of his countrymen. If we had to sketch his life, there would be something to blame as well as much to praise. But we need not go into that now. We have only to express our regret at his retirement, and to wonder at the strange dispensations of Providence, which mixed a fine, and to some extent incapacitating, thread of nervous delicacy in a mind so healthy, so vigorous, and on most points so emphatically robust.
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