Front Page Titles (by Subject) MARSHAL PRIM. ( From The Economist, 7 th January, 1871.) - The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review)
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MARSHAL PRIM. ( From “ The Economist, ” 7 th January, 1871.) - 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 want of interest felt by the general public of Europe in the details of the assassination of Marshal Prim is a very remarkable, and, as far as we know, an unprecedented fact. His death was of course telegraphed all over Europe, and was regarded in some ways as an event of the first importance; but there was little or no curiosity to learn the details of the catastrophe,—none of those long telegrams, full of nothing, which would have followed any other crime of the same kind, and extraordinarily little sympathy expressed, except for King Amadeus who had not been shot. Europe apparently cared only about the results of the event, and but little about the event itself—a sure proof that it was but little interested in the personality of the sufferer. And Europe, as is usually the case, was right, for apart from his position, there was very little to interest mankind in Marshal Prim. That position was without doubt exceptional. Marshal Prim was probably the only perfect example of the Interrex, of the King who is not King and never means to be King, ever seen in the modern world. He ruled a very great country with an unbroken success as Dictator for two years, and yet he never regarded himself as one of the possible candidates for the permanent Sovereignty. For two years there has practically been in Spain no law but Marshal Prim’s will; throughout that period he has objected to any régime except the Royal, and yet it seems clear that he had no intention of putting the Crown upon his own head, that he honestly regarded himself as a mere Dictator ad interim, bound to carry out a specific change in the destinies of his country. That is a strange position, and it is not rendered less strange by the entire absence of genius in the man who occupied it. We desire to speak kindly of Marshal Prim, for his murder was a disgrace to the party which either organised or allowed it; but it is probable that no man so entirely an ordinary man, no man so completely without a following created by himself, ever occupied so lofty a position. It is of course difficult, if not impossible, thoroughly to estimate a man whose secret history has yet to be written; but Marshal Prim appears to us to have been merely a good officer, a trustworthy General of Division, distinguished from other good officers mainly by this—an exact and somewhat unusual comprehension of his own capacities. His earlier life was passed as an officer believed to be of ability, who shifted from party to party as a new party rose to power, but who was so little of a partisan that in shifting he lost no respect, and none of the military confidence of his subordinates. In the short and not very important war between Spain and Morocco he behaved remarkably well, finding, during a momentary confusion, an opportunity for the display of his most exceptional faculty—one, however, which he shares with many soldiers—bravery of the kind which increases as the danger grows more imminent. Mankind in general, not being brave, values bravery very highly; and there is no doubt Marshal Prim possessed the quality in its supreme degree,—the degree in which it is exceptional—that he was brave to the point at which a man is more of a great man in extreme danger than he is when quietly seated in a room. In the intrigues which followed this war Prim displayed no especial quality, except that of commanding the confidence of soldiers; nor in the Revolution or in the Interregnum, was he ever more than the good General of Division; but then he was the good General of Division, and not the indifferent one. Having driven out his mistress—whom he hated as, on the whole, a discreditable Head for the Spanish Army—his idea was to maintain military order until a new Sovereign or Commander-in-Chief could be discovered, and he never interested himself much about any other point. No Revolutionary Government was ever quite so wanting in originality. General Serrano and Admiral Topete had assisted him, so General Serrano and Admiral Topete were to have great offices—any offices, in fact, they liked, provided they left the Army in the hands of Prim. Civil appointments were given pretty much as it happened. Foreign affairs took their chance, except in so far as they involved military considerations, in which case the Marshal took them into his own hands. As for internal Government he regarded it as most officers regard internal Government. A King was usual and necessary, so he sought for a King. Cortes were usual, so Cortes were elected. Freedom was popular, so, as far as was consistent with the Marshal’s notions of order, freedom was allowed. As we understand, he never interfered much with any manifestation of opinion until opposition showed itself in the form he understood—in insurrection in the streets of some city, and then he put it down, with shot and steel if he could, if not, with shell, differing from other officers only in this—that he would go any length, would actually batter down any city of Spain rather than not secure the victory. As he was a really good officer, thoroughly trained and full of experience, and opposed to untrained men, he always succeeded; and when he had succeeded, he went quietly on again without any additional bitterness. The true grievances of Spain seem never to have struck him. The true wants of Spain never particularly moved him. There was to be order till the historic system was rebuilt, and at any sacrifice he obtained the order he recommended. He did not originate anything, or make any experiments, or engage in any desperate intrigues, but just went on as a good general officer would, intent on his idea of maintaining the tranquillity of his district. That he succeeded is due to the fact that he was a good officer, that he could secure ordinary military obedience, and that, this secured, his force was adequate to its work.
There are but two original points in Marshal Prim which lift him out of the ruck of continental second-rate generals. The first was a certain indifference to anything out of the range of his ideas, which enabled him to leave a good deal of power to men whom most military Dictators would have interfered with, such as his civilian colleagues; and the second, as we have said, was a clear idea of the ultimate limit of his own pretensions. He was competent to be a chief administrator under a King, but he was not competent to be King himself. Most men in his position would have sought the Crown, but he did not; on the contrary, he, being a Spanish officer at heart, most probably thought himself unworthy of it. It is clear from his ultimate action that the rather ridiculous speech, in which he described his resistance to his wife’s importunities urging him to be King, was only overfrank, that his efforts to find a Sovereign were genuine enough, that he really thought he could make a King, and ought to make one out of the right wood, and in the regular well-understood way. He was vastly ambitious, but his ambition was only to be supreme under the King—the regular ambition of every Englishman, modified by the history of the country, by the fact that in Spain the road to power lies through revolutions, and not through Parliamentary votes.
The third and last peculiarity of Prim’s mind was in one way a special, in another a very common, one. Such of our readers as have come in contact with soldiers or sailors of experience have probably noticed their remarkable proclivity to a kind of political speculation wholly apart from their usual lines of thought. The grim Admiral, whom nobody may oppress, is often an outrageous Tory; the steady General, full of the ideas of the service, is often an earnest Radical. Neither would bear genuine ultra-Toryism or full-grown Radicalism, but the speculative side of their minds tends towards absolute conclusions on one side or the other. Prim was a man of that kind. He laboured to rebuild the Throne, but he earnestly thought and openly said that some day or other the Throne would be condemned as surplusage; that Republicanism was the creed of the future; that some day or other, “when there were Republicans in Spain,” the Republic would be established there. His belief was quite honest, though it had, except as a speculative theory, next to no meaning, and its expression gave rise to a vague idea spread throughout Europe, that Marshal Prim had ideas which might bear fruit, that he was not quite understood, that he might yet take a course very much at variance with anything expected of him. That belief gave a certain piquancy and impression of uncertainty to his actions; but he had all the while no ideas of the kind, no more intention of establishing a Republic than Sir De Lacy Evans, who in theory was heartily on that side, but in practice would have fought for Her Majesty like a zealot. Marshal Prim accepted the Republic for a century or two hence, and meanwhile intended Monarchy; and the contrast between his belief and his single speculative doubt probably produced the disappointment and eagerness for revenge which led to his lamentable end. The Republicans thought of him as a Statesman who had cheated them, whereas he was only a very good officer, who thought that at present things should go on as usual, but fancied that some hundreds of years hence it might be possible and advisable to do without a King.