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LORD BROUGHAM. 1 (1857.) - Walter Bagehot, The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 2 (Historical & Financial Essays) 
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. 2.
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It was a bold, perhaps a rash idea, to collect the writings of Henry Brougham. They were written at such distant dates; their subjects are so various; they are often so wedged into the circumstances of an age—that they scarcely look natural in a series of volumes. Some men, doubtless, by a strong grasp of intellect, have compacted together subjects as various; the finger-marks of a few are on all human knowledge; others, by a rare illuminative power, have lit up as many with a light that seems peculiar to themselves. Franciscus Baconus sic cogitavit may well illustrate an opera omnia. But Lord Brougham has neither power; his restless genius has no claim to the still, illuminating imagination; his many-handed, apprehensive intelligence is scarcely able to fuse and concentrate. Variety is his taste, and versatility his power. His career has not been quiet. For many years rushing among the details of an age, he has written as he ran. There are not many undertakings bolder than to collect the works of such a life and such a man.
The edition itself seems a good one. The volumes are convenient in size, well printed, and fairly arranged. The various writings it contains have been revised, but not over-revised, by their author. It is not, however, of the collection that we wish to speak. We would endeavour, so far as a few hasty pages may serve, to delineate the career and character of the writer. The attempt is among the most difficult. He is still among us; we have not the materials, possibly not the impartiality, of posterity. Nor have we the familiar knowledge of contemporaries; the time when Lord Brougham exerted his greatest faculties is beyond the political memory of younger men. There are no sufficient books on the events of a quarter of a century ago, we have only traditions; and this must be our excuse if we fall, or seem to fall, into error and confusion.
The years immediately succeeding the great peace were years of sullenness and difficulty. The idea of the war had passed away; the thrill and excitement of the great struggle were no longer felt. We had maintained, with the greatest potentate of modern times, a successful contest for existence. We had our existence, but we had no more; our victory had been great, but it had no fruits. By the aid of pertinacity and capital, we had vanquished genius and valour; but no visible increase of European influence followed. Napoleon said that Wellington had made peace as if he had been defeated. We had delivered the continent; such was our natural idea: but the continent went its own way. There was nothing in its state to please the everyday Englishman. There were kings and emperors; “which was very well for foreigners, they had always been like that; but it was not many kings could pay ten per cent. income tax”. Absolutism, as such, cannot be popular in a free country. The Holy Alliance, which made a religion of despotism, was scarcely to be reconciled with the British constitution. Altogether we had vanquished Napoleon, but we had no pleasure in what came after him. The cause which agitated our hearts was gone; there was no longer a noise of victories in the air; continental affairs were dead, despotic, dull; we scarcely liked to think that we had made them so; with weary dissatisfaction we turned to our own condition.
This was profoundly unsatisfactory. Trade was depressed; agriculture ruinous; the working class singularly disaffected. During the war, our manufacturing industry had grown most rapidly; there was a not unnatural expectation that, after a general peace, the rate of increase would be accelerated. The whole continent, it was considered, would be opened to us; Milan and Berlin decrees no longer excluded us; Napoleon did not now interpose between “the nation of shopkeepers” and its customers; now he was at St. Helena, surely those customers would buy? It was half forgotten that they could not. The drain of capital for the war had been, at times, heavily felt in England; there had been years of poverty and discredit; still our industry had gone on, our workshops had not stopped. We had never known what it was to be the seat of war, as well as a power at war. We had never known our burdens enormously increased, just when our industry was utterly stopped; disarranged as trading credit sometimes was, it had not been destroyed. No conscription had drained us of our most efficient consumers. The continent, south and north, had, though not everywhere alike, suffered all these evils; its populations were poor, harassed, depressed. They could not buy our manufactures, for they had no money. The large preparations for a continental export lay on hand; our traders were angry and displeased. Nor was content to be found in the agricultural districts. During the war, the British farmer had inevitably a monopoly of this market; at the approach of peace, his natural antipathy to foreign corn influenced the legislator. The Home Secretary of the time had taken into consideration whether 76s. or 80s. was such a remunerating price as the agriculturist should obtain, and a corn law had passed accordingly. But no law could give the farmer famine prices, when there was scarcity here and plenty abroad. There were riots at the passing of the “Bread-tax,” as it was; in 1813, the price of corn was 120s.; the rural mind was sullen in 1816, when it sunk to 57s. The protection given, though unpopular with the poor, did not satisfy the farmer.
The lower orders in the manufacturing districts were, of necessity, in great distress. The depression of trade produced its inevitable results of closed mills and scanty employment. Wages, when they could be obtained, were very low. The artisan population was then new to the vicissitudes of industry: how far they are, even now, instructed in the laws of trade, recent prosperity will hardly let us judge; but, at that time, they had no doubt that it was the fault of the State, and if not of particular statesmen, then of the essential institutions, that they were in want. They believed the Government ought to regulate their remuneration, and make it sufficient. During some straitened years of the war the name of “Luddites” became known. They had principally shown their discontent by breaking certain machines, which they fancied deprived them of work. After the peace, the records of the time are full of “Spencean Philanthropists,” “Hampden Clubs,” and similar associations, all desiring a great reform—some of mere politics, others of the law of property and all social economy. Large meetings were everywhere held, something like those of the year 1839: a general insurrection, doubtless a wild dream of a few hot-brained dreamers, was fancied to have been really planned. The name “Radical” came to be associated with this discontent. The spirit which, in after years, clamoured distinctly for the five points of the Charter, made itself heard in mutterings and threatenings.
Nor were the capitalists, who had created the new wealth, socially more at ease. Many of them, as large employers of labour, had a taste for Toryism; the rule of the people to them meant the rule of their workpeople. Some of the wealthiest and most skilful became associated with the aristocracy, but it was vain with the majority to attempt it. Between them and the possessors of hereditary wealth there was fixed a great gulf; the contrast of habits, speech, manners, was too wide. The two might coincide in particular opinions; they might agree to support the same institutions; they might set forth, in a Conservative creed, the same form of sound words: but, though the abstract conclusions were identical, the mode of holding them—to borrow a subtlety of Father Newman’s—was exceedingly different. The refined, discriminating, timorous immobility of the aristocracy was distinct from the coarse, dogmatic, keep-downishness of the manufacturer. Yet more marked was the contrast, when the opposite tendencies of temperament had produced, as they soon could not but do, a diversity of opinion. The case was not quite new in England. Mr. Burke spoke of the tendency of the first East Indians to Jacobinism. They could not, he said, bear that their present importance should have no proportion to their recently acquired riches. No extravagant fortunes have, in this century, been made by Englishmen in India; but Lancashire has been a California. Families have been created there, whose names we all know, which we think of when we mention wealth; some of which are now, by lapse of time, passing into the hereditary caste of recognised opulence. This, however, has been a work of time; and, before it occurred, there was no such intermediate class between the new wealth and the old. “It takes,” it is said that Sir Robert Peel observed, “three generations to make a gentleman.” In the meantime, there was an inevitable misunderstanding; the new cloth was too coarse for the old. Besides this, many actual institutions offended the eyes of the middle class. The state of the law was opposed both to their prejudices and interests: that you could only recover your debts by spending more than the debt, was hard; and the injury was aggravated, the money was spent in “special pleading”—“in putting a plain thing so as to perplex and mislead a plain man”. “Lord Eldon and the Court of Chancery,” as Sydney Smith expressed it, “sat heavy on mankind.” The existence of slavery in our colonies, strongly supported by a strong aristocratic and parliamentary influence, offended the principles of middle-class Christianity, and the natural sentiments of simple men. The cruelty of the penal law—the punishing with death, sheep-stealing and shop-lifting—jarred the humanity of that second order of English society, which, from their habits of reading and non-reading, may be called, par excellence, the scriptural classes. The routine harshness of a not very wise executive did not mitigate the feeling. The modus operandi of Government appeared coarse and oppressive.
We seemed to pay, too, a good deal for what we did not like. At the close of the war, the ten per cent. income tax was of course heavily oppressive. The public expenditure was beyond argument lavish; and it was spent in pensions, sinecures (for “them idlers,” in the speech of Lancashire), and a mass of sundries, that an economical man of business will scarcely admit to be necessary, and that even now, after countless prunings, produce periodically “financial reform associations,” “administrative leagues,” and other combinations which amply testify the enmity of thrifty efficiency to large figures and muddling management. There had remained from the eighteenth century a tradition of corruption, an impression that direct pecuniary malversation pervaded the public offices; an idea true in the days of Rigby or Bubb Dodington, but which, like many other impressions, continued to exist many years after the facts in which it originated had passed away. Government, in the hands of such a man as Lord Liverpool, was very different from government in the hands of Sir Robert Walpole: respectability was exacted; of actual money-taking there was hardly any. Still, especially among inferior officials, there was something to shock modern purity. The size of jobs was large: if the Treasury of that time could be revived, it would be depressed at the littleness of whatever is perpetrated in modern administration. There were petty abuses too in the country—in municipalities—in charitable trusts—in all outlying public moneys, which seemed to the offended man of business, who saw them with his own eyes, evident instances confirming his notion of the malpractices of Downing Street. “There are only five little boys in the school of Richester; they may cost £200, and the income is £2000, and the trustees don’t account for the balance; which is the way things are done in England: we keeps an aristocracy,” etc. The whole of this feeling was concentrated into a detestation of rotten boroughs. The very name was enough: that Lord Dover, with two patent sinecures in the Exchequer and a good total for assisting in nothing at the Audit office, should return two members for one house, while Birmingham, where they made buttons,—“as good buttons as there are in the world, sir,”—returned no members at all, was an evident indication that reform was necessary. Mr. Canning was an eloquent man; but “even he could not say that a decaying stump was the people”. Gatton and Old Sarum became unpopular. The source of power seemed absurd, and the use of power was tainted. Side by side with the incipient Chartism of the northern operative, there was growing daily more distinct and clear the Manchester philosophy, which has since expressed itself in the Anti-Corn Law League, and which, for good and evil, is now an element so potent in our national life. Both creeds were forms of discontent. And the counterpoise was wanting. The English constitution has provided that there shall always be one estate raised above the storms of passion and controversy, which all parties may respect and honour. The king is to be loved. But this theory requires, for a real efficiency, that the throne be filled by such a person as can be loved. In those times it was otherwise. The nominal possessor of the crown was a very old man, whom an incurable malady had long sequestered from earthly things. The actual possessor of the royal authority was a voluptuary of overgrown person, now too old for healthy pleasure, and half sickened himself at the corrupt pursuits in which, nevertheless, he indulged perpetually. His domestic vices had become disgracefully public. Whatever might be the truth about Queen Caroline, no one could say she had been well treated. There was no royalty on which suffering workers, or an angry middle class, could repose: all through the realm there was a miscellaneous agitation, a vague and wandering discontent.
The official mind of the time was troubled. We have a record of its speculations in the life of Lord Sidmouth, who more than any one perhaps embodied it. He had been Speaker, and was much inclined to remedy the discontent of the middle classes by “naming them to the House”. A more conscientious man perhaps has never filled a public position. If the forms of the House of Commons had been intuitively binding, no one could have obeyed them better: the “mace” was a “counsel of perfection” to him; all disorder hateful. In the Home Office it was the same. The Luddites were people who would not obey the Speaker. Constituted authority must be enforced. The claims of a suffering multitude were not so much neglected as unappreciated. A certain illiberality, as we should now speak, pervades the whole kind of thought. The most striking feature is an indisposition, which by long indulgence has become an inability, to comprehend another person’s view, to put oneself in another’s mental place, to think what he thinks, to conceive what he inevitably is. Lord Sidmouth referred to the file. He found that Mr. Pitt had put down disaffection by severe measures. Accordingly, he suspended the Habeas Corpus Act, passed six Acts, commended a Peterloo massacre, not with conscious unfeelingness, but from an absorbed officiality, from a knowledge that this was what “the department” had done before, and an inference that this must be done again. As for the reforming ideas of the middle classes, red tape had never tied up such notions; perhaps it was the French Revolution over again: you could not tolerate them.
Between such a dominant mind as this, and such a subject mind as has been described, there was a daily friction. The situation afforded obvious advantages to enterprising men. Its peculiarity did not escape the shrewd eyes of John Lord Eldon. “If,” said the Conservative Chancellor, “I were to begin life again, d—n my eyes, but I would begin as an agitator.” Henry Brougham did so begin. During the war he had distinguished himself in the exposition of the grievances of the trading interest. Our Government had chosen a mode of carrying it on specially fitted to injure our commerce. “Napoleon had said that no vessel should touch a British port, and then enter a French one, or one under French control. The Orders in Council said that no vessel whatever should enter any such port without having first touched at some port of Great Britain.”1 The natural results were the annihilation of our trade with the continent and a quarrel with the United States. The merchants of the country were alarmed at both consequences. Perhaps until then men hardly knew how powerful our trading classes had become. Meetings were held in populous places; petitions in great numbers—an impressive and important thing in those times—were presented. Wherever foreign commerce existed, the discontent expressed itself in murmurs. The forms of the House of Commons were far more favourable than they are now to action from without; and this is not unnatural, since there had been as yet but few actions from without, and it had not been necessary to have a guard against them. “The petitions, as has been said, were numerous; and on the presentation of each, there was a speech from the member presenting it, trying to bring on a debate, and suggesting topics which might irritate the ministry and convince the country.” Mr. Brougham was always in his place. “Hardly an hour passed without detecting some false statement or illogical argument; hardly a night passed without gaining some convert to the cause of truth.” The result was decisive. “Although opposed by the whole weight of the Government both in public and out of doors; although at first vigorously resisted by the energy, the acuteness, the activity, and the expertness which made Mr. Perceval one of the first debaters of his day; although, after his death, the struggle was maintained by the father of the system1 with all his fire and with his full knowledge of the subject—nay, although” the Ministry risked their existence on the question, the victory remained with the petitioners. The Orders in Council were abolished, and the efficacy of agitation proved. “The Session of 1816 offered an example yet more remarkable of the same tactics being attended with signal success. On the termination of the war, the Government were determined, instead of repealing the whole income tax, which the law declared to be ‘for and during the continuance of the war, and no longer,’ to retain one-half of it.” “As soon as his intention was announced, several meetings were held.” Some petitions were presented. Mr. Brougham declared that, if the motion “were pressed on Thursday, he should avail himself of the forms of the House”. Of course, the unpopularity of paying money was decisive; the income tax fell. The same faculty of aggression, which had been so successful, in these instances, was immediately so applied as to give voice to the sullenness of the country; to express forms of discontent as real, though not with an object as determinate.
Mr. Brougham did not understate his case. “There is one branch of the subject which I shall pass over altogether—I mean the amount of the distresses which are now universally admitted to prevail over almost every part of the empire. Upon this topic all men are agreed; the statements connected with it are as unquestionable as they are afflicting.” Nor did he shrink from detail. “I shall suppose,” he observed to the House, “a farm of 400 acres of fair, good land, yielding a rent of from £500 to £600 a year.” “It will require a four years’ course—200 acres being in corn, 100 in fallow, and 100 in hay and grass;” and he seems to prove that at least it ought not to answer, “independently of the great rise in lime and all sorts of manure”. The commercial mania of the time takes its turn in the description. “After the cramped state in which the enemy’s measures and our own retaliation [as we termed it] had kept our trade for some years, when the events of spring 1814 suddenly opened the continent, a rage for exporting goods of every kind burst forth, only to be explained by reflecting on the previous restrictions we had been labouring under, and only to be equalled [though not in extent] by some of the mercantile delusions connected with South American speculations. Everything that could be shipped was sent off; all the capital that could be laid hold of was embarked. The frenzy, I can call it nothing less, after the experience of 1806 and 1810, descended to persons in the humblest circumstances and the farthest removed, by their pursuits, from commercial cares. It may give the committee some idea of this disease, if I state what I know to have happened in one or two places. Not only clerks and labourers, but menial servants, engaged the little sums which they had been laying up for a provision against old age and sickness; persons went round tempting them to adventure in the trade to Holland, and Germany, and the Baltic; they risked their mite in the hopes of boundless profits; it went with the millions of the more regular traders: the bubble soon burst, like its predecessors of the South Sea, the Mississippi, and Buenos Ayres: English goods were selling for much less in Holland and the north of Europe than in London and Manchester; in most places they were lying a dead weight without any sale at all; and either no returns whatever were received, or pounds came back for thousands that had gone forth. The great speculators broke; the middling ones lingered out a precarious existence, deprived of all means of continuing their dealings either at home or abroad; the poorer dupes of the delusion had lost their little hoards, and went upon the parish; but the result of the whole has been much commercial distress—a caution now absolutely necessary in trying new adventures—a prodigious diminution in the demand for manufactures, and indirectly a serious defalcation in the effectual demand for the produce of land.”
Next year Mr. Brougham described as the worst season ever known. The year 1812, a year before esteemed one of much suffering, rose in comparison to one of actual prosperity. He began with the “clothing, a branch of trade which, from accidental circumstances, is not as depressed as our other great staples”; he passed to the iron trade, etc., etc. He dilated on the distress, the discontent and suffering of the people. Of course, the Government were to blame. He moved that the “unexampled” difficulties of trade and manufactures were “materially increased by the policy pursued with respect to our foreign commerce—that the continuance of these difficulties is in a great degree owing to the severe pressure of taxation under which the country labours and which ought by every practicable means to be lightened—that the system of foreign policy pursued by His Majesty’s ministers has not been such as to obtain for the people of this country those commercial advantages which the influence of Great Britain in foreign countries fairly entitled them to expect”. As became a pupil of the Edinburgh University, Mr. Brougham was not averse to political economy. He was ready to discuss the theory of rent or the corn laws. He made a speech, which he relates as having had a greater success than any other which he made in Parliament, in support of Mr. Calcraft’s amendment, to “substitute £192,638 4s. 9d. for £385,276 9s. 6d., the estimate for the household troops”. Foreign policy was a favourite topic. Almost unsupported, as he said some years after, he attacked the Holy Alliance. Looking back through the softening atmosphere of reminiscence, he almost seems to have a kindness for Lord Castlereagh. He remembers with pleasure the utter “courage with which he exposed himself unabashed to the most critical audience in the world, while incapable of uttering anything but the meanest matter, expressed in the most wretched language”; nor has he “forgotten the kind of pride that mantled on the fronts of the Tory phalanx when, after being overwhelmed with the fire of the Whig Opposition, or galled by the fierce denunciations of the Mountain, or harassed by the splendid displays of Mr. Canning, their chosen leader stood forth, and presenting the graces of his eminently patrician figure, flung open his coat, displayed an azure ribbon traversing a snow-white chest, and declared his high satisfaction that he could now meet the charges against him face to face, and repel with indignation all that his adversaries had been bold and rash enough to advance”. But the “Mr. Brougham” of that time showed no admiration; no denunciations were stronger than his; no sarcasm impinged more deeply; if the “noble lord in the blue ribbon” wished any one out of the House, the “man from the Northern Circuit” was probably that one. Kings and emperors met with little mercy, and later years have shown how little was merited by the petty absolutism and unthinking narrowness of that time.
That Mr. Brougham indissolubly connected the education movement with his name everybody knows, but scarcely any one remembers how unpopular that movement was. Mr. Windham had said, some years before, “that the diffusion of knowledge was proper, might be supported by many good arguments; but he confessed he was a sceptic on that point. It was said, Look at the state of the savages as compared with ours. A savage among savages was very well, and the difference was only perceived when he came to be introduced into civilised society.” “His friend, Dr. Johnson, was of opinion that it was not right to teach reading beyond a certain extent in society.” The same feeling continued. Mr. Peel, in his blandest tones, attacked the education committee. Lord Stowell, not without sagacity, observed, “If you provide a larger amount of highly-cultivated talent than there is a demand for, the surplus is very likely to turn sour”. Such were the sentiments of some of the best scholars of that era; and so went all orthodox sentiment. That education was the same as republicanism, and republicanism as infidelity, half the curates believed. But, in spite of all this opposition, perhaps with more relish on account of it, Mr. Brougham was ever ready. He was a kind of prophet of knowledge. His voice was heard in the streets. He preached the gospel of the alphabet; he sang the praises of the primer all the day long. “Practical observations,” “discourses,” “speeches,” exist, terrible to all men now. To the kind of education then advocated there may be objections. We may object to the kind of “knowledge” then most sought after; but there can be no doubt that those who then laboured in its behalf must be praised for having inculcated, in the horrid heat of day, as a boring paradox what is now a boring commonplace.
Our space would fail us if we were to attempt to recount Brougham’s labours on the slavery question, on George IV. and Queen Caroline, or his hundred encounters with the routine statesmen. The series commenced at the Peace, but it continued for many years. Is not its history written in the chronicles of Parliament? You must turn the leaves—no unpleasant reading—of those old debates, and observe how often Mr. Brougham’s name occurs, and on what cumbrous subjects, before you can estimate the frequency of his attacks and the harassing harshness of his labour. One especial subject was his more than any other man’s—law reform. He had Romilly and Mackintosh as fellow-labourers in the amelioration of the penal code; he had their support, and that of some others, in his incessant narrations of the grievances of individuals, and denunciations of the unfeeling unthinkingness of our Home administration; but no man grappled so boldly—we had almost said so coarsely—with the crude complexities of our civil jurisprudence: for a rougher nature, a more varied knowledge of action than we can expect of philanthropists were needed for that task. The subject was most difficult to deal with. The English commerce and civilisation had grown up in the meshes of a half-feudal code, further complicated with the curious narrowness and spirit of chicane which haunt everywhere the law-courts of early times. The technicality which produced the evil made the remedy more difficult. There was no general public opinion on the manner of reform; the public felt the evil, but no one could judge of the efficacy of a remedy, save persons studious in complicated learning, who would hardly be expected to show how that learning could be rendered useless—hardly, indeed, to imagine a world in which it did not exist. The old creed, that these ingenious abuses were the last “perfection of reason,” still lingered. It must give Lord Brougham some pride to reflect how many of the improvements which he was the first to popularise, if not to suggest, have been adopted—how many old abuses of detail, which he first indicated to Parliament, exist no longer—how many more are now admitted by everybody to be abuses, though the mode of abolition is contested. The speech on law reform, which he published in the collected edition of his speeches, is nearly a summary of all that has been done or suggested in common or civil law reform for the last thirty years. The effect which so bold an attack on so many things by a single person produced in that conservative time was prodigious. “There never was such a nuisance as the man is,” said an old lawyer whom we knew; and he expressed the feeling of his profession. If we add, that beside all these minor reforms and secondary agitations, Mr. Brougham was a bold advocate of Catholic emancipation and parliamentary reform—the largest heresies of that epoch—we may begin to understand the sarcasm of Mr. Canning: “The honourable and learned gentleman having in the course of his parliamentary life supported or proposed almost every species of innovation which could be practised on the constitution, it was not very easy for ministers to do anything without seeming to borrow from him. Break away in what direction they would, whether to the right or to the left, it was all alike. ‘Oh,’ said the honourable gentleman, ‘I was there before you: you would not have thought of that if I had not given you a hint.’ In the reign of Queen Anne there was a sage and grave critic of the name of Dennis, who in his old age got it into his head that he had written all the good plays which were acted at that time. At last a tragedy came forth with a most imposing display of hail and thunder. At the first peal, Dennis exclaimed: ‘That is my thunder!’ So with the honourable and learned gentleman; there was no noise astir for the good of mankind in any part of the world, but he instantly claimed it for his thunder.” We may have wearied our readers with these long references to old conflicts, but it was necessary. We are familiar with the aberrations of the ex-Chancellor; we forget how bold, how efficacious, how varied was the activity of Henry Brougham.
There are several qualities in his genius which make such a life peculiarly suited to him. The first of these is an aggressive, impulsive disposition. Most people may admit that the world goes ill; old abuses seem to exist, questionable details to abound. Hardly any one thinks that anything may not be made better. But how to improve the world, to repair the defects, is a difficulty. Immobility is a part of man. A sluggish conservatism is the basis of our English nature. “Learn, my son,” said the satirist, “to bear tranquilly the calamities of others.” We easily learn it. Most men have a line of life, and it imposes certain duties which they fulfil; but they cannot be induced to start out of that line. We dwell in “a firm basis of content”. “Let the mad world go its own way, for it will go its own way.” There is no doctrine of the English Church more agreeable to our instinctive taste than that which forbids all works of supererogation. “You did a thing without being obliged,” said an eminent statesman: “then that must be wrong.” We travel in the track. Lord Brougham is the opposite of this. It is not difficult to him to attack abuses. The more difficult thing for him would be to live in a world without abuses. An intense excitability is in his nature. He must “go off”. He is eager to reform corruption, and rushes out to refute error. A tolerant placidity is altogether denied to him.
And not only is this excitability eager, it is many-sided. The men who have in general exerted themselves in labours for others, have generally been rather of a brooding nature; certain ideas, views and feelings have impressed themselves on them in solitude; they come forth with them among the crowd, but they have no part in its diversified life. They are almost irritated by it. They have no conception except of their cause; they are abstracted in one thought, pained with the dizziness of a heated idea. There is nothing of this in Brougham. He is excited by what he sees. The stimulus is from without. He saw the technicalities of the law-courts; observed a charitable trustee misusing the charity moneys; perceived that George IV. oppressed Queen Caroline; went to Old Sarum. He is not absorbed in a creed: he is pricked by facts. Accordingly, his activity is miscellaneous. The votary of a doctrine is concentrated, for the logical consequences of a doctrine are limited. But an open-minded man, who is aroused by what he sees, quick at discerning abuses, ready to reform anything which he thinks goes wrong—will never have done acting. The details of life are endless, and each of them may go wrong in a hundred ways.
Another faculty of Brougham (in metaphysics it is perhaps but a phase of the same) is the faculty of easy anger. The supine placidity of civilisation is not favourable to animosity. A placid Conservative is perhaps a little pleased that the world is going a little ill. Lord Brougham does not feel this. Like an Englishman on the Continent, he is ready to blow up any one. He is a Jonah of detail; he is angry at the dust of life, and wroth at the misfeasances of employés. The most reverberating of bastinadoes is the official mind basted by Brougham. You did this wrong; why did you omit that? Document C ought to be on the third file; paper D is wrongly docketed in the ninth file. Red tape will scarcely succeed when it is questioned; you should take it as Don Quixote did his helmet, without examination, for a most excellent helmet. A vehement, industrious man proposing to untie papers and not proposing to spare errors, is the terror of a respectable administrator. “Such an impracticable man, sir, interfering with the office, attacking private character, messing in what cannot concern him.” These are the jibes which attend an irritable anxiety for the good of others. They have attended Lord Brougham through life. He has enough of misanthropy to be a philanthropist.
How much of this is temper, and how much public spirit, it is not for any one to attempt to say. That a natural pleasure in wrath is part of his character, no one who has studied the career of Brougham can doubt. But no fair person can doubt either that he showed on many great occasions—and, what is more, on many petty occasions—a rare zeal for the public welfare. He may not be capable of the settled calm by which the world is best administered. There is a want of consistency in his goodness, of concentration in his action. The gusts of passion pass over him, and he is gone for a time you can scarcely say where. But, though he is the creature of impulse, his impulses are often generous and noble ones. No one would do what he has done, no one could have the intense motive power to do what he has done, without a large share of diffused unselfishness. The irritation of the most acute excitability would not suffice. It is almost an axiom in estimates of human nature, that in its larger operations all that nature must concur. Doubtless there is a thread of calculation in the midst of his impulses; no man rises to be lord chancellor without, at least in lulls and intervals of impulse, a most discriminating and careful judgment of men and things and chances. But after every set-off and abatement, and without any softening of unamiable indications, there will yet remain—and a long series of years will continue to admire it—an eager principle of disinterested action.
Lord Brougham’s intellectual powers were as fitted for the functions of a miscellaneous agitator as his moral character. The first of these, perhaps, is a singular faculty of conspicuous labour. In general, the work of agitation proceeds in this way: a conspicuous, fascinating popular orator is ever on the surface, ever ready with appropriate argument, making motions, attracting public attention; beneath and out of sight are innumerable workers and students, unfit for the public eye, getting up the facts, elaborating conclusions, supplying the conspicuous orator with the data on which he lives. There is a perpetual controversy, when the narrative of the agitation comes to be written, whether the merit of what is achieved belongs to the skilful advocate who makes a subtle use of what is provided for him, or the laborious inferiors and juniors who compose the brief and set in order the evidence. For all that comes before the public, Lord Brougham has a wonderful power: he can make motions, addresses, orations, when you wish and on what you wish. He is like a machine for moving amendments. He can keep at work any number of persons under him. Every agitation has a tendency to have an office; some league, some society, some body of labourers must work regularly at its details. Mr. Brougham was able to rush hither and thither through a hundred such kinds of men, and gather up the whole stock of the most recent information, the extreme decimals of the statistics, and diffuse them immediately with eager comment to a listening world. This may not be, indeed is not, the strictest and most straining kind of labour; the anxious, wearing, verifying, self-imposed scrutiny of scattered and complicated details is a far more exhausting task; it is this which makes the eye dim and the face pale and the mind heavy. The excitement of a multifarious agitation will carry the energies through much; the last touches, and it is these which exhaust, need not be put on any one subject. Yet, after all deductions, such a career requires a quantity far surpassing all that most men have of life and verve and mind.
Another advantage of Lord Brougham is his extreme readiness; what he can do, he can do at a moment’s notice. He has always had this power. Lord Holland, in his Memoirs referring to transactions which took place many years ago, gives an illustration of it. “The management of our press,” he is speaking of the question of the general election of 1807, “fell into the hands of Mr. Brougham. With that active and able individual I had become acquainted through Mr. Allen in 1805. At the formation of Lord Grenville’s ministry, he had written, at my suggestion, a pamphlet called The State of the Nation. He subsequently accompanied Lord Rosslyn to Lisbon. His early connection with the Abolitionists had familiarised him with the means of circulating political papers, and giving him some weight with those best qualified to co-operate in such an undertaking. His extensive knowledge, his extraordinary readiness, his assiduity and habits of composition, enabled him to correct some articles, and to furnish a prodigious number himself. With partial and scanty assistance from Mr. Allen, myself, and one or two more, he in the course of a few days filled every bookseller’s shop with pamphlets—most London newspapers, and all country ones without exception, with paragraphs—and supplied a large portion of the boroughs throughout the kingdom with handbills adapted to the local interests of the candidates, and all tending to enforce the conduct, elucidate the measures, or expose the adversaries of the Whigs.”
Another power which was early remarked of Brougham, and which is as necessary as any to an important leader in great movements, is a skilful manipulation of men. Sir James Mackintosh noted in his Journal, on 30th January, 1818: “The address and insinuation of Brougham are so great, that nothing but the bad temper which he cannot always hide could hinder him from mastering everybody as he does Romilly. He leads others to his opinion; he generally appears at first to concur with theirs, and never more than half opposes it at once. This management is helped by an air of easy frankness that would lay suspicion itself asleep. He will place himself at the head of an opposition among whom he is unpopular; he will conquer the House of Commons, who hate, but now begin to fear him.” An observer of faces would fancy he noted in Lord Brougham this pliant astuteness marred by ill-temper. It has marked his career.
Another essential quality in multifarious agitation is an extreme versatility. No one can deny Lord Brougham this. An apparently close observer has described him. “Take the routine of a day, for instance. In his early life he has been known to attend, in his place in court, on circuit, at an early hour in the morning. After having successfully pleaded the cause of his client, he drives off to the hustings, and delivers, at different places, eloquent and spirited speeches to the electors. He then sits down in the retirement of his closet to pen an address to the Glasgow students, perhaps, or an elaborate article in the Edinburgh Review. The active labours of the day are closed with preparation for the court business of the following morning; and then, in place of retiring to rest, as ordinary men would after such exertions, he spends the night in abstruse study, or on social intercourse with some friend from whom he has been long separated. Yet he would be seen, as early as eight on the following morning, actively engaged in the court, in defence of some unfortunate object of Government persecution, astonishing the auditory, and his fellow-lawyers no less, with the freshness and power of his eloquence. A fair contrast with this history of a day, in early life, would be that of one at a more advanced period; say, in the year 1832. A watchful observer might see the new Lord Chancellor seated in the court over which he presided, from an early hour in the morning until the afternoon, listening to the arguments of counsel, and mastering the points of cases with a grasp of mind that enabled him to give those speedy and unembarrassed judgments that have so injured him with the profession. If he followed his course, he would see him, soon after the opening of the House of Lords, addressing their lordships on some intricate question of law, with an acuteness that drew down approbation even from his opponents; or, on some all-engrossing political topic, casting firebrands into the camp of the enemy, and awakening them from the complacent repose of conviction to the hot contests with more active and inquiring intellects. Then, in an hour or so, he might follow him to the Mechanics’ Institution, and hear an able and stimulating discourse on education, admirably adapted to the peculiar capacity of his auditors; and towards ten, perhaps, at a Literary and Scientific Institution in Marylebone, the same Proteus-like intellect might be found expounding the intricacies of physical science with a never-tiring and elastic power. Yet, during all those multitudinous exertions, time would be found for the composition of a discourse on Natural Theology, that bears no marks of haste or excitement of mind, but presents as calm a face as though it had been the laborious production of a contemplative philosopher.” We may differ in our estimate of the quality of these various efforts; but no one can deny to him who was capable of them a great share in what Adam Smith mentioned as one of the most important facilities to the intellectual labourer—a quickness in “changing his hand”.
Nor would any of these powers be sufficient, without that which is, in some sense, the principle of them all—an enterprising intellect. In the present day this is among the rarest of gifts. The speciality of pursuits is attended with a timidity of mind. Each subject is given up to men who cultivate it, and it only; who are familiar with its niceties and absorbed in its details. There is no one who dares to look at the whole. “I have taken all knowledge to be my province,” said Lord Bacon. The notion, and still more the expression of it, seems ridiculous now The survey of each plot in the world of knowledge is becoming more complete. We shall have a plan of each soon, on a seven-inch scale; but we are losing the picturesque pictures of the outside and surface of knowledge in the survey of its whole. We have the petty survey, as we say, but no chart, no globe of the entire world; no bold sketch of its obvious phenomena, as they strike the wayfarer and impress themselves on the imagination. The man of the speciality cannot describe the large outlines; he is too close upon the minutiæ; he does not know the relations of other knowledge, and no one else dares to infringe on his province—on the “study of his life”—for fear of committing errors in detail which he alone knows, and which he may expose. Lord Brougham has nothing of this cowardice. He is ready to give, in their boldest and most general form, the rough outlines of knowledge as they strike the man of the world, occupied in its affairs and familiar with its wishes. He is not cooped up in a single topic, and he has no dread of those who are. He may fall into error, but he exhibits a subject as it is seen by those who know other subjects, by a man who knows the world; he at least attempts an embracing conception of his topic, he makes you feel its connection with reality and affairs. He has exhibited this virtue at all stages of his career, but it was most valuable in his earlier time. There is no requisite so important as intellectual courage in one who seeks to improve all things in all ways.
His oratory also suits the character of the hundred-subject agitator well. It is rough-and-ready. It abounds in sarcasm, in vituperation, in aggression. It does not shrink from detail. It would batter anything at any moment. We may think as we will on its merits as a work of art, but no one can deny its exact adaptation to a versatile and rushing agitator—to a Tribune of detail.
The deficiencies of Brougham’s character—in some cases they seem but the unfavourable aspects of its excellences—were also fitted for his earlier career. The first of these, to say it in a sentence, is the want of a thinking intellect. A miscellaneous agitator must be ready to catch at anything, to attack everything, to blame any one. This is not the life for a mind of anxious deliberation. The patient philosopher, who is cautious in his positions, dubious of his data, slow in his conclusions, must fail at once. He would be investigating while he should attack, inquiring while he should speak. He could not act upon a chance; the moment of action would be gone. A sanguine and speedy intellect, ready to acquire, by its very idea all but excludes the examining, scrupulous, hesitating intellect which reflects.
Nor would a man of very sensitive judgment endure such a career. An agitator must err by excess; a delicate nature errs by defects. There is a certain coarseness in the abusive breed. A Cleon should not feel failure. No man has ever praised very highly Lord Brougham’s judgment; but to have exceedingly improved it would perhaps have impaired his earlier utility. You might as fitly employ some delicate lady as a rough-rider, as a man of a poising, refining judgment in the task of a grievance-stater.
Harsh nerves, too, are no disadvantage. Perhaps they are essential. Very nice nerves would shrink from a scattered and jangled life. Three days out of six the sensitive frame would be jarred, the agitator would be useless. It is possible, indeed, to imagine that in a single noble cause—a cause that would light up the imagination, that would move the inner soul, a temperament the most delicate, a frame that is most poetic, might well be absorbingly interested. A little of such qualities may be essential. The apostle of a creed must have the nature to comprehend that creed; his fancy must take it in, his feelings realise it, his nature absorb it. To move the finer nature, you need the deeper nature. Perhaps even in a meaner cause, in a cause which should take a hold on the moving mob, sway the masses, rule the popular fancy, rough as the task of the mob-orator is, you require the delicate imagination. One finds some trace of it—still more of what is its natural accompaniment, a sweet nature—buried in the huge frame and coarse exterior of O’Connell. No unpoetic heart could touch the Irish people. Lord Brougham is prose itself. He was described, many years ago, as excelling all men in a knowledge of the course of exchange. “He is,” continued the satirist,1 “apprised of the exact state of our exports and imports, and scarce a ship clears out its cargo at Liverpool or Hull but he has the notice of the bill of lading.” To explain the grievances of men of business needs no poetic nature. It scarcely needs the highest powers of invective. There is something nearly ridiculous in being the “Mirabeau of sums”.
There is a last quality which is difficult to describe in the language of books, but which Lord Brougham excels in, and which has perhaps been of more value to him than all his other qualities put together. In the speech of ordinary men it is called “devil”; persons instructed in the German language call it “the demonic element”. What it is one can hardly express in a single sentence. It is most easily explained by physiognomy. There is a glare in some men’s eyes which seems to say, “Beware, I am dangerous; noli me tangere”. Lord Brougham’s face has this. A mischievous excitability is the most obvious expression of it. If he were a horse, nobody would buy him; with that eye, no one could answer for his temper. Such men are often not really resolute, but they are not pleasant to be near in a difficulty. They have an aggressive eagerness which is formidable. They would kick against the pricks sooner than not kick at all. A little of the demon is excellent for an agitator.
His peculiar adaptation to his peculiar career raised Mr. Brougham, in a few years, to a position such as few men have ever obtained in England—such as no other man perhaps has attained by popular agitation. When he became member for Yorkshire, in 1830, he was a power in the country. The cause which he was advocating had grown of itself. The power of the middle classes, especially of the commercial classes, had increased. Lord Eldon was retiring. Lord Sidmouth had retired. What we now call “liberality” was coming into fashion. Men no longer regarded the half-feudal constitution as a “form of thought”. Argument was at least thought fair. And this seems likely and natural. No one can wonder that the influence of men of business grew with the development of business, and they adopted the plain, straightforward, cautious creed, which we now know to be congenial to them. It is much more difficult to explain how reform became a passion. The state of the public mind during the crisis of the Reform Bill is one which those who cannot remember it cannot understand. The popular enthusiasm, the intense excitement, the rush of converts, the union of rectors and squires with those against whom they had respectively so long preached and sworn, the acclamation for the “whole bill and nothing but the bill,” are become utterly strange. As the first French Assembly in a single night abolished, with public outcry, the essential abuses of the old régime, so our fathers at once, and with enthusiasm, abolished the close boroughs and the old representation, the lingering abuses of half-feudal England. The present Frenchmen are said not to comprehend August 4: we can hardly understand the year ’32. An apathy has fallen upon us. But we can, nevertheless, and without theorising, comprehend what an advantage such an enthusiasm was to the Liberals of that time. Most Whig ministries have been like Low-Church bishops. There is a feeling that the advocates of liberty ought scarcely to coerce; they have ruled, but they seem to deny the succession by which they ruled; they have been distrusted by a vague and half-conservative sentiment. In the tumult of 1832 all such feelings were carried away. Toryism was abolished with delight.
Mr. Brougham was among the first to share the advantage. There is a legend that in the first Whig ministry Lord Brougham was offered the post of Attorney-General, and that he only replied by disdainfully tearing up the letter containing the offer. Whether the anecdote be literally true or not, we cannot say. The first of the modern Whig ministries is in the post-historical period. We have not yet enough of contemporary evidence to be sure of its details: years must pass before the memoir-writers can accumulate. But in spirit the tale is doubtless accurate. Lord Grey did not wish to make Mr. Brougham Lord Chancellor, and Mr. Brougham refused any inferior place as beneath his merits and his influence. The first Whig ministry was, indeed, in a position of some difficulty. The notion that a successful Opposition, as such, should take the reins of administration, has been much derided. “Sir,” said a sceptic on this part of constitutional government, “I would as soon choose for a new coachman the man who shied stones best at my old one!” And, without going the length of such critics, it must be allowed that the theory may produce odd results, when the persons summoned by their victory to assume office have been for many years in opposition. The party cannot have acquired official habits: the traditions of business cannot be known to them; their long course of opposition will have forced into leadership men hardly fitted for placid government. There is said to have been much of this feeling when Lord Grey’s ministry was installed; it seemed as if that “old favourite of the public,” Mr. Buckstone, were called to license plays. Grave Englishmen doubted the gravity of the administration. To make Lord Brougham Chancellor was, therefore, particularly inconvenient. He was too mobile; you could not fancy him droning. He had attacked Lord Eldon during many years, of course; but did he know law? He was a most active person; would he sit still upon the woolsack? Of his inattention to his profession men circulated idle tales. “Pity he hadn’t known a little law, and then he would have known a little of everything,” was the remark of one who certainly only knows one thing. A more circumstantial person recounted that, when Brougham had been a pupil of Sir Nicholas Tindal, in the Temple, an uncle of his, having high hopes of his ability, asked the latter: “I hope my nephew is giving himself up, soul and body, to his profession?” “I do not know anything,” replied the distinct special-pleader, “as to his soul, but his body is very seldom in my chambers.” Putting aside with contempt this surface of tales, it could not be denied that Mr. Brougham’s practice at the bar—large and lucrative as it was—immense as was the energy required to maintain it at the same time with his other labours—had yet not shown him to possess the finest discretion, the most delicate tact of the advocate. Mr. Scarlett stole verdicts away from him. “He strikes hard, sir,” said an attorney; “but he strikes wrong.” His appointment as Chancellor scarcely strengthened the ministry of the time. Mr. Brougham was a hero; Lord Brougham was “a necessity”. It was like Mr. Disraeli being Chancellor of the Exchequer.
After the lapse of years, and with the actual facts before us, it is not difficult to see how far these anticipations have been falsified, and how far they have been justified, by the result. All the notions as to Lord Brougham’s ignorance of law may at once be discarded. A man of his general culture and vigorous faculties, with a great memory and much experience in forensic business, is no more likely to be ignorant of the essential bookwork of law than a tailor to be ignorant of scissors and seams. A man in business must be brought in contact with it; a man of mind cannot help grasping it. No one now questions that Lord Brougham was and is a lawyer of adequate attainments. But, at the same time, the judgments which supply the conclusive proof of this—the complete refutation of earlier cavillers—also would lead us to deny him the praise of an absolutely judicious intellect. Great judges may be divided into two classes—judges for the parties, and judges for the lawyers. The first class of these are men who always decide the particular case before them rightly, who have a nice insight into all that concerns it, are acute discerners of fact, accurate weighers of testimony, just discriminators of argument. Lord Lyndhurst is perhaps as great a judge in this kind as it is easy to fancy. If a wise man had a good cause, he would prefer its being tried before Lyndhurst to its being tried before any one else. For the “parties,” if they were to be considered in litigation, no more would be needed. By law-students, however, and for the profession, something more is desired. They like to find, in a judicial decision, not only a correct adjustment of the particular dispute in court, but also an ample exposition of principles applicable to other disputes. The judge who is peculiarly exact in detecting the precise peculiarities of the case before him, will be very apt to decide only what is essential to, absolutely needed by, that case. His delicate discrimination will see that nothing else is necessary; he will not bestow conclusions on after-generations; he will let posterity decide its own controversies. A judge of different kind has a professional interest in what comes before him: it is in his eyes not a pitiful dispute whether A or B is entitled to a miserable field, but a glorious opportunity of deciding some legal controversy on which he has brooded for years, and on which he has a ready-made conclusion. Accordingly, his judgments are in the nature of essays. They are, in one sense, applicable to the matter in hand—they decide it correctly; but they go so much into the antecedents of the controversy—give so much of principle—that the particular facts seem a little lost: the general doctrine fills the attention. No one can read a judgment of the late Lord Cottenham without feeling that it fixed the law on the matter in hand upon a defined basis for future years. Very likely he finds an authority for the case which has occurred in his practice; he does not stay to inquire whether the litigants appreciated the learning; perhaps they did not—possibly they would have preferred that a more exclusive prominence should be given to themselves. Now Lord Brougham has neither of these qualities; his intellect wants the piercing precision which distinguishes the judge—the unerring judge—of the case then present; and though competently learned, he has never been absorbed in his profession, as a judge of “principle” almost always must be. A man cannot provide a dogma suiting all the cases of the past, and deciding all the cases for the future without years of patient reflection. His mind must be stored with doctrines. No one can fancy this of Lord Brougham. He is not to be thought of as giving still attention to technical tenets, years of brooding consideration to an abstract jurisprudence. Accordingly, though an adequate, and in his time—for his speed cleared off arrears—a most useful judge, he cannot be said to attain the first rank in the judicial scale; and such we believe is the estimation of the world.
Of the political duties of the Chancellor, and Lord Brougham’s performance of them, it is not easy to speak. Many of them are necessarily secret, and the history of those times cannot yet be written. That he showed wonderful energy, zeal, and power, no one can doubt; nor that the essential defects of his character soon showed him but little qualified for an administrator. In the year 1802, Francis Horner anticipated, that if “an active career were opened to Brougham, he would show a want of prudence and moderation”; and it is curious to read, as a commentary on it, what the Duke of Wellington wrote to Sir R. Peel, on the 15th November, 1835. “His Majesty mentioned that Lord Brougham1 had threatened he would not put the great seal to a commission to prorogue the parliament;” and afterwards correcting himself: “It appears that Lord Brougham did not make the threat that he would not prorogue the parliament, but that Lord Melbourne said he was in such a state of excitement that he might take that course”. We must wait for Lord Brougham’s memoirs before we know the exact history of that time; but all the glimpses we get of it show the same picture of wildness and eccentricity.
The times—the most nearly revolutionary times which England has long seen—were indeed likely to try an excitable temperament to the utmost; but at the same time they afforded scope to a brilliant manager of men, which only such critical momentary conjunctures can do. Mr. Roebuck gives a curious instance of this:—
“The necessity of a dissolution had long been foreseen and decided on by the ministers; but the king had not yet been persuaded to consent to so bold a measure; and now the two chiefs of the administration were about to intrude themselves into the royal closet, not only to advise and ask for a dissolution, but to request the king on the sudden—on this very day, and within a few hours—to go down and put an end to his parliament in the midst of the session, and with all the ordinary business of the session yet unfinished. The bolder mind of the Chancellor took the lead, and Lord Grey anxiously solicited him to manage the king on the occasion. So soon as they were admitted, the Chancellor, with some care and circumlocution, propounded to the king the object of the interview they had sought. The startled monarch no sooner understood the drift of the Chancellor’s somewhat periphrastic statement, than he exclaimed in wonder and amazement against the very idea of such a proceeding. ‘How is it possible, my lords, that I can after this fashion repay the kindness of parliament to the queen and myself? They have just granted me a most liberal civil list, and to the queen a splendid annuity in case she survives me.’ The Chancellor confessed that they had, as regarded his Majesty, been a liberal and wise parliament, but said that nevertheless their further existence was incompatible with the peace and safety of the kingdom. Both he and Lord Grey then strenuously insisted upon the absolute necessity of their request, and gave his Majesty to understand that this advice was by his ministers unanimously resolved on; and that they felt themselves unable to conduct the affairs of the country in the present condition of the parliament. This last statement made the king feel that a general resignation would be the consequence of a further refusal. Of this, in spite of his secret wishes, he was at the moment really afraid; and therefore, he, by employing petty excuses, and suggesting small and temporary difficulties, soon began to show that he was about to yield. ‘But, my lords, nothing is prepared; the great officers of state are not summoned.’ ‘Pardon me, sir,’ said the Chancellor, bowing with profound apparent humility, ‘we have taken the great liberty of giving them to understand that your Majesty commanded their attendance at the proper hour.’ ‘But, my lords, the crown and the robes, and other things needed are not prepared.’ ‘Again I most humbly entreat your Majesty’s pardon for my boldness,’ said the Chancellor; ‘they are all prepared and ready—the proper officers being desired to attend in proper form and time.’ ‘But, my lords,’ said the king reiterating the form in which he put his objection, ‘you know the thing is wholly impossible; the guards, the troops, have had no orders, and cannot be ready in time.’ This objection was in reality the most formidable one. The orders to the troops on such occasions emanate always directly from the king, and no person but the king can in truth command them for such service; and as the Prime Minister and daring Chancellor well knew the nature of royal susceptibility on such matters, they were in no slight degree doubtful and anxious as to the result. The Chancellor, therefore, with some real hesitation, began again as before, ‘Pardon me, sir, we know how bold the step is that, presuming on your great goodness, and your anxious desire for the safety of your kingdom, and happiness of your people, we have presumed to take. I have given orders and the troops are ready.’ The king started in serious anger, flamed red in the face, and burst forth with, ‘What, my lords, have you dared to act thus? Such a thing was never heard of. You, my Lord Chancellor, ought to know that such an act is treason, high treason, my lord.’ ‘Yes, sir,’ said the Chancellor, ‘I do know it; and nothing but my thorough knowledge of your Majesty’s goodness, of your paternal anxiety for the good of your people, and my own solemn belief that the safety of the state depends upon this day’s proceedings, could have emboldened me to the performance of so unusual, and, in ordinary circumstances, so improper a proceeding. In all humility I submit myself to your Majesty, and am ready in my own person to bear all the blame, and receive all the punishment which your Majesty may deem needful; but I again entreat your Majesty to listen to us and to follow our counsel, and as you value the security of your crown and the peace of your realms, to yield to our most earnest solicitations.’ After some further expostulations by both his ministers, the king cooled down and consented. Having consented, he became anxious that everything should be done in the proper manner, and gave minute directions respecting the ceremonial. The speech to be spoken by him at the prorogation was ready prepared and in the Chancellor’s pocket. To this he agreed, desired that everybody might punctually attend, and dismissed his ministers for the moment with something between a menace and a joke upon the audacity of their proceeding.”
With the fall of Lord Melbourne’s first administration terminated Lord Brougham’s administrative career. As every one knows, on the defeat of Sir Robert Peel and the subsequent return of the Whigs to power, he was not invited to resume office. Since that time—for now more than twenty years—he has had to lead the life, in general the most trying to political reputation, perhaps to real character, and more than any other alien to the character of his mind and the tendencies of his nature. We have had many recent instances how difficult it is to give what is variously termed an “independent support,” and a “friendly opposition,” to a Government of which you approve the general tendencies, but are inclined to criticise the particular measures. The Peelites and Lord John Russell have for several years been in general in this position, and generally with a want of popular sympathy. As they agree with the Government in principle, they cannot take, by way of objection, what the country considers broad points; their suggestions of detail seem petty and trivial to others—the public hardly think of such things; but men who have long considered a subject, who have definite ideas and organised plans, can scarcely help feeling an eager interest in the smallest minutiæ of the mode of dealing with it. Sometimes they discern a real importance undiscerned by those less attentive; more commonly, perhaps, they fancy there is something peculiarly felicitous in contrivances settled by themselves and congenial to their habits or their notions. Lord Brougham was in a position to feel this peculiarly. The various ideas which he had struggled for in earlier life were successful one by one; the hundred reforms he suggested were carried; the hundred abuses he had denounced were abolished. The world which was, was changed to the world which is; but it was not changed by him. That he should have been favourably disposed to the existing liberal administrations was not likely; the separation was too recent, perhaps too abrupt. An eager and excitable disposition is little likely to excel in the measured sentences, the chosen moments, the polished calm of the frondeur. Accordingly, the life of Brougham for many years has not been favourable to his fame. On particular occasions, as on the abolition of Negro apprenticeship, he might attain something of his former power. But, in general, his position has been that of the agitator whose measure is being substantially carried, yet with differences of detail aggravating to his temper and annoying to his imagination. Mr. Cobden described Sir Robert Peel’s mode of repealing the corn-laws with the microscopic sliding-scale for three years, as seventeen-and-sixpence on the demand of the Anti-corn-law League, and good security for the other half-crown. Yet excitable men at that very moment clamoured for the last half-crown, they could not bear the modification, the minute difference from that on which they had set their hearts. We must remember this in relation to what is now most familiar to us in the life of Lord Brougham. To a man so active, to be put out of action is a pain which few can appreciate; that other men should enter into your labours is not pleasant; that they should be Canningites does not make it any better. We have witnessed many escapades of Lord Brougham; we perhaps hardly know his temptations and his vexations.
Such is the bare outline of the career of Lord Brougham. A life of early, broken, various agitation; a short interval of ordinary administration—occurring, however, at a time singularly extraordinary; a long old age secluded from the actual conduct of affairs, and driven to distinguish itself by miscellaneous objection and diversified sarcasm. Singular stories of eccentricity and excitement, even of something more than either of these, darken these latter years. On these we must not dwell. There are many aspects of Brougham’s varied character, a few of which we should notice by themselves.
The most connected with his political life is his career as a law reformer. We have spoken of his early labours on this subject; we have said that few men who have devoted themselves to nothing else have exposed so many abuses, propounded so many remedies; that one of his early motions is a schedule of half, and much more than half, that has been, or will be, done upon a large portion of the subject. But here praise must end. The completed, elaborated reforms by which Lord Brougham will be known to posterity are few, are nothing in comparison with his power, his industry, and his opportunities. There is nothing, perhaps, for which he is so ill qualified. The bold vehement man who exposes an abuse has rarely the skilful, painful, dissecting power which expunges it. Lord Brougham once made a speech on conveyancing. “I should not,” said, on the next day, an eminent professor of that art, “like him to draw a deed relating to my property.” A law reformer, in order that his work may be perfect, requires the conveyancing abilities. He must be able to bear in mind the whole topic—to draw out what is necessary of it on paper—to see what is necessary—to discriminate the rights of individuals—to distinguish, with even metaphysical nicety, the advantage he would keep from the abuse he would destroy. He must elaborate enacting clauses which will work in the complicated future, repealing clauses which will not interfere with the complicated machinery of the past. His mind must be the mind of a codifier. A rushing man, like Lord Brougham, cannot hope to have this. A still and patient man, in quiet chambers, apt in niceties, anxious by temperament, precise in habit, putting the last extreme of perfection on whatever he may attempt, is the man for the employment. You must not expect this quiet precision from an agitator. There is the same difference as that between the hard-striking pugilist and the delicate amputating operator.
The same want of repose has repaired his excellence in a pursuit to which, at first sight, it seems much less needful—the art of oratory. We are apt to forget that oratory is an imaginative art. From our habits of business, the name of rhetoric has fallen into disrepute: our greatest artists strive anxiously to conceal their perfection in it; they wish their address in statement to be such, that the effect seems to be produced by that which is stated, and not by the manner in which it is stated. But not the less on that account is there a real exercise of the imagination in conceiving of the events of a long history, in putting them forward in skilful narration, each fact seeming by nature to fall into its place, all the details appearing exactly where they should—a group, to borrow a metaphor from another art, collecting itself from straggling and desultory materials. Still more evidently is the imagination requisite in expressing deep emotions, even common emotions, or in describing noble objects. Now, it seems to be a law of the imagination that it only works in a mind of stillness. The noise and crush of life jar it. “No man,” it has been said, “can say, I will compose poetry”: he must wait until—from a brooding, half-desultory inaction—poetry may arise, like a gentle mist, delicately and of itself.
Lord Brougham would not have waited so. He would have rushed up into the town; he would have suggested an improvement, talked the science of the bridge, explained its history to the natives. The quiet race would think twenty people had been there. And, of course, in some ways this is admirable; such life and force are rare; even the “grooms and porters” would not be insensible to such an aggressive intelligence—so much knocking mind. But, in the meantime, no lightly-touched picture of old story would have arisen in his imagination. The city’s legend would have been thrust out: the “fairy frostwork” of the fancy would have been struck away: there would have been talk on the schooling of the porter’s eldest boy. The rarity of great political oratory arises in a great measure from this circumstance. Only those engaged in the jar of life have the material for it; only those withdrawn into a brooding imagination have the faculty for it. M. de Lamartine has drawn a striking picture of one who had the opportunity of action and the dangerous faculty of leisure: “Vergniaud s’enivrait dans cette vie d’artiste, de musique, de déclamation et de plaisirs; il se pressait de jouir de sa jeunesse, comme s’il eût le pressentiment qu’elle serait sitôt cueillie. Ses habitudes étaient méditatives et paresseuses. Il se levait au milieu du jour; il écrivait peu et sur des feuilles éparses: il appuyait le papier sur ses genoux comme un homme pressé qui se dispute le temps; il composait ses discours lentement dans ses rêveries et les retenait à l’aide de notes dans sa mémoire; il polissait son éloquence a loisir, comme le soldat polit son arme au repos.”2 This is not the picture of one who is to attain eminence in stirring and combative time. Harsher men prevailed; a mournful fate swallowed up Vergniaud’s delicate fancies. He died, because he was idle; but he was great, because he was idle. Idleness with such minds is only the name for the passive enjoyment of a justly-moving imagination.
We should only weary our readers with a repetition of what has been said a hundred times already, if we tried to explain that Lord Brougham has nothing of this. His merit is, that he was never idle in his life. He must not complain if he has the disadvantage of it also. That he was a most effective speaker in his great time, is of course undoubted. His power of sarcasm, his amazing readiness, his energetic vigour of language, made him, if not a very persuasive, at least a most formidable orator. His endless animation must tell even to excess upon his audience. But he has not acted wisely for his fame in publishing his speeches. They have the most unpardonable of all faults—the fault of dulness. It is scarcely possible to read them. Doubtless, at the time their influence was considerable; they may even have been pleasant, as you like to watch the play of a vicious horse; but now, removed from the hearing of the speaker’s voice—out of the way of the motions of his face and the glare of his eye—even their evil-speaking loses its attractiveness. The sarcasm seems blunt—the denunciation heavy. They are crowded with a detail which may have been, though acute observers say it was not, attractive at the time, but which no one can endure now. Not only do you feel that you are bored, but you are not sure that you are instructed. An agitator’s detail is scarcely to be trusted. His facts may be right, but you must turn historian in order to test them; you must lead a life of State papers and old letters to know if they are true. It is perhaps possible for the imagination of man to give an interest to any considerable action of human life. A firmly-drawing hand may conduct us through the narration—an enhancing touch enliven the details; but to achieve this with contested facts in a combative life, is among the rarest operations of a rare power. The imagination has few tasks so difficult. To Lord Brougham, least of all, has it been possible to attract men by the business detail and cumbrous aggressions of the last age. His tone is too harsh. He has shattered his contemporaries, but he will not charm posterity.
Lord Brougham has wished to be known, not only as an orator, but as a writer on oratory. He has written a Discourse on Ancient Oratory, recommending, and very deservedly, its study to those who would now excel in the art; and there is no denying that he has rivalled the great Greek orator, at least in one of his characteristic excellences. There is no more manly book in the world than Brougham’s Speeches; he always “calls a spade a spade”; the rough energy strikes; we have none of the tawdry metaphor or half-real finery of the inferior orators, there is not a simile which a man of sense should not own. Nevertheless, we are inclined to question whether his studies on ancient oratory, especially on the great public oration of Demosthenes, have been entirely beneficial to him. These masterly productions were, as every one knows, the eager expression of an intense mind on questions of the best interest; they have accordingly the character of vehemence. Speaking on subjects which he thought involved the very existence of his country, he could not be expected to speak very temperately; he did not, and could not, admit that there was fair ground for difference of opinion; that an equally patriotic person, after proper consideration, could by possibility arrive at an opposite conclusion. The circumstances of the parliamentary orator in this country are quite different. A man cannot discuss the dowry of the Princess Royal, the conditions of the Bank Charter, as if they were questions of existence—all questions arising now present masses of fact, antecedents in blue-books, tabulated statistics, on which it is impossible that there should not be a necessity for an elaborate inquiry—that there should not be discrepancy of judgment after that inquiry. The Demosthenic vehemence is out of place. The calm didactic exposition, almost approaching to that of the lecturer, is more efficacious than the intense appeal of an eager orator. That “Counsellor Broom was all in a fume,” is a line in one of the best ludicrous poems of a time rather fertile in such things. On points of detail it is ridiculous to be in a passion; on matters of business it is unpersuasive to be enthusiastic; even on topics less technical, the Greek oratory is scarcely a model to be imitated precisely. A certain nonchalant ease pervades our modern world—we affect an indifference we scarcely feel; our talk is light, almost to affectation; our best writing is the same; we suggest rather than elaborate, hint rather than declaim. The spirit of the ancient world was very different—the tendency of its conversation probably was to a rhetorical formality, a haranguing energy; certainly it is the tendency of its written style. “With every allowance,” says Colonel Mure, “for the peculiar genius of the age in which the masterpieces of Attic prose were produced—a consideration which must always have a certain weight in literary judgments—still, the impartial modern critic cannot but discern in this pervading rhetorical tone a defect, perhaps the only serious defect, in the classical Greek style. . . . It certainly is not natural for the historian or the popular essayist to address his readers in the same tone in which the defender of a client or the denouncer of a political opponent addresses a public assembly.”1 So great a change in the general world, in the audience to be spoken to, requires a change in the speaker. The light touch of Lord Palmerston is more effective than the most elaborated sentences of a formal rhetorician. Of old, when conversation and writing were half oratorical, oratory might be very oratorical; now that conversation is very conversational, oratory must be a little conversational. In real life, Lord Brougham has too much of the orator’s tact not to be half aware of this; but his teaching forgets it.
That Lord Brougham should have adopted a theory enjoining vehemence in oratory, is an instance to be cited by those who hold that a man’s creed is a justification for his inclinations. He is by nature over-vehement; and what is worse, it is not vehemence of the best kind; there is something of a scream about it. People rather laughed at his kneeling to beseech the peers. No one is sure that there is real feeling in what he reads and hears; it seems like a machine going. Lord Cockburn has an odd anecdote. An old judge, who loved dawdling, disliked the “discomposing qualities” of Brougham. His revenge consisted in sneering at Brougham’s eloquence, by calling it or him the Harangue. “Well, gentlemen, what did the Harangue say next? Why it said this (mis-stating it); but, here, gentlemen, the Harangue was wrong and not intelligible.” We have some feeling for the old judge. If you take a speech of Brougham, and read it apart from his voice, you have half a notion that it is a gong going, eloquence by machinery, an incessant talking thing.
It is needless to point out how completely an excitable, ungenial nature, such as we have so much spoken of, incapacitates Lord Brougham for abstract philosophy. His works on that subject are sufficiently numerous, but we are not aware that even his most ardent admirers have considered them as works of really the first class. It would not be difficult to extract from the Political Philosophy, which is probably the best of them, singular instances of inconsistency and of confusion. The error was in his writing them; he who runs may read, but it does not seem likely he will think. The brooding disposition, and the still, investigating intellect, are necessary for consecutive reasonings on delicate philosophy.
The same qualities, however, fit a man for the acquisition of general information. A man who is always rushing into the street will become familiar with the street. One who is for ever changing from subject to subject will not become painfully acquainted with any one, but he will know the outsides of them all, and the road from each to the other. Accordingly, all the descriptions of Lord Brougham, even in his earliest career, speak of his immense information. Mr. Wilberforce, in perhaps the earliest printed notice of him, recommended Mr. Pitt to employ him in a diplomatic capacity, on account of his familiarity with languages, and the other kinds of necessary knowledge. He began by writing on Porisms; only the other day he read a paper on some absurdities imputed to the Integral Calculus, in French, at Paris. It would be in the highest degree tedious to enumerate all the subjects he knows something of. Of course, an extreme correctness cannot be expected. “The most misinformed man in Europe,” is a phrase of satire; yet, even in its satire, it conveys a compliment to Brougham’s information.
An especial interest in physical science may be remarked in Brougham, as in most men of impressible minds in his generation. He came into life when the great discoveries in our knowledge of the material world were either just made, or were on the eve of being made. The enormous advances which have been actually made in material civilisation were half anticipated. There was a vague hope in science. The boundaries of the universe, it was hoped, would move. Active, ardent minds were drawn with extreme hope to the study of new moving power; a smattering of science was immeasurably less common then than now, but it exercised a stronger dominion, and influenced a higher class of genius. It was new, and men were sanguine. In the present day, younger men are perhaps repelled into the opposite extreme. We live among the marvels of science, but we know how little they change us. The essentials of life are what they were. We go by the train, but we are not improved at our journey’s end. We have railways, and canals, and manufactures—excellent things, no doubt, but they do not touch the soul. Somehow, they seem to make life more superficial. With a half-wayward dislike, some in the present generation have turned from physical science and material things. “We have tried these, and they fail,” is the feeling. “What is the heart of man the better for galvanic engines and hydraulic presses? Leave us to the old poetry and the old philosophy; there is at least a life and a mind.” It is the day after the feast. We do not care for its delicacies; we are rather angry at its profusion; we are cross to hear it praised. Men who came into active life half a century ago were the guests invited to the banquet; they did not know what was coming, but they heard it was something gorgeous and great; they expected it with hope and longing. The influence of this feeling was curiously seen in the Useful Knowledge Society, the first great product of the educational movement in which Lord Brougham was the most ardent leader. No one can deny that their labours were important, their intentions excellent, the collision of mind which they created most beneficial. Still, looking to their well-known publications, beyond question the knowledge they particularly wished to diffuse is, according to the German phrase, factish. Hazlitt said “they confounded a knowledge of useful things with useful knowledge”. An idea, half unconscious, pervades them, that a knowledge of the detail of material knowledge, even too of the dates and shell of outside history, is extremely important to the mass of men; that all will be well when we have a cosmical ploughboy and a mob that knows hydrostatics. We shall never have it; but even if we could, we should not be much the better. The heart and passions of men are moved by things more within their attainment; the essential nature is stirred by the essential life; by the real actual existence of love, and hope, and character, and by the real literature which takes in its spirit, and which is in some sort its undefecated essence. Thirty years ago the preachers of this now familiar doctrine were unknown, nor was their gospel for a moment the one perhaps most in season. It was good that there should be a more diffused knowledge of the material world; and it was good, therefore, that there should be partisans of matter, believers in particles, zealots for tissue, who were ready to incur any odium and any labour that a few more men might learn a few more things. How a man of incessant activity should pass easily to such a creed is evident. He would see the obvious ignorance. The less obvious argument, which shows that this ignorance, in great measure inevitable, was of far less importance than would be thought at first sight, would never be found by one who moved so rapidly.
We have gone through now, in some hasty way, most of the lights in which Lord Brougham has been regarded by his contemporaries. There is still another character in which posterity will especially think of him. He is a great memoirist. His Statesmen of George III. contains the best sketches of the political men of his generation, one with another, which the world has, or is likely to have. He is a fine painter of the exterior of human nature. Some portion of its essence requires a deeper character; another portion, more delicate sensations; but of the rough appearance of men, as they struck him in the lawcourt and in Parliament—of the great debater struggling with his words—the stealthy advocate gliding into the confidence of the audience—the great judge unravelling all controversies, and deciding by a well-weighed word all complicated doubts—of such men as these, and of men engaged in such tasks as these, there is no greater painter perhaps than Brougham. His eager aggressive disposition brought him into collision with conspicuous men; his skill in the obvious parts of human nature has made him understand them. A man who has knocked his head against a wall—if such an illustration is to be hazarded—will learn the nature of the wall. Those who have passed fifty years in managing men of the world will know their external nature, and, if they have literary power enough, will describe it. In general, Lord Brougham’s excellence as a describer of character is confined to men whom he had thus personally and keenly encountered. The sketches of the philosophers of the eighteenth century, of French statesmen, are poor and meagre. He requires evidently the rough necessities of action to make him observe. There is, however, a remarkable exception. He preserves a singularly vivid recollection of the instructors of his youth; he nowhere appears so amiable as in describing them. He is over-partial, no doubt; but an old man may be permitted to reverence, if he can reverence, his schoolmaster.
This is all that our limits will permit us to say of Lord Brougham. On so varied a life, at least on a life with such varied pursuits, one might write to any extent. The regular biographer will come in after years. It is enough for a mere essayist to sketch, or strive to sketch, in some rude outline, the nature of the man.
[1 ]Works of Henry Lord Brougham, F.R.S., Member of the National Institute of France and the Royal Academy of Naples. London: Griffin.
[1 ] This and the following quotations are from the Speeches of Lord Brougham and the Introductions to them, published in 1838. The latter were written by himself.
[1 ] Mr. Stephen.
[1 ] Hazlitt.
[1 ] The editors of Sir R. Peel’s Memoirs have left this name in blank; but if they had wished it not to be known, they should have suppressed the passage. Everybody knows who held the great seal at that time.
[1 ] Tennyson, Godiva.
[2 ]Histoire des Girondins, book xviii., ch. ix., p. 88.
[1 ]History of the Language and Literature of Ancient Greece, vol. iv., p. 17