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WHAT LORD LYNDHURST REALLY WAS. (1863.) - Walter Bagehot, The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 4 (Political, Literary, & Literary 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. 4.
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WHAT LORD LYNDHURST REALLY WAS.
A great phenomenon has passed away from English public life. Not long since, Lord Lyndhurst observed: “My Lords,—I well remember the breaking out of the French Revolution in 1789, the death of Louis the Sixteenth, and the course of the consequent events”. There is not, perhaps, a conspicuous public man now in Europe who could say this; certainly there is none in England. The picturesque features of Lord Lyndhurst’s mind and character made the phenomenon still more striking. The characteristic of his intellect was the combination of great force and great lucidity. Every sentence from him was full of light and energy. His face and brow were, perhaps, unrivalled in our time for the expression of pure intellect, and he preserved the physical aptitude for public oratory to an old age when most men are scarcely fit for mere conversation. To the very extremity of a protracted life—and this is very rare—he both looked, and was, a great man. The intellect was undimmed, and the power of expression hardly abated. There is no such man left.
It is very natural that such a man should have lived till his career should be half a myth or a legend. Few, indeed, of those who, during the last few years, gazed on that remarkable face, had any distinct conception of the life which had been led by the person they saw. The singular vigour of his conversation charmed those who resorted to him, and they were led to believe that a man who talked so very well could hardly have acted very ill. The lives which have been put forth in the newspapers, carefully prepared, like those of most old men, are merely panegyrics. For once the physical vigour of a long old age has redeemed, in public estimation, the errors and vices of a long life. But it is not so that history should be written; it is in no strain of panegyric that an impartial observer can review the career of Lord Lyndhurst.
The beginning of the public life of Lord Lyndhurst was towards the end of the long reign of the Tory party. Sir George Lewis justly observed “that the Tories in 1815 had an immense balance of popularity arising from the successful issue of the great war, and that they managed to spend it most completely before 1830”. They governed, as all Conservatives even would now admit, in precisely the wrong spirit.
They governed, not in the spirit of Mr. Pitt, but in the spirit of Lord Eldon. They maintained not only the main institutions of the country which were acceptable and popular, but also the minutest abuses which, in the course of years, had clung to those institutions. They connected the name of the Tory party with every petty abuse and misdemeanour throughout the country. They would alter nothing, and they would let nothing be altered. When public meetings were convened to express public opinion, the organs of the Government cried out sedition, and talked as if a “French Revolution” were going to break out here. By this stupid—there is no milder epithet that is fitting—and narrow-minded policy, the Tories caused the outburst of public opinion which carried the Reform Bill. Their best organs have admitted as much of late years. “A few more drops,” said the Quarterly Review not long since, “of Eldonine, and we should have had the People’s Charter.” The Tory party kept the nation in such tight and painful fetters, that it was driven wild, and rose and broke them. If the Tories will permit no improvement—so went the national idea—we must have an end of Toryism.
All this was excusable and natural in men like Lord Eldon. He had been a Tory from his youth, and he had been confirmed in Toryism by the events of the French Revolution. When the peace came, and a new generation sprang up, he was too old to change his creed. He honestly believed that it was necessary to resist every innovation, no matter of what sort, and to maintain everything, no matter of what kind. In Lord Eldon such conduct was natural and excusable. But it was not natural in a young man of great intelligence in the next generation. Able young men well knew that this illiberal Toryism was out of place, and an anachronism. It was in 1818, when the effects of this system were beginning to be plainly visible, that Lord Lyndhurst chose to connect himself with it.
He did so under circumstances of great suspicion. He had held—loosely, we apprehend—some sort of ultra-Liberal opinions. He had been, at any rate, in the habit of talking in that style at young men’s parties and the circuit mess. He was a Liberal, if he was anything; and charges continued to be made against him for many years of having deserted his principles. It is, indeed, utterly inconceivable that Lord Lyndhurst should have believed in Toryism such as Toryism was in 1818. He would have no title to fame if he had believed in it. His claim is an intellectual claim. He is said, and justly said, to have had, when he chose to exert it, an intellect of the highest cultivation, more fitted than almost any other in his time for the perception of the truth;—a first-rate judicial mind, with culture and experience far transcending the ordinary judicial range.
It is inconsistent with this claim that he should really have been on the wrong side in all the important questions of his time. It is absurd to say that the greatest political intellect of his time—and some such claim as this might be justly made for Lord Lyndhurst—really believed that the Catholics should not be emancipated; that the Corn-laws should be maintained; that there should be no reform in Parliament; that the narrow system of 1818 was a perfect or even an endurable system. We do not mean to charge him with acting contrary to his principles—that charge was made years ago, but was the exaggerated charge of political opponents, who saw that there was something to blame, but who in their eagerness and haste overdid their accusation. The true charge is that he had no principles, that he did not care to have opinions. If he had applied his splendid judicial faculties to the arguments for Free-trade or for Catholic emancipation, he would soon enough have discovered the truth. But he never did apply them. There is a story of a clever young official who said “it was inconvenient to keep opinions”. And this exactly expresses Lord Lyndhurst’s life and sentiments. They tell a story which may be true or false, but is certainly characteristic, of what he said as to the Act which bears his name forbidding a man to marry a deceased wife’s sister. The real object of that Act was to please certain particular people who had married their sisters-in-law, and as it stands to this day it legalises all antecedent marriages. As it was originally brought in, it legalised subsequent marriages also. Persons conversant with the clergy, and other strict people, represented to Lord Lyndhurst that there would be an outcry against this. He replied, “Put it the other way then, forbid the future marriages; I am sure I do not care which way it is”. He wanted to serve a temporary purpose, and he did so always. He regarded politics as a game; to be played first for himself, and then for his party. He did not act contrary to his opinion, but he did not care to form a true opinion.
This was the explanation of his joining the Tories. Not to join them was poverty then; to join them was wealth. They were firmly fixed in office. As the satirist then sang—
As was the pleasant habit of that time, the Government picked out Mr. Copley, a clever young lawyer, and gave him a seat in Parliament.
He accepted it, though he had no more formed opinion that Toryism was true than he had that Mahometanism was true. He took up the opinions of the existing Government and advocated them, and to the end of his life would have thought it “nonsense and rubbish” to act otherwise.
Probably, however, he would have acted more profitably if he had acted more conscientiously. It really was a case when honesty was the best policy. If he had paid a fair attention to the subjects of his time, he would have been on what all parties now admit to be the right side. If he had had a sincere wish to improve and benefit mankind, he would have been forward in the ranks of the Liberal party, who were then employed in doing so. The chances of life were various, but most likely he would have had his reward. The Whigs wanted a first-rate judge who was also a first-rate politician. During their long period of power they have never possessed one. The Whigs have been in power, roughly speaking, five and twenty years out of the last thirty. If Lord Lyndhurst had been their leader instead of the Tory leader, he would have had far more of what he valued, more power and influence, more wealth, and greater station. He would have been among the foremost of the winners instead of being amongst the foremost of the losers. There was nothing which he would have liked so much. There was nothing which he appreciated so much as success in the game of political life; nothing that he despised and detested like want of success.
It is pleasant to turn to a more favourable topic. Many duties Lord Lyndhurst may have neglected, or despised, or disowned; but one duty, and a neglected one, he performed better, perhaps, on the whole, than any man in his generation. He had the most disciplined intellect in his time. There is in every one of his productions evidence not only of natural sinewy strength, but of careful culture and intellectual gymnastic. Lord Brougham tells a story of finding him occupied over the integral calculus for amusement’s sake, years ago. Every line of his speeches tells how well he understood, and how well he acted on, the manly principles of Greek oratory. Few men led a laxer life; few men, to the very end of their life, were looser in their conversation; but there was no laxity in his intellect. Everything there was braced and knit. Great oratory is but a transitory art; few turn even to the best speeches of the past, and even the best of these are so clogged with the detail of the time that they are dull and wearisome to a hasty posterity. Few will recur to Lord Lyndhurst’s speeches, but those who do so will find some of the best, if not the very best, specimens in English, of the best manner in which a man of great intellect can address and influence the intellects of others. Their art, we might almost say their merit, is of the highest kind, for it is concealed. The words seem the simplest, clearest, and most natural that a man could use. It is only the instructed man who knows that he could not himself have used them, and that few men could.
Such was the great man whom we have just buried: great in power, but not great in the use of power; a politician, not a statesman; a man of small principle and few scruples. Of him, far more truly than of Burke, it may be said that “to party he gave up what was meant for mankind”.
He played the game of life for low and selfish objects, and yet, by the intellectual power with which he played it, he redeemed that game from its intrinsic degradation.