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NOTE ON SEIGNORAGE. - Walter Bagehot, The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 5 (Historical & Financial Essays; The English Constitution) 
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. 5.
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NOTE ON SEIGNORAGE.
I still think the ingenious scheme proposed by Colonel Smith far too difficult of comprehension to be adopted by Parliament, or explained to the country, but I am bound to say that I recant a refined objection which I before made to it. In the Economist I remarked:—“It is evident, as Sir John Lubbock well put it, that the new sovereign could not be equal in value both to the existing pound sterling and to 25 francs of the present French currency; if by the imposition of a mintage it is made equal to the former no advantage will be effected, while if it is reduced to the latter, the necessity for compensation will arise”.
But Colonel Smith does not propose that the new sovereign should be exactly 25 francs of present French currency. He proposes that it should be identical with 25 francs of a new French currency, which is to circulate through all the countries joining the Monetary Union, and be identical in all those countries. When it is objected that the French will object to change their currency, he answers that the change will be microscopic. The French now charge a very considerable seignorage in one way or another, and the plan is, that they should charge a minute fraction more in a prescribed way.
It is often argued that, as there are 113 grains of gold in the present sovereign, and only 112 grains in twenty-five present francs, therefore their “value” differs by 1/113 of a sovereign; and this is quite true, if the two are exported to a distant country, say Japan. There French or English coins pass only in proportion to the bullion contained in them. But while an English coin remains in England it passes not as so much bullion, but as so much bullion plus so much Government charge. A charge for making sovereigns is just like a charge for making gold plate. If goldsmiths chose to make plate for nothing, plate would be cheaper; in a little while goldsmiths would be ruined, but, as long as they stood, they could give the public a cheap article. A Government is just the same, only it is never ruined, because it makes the taxpayer pay more. Accordingly, a coin may continue for ever to buy no more than the bullion contained in it would buy. The Government being a subsidised producer may work at a loss or for nothing. Such is the case of the English Government now, which charges nothing.
But, on the other hand, if, like the present French Government, it choose to charge a seignorage, this will operate in France like the goldsmith’s charge for making plate—it will raise the price of the article in France. Accordingly, the present sovereign and the present 25 francs do not differ in buying power by near 1/113 of a sovereign. The sovereign purchases a certain quantity of various articles, because it has so much bullion; 25 francs buy nearly as much, though they have less bullion, because the coining of them costs something too.
But all this discussion is too fine for the mass of men. If the Commissioners could not follow it, how will the House of Commons follow it?
HENRY CRABB ROBINSON.1
Perhaps I should be ashamed to confess it, but I own I opened the three large volumes of Mr. Robinson’s memoirs with much anxiety. Their bulk, in the first place, appalled me; but that was by no means my greatest apprehension. I knew I had a hundred times heard Mr. Robinson say that he hoped something he would leave behind would “be published and be worth publishing”. I was aware too—for it was no deep secret—that for half a century or more he had kept a diary, and that he had been preserving correspondence besides; and I was dubious what sort of things these would be, and what—to use Carlyle’s words—any human editor could make of them. Even when Mr. Robinson used to talk so, I used to shudder; for the men who have tried to be memoir-writers and failed, are as numerous, or nearly so, as those who have tried to be poets and failed. A specific talent is as necessary for the one as for the other. But as soon as I had read a little of the volumes, all these doubts passed away. I saw at once that Mr. Robinson had an excellent power of narrative-writing, and that the editor of his remains had made a most judicious use of excellent materials.
Perhaps more than anything it was the modesty of my old friend (I think I may call Mr. Robinson my old friend, for though he thought me a modern youth, I did know him twenty years)—perhaps, I say, it was his modesty which made me nervous about his memoirs more than anything else. I have so often heard him say (and say it with a vigour of emphasis which is rarer in our generation even than in his),—“Sir, I have no literary talent. I cannot write. I never could write anything, and I never would write anything,”—that being so taught, and so vehemently, I came to believe. And there was this to justify my creed. The notes Mr. Robinson used to scatter about him—and he was fond of writing rather elaborate ones—were not always very good. At least they were too long for the busy race of the present generation, and introduced Schiller and Goethe where they need not have appeared. But in these memoirs (especially in the Reminiscences and the Diary; for the moment he gets to a letter the style is worse) the words flow with such an effectual simplicity, that even Southey, the great master of such prose, could hardly have written better. Possibly it was his real interest in his old stories which preserved Mr. Robinson; in his letters he was not so interested and he fell into words and amplifications; but in those ancient anecdotes, which for years were his life and being, the style, as it seems to me, could scarcely be mended even in a word. And though, undoubtedly, the book is much too long in the latter half, I do not blame Dr. Sadler, the editor and biographer, for it, or indeed blame any one. Mr. Robinson had led a very long and very varied life, and some of his old friends had an interest in one part of his reminiscences and some in another. An unhappy editor entrusted with “a deceased’s papers” cannot really and in practice omit much that any surviving friends much want to have put in. One man calls with a letter “in which my dear and honoured friend gave me advice that was of such inestimable value, I hope, I cannot but think, you will find room for it”. And another calls with memoranda of a dinner—a most “superior occasion,” as they say in the North—at which, he reports, “there was conversation to which I never, or scarcely ever, heard anything equal. There were A. B. and C. D. and E. F., all masters, as you remember, of the purest conversational eloquence; surely I need not hesitate to believe that you will say something of that dinner.” And so an oppressed biographer has to serve up the crumbs of ancient feasts, though well knowing in his heart that they are crumbs, and though he feels, too, that the critics will attack him, and cruelly say it is his fault. But remembering this, and considering that Mr. Robinson wrote a diary beginning in 1811, going down to 1867, and occupying thirty-five closely written volumes, and that there were “Reminiscences” and vast unsorted papers, I think Dr. Sadler has managed admirably well. His book is brief to what it might have been, and all his own part is written with delicacy, feeling and knowledge. He quotes, too, from Wordsworth by way of motto—
It was a happy feeling for Mr. Robinson’s character that selected these lines to stand at the beginning of his memoirs.
And yet in one material respect—in this case perhaps the most material respect—Dr. Sadler has failed, and not in the least from any fault of his. Sydney Smith used to complain that “no one had ever made him his trustee or executor”; being really a very sound and sensible man of business, he felt that it was a kind of imputation on him, and that he was not appreciated. But some one more justly replied, “But how could you, Sydney Smith, expect to be made an executor? Is there any one who wants their ‘remains’ to be made fun of?” Now every trustee of biographical papers is exactly in this difficulty, that he cannot make fun. The melancholy friends who left the papers would not at all like it. And, besides, there grows upon every such biographer an “official” feeling—a confused sense of vague responsibilities—a wish not to impair the gravity of the occasion or to offend any one by levity. But there are some men who cannot be justly described quite gravely; and Crabb Robinson is one of them. A certain grotesqueness was a part of him, and, unless you liked it, you lost the very best of him. He is called, and properly called, in these memoirs Mr. Robinson; but no well-judging person ever called him so in life. He was always called “old Crabb,” and that is the only name which will ever bring up his curious image to me. He was, in the true old English sense of the word, a “character”; one whom a very peculiar life, certainly, and perhaps also a rather peculiar nature to begin with, had formed and moulded into something so exceptional and singular that it did not seem to belong to ordinary life, and almost caused a smile when you saw it moving there. “An aberrant form,” I believe, the naturalists call the seal and such things in natural history; odd shapes that can only be explained by a long past, and which swim with a certain incongruity in their present milieu. Now “old Crabb” was (to me at least) just like that. You watched with interest and pleasure his singular gestures, and his odd way of saying things, and muttered, as if to keep up the recollection, “And this is the man who was the friend of Goethe, and is the friend of Wordsworth!” There was a certain animal oddity about “old Crabb,” which made it a kind of mental joke to couple him with such great names, and yet he was to his heart’s core thoroughly coupled with them. If you leave out all his strange ways (I do not say Dr. Sadler has quite left them out, but to some extent he has been obliged, by place and decorum, to omit them), you lose the life of the man. You cut from the Ethiopian his skin, and from the leopard his spots. I well remember poor Clough, who was then fresh from Oxford, and was much puzzled by the corner of London to which he had drifted, looking at “old Crabb” in a kind of terror for a whole breakfast time, and muttering in mute wonder, almost to himself, as he came away, “Not at all the regular patriarch”. And certainly no one could accuse Mr. Robinson of an insipid regularity either in face or nature.
Mr. Robinson was one of the original founders of University College, and was for many years both on its senate and council; and as he lived near the college he was fond of collecting at breakfast all the elder students—especially those who had any sort of interest in literature. Probably he never appeared to so much advantage, or showed all the best of his nature, so well as in those parties. Like most very cheerful old people, he at heart preferred the company of the very young; and a set of young students, even after he was seventy, suited him better as society than a set of grave old men. Sometimes, indeed, he would invite—I do not say some of his contemporaries, few of them even in 1847 were up to breakfast parties, but persons of fifty and sixty—those whom young students call old gentlemen. And it was amusing to watch the consternation of some of them at the surprising youth and levity of their host. They shuddered at the freedom with which we treated him. Middle-aged men, of feeble heads and half-made reputations, have a nice dislike to the sharp arguments and the unsparing jests of “boys at college”; they cannot bear the rough society of those who, never having tried their own strength, have not yet acquired a fellow-feeling for weakness. Many such persons, I am sure, were half hurt with Mr. Robinson for not keeping those “impertinent boys” more at a just distance; but Mr. Robinson liked fun and movement, and disliked the sort of dignity which shelters stupidity. There was little to gratify the unintellectual part of man at these breakfasts, and what there was was not easy to be got at. Your host, just as you were sitting down to breakfast, found he had forgotten to make the tea, then he could not find his keys, then he rang the bell to have them searched for; but long before the servant came he had gone off into “Schiller-Goethe,” and could not the least remember what he had wanted. The more astute of his guests used to breakfast before they came, and then there was much interest in seeing a steady literary man, who did not understand the region, in agonies at having to hear three stories before he got his tea, one again between his milk and his sugar, another between his butter and his toast, and additional zest in making a stealthy inquiry that was sure to intercept the coming delicacies by bringing on Schiller and Goethe.
It is said in these memoirs that Mr. Robinson’s parents were very good-looking, and that when married they were called the handsome couple. But in his old age very little regular beauty adhered to him, if he ever had any. His face was pleasing from its animation, its kindness, and its shrewdness, but the nose was one of the most slovenly which nature had ever turned out, and the chin of excessive length, with portentous power of extension. But, perhaps, for the purpose of a social narrator (and in later years this was Mr. Robinson’s position), this oddity of feature was a gift. It was said, and justly said, that Lord Brougham used to punctuate his sentences with his nose; just at the end of a long parenthesis he could, and did, turn up his nose, which served to note the change of subject as well, or better, than a printed mark. Mr. Robinson was not so skilful as this, but he made a very able use of the chin at a conversational crisis, and just at the point of a story pushed it out, and then very slowly drew it in again, so that you always knew when to laugh, and the oddity of the gesture helped you in laughing.
Mr. Robinson had known nearly every literary man worth knowing in England and Germany for fifty years and more. He had studied at Jena in the “great time,” when Goethe and Schiller, and Wieland were all at their zenith; he had lived with Charles Lamb and his set, and Rogers and his set, besides an infinite lot of little London people; he had taught Madame de Stael German philosophy in Germany, and helped her in business afterwards in England; he was the real friend of Wordsworth, and had known Coleridge and Southey almost from their “coming out” to their death. And he was not a mere literary man. He had been a Times correspondent in the days of Napoleon’s early German battles, now more than “seventy years since”; he had been off Corunna in Sir John Moore’s time; and last, but almost first it should have been, he was an English barrister who had for years a considerable business, and who was full of picturesque stories about old judges. Such a varied life and experience belong to very few men, and his social nature—at once accessible and assailant——was just the one to take advantage of it. He seemed to be lucky all through: in childhood he remembered when John Gilpin came out; then he had seen—he could not hear—John Wesley preach; then he had heard Erskine, and criticised him intelligently, in some of the finest of the well-known “State trials”; and so on during all his vigorous period.
I do not know that it would be possible to give a better idea of Mr. Robinson’s best conversations than by quoting almost at random from the earlier part of these memoirs:—
“At the spring assizes of 1791, when I had nearly attained my sixteenth year, I had the delight of hearing Erskine. It was a high enjoyment, and I was able to profit by it. The subject of the trial was the validity of a will—Braham v. Rivett. Erskine came down specially retained for the plaintiff, and Mingay for the defendant. The trial lasted two days. The title of the heir being admitted, the proof of the will was gone into at once. I have a recollection of many of the circumstances after more than fifty-four years; but of nothing do I retain so perfect a recollection as of the figure and voice of Erskine. There was a charm in his voice, a fascination in his eye; and so completely had he won my affection, that I am sure had the verdict been given against him I should have burst out crying Of the facts and of the evidence, I do not pretend to recollect anything beyond my impressions and sensations. My pocket-book records that Erskine was engaged two and a half hours in opening the case, and Mingay two hours and twenty minutes in his speech in defence. E.’s reply occupied three hours. The testatrix was an old lady in a state of imbecility. The evil spirit of the case was an attorney. Mingay was loud and violent, and gave Erskine an opportunity of turning into ridicule his imagery and illustrations. For instance, M. having compared R. to the Devil going into the Garden of Eden, E. drew a closer parallel than M. intended. Satan’s first sight of Eve was related in Milton’s words—
and then a picture of idiotcy from Swift was contrasted. But the sentence that weighed on my spirits was a pathetic exclamation—‘If, gentlemen, you should by your verdict annihilate an instrument so solemnly framed, I should retire a troubled man from this court’. And as he uttered the word court, he beat his breast and I had a difficulty in not crying out. When in bed the following night I awoke several times in a state of excitement approaching fever—the words ‘troubled man from this court’ rang in my ears.
“A new trial was granted, and ultimately the will was set aside. I have said I profited by Erskine. I remarked his great artifice, if I may call it so; and in a small way I afterwards practised it. It lay in his frequent repetitions. He had one or two leading arguments and main facts on which he was constantly dwelling. But then he had marvellous skill in varying his phraseology, so that no one was sensible of tautology in the expressions. Like the doubling of a hare, he was perpetually coming to his old place. Other great advocates I have remarked were ambitious of a great variety of arguments.
“About the same time that I thus first heard the most perfect of forensic orators, I was also present at an exhibition equally admirable, and which had a powerful effect upon my mind. It was, I believe, in October, 1790, and not long before his death, that I heard John Wesley in the great round meeting-house at Colchester. He stood in a wide pulpit, and on each side of him stood a minister, and the two held him up, having their hands under his armpits. His feeble voice was barely audible. But his reverend countenance, especially his long white locks, formed a picture never to be forgotten. There was a vast crowd of lovers and admirers. It was for the most part pantomime, but the pantomime went to the heart. Of the kind I never saw anything comparable to it in after life.”1
“It was at the summer circuit that Rolfe made his first appearance. He had been at the preceding sessions. I have a pleasure in recollecting that I at once foresaw that he would become a distinguished man. In my Diary I wrote, ‘Our new junior, Mr. Rolfe, made his appearance. His manners are genteel; his conversation easy and sensible. He is a very acceptable companion, but I fear a dangerous rival.’ And my brother asking me who the new man was, I said, ‘I will venture to predict that you will live to see that young man attain a higher rank than any one you ever saw upon the circuit’. It is true he is not higher than Leblanc, who was also a puisne judge, but Leblanc was never Solicitor-General; nor, probably, is Rolfe yet at the end of his career. One day, when some one remarked, ‘Christianity is part and parcel of the law of the land,’ Rolfe said to me, ‘Were you ever employed to draw an indictment against a man for not loving his neighbour as himself?’
“Rolfe is, by universal repute, if not the very best, at least one of the best judges on the Bench. He is one of the few with whom I have kept up an acquaintance.”2
Of course, these stories came over and over again. It is the excellence of a reminiscent to have a few good stories, and his misfortune that people will remember what he says. In Mr. Robinson’s case an unskilled person could often see the anecdote somewhere impending, and there was often much interest in trying whether you could ward it off or not. There was one great misfortune which had happened to his guests, though he used to tell it as one of the best things that had ever happened to himself. He had picked up a certain bust of Wieland by Schadow, which it appears had been lost, and in the finding of which Goethe, even Goethe, rejoiced. After a very long interval I still shudder to think how often I have heard that story; it was one which no skill or care could long avert, for the thing stood opposite our host’s chair, and the sight of it was sure to recall him. Among the ungrateful students to whom he was so kind, the first question always asked of any one who had breakfasted at his house was, “Did you undergo the bust?”
A reader of these memoirs would naturally and justly think that the great interest of Mr. Robinson’s conversation was the strength of the past memory; but quite as amusing or more so was the present weakness. He never could remember names, and was very ingenious in his devices to elude the defect. There is a story in these memoirs:—
“I was engaged to dine with Mr. Wansey at Walthamstow. When I arrived there I was in the greatest distress, through having forgotten his name. And it was not till after half an hour’s worry that I recollected he was a Unitarian, which would answer as well; for I instantly proceeded to Mr. Cogan’s. Having been shown into a room, young Mr. Cogan came—‘Your commands, sir?’—‘Mr Cogan, I have taken the liberty to call on you in order to know where I am to dine to-day.’ He smiled. I went on: ‘The truth is, I have accepted an invitation to dine with a gentleman, a recent acquaintance, whose name I have forgotten; but I am sure you can tell me, for he is a Unitarian, and the Unitarians are very few here’.”1
And at his breakfasts it was always the same; he was always in difficulty as to some person’s name or other, and he had regular descriptions which recurred, like Homeric epithets, and which he expected you to apply to the individual. Thus poor Clough always appeared—“That admirable and accomplished man. You know whom I mean. The one who never says anything.” And of another living poet he used to say: “Probably the most able, and certainly the most consequential, of all the young persons I know. You know which it is. The one with whom I could never presume to be intimate. The one whose father I knew so many years.” And another particular friend of my own always occurred as—“That great friend of yours that has been in Germany—that most accomplished and interesting person—that most able and excellent young man. Sometimes I like him, and sometimes I hate him. You,” turning to me, “know whom I mean, you villain!” And certainly I did know; for I had heard the same adjectives, and been referred to in the same manner very many times.
Of course, a main part of Mr. Robinson’s conversation was on literary subjects; but of this, except when it related to persons whom he had known, or sonnets to “the conception of which he was privy,” I do not think it would be just to speak very highly. He spoke sensibly and clearly—he could not on any subject speak otherwise; but the critical faculty is as special and as peculiar almost as the poetical; and Mr. Robinson in serious moments was quite aware of it, and he used to deny that he had the former faculty more than the latter. He used to read much of Wordsworth to me; but I doubt—though many of his friends will think I am a great heretic—I doubt if he read the best poems; and even those he did read (and he read very well) rather suffered from coming in the middle of a meal, and at a time when you wanted to laugh and not to meditate. Wordsworth was a solitary man, and it is only in solitude that his best poems, or indeed any of his characteristic poems, can be truly felt or really apprehended. There are some at which I never look, even now, without thinking of the wonderful and dreary faces which Clough used to make while Mr. Robinson was reading them. To Clough certain of Wordsworth’s poems were part of his inner being, and he suffered at hearing them obtruded at meal-times, just as a High Churchman would suffer at hearing the collects of the Church. Indeed, these poems were among the collects of Clough’s Church.
Still less do I believe that there is any special value in the expositions of German philosophy in these volumes, or that there was any in those which Mr. Robinson used to give on such matters in conversation. They are clear, no doubt, and accurate; but they are not the expositions of a born metaphysician. He speaks in these memoirs of his having a difficulty in concentrating his “attention on works of speculation”. And such books as Kant can only be really mastered, can perhaps only be usefully studied, by those who have an unusual facility in concentrating their mind on impalpable abstractions, and an uncommon inclination to do so. Mr. Robinson had neither; and I think the critical philosophy had really very little effect on him, and had, during the busy years which had elapsed since he studied it, very nearly run off him. There was something very curious in the sudden way that anything mystical would stop in him. At the end of a Sunday breakfast, after inflicting on you much which was transcendental in Wordsworth or Goethe, he would say, as we left him, with an air of relish, “Now I am going to run down to Essex Street to hear Madge. I shall not be in time for the prayers; but I do not so much care about that; what I do like is the sermon; it is so clear.” Mr. Madge was a Unitarian of the old school, with as little mystical and transcendental in his nature as any one who ever lived. There was a living piquancy in the friend of Goethe—the man who would explain to you his writings—being also the admirer of “Madge”; it was like a proser, lengthily eulogising Kant to you, and then saying, “Ah! but I do love Condillac; he is so clear”.
But, on the other hand, I used to hold—I was reading law at the time, and so had some interest in the matter—that Mr. Robinson much underrated his legal knowledge, and his practical power as a lawyer. What he used to say was, “I never knew any law, sir, but I knew the practice. . . . I left the bar because I feared my incompetence might be discovered. I was a tolerable junior; but I was rising to be a leader, which I was unfit to be; and so I retired, not to disgrace myself by some fearful mistake.” In these memoirs he says that he retired when he had made the sum of money which he thought enough for a bachelor with few wants and not a single expensive taste. The simplicity of his tastes is certain; very few Englishmen indeed could live with so little show or pretence. But the idea of his gross incompetence is absurd. No one who was incompetent ever said so. There are, I am sure, plenty of substantial and well-satisfied men at the English bar who do not know nearly as much law as Mr. Robinson knew, and who have not a tithe of his sagacity, but who believe in themselves, and in whom their clients believe. On the other hand Mr. Robinson had many great qualifications for success at the bar. He was a really good speaker: when over seventy I have heard him make a speech that good speakers in their full vigour would be glad to make. He had a good deal of the actor in his nature, which is thought, and I fancy justly thought, to be necessary to the success of all great advocates, and perhaps of all great orators. He was well acquainted with the petty technicalities which intellectual men in middle life in general cannot learn, for he had passed some years in an attorney’s office. Above all, he was a very thinking man, and had an “idea of business”—that inscrutable something which at once and altogether distinguishes the man who is safe in the affairs of life from those who are unsafe. I do not suppose he knew much black-letter law; but there are plenty of judges on the bench who, unless they are much belied, also know very little—perhaps none. And a man who can intelligently read Kant, like Mr. Robinson, need not fear the bookwork of English law. A very little serious study would have taught him law enough to lead the Norfolk circuit. He really had a sound, moderate, money-making business, and only a little pains was wanted to give him more.
The real reason why he did not take the trouble, I fancy, was that, being a bachelor, he was a kind of amateur in life, and did not really care. He could not spend what he had on himself, and used to give away largely, though in private. And even more, as with most men who have not thoroughly worked when young, daily, regular industry was exceedingly trying to him. No man could be less idle; far from it, he was always doing something; but then he was doing what he chose. Sir Walter Scott, one of the best workers of his time, used always to say that “he had no temptation to be idle, but the greatest temptation, when one thing was wanted of him, to go and do something else”. Perhaps the only persons who, not being forced by mere necessity, really conquer this temptation, are those who were early broken to the yoke, and are fixed to the furrow by habit. Mr. Robinson loitered in Germany, so he was not one of these.
I am not regretting this. It would be a base idolatry of practical life to require every man to succeed in it as far as he could, and to devote to it all his mind. The world certainly does not need it; it pays well, and it will never lack good servants. There will always be enough of sound, strong men to be working barristers and judges, let who will object to become so. But I own I think a man ought to be able to be a “Philistine” if he chooses; there is a sickly incompleteness about people too fine for the world, and too nice to work their way in it. And when a man like Mr. Robinson had a real sagacity for affairs, it is for those who respect his memory to see that his reputation does not suffer from his modesty, and that his habitual self-depreciations—which, indeed, extended to his powers of writing as well as to those of acting—are not taken to be exactly true.
In fact, Mr. Robinson was usefully occupied in University College business and University Hall business, and other such things. But there is no special need to write on them in connection with his name; and it would need a good deal of writing to make them intelligible to those who do not know them now. And the greater part of his life was spent in society where his influence was always manly and vigorous. I do not mean that he was universally popular; it would be defacing his likeness to say so. “I am a man,” he once told me, “to whom a great number of persons entertain the very strongest objection.” Indeed he had some subjects on which he could hardly bear opposition. Twice he nearly quarrelled with me: once for writing in favour of Louis Napoleon, which, as he had caught in Germany a thorough antipathy to the first Napoleon seemed to him quite wicked; and next for my urging that Hazlitt was a much greater writer than Charles Lamb—a harmless opinion which I still hold, but which Mr. Robinson met with this outburst: “You, sir, you prefer the works of that scoundrel, that odious, that malignant writer, to the exquisite essays of that angelic creature!” I protested that there was no evidence that angels could write particularly well; but it was in vain, and it was some time before he forgave me. Some persons who casually encountered peculiarities like these, did not always understand them. In his last years, too, augmenting infirmities almost disqualified Mr. Robinson for general society, and quite disabled him from showing his old abilities in it. Indeed, I think that these memoirs will give almost a new idea of his power to many young men who had only seen him casually, and at times of feebleness. After ninety it is not easy to make new friends. And, in any case, this book will always have a great charm for those who knew Mr. Robinson well when they were themselves young, because it will keep alive for them the image of his buoyant sagacity, and his wise and careless kindness.
BAD LAWYERS OR GOOD?
After many years’ delay a movement is, I understand, now beginning for the reform in legal education. To those who have looked at the matter, it is strange that this change has been delayed so long. Oxford has been changed and reformed with strange completeness; Eton is being reformed, and we may hope it will be with equal completeness. Our great seats of ordinary education have been more or less made to educate in our sense of education. But the Inns of Court are still unreformed; with slight exceptions, they still go their own way. Their great funds are nearly useless for education. Magnificent corporations as they are, the English barrister would, in all intellectual culture, and even in all gentlemanly discipline, be pretty much the same if they did not exist. It is not that the exposure has been defective. Fifteen years ago a very good Commission explored the whole subject. No doubt the reason is, that the mass of people do not think it matters at all to them. They think that it concerns lawyers only; and that, if the lawyers do not care to change their own education, probably it does not need change; or, at any rate, no common person need see to it. And this is my motive and my excuse for writing on the subject. If it were necessary to discuss Roman law, or abstract jurisprudence, or the effect of these great subjects as educational disciplines, I should have to be silent. Crowds of persons could teach them far better than I could. But it seems to me that the public mind, so far as it thinks of legal education at all, thinks of it too exclusively in connection with these high topics. The reforming movement has been weak because people in general do not see how it would help them. Some men may wish that some other men may know some Roman law, but they do not wish it with intense eagerness. There is no popular contagion in scholastic sentiments. The only way much to interest the public is to show the public that it is much hurt, and therefore it is that I want to try a short and practical way of treating this subject.
“At Oxford,” said Lord Eldon, “the degree examination was a farce in my time. I was asked who founded University College; and I replied, ‘King Alfred,’ though I believe this is often doubted. No other questions were asked me, and this was all the examination.” Careful sceptics, I believe, say that this anecdote is or may be exaggerated; they think that the aged Chancellor exaggerated the inefficiency of his favourite University. But be that as it may, the process of giving the Oxford degree, as Lord Eldon describes it, was not a bit worse than the Lincoln’s Inn way of giving its degree of “Barrister” twenty years ago. The process was then this: All the students dined in Hall during term, and the only attempt on the part of the Inn to test or augment our legal knowledge consisted in certain exercises, which we had to “keep,” as it was called, in due rotation. Though it is so short a time ago, people now-a-days will hardly believe what those exercises were. A slip of paper was delivered to you, written in legible law-stationer’s hand, which you were to take up to the upper table, where the Benchers sat, and read before them. The contents were generally not intelligible: the slip often began in the middle of a sentence, and by long copying and by no revision the text had become quite corrupt. The topic was “Whether C should have the widow’s estate?” and it was said that if you pieced all the slips together you might make a connected argument for and against the widow. In old time I suppose there used to be regular “moot,” or debate, before the Benchers, in which the students took part, and in which the Benchers judged of their competency. Probably this sort of examination, by publicly putting a nice case and publicly arguing it, was very effectual. But in 1850 the trial “case” had dwindled down to the everlasting question, “Whether C should have the widow’s estate?” The animated debate had become a mechanical reading of copied bits of paper, which it was difficult to read without laughing. Indeed, the Benchers felt the farce, and wanted to expedite it. If you kept a grave countenance after you had read some six words, the senior Bencher would say, “Sir, that will do”; and then the exercise was kept. But this favour was only given to those who showed due gravity. If you laughed you had to read the “slip” all through.
All established customs will find grave people to defend them, and ingenious reasons are soon found for them. Even “exercises” used to be defended. It was said “to be essential that only gentlemen should be called to the Bar; and that, when a man kept his exercise, the Benchers could see whether he was a gentleman or not”. But as no student was ever rejected for bad looks—as indeed some very refined men are not always very refined-looking—and as some of the Benchers themselves had certainly a singular aspect, it was not easy to acquiesce in this. Still there was a traditional sentiment that a man who had kept an exercise “had done a good work,” of which the use might be real, though not apparent. Indeed, there was some sort of motive for maintaining that feeling. No one likes to admit that a magnificent and an ancient institution, from which he gains glory, is a mere “sham” and empty appearance. But a student of Lincoln’s Inn had to admit that, or defend “exercises”. This occasional reading of a few words in an unintelligible document was all which your splendid “Inn” vouchsafed you; and if that was once conceded to be futile, the whole “Inn” must be pronounced useless. Even “exercises,” therefore, had their defenders, as every old thing has which is connected with a corporate power.
Such was studentship at Lincoln’s Inn twenty years ago. At our call to the Bar, we kept a last “exercise” (still on the old suit of C and the widow), and we presented comfits to the Benchers’ wives, but of any attempt to test our competency for our profession, or our fitness for the many posts monopolised by it, there was no trace or suggestion.
Since that time, however, there have been several changes. A vague feeling ran through society that the Inns of Court did not “look right”; if you wanted to prove their usefulness, the argument was difficult; the first impression on every listening mind was adverse; Lord Westbury and other reformers were stirring within the Inns; so “something” was done. And it was done in the natural way of those who think the present perfect, but fear that unless they do something they will not be able to keep the present long. As little in reality was changed as possible, but as much as possible was changed in appearance. The comforts of antiquity were retained, and yet, as far as might be, decent answers were provided for the unpleasant questions of the new world. Lectures were provided, and an examination previous to the call to the Bar was begun. But unfortunately these novelties were erected on the alternative: A student may either pass an examination, or else he must attend lectures. And this is surely very absurd. At present the natural idea is that an educational body should found lectures to teach, and examinations to see whether those lectures have been efficient. But the Inns of Court say, “No; we will examine, and we will teach; but we need not do both to the same persons. If some students attend lectures, that shall be enough; and if some pass an examination, that shall be enough. To examine those who have already attended lectures would be impertinent; it would seem as if we doubted whether they had learnt from those lectures or not.” Not long ago, however, I met a barrister and county magistrate whose legal attainments I much suspected; so I asked him: “How did you get through the Bar examination?” “Oh,” he said, “I was not examined: I attended lectures.” “And were the lectures good?” I asked again. “Oh,” he said, “I do not know about that: I did not listen much. I read Punch, and that sort of thing.” There is no examination to keep out incompetent barristers, and lectures only really teach those who really attend.
No doubt there is a most efficient education for the Bar, but that education is entirely independent of the Inns. If no call at all were wanted, if, as at Rome, any one could practise at the Bar who liked, their education would be just as efficient as it is now. Students read, as it is called, three years or more in the “chambers” of a conveyancer and a special pleader and an equity draftsman. But they are not called to the Bar by virtue of this, or because of their having profited by it. Any one who has not “read” is called just as easily as those who have. Before the Commission several witnesses (Lord Cairns was one) very sensibly insisted on the excellence of the present system. A student sees in chambers, it was said, real business; he has real transactions to study; he sees how other people cope with them; he is not trained on theory, or on the A B C notions of books; he sees actual facts as they occur in the various real world. And there is no answer to these arguments. Undoubtedly the study of real business is an indispensable part of legal education; if you had the choice whether to give up that or everything else but that, you had better keep that. Real business will train you in some degree without other help; but without seeing real business you cannot be trained at all. But then, for what purpose are the Inns of Court? They show you no real business, and do not pretend to show you any. If attendance at chambers alone qualifies for the Bar, why should not any person who has so attended at chambers be called to the Bar? Why should he have to enter at an Inn of Court at all? The defenders of the Inns say, “No doubt they do not educate, but then some one else educates”. But then we should not attend to them; we should attend only to the real educator.
But though the Inns of Court are so inefficient in education, they are exceedingly efficient in finance. The following were their incomes as given by the Commission of 1855:—
No doubt some of this is raised from the rent of old buildings which require an unusual annual outlay, but still there is a vast income—over £40,000—which, except an annual trifle for the library, is all spent uselessly. About £15,000 is spent every year on the dinners for the students, and more than £6,000 on establishment charges, besides “miscellaneous” items. The Inns are, in fact, legal clubs; and bad legal clubs, for they dine at a bad hour, much earlier than any one now wishes to dine; and all the arrangements are stiff and inconvenient, since they are regulated, not by a freely-elected body, but by a self-electing committee of old gentlemen.
There is a floating idea that these Inns secure the sociability of the students and Bar. But there is little enough of that in dinners where people speak little unless they are introduced; and if sociability be really what is wished, the Inns should further develop the club idea, and should establish a “smoking-room”.
A considerable part of the incomes of the Inns is levied by fees from the members of the Inns and from the students. They have dues for commons—that is, dinners—which you must pay whether you dine or not, with many intricate fees beside; and in levying these taxes, the Inns used to exhibit—there has very lately been a partial modification—a tenacity and firmness which might move the admiration of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Indeed, Mr. Lowe has given us his opinion on it. “One other matter,” he said in 1855, “I would take leave to mention. I am a member of Lincoln’s Inn; I went to Australia without, I am afraid, thinking about my commons; and when I returned, after eight years’ absence, I was welcomed back to my native land by a bill of £48 for my absence from commons. Of that, however, I do not complain; it was my own oversight. I paid the bill, not wishing my sureties to be annoyed; and then I thought I had paid enough. At last, when I ceased to be a practising barrister, I made an application to see whether I might not be allowed to cease to pay, as in the case at the University; but I was informed that there was no means of my being so, but that I must pay for the term of my natural life. Now I think that is a great hardship.” The Inns of Court are, in fact, Clubs of Court, and till recently with the bad peculiarity, that if you once got into them, you could never get out. A member was obliged to continue his subscriptions for ever.
A greater abuse than the Inns of Court, or so great an abuse, probably does not now exist in England. They could only be endured in a country tenacious of ancient things, even the most lifeless. They figure in legal education, not because of their efficiency, but because of their size. Though they do nothing, they look as if they ought to do something. But for practical purposes, we must look to the reading in chambers, and see what that is, and what is likely to be the effect of it.
And the most remarkable thing about it is, that it is not “reading” at all. Many English things are called by some word which means exactly what those things are not, and so here. Reading law with a barrister ought to mean that the barrister read some law-book or statute with you, instructed you in it, pointed out things which might escape you, and gave in each case a kind of lecture. But the barrister does nothing of the sort. He is a very busy man, with as much business as he can get through; and in general it would be very much out of his way to give any sort of formal pupil lecture. What happens is this: A heap of papers is set before each pupil, and according to such light as he possesses, and with perhaps a little preliminary explanation, the pupil is set to prepare the document for which these papers were sent—in a special pleader’s chambers, a plea to be used in a court of common law; in an equity draftsman’s, a plea for a court of equity; in a conveyancer’s, probably some deed relating to real property. A precedent is set before each pupil, out of which he is to copy the formal part, which is always much the same in such documents, especially in the easier ones set before the younger pupils. As to all the non-formal part, the first precept given to a beginner is one not so much of deep jurisprudence as of simple practice. He is told to “write wide,” which means that the lines of the pupil’s writing should always be at so great a distance from each other that the preceptor should have ample room to strike them out if he pleased, and write his own words in between them. And of this room he largely avails himself. Not long ago an advocate was contending that the alterations in a draft implied a deep design, on which the presiding judge said: “When I was in chambers, the conveyancer I was with used always to scratch out all I wrote, and write something of his own instead”. Of course this was a playful exaggeration; but there is no doubt that at first younger pupils blundered dreadfully, and that what they write at great pains to themselves is, except in the formal parts of the document, quite useless. Gradually, however, by many failures, able men who work well learn much that is very valuable, and benefit both their teacher and themselves.
Lord Cranworth, I have been told, used to say that the most instructive part of his education—I believe he spoke not only of his legal but of his general training—was that which he spent in a special pleader’s office. And perhaps, as an introduction for a studious mind (such as Lord Cranworth’s was, no doubt) to the actual business of life, such an office could not be made much better. The documents to be prepared were usually short, so that the pupil got a good variety. They were all based on the mistakes of life, and each showed how easily business went wrong, and how difficult it was to keep it right. You saw the law, as it were, in rapid motion; for there was a quick litigation going forward, which presented sharp issues to be decided or settled in a month or two. No doubt there was much pure nonsense taught also. Such refined follies as special demurrers and the replication de injuria are hardly intelligible to younger men. But, side by side with much antiquated absurdity, there was a great deal more of healthy fresh business, which to men from college is enormously instructive, and is what they most want. And the mode of tuition was not cold and formal. It consisted in discussing with your fellow-pupils and your teacher the actual points as they turn up on the actual living cases. Unless a man be destitute both of legal capacity and of business capacity, he must in such a school learn much law and much business. If you could educate the higher classes by compulsion, I would require all young legislators and all young magistrates to go through this training. It would stop unnumbered proposals of nonsense in Parliament, and much minor folly at petty sessions.
But admirable as is this training within its limits, still it has limits. There is a serious objection to it, which applies also to the conveyancer’s chambers and to the equity draftsman’s. The education they give is fresh, but it is also “patchy”. Each set of papers teaches the learner one particular lesson, but there is nothing to combine the lessons together; each case has its peculiar instruction, but the instruction of each is separate; there is nothing to join the lesson of one case to that of another. The whole course of education is “discontinuous”. Point No. I. is not explained in relation to point No. II., nor point No. II. in its relation to point No. III. The student—at least, in many cases—leaves chambers with a very vivid image of many particular instances, but he hardly knows how to connect those instancss together. He is deficient in binding central doctrine. What has been set before him is a rich assortment of unselected transactions, and from each of these he has learnt something. But he feels—at least many have felt—that the knowledge so acquired is something like a knowledge of each separate island in the Pacific Ocean, without any knowledge of the configuration of that ocean itself. He has a mental picture of many clear images, but he does not know how they stand one against another, or what there is between them.
However good, therefore, education in chambers may be, we must carefully observe what it is: it is an education by means of unselected transactions, set before the pupil’s mind without arrangement, and out of which he has to make a system for himself if he is to have arrangement at all, and which he may leave disconnected in his mind if, like many, he scarcely knows the value of digested principle and well-arranged thought. And this is the whole education that most barristers receive.
But the education of barristers is not the only legal education in this country. It is not even the education of the larger half of the legal profession. There are less than five thousand barristers in England, and more than ten thousand solicitors. And what is curious is, that the principle of the whole legal education changes when you get to the lower half, as it is called, of the profession, and changes in exactly the reverse way to what you would expect. One might imagine that, as the duties of an attorney require less actual legal learning than those of a barrister; as he is excluded from all the best places which barristers monopolise; as his voice cannot be heard in a superior court; as he is obliged to employ a barrister to speak for him,—his education would be rather neglected by law, and that of the barrister more heeded. The sort of lawyer sedulously patronised would presumably have been more carefully tested, and shown to be qualified, than the other kind of lawyer, who is sedulously set down and made inferior. But, in fact, the case is just the reverse. As we have seen, a man who knows no law, and who has never tried to know law, has no difficulty in becoming a barrister. There is no kind of fence to keep him out. But such a man could never become an attorney. The law has made rigorous requirements for the legal knowledge of the “little lawyer,” though it has made no requirements at all for the legal knowledge of the “big lawyer”. In inverse proportion to the magnitude of the importance conferred is the care taken by the law to know that this importance is deserved.
“A person,” says Mr. Jevons, “intending to become an attorney or solicitor, before being selected, is required—unless he be a university graduate, or have passed one of certain university examinations—to pass a preliminary examination, showing that he has received a liberal education; he is thereon articled for five years (unless a graduate of one of the universities, or a barrister, in which case the term is reduced to three; or he has passed one of certain university examinations, in which case the term is reduced to four), of which term one year may be spent in the chambers of a barrister, or special pleader. And if articled in the country, one year of any of the said term may be passed in the office of a London attorney. He has, during the term, to pass an intermediate examination in the law; and, finally, to pass a severe examination before he is admitted in the five branches of conveyancing, common law, equity, bankruptcy, and criminal law,—of which he must pass in the first three branches.”1 Of course, having passed this stiff examination, it is expressly provided that an attorney cannot, while he is such, even begin to keep terms to be a barrister; not only he cannot act as one, but he cannot even begin to eat dinners to become one.
But it may be replied,—“Granting that what you say is true, that legal education is deficient in some cases, that the least taught are the most privileged, that the best taught are under the worst disadvantages, yet how does this hurt us? How are common people injured by it? Is it not a matter affecting lawyers only?” I answer that these faults much injure the mass of mankind—that they make the law uncertain, and that they keep it uncertain—that they make the law bad, and that they keep it bad.
In the first place—to a litigant—the division of a profession into two halves is a calamity. A considerate person naturally wishes to understand why his case is right, if it is right; and why it is wrong, if it is wrong. Most men are more interested in their lawsuits than in anything else, and would be glad, for their own guidance, to understand them if they could. But when a client, so wishing to see how and where he stands, cross-examines his attorney, he is referred to counsel at the first difficulty. The attorney says: “Sir, this is a more complex matter than I should like to advise you upon without assistance. It requires greater learning and more ability than mine: I could not pretend to give such an opinion as you ought to have on so important a transaction.” And at first the client is rather pleased. He does not, perhaps, much like the cost of paying for the aid of counsel, but he is much pleased at being mixed up in matters so abstruse and important that their aid is necessary. At any rate, he now thinks that he shall fully understand his case; that he shall really know why he is fighting his suit, and be able to judge for himself whether he ought to compromise or persist in it. On this ground he readily enough consents to “take the opinion,” and looks forward eagerly to receiving it. But when it comes he is almost sure to be disappointed. He finds, no doubt, a plain piece of advice that he ought to do so and so, and perhaps a categorical statement that so and so is the law; but he finds no reasons; he is obliged to believe what the oracle says; he is no nearer to a comprehension of his case than before. Nor can his solicitor help him. He says: “I am sure, sir, I cannot take it upon me to say why counsel gave that opinion; but as we have asked for it and paid for it, I suppose I must act on it”. Now, if the opinion recommends the spending of much money, the client may not quite like this. If he could, he would like to get hold of “counsel,” and cross-examine him; he would like to treat him plainly and familiarly, as he does his attorney. He pays one and he pays the other, and he thinks he ought to get as much as he can out of both. But, in fact, he cannot. Counsel is secluded in a remote and inaccessible shrine, and you cannot effectually get at him. Even if the client gets a “conference,” he has to pay for it; and counsel treats him as if he were a curious intellectual “specimen,” perhaps from the provinces. Any question he may ask is answered with a kind of condescension, but counsel thinks plainly, “What nonsense it is this fellow trying to understand his own case! I am paid to speak to him, and I will speak to him, but I will not speak to him very much.” And the client who has penetrated into the sacred “chambers” probably finds that he has been put off with some vague and cautious observations, which do not seem to him very consistent with each other, and all which he cannot but think happen to evade the worst difficulty, even if they were not meant to do so. As he comes away he calculates: “I paid so much a word for that interview, and what have I gained by it?” But it is only in the rarest cases that the client is so enterprising or so intrusive as this. In nine hundred and ninety-nine cases out of a thousand the client never sees counsel at all. He only gets a copy of the oracular opinion from the attorney, and peruses it several times, wondering at its brevity, but still a little admiring its decision. Gradually he comes to feel a confidence in it, and is content to act on it. But when he advances some way farther in the business, and is beginning to reflect on the expense, it occurs to him as strange that if the matter is as plain as the counsel tells him it is, the other side should be proceeding with so much confidence, and not attempting to strike their flag. Accordingly, he goes to his attorney, and asks, “How is it that the other side are not frightened? You showed them Mr. A. B.’s opinion—his very distinct opinion. I certainly imagined they would be rather inclined to yield after that.” On which, perhaps with a little smile, the attorney tells him: “Why, the fact is, that the other side have consulted counsel also. They have been to C. D., a very eminent man in Lincoln’s Inn, a gentleman I have often consulted myself, and he advises them that they are quite right. They have sent me his opinion. Here it is; perhaps you would like to take it home with you.” And so the client finds that there is “oracle against oracle”; that the god of “Old Square” speaks quite differently from the god of “New Square”; and goes home dissatisfied and bewildered. The courts of law are blocked with suits which counsel advised to be begun, which counsel advised to be defended, and in which neither plaintiff nor defendant likes to yield now, because both have spent so very much money.
I do not mean that all the uncertainty would be remedied by a better constitution of the legal profession. No doubt some uncertain cases there always must be; new varieties of complication arise daily, and require novel decisions. Unquestionably, too, other parts of our bad legal education make the law more uncertain than otherwise it would be. But it is plain that the artificial splitting of the law trade into two halves much aggravates the practical difficulty of getting at the law. “Opinions” are the opprobrium of the legal profession. Everybody knows that an “opinion” is to be had on almost every side of every question. “Show me your case,” it is often said, “and I will write you your opinion.” Now, this could hardly be if the solicitor, the man whom the client pays, had the responsibility of advising him. His interest would be to come as near to the truth as he could, because he would be responsible for the advice he gave. But now he gets a shelter under the distant “barrister”; he does not feel ashamed when the case is decided against him, because Mr. X. Y., a name in the papers, and a man you cannot get hold of, said you would win. And the barrister has no responsibility to the client either. The client cannot come and say, “You advised me to sue; you told me I was going to win; yet you see I have lost”. The man you can scold did not advise you, and the man who did advise you, you cannot scold.
There are other and very delicate points in this subject. I believe most English barristers, and most English solicitors, to be very honourable men; but we all know that there are some black sheep in both halves of the trade. When, years since, I was reading law, I had laid for me a peculiar rule for pleasing the less honest sort of attorneys: “Always,” said a very experienced man, “always recommend proceedings, and then you will be sure to succeed”. His notion was that a barrister who promoted “costs” would thrive with attorneys who live by costs. I quite believe that it would be a libel to ascribe such motives to most solicitors or most counsel; still one cannot help seeing how well the present system helps those who act on such motives. The ultimate adviser, the barrister, has no relation to the ultimate payer, the client; he has no motive to care to please him. He wants to please the attorney, for it is by the attorney’s favour that he lives. What pleases some attorneys is present income. The barrister, therefore, who upon fair reasons, and within decent limits, always promotes costs and contention, will always please at least those attorneys. In case of gross failure, the natural penalty is the client’s wrath; but we protect the attorney against this by enabling him to blame “counsel,” and we protect “counsel” by immuring him in distant dignity.
It may be said that it would be quite useless for clients commonly to see counsel, for the points which counsel have to decide on are so technical that the client cannot understand them. But ought they to be so technical? Ought not the main gist of all cases to be intelligible to men of business interested in them, and anxious to attend to them? In matter of fact, I believe that almost all the law of moneyed property is now intelligible to careful men of that sort; and if the law of landed property is not intelligible, it is only because that law is bad. Mysteries in practical affairs are very dangerous; the more so because, when they once exist, many quiet, unimaginative people cannot help saying and believing that they are inevitable and necessary. But any one who rouses his mind to ask in a specific case, How does this law come to be so unintelligible? will find that the reasons for it belong to some bygone time, and that now it wants to be altered and fitted to modern life. Nothing will ever simplify law so much as the making lawyers explain it to non-lawyers. It will be a great gain when all clients ask about their case anxiously, and when “counsel” have to explain it clearly.
But the bifurcation of our legal profession is not the only way in which our peculiar system of law-training makes the law uncertain. The education of our barrister, such as it was before explained, has as distinctly that effect as if it were designed on purpose. That education we saw to be an education of unselected detail. “Papers” which accidentally came into chambers were placed before the learner, and from them he educated himself. Casual instances were given him to learn from as they came, and from them he learnt what he did learn. By such a training we form excellent practitioners of detail, wonderful “case” lawyers. Years ago, an accomplished specimen of the results of such training used to answer every argument that in any sense purported to be general, or to be derived from principle, with an impatient question. “But have you got a case, Mr. ——? have you got a case?” To him, and to all equally characteristic specimens of our legal education, each transaction was isolated. He wanted to see in the books, not the decision of an analogous case, but the decision of an identical one. “It is of no use having an opinion,” he would add, “unless you can quote an authority for it,” and by an authority he meant some recorded suit in which the specific question had been submitted to a judge and decided by him. To this species of lawyer nothing is certain which is not “within the four corners,” as it used to be said, “of a case,” and a recent case.
Accordingly, when a new case is laid before such persons, one which in a material degree possesses new conditions, or which varies in a patent particular from the standard authorities, it is a matter of accident which way they decide. The most prosperous and most cautious say, unless they are belied, that “the matter is doubtful,” and then incline, more or less confidently, towards the side for which they are asked to advise. But in all cases the point, if new, is to the mass of lawyers very doubtful. An argument of “theory,” as they speak, has no weight with them.
And when we examine the matter, we find that it ought to have no weight with them. A most rigid and careful arguer from principle, a really great lawyer, afterwards on the Bench, used to say, with the emphasis of a past generation, “That’s the law—I know that is the law, but the d—d judges won’t decide it so”. And so, in fact, our system works. A great part of our law is really judge-made law. The courts always profess to be deciding on some ground of past precedent. But very often, and of necessity in novel circumstances, this is nothing but profession. The judges are really making the law when they are said to be declaring it; and if they declared it on solid grounds of principle, and for reasons which could with any sort of confidence be assigned and predicted beforehand, this judicial legislation would be tolerable. In fact, a great part of the best law in the world was so made by great judges who considered principle and followed out principle. But a mere successful practitioner, who began to learn by “papers” and “cases,” who has thriven on practice, who has for years sneered at principle, is the last man, when he becomes a judge, to make a judge of “principle”. His whole life has been spent in an opposite treatment of things; his whole mind has been invested in that treatment. You do not expect a plain cook to turn philosophical chemist; and it is as little rational to expect a barrister of cases and instances to be changed on a sudden to a judge of great principles and broad doctrines. And unless he does so change, his decision is uncertain. If the case is really new, if an identical precedent is not on the file, the judge trained on mere practice, the judge with no head for principle, is confused. There is nothing to guide him in the past decisions, and he has all his life tried to be guided, and boasted that he is guided only, by past decisions. Accordingly, in so many cases it is but a “solemn toss-up” how the judges decide. They are really making new law, but they are not making it on principle; they fear principle. They are guided by fancied analogies and past precedents—one judge relying on one analogy and another on another, but none having anything substantial.
The training for judicial legislation should surely be of two sorts; first, a knowledge of how, in other systems of law, the same or analogous cases have been dealt with. Yet here most of our practising lawyers are deficient. As the writer I have before quoted observes: “From the contemporaneous existence in England of two systems of law, the civil and the common law, applied to different branches, there are no doubt English lawyers, though comparatively few in number, who know something of the Roman law; but who knows anything of the laws of the modern Continental States? And when is even the Roman law systematically made a necessary part of the education of an English common lawyer? We often hear American decisions quoted; but do we, as a body, possess any thorough knowledge of American practice, or of the points on which it agrees with or differs from our own? Is not, in fact, our whole knowledge of Roman, Continental, or American laws a thing occasionally got up for a special purpose, and laid aside when that purpose has been answered?” No doubt we have some real jurists; the age which produced Sir Henry Maine’s Ancient Law could not be wholly deficient in such; but the mass of the law trade look to the cases in the books, and that is why we suffer from “the grotesque decisions” of our judges, as Sir Robert Phillimore happily called them, “in special pleading, the construction of wills, and the law of real property”. Or again, the training for judicial legislation should be one of jurisprudence in the highest sense—of the jurisprudence which Burke must have been thinking of when he called it the “pride of the human intellect”. It must be a knowledge of the reasons which make laws good or bad, eligible or ineligible, in given cases. But no one will contend that such knowledge is now taught in “chambers,” nor is it possible that it should ever be taught there.
Lord Westbury has spoken of the “rubbish called reports” of judicial decisions; Mr. Galton speaks as if it were certain that our judges had degenerated. But surely our modern judges are put to “make bricks without straw”. They are set to make laws of principle, and they are not taught principle. I confess I doubt if the old judges were any better. They were not “found out,” as the moderns are. The old judges could take their precedents from “Sederfin and Keble”; could decide a present case by a fancied likeness to an irrelevant old case. But no one watched them; only forgotten term reports contain the annals of them. But the strained analogies and the antagonistic judgments of modern judges fall upon an educated world. They do not harmonise with the floating rationality which is in the air of the age. The litigant even is ashamed of them. He thinks even if he does not say—“What is this jargon? what are these metaphysics? Why are four judges for me and five against me? Why should my money be voted away like this? Surely I ought to be able to understand why it goes from me, if it is to go.”
The state of the English law at present aggravates the bad consequences to us of these defects in our lawyers. If ever there was a country in which good legal mechanics were wanted, England just now is that country. Our law is unquestionably better in substance than it was fifty years ago, but it is also worse in form. In the time of Lord Eldon it had some kind of unity and consistency about it; it was, in a certain sense, all of a piece. But now, the reforms which have swept away most of the worst abuses have made it of a piece no longer. Side by side with the dull colouring of the old law there are bright patches of new statutes. An Act of Parliament has destroyed this and that singular growth of history, and has erected instead this and that useful contrivance. But exactly how much was destroyed and how much was left depended on the caprice of Parliament. Very likely the reforming Act was changed in “Committee” in the Commons; some important clause was maimed, or some dubious words inserted; or perhaps some old but still vigorous law lord fell upon the measure, and twisted it to suit ancient opinion. The tide of law reform has been like the tide of the sea; it has advanced most powerfully, but it has also stopped most curiously. The line between the old English law and the new is as accidental a line as any sea-beach; it was caused by the momentary magnitude of shifting forces, and bears hardly a trace of settled design.
But as an involved country taxes the map-maker, so an involved law taxes the jurist; the more complex the law the more difficult to see it or to mend it. But we in England want both things of our lawyers. We want to have a difficult law made as certain as it can be made; we want to know, as well as we can, which of our lawsuits are good and which bad before we spend money on them. We want also to have the ancient complex and patched aggregate of law shortened and simplified into a consistent and compact code. For this purpose we want a school of lawyers trained with singular care, and in the most fit way; whereas our barristers are trained with no care from the legislature, and in a most unfit way.
But, it will be said, how are these evils to be remedied? I do not think I am exactly bound to suggest cures—I only undertook to show the existence of an evil; and only persons infinitely more learned than myself can frame a scheme in detail. I can only sketch briefly a coarse outline.
The first and most plain thing to do is to establish an examination for the Bar. On the surface of the matter our policy is now ridiculous. We give barristers, as such, a monopoly of many important offices on the ground that they are supposed to know law, but we take no care that they do know law. In fact, many barristers have never learnt law; and many could not learn. Many have not the industry, and many have not the mind. And some of these unlearned persons are certainly appointed to posts requiring learning. Mr. Lowe tells us that he has seen a judge in the colonies appear ignorant of the common “forms of action,” and of the shape of the “declaration”—things which a man who had studied common law could not help knowing if he knew anything. The absurdity of confining offices to a class because it is supposed to be competent, and yet taking no care that this class is in truth competent, an examination would remove immediately.
But a good examination would do far more also. A real examination would compel men to study law as a whole, and to study it in its connections. There is no other way of preparing for an examination; a person in that sort of reading has carefully to consider not only what he knows, but what he does not know. He must make some sort of classification of the subject—some rough kind of map of it in his head. He cannot otherwise tell at all whether he is fit to stand the test or unfit. A successful student is for ever improving this mental map; day after day, and month after month, he comes to see new spaces to be known, and he fills the old spaces with new knowledge. A mere student in chambers may work hard at the “papers,” but he may, after all, know and feel that he only knows a series of isolated points. He scarcely knows how much there is between the points, or what else there is in the subject round about them.
A high-class examination, too, necessarily deals with matters of principle. Indeed, an examiner can hardly avoid them if he would. In chambers a student learns to consider, as the active practitioner—his master—considers, what is the minimum of law necessary to determine in a particular state of facts—the minimum then and there necessary to give sound advice. And this is a very good kind of knowledge. A safe practitioner is made by it, and cannot be made without it. But it will not of itself train a great lawyer; and reading for an examination exactly supplies its defects. An examiner, wanting to test pupils, gets hold of the “problems” of his subject—those points which are not yet worked out in any book, but which, by fair application of admitted principle, can be worked out. The able students, in consequence, are constantly thinking of such “problems”. They search the examination papers for years past; they search every likely book for hints of what they may be. And, when found, they prepare in their minds an apparatus for solving them. So, in law, a good examiner would ask many questions on the margin of his subject. He would state points analogous to those in the books, but not identical with those in the books. And to prepare for such an examination a student must consider legal doctrines, not in their narrowest aspect, but in their most general aspect. He must get rid of the notion that “principle does not pay”. It is exactly principle and only principle that will pay in such an examination. And exactly on that account you cannot cram for it. The “book-work”—the instances already decided—you might perhaps get up by sheer industry; but the application of admitted doctrine to out-of-the-way facts, or undecided things, you cannot cram, since by its nature you cannot anywhere find it on paper.
If the examination were like the Oxford class list, it would be easy to arrange that for the higher classes Roman law and foreign law might be made to tell. For the pass examination, of course, a sound knowledge of only the elements of English law would be enough. You do not want all sessions barristers to be accomplished jurists; all you can do is to give a premium to the more valuable kinds of knowledge; and if you put men in the first class who know certain things, you give them a very valuable premium. Cæteris paribus, the man in the first class will be employed before the man in the second class. The mark, even in the beginning, will tell for something; and in the end will tell for much, since the examination will itself improve; and the average of class No. 1 will, in fact, be very much better—be both more able and more industrious than the average of class No. 2.
Lectures are the second obvious mode of improving our legal training: some reformers prize them very highly, and would even make them compulsory; and only experience can settle points like these. But I own I do not like absolutely prescribing to any man how he is to learn this subject. The only ground for State intervention is that it is necessary for certain purposes that a man should know certain things. But if he does know them, why should the State care how he learnt them? What is the State the better for that knowledge? Some persons are, indeed, dubious of examination; they fear that the examiner may be deceived, that false or imperfect knowledge may be palmed upon him; and they fancy that by requiring an attendance at lectures they gain an additional security. But I think our experience, which in Civil Service and other examinations now goes over many years, ought to give us great confidence in examiners. They are certainly very skilled “intellectual detectives,” much better than we should have thought possible years ago; undoubtedly the men they pass, are, as a rule, altogether better than the men they reject, and really know with decent fairness all which the examiner certifies they know; and even if it were not so, I do not see that lectures would improve the matter or keep out cram students. The “cram” student is a sedulous man, and would attend lectures very carefully.
But though I would not enjoin lectures, though I would only require the possession of knowledge, and let each man get it where he can, no one values lectures for certain purposes more than I do; no one can believe that anything will be more useful. I have had occasion to say in this Review1 before: “There is no falser notion than Carlyle’s, that the true University of the present day is a ‘great collection of books’. No University can be perfect which does not set a young man face to face with great teachers. Mathematics in part may teach themselves, may be learned at least by a person of great aptitude and at great cost of toil from written treatises; but true literature is still largely a tradition; it does not go straight on like mathematics and if a learner is to find it for himself in a big library, he will be grey-headed before his work is nearly over. And besides, ‘character forms itself in the stream of the world’—by the impact of mind on mind. There are few impacts so effectual as that of ardent student upon ardent student, or as that of mature teacher upon immature student.” I suppose this is as applicable to law as it is to anything. And for the special evil of the English Bar, lectures would perhaps be peculiarly useful. More or less, a lecturer must deal with connected principle, for a mere disquisition on law without principles would be so dull that no one would listen to it.
But the greatest reform of all, I think, would be the abolition of the present arbitrary division between the two halves of the legal profession. This would bring the distributer of law more under the control of the consumer, and so make him better. At present “counsel” is at so remote a distance, and on so sequestered an eminence, that the client cannot get at him. He is subject to no cross-questions, and is not obliged to explain law plainly to a plain man. A mystic charm is spread about him, as if his words were somehow higher than other words, and as if he were not paid like other people.
A great many persons I know will say this is impossible. We are so accustomed to the strict link between solicitor and barrister, that we forget how arbitrary it is. We forget that it is insular, and that on the Continent and in America it does not exist. Indeed, why should it exist? On what ground can we be justified? The State can require of certain persons, who want to live by certain skilled trades, that they shall show that they are fit for those trades. But if a man can show that he is fit for any trade, on what principle can you forbid him, only because he is fit for another trade? Why should you split a trade into compulsory bits? Why should there not be a “general practitioner” in law as there is in physic? Why should not the same lawyer practise all law if he is fit for it, and can get clients in it?
The abolition of the compulsory demarcation would probably benefit the client, just as all approaches to free-trade benefit the consumer. It would give him the choice of more mixed and various ability. The division of labour would be allowed more liberty to adapt itself to special wants and individual characters. This is the way it works in America:—
1059. That is after the materials of the case, the facts, have been previously investigated and laid before him in the Brief, is it not?—No; it is in the outset. That is a privilege which the Client claims, of seeing the Counsel, and conferring with him, whether he is to go to Law, or not.
1060. How is the evidence hunted up?—That is done by the Attorney and Client, but Counsel sees personally the leading witnesses.
1061. Who is the Attorney, as distinct from the Counsel?—The offices are divided according to the nature of the business. A man begins to practise Law in New York, for instance, and he has one or two cases. He then does all the business himself; but his business increases, and he has more than he can do himself, and he then employs a clerk, who takes a part of it off his hands; then he employs an Attorney, and the cases that require no investigation, such as bringing a Common Action, would be commenced by the Attorney, without seeing the Counsellor, unless there was a special request made in the matter.
1062. So that the Attorney is nominated and employed by the Counsel?—Yes; he generally belongs to his office.
1063. And generally speaking, there is a partnership, is there not?—Yes. The moment the business becomes sufficiently important to justify the taking in a partner, the Counsel takes in this man whom he has employed as Attorney, or some one else, as his partner, and he does the ordinary business of the office, while the other goes into Court.
1064. Are there men of considerable eminence, such as the late Mr. Webster, who never act in any other way than as Counsel?—Yes.
1065. Practically, in all important cases, there is the same division of labour between the Counsel and the Attorney in the United States as exists in this country?—Exactly so; but it is rendered so by circumstances. If you go into States which are new, where the population is spare, there are few Lawsuits, and the Counsel will sit in his office half the day, and talk with a Client, for he has nothing else to do; of course, in that case, he needs no Attorney.
1066. Is not the effect of this system, that in all simple Causes, only one agent is employed?—Yes.
1067. Therefore it is much cheaper in practice than the system pursued in this country, of having two agents in every case?—Yes; this is certainly true.
The gradual separation brought about by nature has none of the bad effects of our arbitrary separation enforced by law. If you employed a firm, one partner in which was a barrister and one an attorney, you could scold both partners if you lost; you could talk of it in their district, and so they would not like you to lose. But in England now you are in “counsel’s” hands, and you cannot hurt him though he ruin you.
We should have better barristers too. Now a man cannot go to the Bar except he has some peculiar “connection,” or unless he has money enough to keep him in idleness for years. But if he could practise on small attorneys’ work, he might live till he made his talents known. And we should have infinitely better attorneys, for they would have a career and a future before them which now they have not. It is very hard that the want of a few hundred pounds should by law degrade a man for life, and very bad for the public that the highest energies of the sort of lawyers the public see most of should be for ever depressed by a despotic and unnecessary obstacle. But I do not care much about the legal profession; at least I cannot so much care; my principal anxiety is for the clients and the public. And because these artificial hedges cramp and hurt them, I hope soon to see them swept away.
THE EARL OF CLARENDON.
The late Lord Clarendon belonged to a very small and very remarkable class of peers. There are many peers, as the lawyers, who have no birth, but who worked hard in their youth; and there are also many who have the highest birth, and have never worked the least. There are many who have earned rank, and many who have inherited rank. But it is rare to find a peer who inherits his rank, and yet who has known what it is to earn his bread. Of eminent peers there is perhaps hardly more than one now living of whom this is true. Lord Salisbury has indeed a right to feel that circumstances cannot ruin him, that a revolution may come, that the House of Lords may perish, that estates may be confiscated, but that his abilities as a popular writer will earn him his living as they did before. Though in a different way Lord Clarendon was of this class also. When he was in the Excise Office in Dublin, and all through his younger life, there was but a distant probability of his coming to the title; and he had to work really for his bread. And the training of his youth was probably of use to him always. To the week of his death he was a curiously unremitting worker. With somewhat peculiar hours and times, he got through more work probably in the twenty-four hours than most administrators of his time, and finished it all with care and accuracy. There were none of the gratuitous blunders and hurried errors which mostly characterise the work of one who is much praised for great activity; everything was carefully considered and carefully executed.
Perhaps it is not unconnected with this praise, that there was an indescribable repose about Lord Clarendon’s manner and appearance. No one who saw him, in his later years at least, would have ever thought him a specially active man. He seemed a very calm, sensible, and singularly courteous old gentleman; and it would scarcely have occurred to a casual observer that he was an exceedingly indefatigable worker. But those who have watched the habits of men of business in politics and out of it will have seen many cases in which a still and quiet man who does not seem to be doing much, and probably is talking of something quite different, has in matter of fact and at the week’s end accomplished much more than the “rushing mighty wind,”—the very energetic man who is never idle or at rest and who has no thought but his office business. A still man like Lord Clarendon has time to think what he will do, and most incessant men are apt to act before they have thought, and therefore land where they should not, or else lose half their time in sailing back again.
It was, perhaps, the result of Lord Clarendon’s early training that he always took great interest in commerce, and whenever he had the power, steadily used the agency of the Foreign Office for its advantage. He was much too thoroughly on a level with his time to do this by an aggressive foreign policy. The old notion of fighting for foreign markets, or of intriguing for their exclusive use, had so completely died out that he cannot be praised for being exempt from it. Lord Clarendon used only the legitimate functions for trade purposes. He was especially eager for the collection of actual statistical information by our foreign consuls and embassies. The commencement of their reports on these subjects, and the establishment of the statistical department of the Board of Trade, were largely owing to his great interest in these objects.
That Lord Clarendon showed great originality as a Foreign Minister will hardly be contended; and some, among whom the present writer is to be counted, have grave doubts whether extreme originality in such an office is either possible or desirable. Examples of great inventiveness are rare in all business, but they are particularly rare in those kinds of business which require the constant consent of many persons—and of these the English foreign policy is one. Not, indeed, that at the moment of taking his decision, the Foreign Minister is particularly trammelled. In great cases he must consult the Prime Minister and perhaps the Cabinet. But if these stood by themselves, having the power of peculiar information, he could probably mostly carry with him the minds of men occupied with near and pressing questions, and not in general ready to master disagreeable and uncertain detail as to remote topics and strange events. But the great obstacle to originality is the English nation. In a free country a minister can only do that which the nation is prepared for, and if he tries to do more the nation will disown him. Within special limits, and on minor questions, he can give an effectual guidance and control the decision; but beyond those limits, and on vital matters, he has no power at all. The subtle power which we call “opinion,” which is the product of so long a history and the offspring of so many causes, hems him in, and he cannot do as he would; but if he stays, he must act as he would not. An irritable, far-seeing originality is commonly a vice in business, and in a Foreign Minister it would be an intolerable nuisance. It was exactly because Lord Clarendon had a delicate instinct of the limits of his power, that he was so truly useful and so really influential.
In one respect we are not inclined to join in the universal praise which within the last few days Lord Clarendon has received. He has been greatly praised as a writer, and no doubt he wrote not only with great facility but with much elegance. But there is one great difficulty about almost all his despatches. Each sentence is clear, and no word brings you to a stop; but yet after a few paragraphs a careful reader suddenly pauses to think where he is and what he has assented to. And even when he reads the paragraphs over again he will not always find it easy to be sure that he sees the limits of what was meant and the limits of what was not meant. The limpid flow of delicate words takes him steadily on; but where at any precise instant he is, he cannot be very confident. For the formal intercourse of foreign Courts this sort of style had immense advantages; it gave no offence, and, having no marked sentences, left no barbed words for after irritation. And in Lord Russell we had a warning of the evils of the opposite style. He wrote as he used to speak in the House of Commons. With a certain cold acumen he “pitched” (there is no less familiar word adequate) “into” the foreign Courts, as he used to “pitch into” Sir Robert Peel; and not being used to Parliamentary plainness, the foreign Courts did not like it. Lord Russell hardly conducted a foreign controversy in which the extreme intelligibility of his words did not leave a sting behind them. Of Lord Clarendon the very contrary may be said—he scarcely ever left a sting, never an unnecessary one. But, on the other hand, Lord Russell’s despatches, hard and unpleasant as they often are, never left any one in doubt as to their precise meaning. If they did mislead some foreign Courts it was because they could not understand that a minister would blurt out all his meaning in that gauche manner; but to a common reader they are as plain as words can make them. And as in the present day, great despatches, being published, are really addressed to whole nations of common readers as well as to small Courts of special training, they ought to be so written as to combine the gentle suavity that suits the one with the unmistakable plainness which is essential to the other. It was exactly the gliding urbanity of Lord Clarendon’s style which pleased the Courts while it perplexed the common people.
But we do not need now to dwell at length on a point so subordinate. It is much for a man of Lord Clarendon’s standing to have written nearly perfectly in the old style; it is no ground for serious blame to him that he did not invent a new style. He will be remembered by posterity as a minister singularly suited to the transition age in which he lived, and as possessing both the courtly manners which are going out and also the commercial tastes and the business knowledge which are coming in. Some critics will, as we have said, find fault with his want of special designs and of a far-reaching policy. But to this generation of Englishmen this was no fault at all. We wish that foreign nations should, as far as may be, solve their own problems; we wish them to gain all the good they can by their own exertions, and to remove all the evil. But we do not wish to take part in their struggles. We fear that we might mistake as to what was best; we fear that in so shifting a scene we might find, years hence, when the truth is known, that we had in fact done exactly the reverse of what we meant, and had really injured what we meant to aid. We fear that, amid the confusion, our good might turn to evil, and that our help would be a calamity and not a blessing. And for an age like this Lord Clarendon was a fitting minister, for he had a wise sagacity which taught him to interfere as little, and to refrain from acting as much, as prudence rendered possible.
“Mr. Grote, a merchant who reads German,” writes Mr. Crabb Robinson, in an early entry of his diary, and this is perhaps the earliest mention in print or in literature of the great historian whom we have this week lost. And though in detail the entry is wrong, though Mr. Grote never was exactly a merchant, yet in an essential point it indicates his characteristic excellence. Mr. Grote was not a mere literary man, and no mere literary man could have written his history. He was essentially a practical man of business, a banker trained in the City, a politician trained in Parliament, and every page in his writings bears witness that he was so. Just as in every sentence of Thucydides there lurks some trace of exercised sagacity fit for the considerate decision of weighty affairs, though by fate excluded from them, so in every page of Grote there is a flavour not exactly of this quality, but yet others only to be learned in the complex practical life of modern times, and equally necessary for it. At the beginning he impressed the shrewd diarist as pre-eminently a man of business, and pre-eminently a man of business he remained to the end.
Since 1842 he devoted himself so exclusively to literature that his powers in action were little known to younger men. Only a few now remember what he was as a banker and what he was as a politician. But for many years he has been Vice-Chancellor of the University of London and Vice-President and President of University College, and those who have seen him in those capacities well know that he had all the faculties of a great administrator and many of the faculties of a great ruler. Almost all the important measures of these bodies wear the almost personal mark of his wide knowledge and strenuous decision, and it was difficult in both to carry much in opposition to them.
The style of the History of Greece shows the practical taste of its author in its most marked quality,—its reality. As it is twelve thick volumes long, it cannot be called a short book, but there is not a word added for the sake of effect. Every word was written because it was wanted to express the full meaning of the writer, and because the writer would be content with nothing less that his full meaning. Most writers on ancient subjects leave their readers to suppose something, require of them to fill in some links in the chain of reasoning. But Mr. Grote argues everything out. He tries historical questions as if he were a judge expounding them to a jury. He states every probability, weighs each witness, discusses every reason. It never strikes him that his readers may not wish to go through these processes, that they may not have as much interest in the subject as he has himself. He evidently thinks they ought to wish to know it all, even if they do not. They are impanelled to try the issue, and they are bound in conscience not to relax their attention till they have heard all which can be said about it. The conscientious historian will not let them off a single reason or permit them to omit the minutest authority. The whole style says, from the author to the reader, “Now I want to explain this to you, and I know you want to have it explained to you, therefore let us go all through it”. How different this is from most historians we all know. Most of them never give their readers credit for a sustained interest in the matter in hand; they think that their style must be ornamental or no one will read them; that they must hurry on quick or no one will have patience with them. Probably at times Mr. Grote is needlessly full, and certainly on many occasions he argues the same point too often; the case of the “Sophists” is argued in his “Plato” at least a hundred times, still, on the whole a reader wanting to understand Greek history will be refreshed by a writer “who has no style,” who at least does not think of his style, who pours all his ideas plainly forth, who assumes his readers to be as really interested in the events as if they were his own money matters.
The views of evidence in Mr. Grote’s history are as practical as the style. “Why do I believe events in common life?” he asks. “Because I have the evidence of honest eye-witnesses for them, either given to me at first hand; or communicated through trustworthy channels, and under the same circumstances and no other, will I accept events in history.” Tried by this rigid rule, the Argonautic expedition, the Trojan war, the legends of Thebes vanish alike, and vanish wholly. Sir G. Lewis upon Niebuhr is not more contemptuous than Mr. Grote on the constructive critics—on those who try to make bricks without straw—who think they can evolve “certified fact” from “uncertified fiction,” who have canons of probability, or, what is more convenient, an internal tact by which they learn which is truth and which is legend. Mr. Grote’s questions in all cases are,—who saw this, and how do you know that he saw it? He will listen to nothing else. We need not, indeed we cannot, discuss here whether this is a good theory of evidence or a bad, a complete one or an incomplete, we cite it only as showing the practical bent and bearing of Mr. Grote’s mind. He brings historical evidence “out of the clouds”; he reduces it to the same sort of evidence as that upon which a banker discounts a bill, a politician believes a contemporary conversation.
Practical men have always an object in what they do; and strange as it seems to those who “think over thoughts and live in other days,” Mr. Grote’s object was to refute Mitford. That clever writer is now unread and forgotten, but in his day he was a keen Tory, and discussed the affairs of Athens in the spirit of a Tory. The contest between oligarchy and democracy, between the rule of the many and the rule of the few, was as vigorous in the time of the Peloponnesian war as in that of the first French Revolution, when Mitford lived. Being a Tory, he fell upon the Liberals of Athens as vigorously, as keenly, as unscrupulously as he would have fallen on Mr. Fox and Lord Grey. If there could have been a bill of Pains and Penalties against Cleon, Mr. Mitford would have produced a bill of Pains and Penalties. As he could not do this, he amassed every prejudice and accumulated every innuendo. In Mr. Grote’s youth, more than forty years since, this party pamphlet was in orthodox England received history, and he determined to reply to it. The original design of the twelve volumes, which begin at Troy and end with the death of Alexander, was to refute the accusations of Mitford against Greek Liberals, and expose the false panegyrics of Mitford upon Greek aristocrats. There is much else, of course, in Grote’s history, much else far more valuable. This was the first thought, the young man’s dream of what it was to be.
Mr. Grote was peculiarly likely to write such a reply, for he belonged to a remarkable class of most vigorous Liberals. They were called the “Philosophic Radicals” forty years ago, and had a curious, hard, compact, consistent creed. They were in the most anomalous position possible as politicians. They were unpopular Democrats; they liked the people, but the people did not like them or their ideas; they said that the mass of the nation ought to have direct conclusive power, but the mass of the nation said they would not on any account have such power. To preach that the numerical majority ought to rule to a numerical majority which does not wish to rule is painful. A barbarous demagogue, no doubt, will shout till the people hears. But the “Philosophic Radicals” were not barbarous demagogues, but grave, careful reasoners. They might defend Cleon in theory, but they had no tinge of the Cleon in practice. Some, Mr. Grote even perhaps, would not have borne at all easily the liberties which Cleon would have taken with him. The philosophic Radicals had a lesson to teach the people which the people did not wish to learn, and they were decidedly the last sort of people to make them learn it. It was natural that a man like Mr. Grote, with ample leisure and conscious of great literary power, should turn to a more congenial occupation.
Around the original anti-Mitford thesis Mr. Grote accumulated the most enormous store of miscellaneous knowledge. There was perhaps no subject that he could possibly bring into his theme which he did not bring in, and on which he did not write as fully as it was decent to write. Nor does the trumpet ever give an uncertain sound. Sir George Lewis justly said that Dr. Thirlwall was like Lord Eldon; “he even used his acuteness in order to avoid coming to a decision”. But no one would say this of Mr. Grote. Perhaps he discusses a million subjects or more, and has expressed more than a million distinct opinions. No doubt this omnivorous discussion and this universal copiousness have impaired the merits of the History. The main subject is buried under the collateral, and only a very careful reader can always bear in mind whence he came or perceive why he is going where he seems to be taken. Nor has Mr. Grote, as a mere narrator, any peculiar charm; he tells his story plainly aad fairly, but he does not make you read for the sake of the story. In ancient history, however, mere narrative is almost a secondary element. So many cardinal facts are omitted, and so many important inferences denied, that a perpetual disquisition must be mixed with the regular narrative, and in disquisition Mr. Grote has been very rarely equalled, and never surpassed. That Macaulay’s famous criticism, “too many plums and no suet,” is applicable to Grote’s history is certain, but Greek history is of necessity almost entirely “plums”.
That the political part of Grote’s history is much better than most of the other parts every one will admit. Scarcely any one will now think the treatment of the mythology sufficient. “Prehistoric” speculation, as we now call it, might be made to elucidate the opening part of Greek history. But comparative mythology and prehistoric speculation are subjects which have been quite elaborated afresh since Mr. Grote dealt with the earliest Greece. If they had been known in 1846, we should have had an ample dissertation on them; probably many dissertations. There are defects of omission, and there are other (as most people will think) defects of commission. To estimate Grote’s great work, the greatest philosophical problems and the deepest religious questions must be discussed; on almost every one of them he has expressly given his opinion, or not obscurely hinted it. But we cannot deal with these great subjects now. Gibbon said he was sustained by the hope that “a hundred years hence I might still continue to be abused”. Abuse is not the word for Mr. Grote, but a hundred years hence his writings will still continue to be the ground of controversy and the basis of discussion. The scholarship and the mode of teaching grave history in our time will be judged of hereafter by the History of Greece more than by any other work. “Those who go down to posterity,” said Mr. Disraeli, both wittily and wisely, “are about as rare as planets,” and Mr. Grote will be one of the few in this generation.
ON THE EMOTION OF CONVICTION.
What we commonly term Belief includes, I apprehend, both an Intellectual and an Emotional element; the first we more properly call “assent,” and the second “conviction”. The laws of the Intellectual element in belief are “the laws of evidence,” and have been elaborately discussed; but those of the Emotional part have hardly been discussed at all—indeed, its existence has been scarcely perceived.
In the mind of a rigorously trained inquirer, the process of believing is, I apprehend, this: First comes the investigation, a set of facts are sifted and a set of arguments weighed; then the intellect perceives the result of those arguments, and, we say, assents to it. Then an emotion more or less strong sets in, which completes the whole. In calm and quiet minds, the intellectual part of this process is so much the strongest that they are hardly conscious of anything else; and as these quiet, careful people have written our treatises, we do not find it explained in them how important the emotional part is.
But take the case of the Caliph Omar, according to Gibbon’s description of him. He burnt the Alexandrine Library, saying: “All books which contain what is not in the Koran are dangerous; all those which contain what is in the Koran are useless”. Probably no one ever had an intenser belief in anything than Omar had in this. Yet it is impossible to imagine it preceded by an argument. His belief in Mahomet, in the Koran, and in the sufficiency of the Koran, came to him probably in spontaneous rushes of emotion; there may have been little vestiges of argument floating here and there, but they did not justify the strength of the emotion, still less did they create it, and they hardly even excused it.
There is so commonly some considerable argument for our modern beliefs, that it is difficult now-a-days to isolate the emotional element, and therefore, on the principle that in Metaphysics “egotism is the truest modesty,” I may give myself as an example of utterly irrational conviction. Some years ago I stood for a borough in the West of England, and after a keen contest was defeated by seven. Almost directly afterwards there was accidentally another election, and, as I would not stand, another candidate of my own side was elected, and I of course ceased to have any hold upon the place, or chance of being elected there. But for years I had the deepest conviction that I should be “Member for Bridgwater”; and no amount of reasoning would get it out of my head. The borough is now disfranchised; but even still, if I allow my mind to dwell on the contest,—if I think of the hours I was ahead in the morning, and the rush of votes at two o’clock by which I was defeated,—and even more, if I call up the image of the nomination day, with all the people’s hands outstretched, and all their excited faces looking the more different on account of their identity in posture, the old feeling almost comes back upon me, and for a moment I believe that I shall be Member for Bridgwater.
I should not mention such nonsense, except on an occasion when I may serve as an intellectual “specimen,”1 but I know I wish that I could feel the same hearty, vivid faith in many conclusions of which my understanding says it is satisfied, that I did in this absurdity. And if it should be replied that such folly could be no real belief, for it could not influence any man’s action, I am afraid I must say that it did influence my actions. For a long time the ineradicable fatalistic feeling, that I should some time have this constituency, of which I had no chance, hung about my mind, and diminished my interest in other constituencies, where my chances of election would have been rational at any rate.
This case probably exhibits the maximum of conviction with the minimum of argument, but there are many approximations to it. Persons of untrained minds cannot long live without some belief in any topic which comes much before them. It has been said that if you can only get a middle-class Englishman to think whether there are “snails in Sirius,” he will soon have an opinion on it. It will be difficult to make him think, but if he does think, he cannot rest in a negative, he will come to some decision. And on any ordinary topic, of course, it is so. A grocer has a full creed as to foreign policy, a young lady a complete theory of the sacraments, as to which neither has any doubt whatever. But in talking to such persons, I cannot but remember my Bridgwater experience, and ask whether causes like those which begat my folly may not be at the bottom of their “invincible knowledge”.
Most persons who observe their own thoughts must have been conscious of the exactly opposite state. There are cases where our intellect has gone through the arguments, and we give a clear assent to the conclusions. But our minds seem dry and unsatisfied. In that case we have the intellectual part of Belief, but want the emotional part.
That belief is not a purely intellectual matter is evident from dreams, where we are always believing, but scarcely ever arguing; and from certain forms of insanity, where fixed delusions seize upon the mind and generate a firmer belief than any sane person is capable of. These are, of course, “unorthodox” states of mind; but a good psychology must explain them, nevertheless, and perhaps it would have progressed faster if it had been more ready to compare them with the waking states of sane people.
Probably, when the subject is thoroughly examined, “conviction” will be proved to be one of the intensest of human emotions, and one most closely connected with the bodily state. In cases like the Caliph Omar’s, it governs all other desires, absorbs the whole nature, and rules the whole life. And in such cases it is accompanied or preceded by the sensation that Scott makes his seer describe as the prelude to a prophecy:—
A hot flash seems to burn across the brain. Men in these intense states of mind have altered all history, changed for better or worse the creed of myriads, and desolated or redeemed provinces and ages. Nor is this intensity a sign of truth, for it is precisely strongest in these points in which men differ most from each other. John Knox felt it in his anti-Catholicism; Ignatius Loyola in his anti-Protestantism; and both, I suppose, felt it as much as it is possible to feel it.
Once acutely felt, I believe it is indelible; at least, it does something to the mind which it is hard for anything else to undo. It has been often said that a man who has once really loved a woman, never can be without feeling towards that woman again. He may go on loving her, or he may change and hate her. In the same way, I think, experience proves that no one who has had real passionate conviction of a creed, the sort of emotion that burns hot upon the brain, can ever be indifferent to that creed again. He may continue to believe it, and to love it; or he may change to the opposite, vehemently argue against it, and persecute it. But he cannot forget it. Years afterwards, perhaps, when life changes, when external interests cease to excite, when the apathy to surroundings which belongs to the old, begins all at once, to the wonder of later friends, who cannot imagine what is come to him, the grey-headed man returns to the creed of his youth.
The explanation of these facts in metaphysical books is very imperfect. Indeed, I only know one school which professes to explain the emotional, as distinguished from the intellectual element in belief. Mr. Bain (after Mr. Mill)1 speaks very instructively of the “animal nature of belief,” but when he comes to trace its cause, his analysis seems, to me at least, utterly unsatisfactory. He says that, “the state of belief is identical with the activity or active disposition of the system at the moment with reference to the thing believed”. But in many cases there is firm belief where there is no possibility of action or tendency to it. A girl in a country parsonage will be sure “that Paris never can be taken,” or that “Bismarck is a wretch,” without being able to act on these ideas or wanting to act on them. Many beliefs, in Coleridge’s happy phrase, slumber in the “dormitory of the soul”;1 they are present to the consciousness, but they incite to no action. And perhaps Coleridge is an example of misformed mind in which not only may “Faith” not produce “works,” but in which it had a tendency to prevent works. Strong convictions gave him a kind of cramp in the will, and he could not act on them. And in very many persons much-indulged conviction exhausts the mind with the attached ideas; teases it, and so, when the time of action comes, makes it apt to turn to different, perhaps opposite ideas, and to act on them in preference.
As far as I can perceive, the power of an idea to cause conviction, independently of any intellectual process, depends on four properties.
1st. Clearness. The more unmistakable an idea is to a particular mind, the more is that mind predisposed to believe it. In common life we may constantly see this. If you once make a thing quite clear to a person, the chances are that you will almost have persuaded him of it. Half the world only understand what they believe, and always believe what they understand.
2nd. Intensity. This is the main cause why the ideas that flash on the minds of seers, as in Scott’s description, are believed; they come mostly when the nerves are exhausted by fasting, watching and longing; they have a peculiar brilliancy, and therefore they are believed. To this cause I trace too my fixed folly as to Bridgwater. The idea of being member for the town had been so intensely brought home to me by the excitement of a contest, that I could not eradicate it, and that as soon as I recalled any circumstances of the contest it always came back in all its vividness.
3rd. Constancy. As a rule, almost every one does accept the creed of the place in which he lives, and everyone without exception has a tendency to do so. There are, it is true, some minds which a mathematician might describe as minds of “contrary flexure,” whose particular bent it is to contradict what those around them say. And the reason is that in their minds the opposite aspect of every subject is always vividly presented. But even such minds usually accept the axioms of their district, the tenets which everybody always believes. They only object to the variable elements; to the inferences and deductions drawn by some, but not by all.
4th. On the Interestingness of the idea, by which I mean the power of the idea to gratify some wish or want of the mind. The most obvious is curiosity about something which is important to me. Rumours that gratify this excite a sort of half-conviction without the least evidence, and with a very little evidence a full, eager, not to say a bigoted one. If a person go into a mixed company, and say authoritatively “that the Cabinet is nearly divided on the Russian question, and that it was only decided by one vote to send Lord Granville’s despatch,” most of the company will attach some weight more or less to the story, without asking how the secret was known. And if the narrator casually add that he has just seen a subordinate member of the Government, most of the hearers will go away and repeat the anecdote with grave attention, though it does not in the least appear that the lesser functionary told the anecdote about the Cabinet, or that he knew what passed at it.
And the interest is greater when the news falls in with the bent of the hearer. A sanguine man will believe with scarcely any evidence that good luck is coming, and a dismal man that bad luck is coming. As far as I can make out, the professional “bulls” and “bears” of the City do believe a great deal of what they say, though, of course, there are exceptions, and though neither the most sanguine “bull” nor the most dismal “bear” can believe all he says.
Of course, I need not say that this “quality” peculiarly attaches to the greatest problems of human life. The firmest convictions of the most inconsistent answers to the everlasting questions “whence?” and “whither?” have been generated by this “interestingness” without evidence on which one would invest a penny.
In one case, these causes of irrational conviction seem contradictory. Clearness, as we have seen, is one of them; but obscurity, when obscure things are interesting, is a cause too. But there is no real difficulty here. Human nature at different times exhibits contrasted impulses. There is a passion for sensualism, that is, to eat and drink; and a passion for asceticism, that is, not to eat and drink; so it is quite likely that the clearness of an idea may sometimes cause a movement of conviction, and that the obscurity of another idea may at other times cause one too.
These laws, however, are complex—can they be reduced to any simpler law of human nature? I confess I think that they can, but at the same time I do not presume to speak with the same confidence about it that I have upon other points. Hitherto I have been dealing with the common facts of the adult human mind, as we may see it in others and feel it in ourselves. But I am now going to deal with the “prehistoric” period of the mind in early childhood, as to which there is necessarily much obscurity.
My theory is, that in the first instance a child believes everything. Some of its states of consciousness are perceptive or presentative,—that is, they tell it of some heat or cold, some resistance or non-resistance, then and there present. Other states of consciousness are representative,—that is, they say that certain sensations could be felt or certain facts perceived, in time past or in time to come, or at some place, no matter at what time, then and there out of the reach of perception and sensation. In mature life, too, we have these presentative and representative states in every sort of mixture, but we make a distinction between them. Without remark and without doubt, we believe the “evidence of our senses,” that is, the facts of present sensation and perception; but we do not believe at once and instantaneously the representative states as to what is non-present, whether in time or space. But I apprehend that this is an acquired distinction, and that in early childhood every state of consciousness is believed, whether it be presentative or representative.
Certainly at the beginning of the “historic” period we catch the mind at a period of extreme credulity. When memory begins, and when speech and signs suffice to make a child intelligible, belief is almost omnipresent, and doubt almost never to be found. Childlike credulity is a phrase of the highest antiquity, and of the greatest present aptness.
So striking, indeed, on certain points, is this impulse to believe, that philosophers have invented various theories to explain in detail some of its marked instances. Thus it has been said that children have an intuitive disposition to believe in “testimony”—that is, in the correctness of statements orally made to them. And that they do so is certain. Every child believes what the footman tells it, what its nurse tells it, and what its mother tells it, and probably every one’s memory will carry him back to the horrid mass of miscellaneous confusion which he acquired by believing all he heard. But though it is certain that a child believes all assertions made to it, it is not certain that the child so believes in consequence of a special intuitive predisposition restricted to such assertions. It may be that this indiscriminate belief in all sayings is but a relic of an omnivorous acquiescence in all states of consciousness, which is only just extinct when childhood is plain enough to be understood, or old enough to be remembered.
Again, it has been said much more plausibly that we want an intuitive tendency to account for our belief in memory. But I question whether it can be shown that a little child does believe in its memories more confidently than in its imaginations. A child of my acquaintance corrected its mother, who said that “they should never see” two of its dead brothers again, and maintained, “Oh yes, mamma, we shall; we shall see them in heaven, and they will be so glad to see us”. And then the child cried with disappointment because its mother, though a most religious lady, did not seem exactly to feel that seeing her children in that manner was as good as seeing them on earth. Now I doubt if that child did not believe this expectation quite as confidently as it believed any past fact, or as it could believe anything at all, and though the conclusion may be true, plainly the child believed, not from the efficacy of the external evidence, but from a strong rush of inward confidence. Why, then, should we want a special intuition to make children believe past facts when, in truth, they go farther and believe with no kind of difficulty future facts as well as past?
If on so abstruse a matter I might be allowed a graphic illustration, I should define doubt as “hesitation produced by collision”. A child possessed with the notion that all its fancies are true, finds that acting on one of them brings its head against the table. This gives it pain, and makes it hesitate as to the expediency of doing it again. Early childhood is an incessant education in scepticism, and early youth is so too. All boys are always knocking their heads against the physical world, and all young men are constantly knocking their heads against the social world. And both of them from the same cause—that they are subject to an eruption of emotion which engenders a strong belief, but which is as likely to cause a belief in falsehood as in truth. Gradually, under the tuition of a painful experience, we come to learn that our strongest convictions may be quite false, that many of our most cherished ones are and have been false; and this causes us to seek a “criterion” as to which beliefs are to be trusted and which are not; and so we are beaten back to the laws of evidence for our guide, though, as Bishop Butler said, in a similar case, we object to be bound by anything so “poor”.1
That it is really this contention with the world which destroys conviction and which causes doubt, is shown by examining the cases where the mind is secluded from the world. In “dreams,” where we are out of collision with fact, we accept everything as it comes, believe everything and doubt nothing. And in violent cases of mania, where the mind is shut up within itself, and cannot, from impotence, perceive what is without, it is as sure of the most chance fancy, as in health it would be of the best proved truths.
And upon this theory we perceive why the four tendencies to irrational conviction which I have set down, survive, and remain in our adult hesitating state as vestiges of our primitive all-believing state. They are all from various causes “adhesive” states—states which it is very difficult to get rid of, and which, in consequence, have retained their power of creating belief in the mind, when other states, which once possessed it too, have quite lost it. Clear ideas are certainly more difficult to get rid of than obscure ones. Indeed, some obscure ones we cannot recover, if we once lose them. Everybody, perhaps, has felt all manner of doubts and difficulties in mastering a mathematical problem. At the time, the difficulties seemed as real as the problem, but a day or two after a man has mastered it, he will be wholly unable to imagine or remember where the difficulties were. The demonstration will be perfectly clear to him, and he will be unable to comprehend how any one should fail to perceive it. For life he will recall the clear ideas, but the obscure ones he will never recall, though for some hours, perhaps, they were painful, confused, and oppressive obstructions. Intense ideas are, as every one will admit, recalled more easily than slight and weak ideas. Constantly impressed ideas are brought back by the world around us, and if they are so often, get so tied to our other ideas that we can hardly wrench them away. Interesting ideas stick in the mind by the associations which give them interest. All the minor laws of conviction resolve themselves into this great one: “That at first we believe all which occurs to us—that afterwards we have a tendency to believe that which we cannot help often occurring to us, and that this tendency is stronger or weaker in some sort of proportion to our inability to prevent the recurrence”. When the inability to prevent the recurrence of the idea is very great, so that the reason is powerless on the mind, the consequent “conviction” is an eager, irritable, and ungovernable passion.
If these principles are true, they suggest some lessons which are not now accepted. They prove:—
1. That we should be very careful how we let ourselves believe that which may turn out to be error. Milton says that “error is but opinion,” meaning true opinion, “in the making”. But when the conviction of any error is a strong passion, it leaves, like all other passions, a permanent mark on the mind. We can never be as if we had never felt it. “Once a heretic, always a heretic,” is thus far true, that a mind once given over to a passionate conviction is never as fit as it would otherwise have been to receive the truth on the same subject. Years after the passion may return upon him, and inevitably small recurrences of it will irritate his intelligence and disturb its calm. We cannot at once expel a familiar idea, and so long as the idea remains, its effect will remain too.
2. That we must always keep an account in our minds of the degree of evidence on which we hold our convictions, and be most careful that we do not permanently permit ourselves to feel a stronger conviction than the evidence justifies. If we do, since evidence is the only criterion of truth, we may easily get a taint of error that may be hard to clear away. This may seem obvious, yet, if I do not mistake, Father Newman’s Grammar of Assent is little else than a systematic treatise designed to deny and confute it.
3. That if we do, as in life we must sometimes, indulge a “provisional enthusiasm,” as it may be called, for an idea—for example, if an orator in the excitement of speaking does not keep his phrases to probability, and if in the hurry of emotion he quite believes all he says, his plain duty is on other occasions to watch himself carefully, and to be sure that he does not as a permanent creed believe what in a peculiar and temporary state he was led to say he felt and to feel.
Similarly, we are all in our various departments of life in the habit of assuming various probabilities as if they were certainties. In Lombard Street the dealers assume that “Messrs. Baring’s acceptance at three months’ date is sure to be paid,” and that “Peel’s Act will always be suspended in a panic”. And the familiarity of such ideas makes it nearly impossible for any one who spends his day in Lombard Street to doubt of them. But, nevertheless, a person who takes care of his mind will keep up the perception that they are not certainties.
Lastly, we should utilise this intense emotion of conviction as far as we can. Dry minds, which give an intellectual “assent” to conclusions which feel no strong glow of faith in them, often do not know what their opinions are. They have every day to go over the arguments again, or to refer to a note-book to know what they believe. But intense convictions make a memory for themselves, and if they can be kept to the truths of which there is good evidence, they give a readiness of intellect, a confidence in action, a consistency in character, which are not to be had without them. For a time, indeed, they give these benefits when the propositions believed are false, but then they spoil the mind for seeing the truth, and they are very dangerous, because the believer may discover his error, and a perplexity of intellect, a hesitation in action, and an inconsistency in character are the sure consequences of an entire collapse in pervading and passionate conviction.
MR. LOWE AS CHANCELLOR OF THE EXCHEQUER.
“An oak,” said a great Irish orator,1 who did not succeed so well as he expected in England, “an oak should not be transplanted at fifty.” And we believe that to be the reason why Mr. Lowe—though in many respects he has shown great ability as Finance Minister—upon the whole has not, as yet, succeeded better than many much stupider men, nor as well as his genius deserved. Mr. Lowe, before he began his finance studies, had already “invested” so much mind that most men would have had no more left. His career at Oxford was unusually long; he was not a mere student who took high honours. After that he stayed several years as a working tutor, and has described to a Royal Commission how steadily he worked for ten hours a day as a “coach,” and how little in consequence he accepts the “romance” of tuition. And the inevitable result has been that Mr. Lowe has become a scholar, not only as young students become such, but as men of maturer years, who mean to earn money by it, become scholars. A certain part of the substance of his mind is embarked in that pursuit, and cannot now be transferred to any other. After leaving Oxford, Mr. Lowe made himself not only an excellent English lawyer, but an admirable general jurist. He is acquainted not only with the technicalities of English law, but with the structure of other systems of law, and with the principles of scientific jurisprudence. He has studied what Bentham said law “ought” to be, and what Austin said law “must” be. And this too is a very exhausting study, requiring, if the knowledge is really to be acquired as Mr. Lowe has acquired it, and retained as he retains it, a great “capital” of mind. No one can wonder that when, on the verge of threescore, he was suddenly made Finance Minister, he should not possess or display so much free and applicable mind as some younger men. Great mind he must always display. But he had not displayed proportionate mind—proportioned, we mean, to the immense abilities which every one knows he has. After all, there is only room in even the largest head for a certain number of thoughts, and Mr. Lowe had crowded his, long before he had tried finance, with many dissimilar and occupying ideas.
It is true that under our Parliamentary system, ministers of as mature an age as Mr. Lowe are not unfrequently transferred from post to post, and are placed in charge of offices with whose subjects they have no knowledge. No one supposes that Mr. Cardwell knew much of military business before he was made Secretary for War; and yet unquestionably he has pulled the Army Regulation Bill better through Parliament than the planners who contrived it, or the soldiers who will act on it. But these transferable statesmen commonly belong to a different class from Mr. Lowe. Like Mr. Cardwell, they are trained Parliamentary advocates. They have learned to know the House of Commons, and the way of putting an argument so as to suit the House of Commons, as a long-practised advocate knows the sort of arguments which suit a jury, and the most telling way in which to state them to a jury. Sir Robert Peel was once said to know how to “dress up a case for Parliament” better than any one else. And in this art these are two secrets of which Mr. Cardwell is an eminent master. The first is always to content yourself with the minimum of general maxims which will suit your purpose and prove what you want. By so doing, you offend as few people as possible, you startle as few people as possible, and you expose yourself to as few retorts as possible. And the second secret is to make the whole discussion very uninteresting—to leave an impression that the subject is very dry, that it is very difficult, that the department has attended to the dreary detail of it, and that on the whole it is safer to leave it to the department, and a dangerous responsibility to interfere with the department. The faculty of disheartening adversaries by diffusing on occasion an oppressive atmosphere of business-like dulness is invaluable to a Parliamentary statesman.
But these arts Mr. Lowe does not possess. He cannot help being brilliant. The quality of his mind is to put everything in the most lively, most exciting, and most startling form. He cannot talk that monotonous humdrum which men scarcely listen to, which lulls them to sleep, but which seems to them the “sort of thing you would expect,” which they suppose is “all right”. And Mr. Lowe’s mode of using general principles not only is not that which a Parliamentary tactician would recommend, but is the very reverse of what he would advise. Mr. Lowe always ascends to the widest generalities; the axiomata media, as logicians have called them—the middle principles, in which most minds feel most reality and on which they find it most easy to rest—have no charms for him. He likes to go back to the bone, to the abstract, to the attenuated, and if he left these remote principles in their remote unintelligibility, he would not suffer so much. But he makes the dry bones live. He wraps them in illustrations which Macaulay might envy. And he is all the more effective, because he uses our vernacular tongue. The phrases that “the money market must take care of itself,” and that “it was not the business of the Treasury to cocker up the Bank of England,” will long be remembered, and will longer impair his influence with grave, quiet, and influential persons. Mr. Lowe startles those who do not like to be startled, and does not compose those who wish to be composed—those who need a little commonplace to assure them that they are acting on safe principles—that they are not, according to the saying, “lighting the streets with fireworks”.
These defects would be felt in any new office; but besides these, Mr. Lowe has one—a physical one—to which he has often himself alluded, and which hampers him beyond expression. In our younger days he would have been cited in books of “entertaining knowledge” as a conspicuous instance of the “pursuit of knowledge under difficulties”. Being almost unable to read books with his own eyes, he knows more about books than almost any one who has eyes. A wonderful memory, and an intense wish to know the truth, have filled his head with knowledge; but though great powers may compensate for inherent defects, none, not even the greatest, can annihilate those defects. They are ineradicable, and the consequences of them will come back again to lessen every victory, and to enhance every disaster. It is so with Mr. Lowe in this case. A man who cannot easily read figures for himself, who cannot manipulate them for himself, who cannot throw them into various shapes, as it were, on trial for himself, cannot be a great financier. Our greatest financiers, Pitt, Peel, and Gladstone, have all of them been men who did not take their figures from others, but who spent a great—almost an excessive—labour on the minutiæ of them for themselves. It is from no lack of labour, and no lack of mind, that Mr. Lowe does not do this. By physical constitution he is incapable of it.
Something of this is at the bottom of Mr. Lowe’s occasionally defective dealing with small financial forms, which was the only point that Mr. Disraeli made against him in criticising his Budget. It is hardly possible that a man with such immense disadvantages for business can have his tackle quite as ready and quite as perfect as those who are more fortunate. And Mr. Disraeli is scarcely the man who ought to have made the taunt. No one regards these legal forms with more sublime indifference than he does when it suits his object. “Gentlemen of the long robe,” he used to say when in office, “will attend to these details”; and he would have deemed it absurd that a minister, charged with the fate of Cabinets and the policy of measures, should even consider them. And perhaps he was right; perhaps it would have been absurd. But what is unnecessary for one minister cannot be incumbent on another similar minister. It was not for Mr. Disraeli, who has scarcely seemed to be able to see details and technicalities (so exclusively did he look on them from the most elevated heights of policy), to reproach Mr. Lowe with a few trivial, innocuous, and excusable deficiencies in them.
The result of all this is very plain. It is that Mr. Lowe is under peculiar difficulties in finance—that it is not a region in which his great powers can ever show to the best advantage—that, on the contrary, it is a region in which they will frequently be seen to the greatest disadvantage. But there is a profound truth in the saying that “men of pre-eminent ability are always safe”; not of course that so wide a phrase is to be taken exactly to the letter, but that there is a “reserve fund” in the highest ability which will enable it to pull through scrapes, to remedy errors, to surmount disasters, which would ruin and bury common men. Mr. Lowe will certainly not have an unchequered reign at the Exchequer; but he may reign long, he may do much good, and notwithstanding many failures and defects, may leave the special stamp and impress of his mind on many great Budgets and important measures.
THE ENGLISH CONSTITUTION.1
[1 ]Diary, Reminiscences, and Correspondence of Henry Crabb Robinson, Barrister-at-Law, F.S.A. Selected and Edited by Thomas Sadler, Ph.D. In Three Volumes. London, 1869.
[1 ] “Excursion,” book vii.
[1 ] “Paradise Lost,” book viii.
[1 ] Vol. i., chap. ii.
[2 ] “Since writing the above, Baron Rolfe has verified my prediction more strikingly by being created a peer, by the title of Lord Cranworth, and appointed a Vice-Chancellor. Soon after his appointment, he called on me, and I dined with him. I related to Lady Cranworth the anecdote given above, of my conversation with my brother, with which she was evidently pleased. Lady Cranworth was the daughter of Mr. Carr, Sol citor to the Excise, whom I formerly used to visit, and ought soon to find some mention of in my journals. Lord Cranworth continues to enjoy universal respect.—H. C. R., 1851.”
[1 ] Vol. ii., chap. vi.
[1 ] See a very able paper by W. A. Jevons, of Liverpool, on “The Relation between the Two Branches of the Legal Profession,” read before the Law Society of Liverpool.
[1 ]The Fortnightly Review.
[1 ] This article was published in the Spectator of 24th June, 1871.—E. Bagehot.
[1 ] It should be stated that this essay was originally read as a paper before a society which discussed subjects of a metaphysical nature.
[1 ] “Lady of the Lake,” canto iv.
[1 ] Note 107 on chap. xi. of James Mill’s Analysis of the Human Mind. (Forrest Morgan.)
[1 ] Aphorism 1 of Aids to Reflection.
[1 ]Analogy, part ii., chap. viii., 4th paragraph.
[1 ] Henry Grattan.
[1 ] The first edition of this book was published in 1867 but Mr. Bagehot added an important preface to the edition of 1872 which forms an integral part of the work.—E. Bagehot.