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THE EARL OF CLARENDON. (1870.) - 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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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.