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CHARACTER OF THE RIGHT HONOURABLE GEORGE CANNING. * - Sir James Mackintosh, The Miscellaneous Works 
The Miscellaneous Works. Three Volumes, complete in One. (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1871).
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CHARACTER OF THE RIGHT HONOURABLE GEORGE CANNING.*
Without invidious comparison, it may be safely said that, from the circumstances in which he died, his death was more generally interesting among civilized nations than that of any other English statesman had ever been. It was an event in the internal history of every country. From Lima to Athens, every nation struggling for independence or existence, was filled by it with sorrow and dismay. The Miguelites of Portugal, the Apostolicals of Spain, the Jesuit faction in France, and the Divan of Constantinople, raised a shout of joy at the fall of their dreaded enemy. He was regretted by all who, heated by no personal or party resentment, felt for genius struck down in the act of attempting to heal the revolutionary distemper, and to render future improvements pacific, on the principle since successfully adopted by more fortunate, though not more deserving, ministers,—that of an honest compromise between the interests and the opinions,—the prejudices and the demands,—of the supporters of establishments, and the followers of reformation.
* * * * *
The family of Mr. Canning, which for more than a century had filled honourable stations in Ireland, was a younger branch of an ancient one among the English gentry. His father, a man of letters, had been disinherited for an imprudent marriage; and the inheritance went to a younger brother, whose son was afterwards created Lord Garvagh. Mr. Canning was educated at Eton and Oxford, according to that exclusively classical system, which, whatever may be its defects, must be owned, when taken with its constant appendages, to be eminently favourable to the cultivation of sense and taste, as well as to the development of wit and spirit. From his boyhood he was the foremost among very distinguished contemporaries, and continued to be regarded as the best specimen, and the most brilliant representative, of that eminently national education. His youthful eye sparkled with quickness and arch pleasantry; and his countenance early betrayed that jealousy of his own dignity, and sensibility to suspected disregard, which were afterwards softened, but never quite subdued. Neither the habits of a great school, nor those of a popular assembly, were calculated to weaken his love of praise and passion for distinction: but, as he advanced in years, his fine countenance was ennobled by the expression of thought and feeling; he more pursued that lasting praise, which is not to be earned without praiseworthiness; and, if he continued to be a lover of fame, he also passionately loved the glory of his country. Even he who almost alone was entitled to look down on fame as ‘that last infirmity of noble minds,’ had not forgotten that it was—
“The spur that the clear spirit doth raise, To scorn delights, and live laborious days.”*
The natural bent of character is, perhaps, better ascertained from the undisturbed and unconscious play of the mind in the common intercourse of society, than from its movements under the power of strong interest or warm passions in public life. In social intercourse Mr. Canning was delightful. Happily for the true charm of his conversation he was too busy not to treat society as more fitted for relaxation than for display. It is but little to say, that he was neither disputatious declamatory, nor sententious,—neither a dictator nor a jester. His manner was simple and unobtrusive; his language always quite familiar. If a higher thought stole from his mind, it came in its conversational undress. From this plain ground his pleasantry sprang with the happiest effect; and it was nearly exempt from that alloy of taunt and banter, which he sometimes mixed with more precious materials in public contest. He may be added to the list of those eminent persons who pleased most in their friendly circle. He had the agreeable quality of being more easily pleased in society than might have been expected from the keenness of his discernment, and the sensibility of his temper: still he was liable to be discomposed, or even silenced, by the presence of any one whom he did not like. His manner in company betrayed the political vexations or anxietres which preyed on his mind: nor could he conceal that sensitiveness to public attacks which their frequent recurrence wears out in most English politicians. These last foibles may be thought interesting as the remains of natural character, not destroyed by refined society and political affairs. He was assailed by some adversaries so ignoble as to wound him through his filial affection, which preserved its respectful character through the whole course of his advancement.
The ardent zeal for his memory, which appeared immediately after his death, attests the warmth of those domestic affections which seldom prevail where they are not mutual. To his touching epitaph on his son, parental love has given a charm which is wanting in his other verses. It was said of him, at one time, that no man had so little popularity and such affectionate friends, and the truth was certainly more sacrificed to point in the former than in the latter member of the contrast. Some of his friendships continued in spite of political differences (which, by rendering intercourse less unconstrained, often undermine friendship;) and others were remarkable for a warmth, constancy, and disinterestedness, which, though chiefly honourable to those who were capable of so pure a kindness, yet redound to the credit of him who was the object of it. No man is thus beloved who is not himself formed for friendship.
Notwithstanding his disregard for money, he was not tempted in youth by the example or the kindness of affluent friends much to overstep his little patrimony. He never afterwards sacrificed to parade or personal indulgence; though his occupations scarcely allowed him to think enough of his private affairs. Even from his moderate fortune, his bounty was often liberal to suitors to whom official relief could not be granted. By a sort of generosity still harder for him to practise, he endeavoured, in cases where the suffering was great, though the suit could not be granted, to satisfy the feelings of the suitor by a full explanation in writing of the causes which rendered compliance impracticable. Wherever he took an interest, he showed it as much by delicacy to the feelings of those whom he served or relieved, as by substantial consideration for their claims;—a rare and most praiseworthy merit among men in power.
In proportion as the opinion of a people acquires influence over public affairs, the faculty of persuading men to support or oppose political measures acquires importance. The peculiar nature of Parliamentary debate contributes to render eminence in that province not so imperfect a test of political ability as it might appear to be. Recited speeches can seldom show more than powers of reasoning and imagination; which have little connection with a capacity for affairs. But the unforeseen events of debate, and the necessity of immediate answer in unpremeditated language, afford scope for the quickness, firmness, boldness, wariness, presence of mind, and address in the management of men, which are among the qualities most essential to a statesman. The most flourishing period of our Parliamentary eloquence extends for about half a century,—from the maturity of Lord Chatham’s genius to the death of Mr. Fox. During the twenty years which succeeded, Mr. Canning was sometimes the leader, and always the greatest orator, of the party who supported the Administration; in which there were able men who supported, without rivalling him, against opponents also not thought by him inconsiderable. Of these last, one, at least, was felt by every hearer, and acknowledged in private by himself, to have always forced his faculties to their very uttermost stretch.*
Had he been a dry and meagre speaker, he would have been universally allowed to have been one of the greatest masters of argument; but his hearers were so dazzled by the splendour of his diction, that they did not perceive the acuteness and the occasionally excessive refinement of his reasoning; a consequence which, as it shows the injurious influence of a seductive fault, can with the less justness be overlooked in the estimate of his understanding. Ornament, it must be owned, when it only pleases or amuses, without disposing the audience to adopt the sentiments of the speaker, is an offence against the first law of public speaking; it obstructs instead of promoting its only reasonable purpose. But eloquence is a widely extended art, comprehending many sorts of excellence; in some of which ornamented diction is more liberally employed than in others; and in none of which the highest rank can be attained, without an extraordinary combination of mental powers. Among our own orators, Mr. Canning seems to have been the best model of the adorned style. The splendid and sublime descriptions of Mr. Burke,—his comprehensive and profound views of general principle,—though they must ever delight and instruct the reader, must be owned to have been digressions which diverted the mind of the hearer from the object on which the speaker ought to have kept it steadily fixed. Sheridan, a man of admirable sense, and matchless wit, laboured to follow Burke into the foreign regions of feeling and grandeur. The specimens preserved of his most celebrated speeches show too much of the exaggeration and excess to which those are peculiarly liable who seek by art and effort what nature has denied. By the constant part which Mr. Canning took in debate, he was called upon to show a knowledge which Sheridan did not possess, and a readiness which that accomplished man had no such means of strengthening and displaying. In some qualities of style, Mr. Canning surpassed Mr. Pitt. His diction was more various,—sometimes more simple,—more idiomatical, even in its more elevated parts. It sparkled with imagery, and was brightened by illustration; in both of which Mr. Pitt, for so great an orator, was defective.
No English speaker used the keen and brilliant weapon of wit so long, so often, or so effectively, as Mr. Canning. He gained more triumphs, and incurred more enmity, by it than by any other. Those whose importance depends much on birth and fortune are impatient of seeing their own artificial dignity, or that of their order, broken down by derision; and perhaps few men heartily forgive a successful jest against themselves, but those who are conscious of being unhurt by it. Mr. Canning often used this talent imprudently. In sudden flashes of wit, and in the playful description of men or things, he was often distinguished by that natural felicity which is the charm of pleasantry; to which the air of art and labour is more fatal than to any other talent. Sheridan was sometimes betrayed by an imitation of the dialogue of his master, Congreve, into a sort of laboured and finished jesting, so balanced and expanded, as sometimes to vie in tautology and monotony with the once applauded triads of Johnson; and which, even in its most happy passages, is more sure of commanding serious admiration than hearty laughter. It cannot be denied that Mr. Canning’s taste was, in this respect, somewhat influenced by the example of his early friend. The exuberance of fancy and wit lessened the gravity of his general manner, and perhaps also indisposed the audience to feel his earnestness where it clearly showed itself. In that important quality he was inferior to Mr. Pitt,—
“Deep on whose front engraven, Deliberation sat, and public care;”*
and no less inferior to Mr. Fox, whose fervid eloquence flowed from the love of his country, the scorn of baseness, and the hatred of cruelty, which were the ruling passions of his nature.
On the whole, it may be observed, that the range of Mr. Canning’s powers as an orator was wider than that in which he usually exerted them. When mere statement only was allowable, no man of his age was more simple. When infirm health compelled him to be brief, no speaker could compress his matter with so little sacrifice of clearness, ease, and elegance. In his speech on Colonial Reformation, in 1823, he seemed to have brought down the philosophical principles and the moral sentiments of Mr. Burke to that precise level where they could be happily blended with a grave and dignified speech, intended as an introduction to a new system of legislation. As his oratorical faults were those of youthful genius, the progress of age seemed to purify his eloquence, and every year appeared to remove some speck which hid, or, at least, dimmed, a beauty. He daily rose to larger views, and made, perhaps, as near approaches to philosophical principles as the great difence between the objects of the philosopher and those of the orator will commonly allow.
Mr. Canning possessed, in a high degree, the outward advantages of an orator. His expressive countenance varied with the changes of his eloquence: his voice, flexible and articulate, had as much compass as his mode of speaking required. In the calm part of his speeches, his attitude and gesture might have been selected by a painter to represent grace rising towards dignity.
When the memorials of his own time,—the composition of which he is said never to have interrupted in his busiest moments,—are made known to the public, his abilities as a writer may be better estimated. His only known writings in prose are State Papers, which, when considered as the composition of a Minister for Foreign Affairs, in one of the most extraordinary periods of European history, are undoubtedly of no small importance. Such of these papers as were intended to be a direct appeal to the judgment of mankind combine so much precision, with such uniform circumspection and dignity, that they must ever be studied as models of that very difficult species of composition. His Instructions to ministers abroad, on occasions both perplexing and momentous, will be found to exhibit a rare union of comprehensive and elevated views, with singular ingenuity in devising means of execution; on which last faculty he sometimes relied perhaps more confidently than the short and dim foresight of man will warrant. “Great affairs,” says Lord Bacon, “are commonly too coarse and stubborn to be worked upon by the fine edges and points of wit.”* His papers in negotiation were occasionally somewhat too controversial in their tone: they were not near enough to the manner of an amicable conversation about a disputed point of business, in which a negotiator does not so much draw out his argument, as hint his own object, and sound the intention of his opponent. He sometimes seems to have pursued triumph more than advantage, and not to have remembered that to leave the opposite party satisfied with what he has got, and in good humour with himself, is not one of the least proofs of a negotiator’s skill. Where the papers were intended ultimately to reach the public through Parliament, it might have been prudent to regard chiefly the final object; and when this excuse was wanting, much must be pardoned to the controversial habits of a Parliamentary life. It is hard for a debater to be a negotiator: the faculty of guiding public assemblies is very remote from the art of dealing with individuals.
Mr. Canning’s power of writing verse may rather be classed with his accomplishments, than numbered among his high and noble faculties. It would have been a distinction for an inferior man. His verses were far above those of Cicero, of Burke, and of Bacon. The taste prevalent in his youth led him to feel more relish for sententious declaimers than is shared by lovers of the true poetry of imagination and sensibility. In some respects his poetical compositions were also influenced by his early intercourse with Mr. Sheridan, though he was restrained by his more familiar contemplation of classical models from the glittering conceits of that extraordinary man. Something of an artificial and composite diction is discernible in the English poems of those who have acquired reputation by Latin verse,—more especially since the pursuit of rigid purity has required so timid an imitation as not only to confine itself to the words, but to adopt none but the phrases of ancient poets. Of this effect Gray must be allowed to furnish an example.
Absolute silence about Mr. Canning’s writings as a political satirist,—which were for their hour so popular,—might be imputed to undue timidity. In that character he yielded to General Fitzpatrick in arch stateliness and poignant raillery; to Mr. Moore in the gay prodigality with which he squanders his countless stores of wit; and to his own friend Mr. Frere in the richness of a native vein of original and fantastic drollery. In that ungenial province, where the brightest of laurels are apt very soon to fade, and where Dryden only boasts immortal lays, it is perhaps his best praise to record that there is no writing of his, which a man of honour might not have avowed as soon as the first heat of contest was past.
In some of the amusements or tasks of his boyhood there are passages which, without much help from fancy, might appear to contain allusions to his greatest measures of policy, as well as to the tenor of his life, and to the melancholy splendour which surrounded his death. In the concluding line of the first English verses written by him at Eton, he expressed a wish, which has been singularly realised, that he might
“Live in a blaze, and in a blaze expire.”
It is a striking coincidence, that the statesman, whose dying measure was to mature an alliance for the deliverance of Greece, should, when a boy, have written English verses on the slavery of that country; and that in his prize poem at Oxford, on the Pilgrimage to Mecca,—a composition as much applauded as a modern Latin poem can aspire to be—he should have as bitterly deplored the lot of other renowned countries, now groaning under the same barbarous yoke,—
“Nunc Satrapæ imperio et sævo subdita Turcæ.”*
To conclude:—he was a man of fine and brilliant genius, of warm affections, of a high and generous spirit,—a statesman who, at home, converted most of his opponents into warm supporters; who, abroad, was the sole hope and trust of all who sought an orderly and legal liberty; and who was cut off in the midst of vigorous and splendid measures, which, if executed by himself, or with his own spirit, promised to place his name in the first class of rulers, among the founders of lasting peace, and the guardians of human improvement.
[* ] Contributed to the “Keepsake of 1828, under the title of “Sketch of a Fragment of the History of the Nineteenth Century,” in which, as the Author announces in a notice prefixed to it, the temper of the future historian of the present times is affected.—Ed.
[* ] Lycidas.
[* ] Mr. (now Lord) Brougham is the person alruded to.—Ed.
[* ] Paradise Lost, Book II.—Ed.
[* ] It may be proper to remind the reader, that here the word “wit” is used in its ancient sense.
[* ] Iter ad Meccam, Oxford, 1789.