Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XII.: BACK AT HOME. 1842—43. Æt. 22—23. - An Autobiography, vol. 1
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CHAPTER XII.: BACK AT HOME. 1842—43. Æt. 22—23. - Herbert Spencer, An Autobiography, vol. 1 
An Autobiography by Herbert Spencer. Illustrated in Two Volumes. Vol. I (New York: D. Appleton and Company 1904).
Part of: An Autobiography
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BACK AT HOME.
Beyond completion of this series of short essays, of which less than half were written at Hinton, there came before me soon after my return another subject of interest. A letter of July 11, 1842, to my father, who was still at the sea-side, closed with the sentence:—“Lott has just called to take me to a lecture on Phonography, so that I have no more time to spare for you.”
The attendance on this lecture had sequences immediate and remote. During many preceding years my father had been, at leisure, elaborating a new system of shorthand. When, as a boy of thirteen, I went to Hinton, it had reached such a stage that I was—not much to my satisfaction—required to take down in it, notes of my uncle’s sermons: very brief notes they were, as may be supposed. During subsequent years successive improvements were made in it, and, by the time I was 21, it had assumed its final form—final, at least, in respect of its essentials; though, prompted by his restless ideality, my father went on changing its minutiæ as long as he lived: not always with advantage I suspect.
The above named lecture on Phonography impressed me with its merits; and, in a subsequent conversation with my father, I intimated the belief that Pitman’s system was better than his. Saying that this belief was an erroneous one, he requested me to compare the two in detail. I did this; and the result was a thorough conviction that my father was right, and that his system was not only better than Pitman’s, but better than any other which has been devised—as perfect, indeed, as is possible.
In Phonography when used for reporting, as in older shorthands, the consonants alone are marked, and “Legible Shorthand,” as my father called his system, has no great advantage over them in brevity, so long as this imperfect method of representing words is followed. Its only superiority in that case is that it keeps the line, instead of sprawling about the paper in uncontrolled ways: a fault in Phonography, as in the shorthands which preceded it, and a fault which stands in the way of its use for general purposes. Even had it no other advantage than that of regularity and symmetry, the “Legible Shorthand” would be preferable to all others.
But its chief superiority is that while, like Phonography, it may be written either with or without the vowels, the introduction of the vowels adds comparatively little to the time and effort required in representing a word, while the reading of the word is made easy. In Phonography the vowels, when introduced, are marked by dots and dashes, added after the consonants have been written, and there results an illusive simplicity of appearance: the illusion being due to the fact that the movements of the hand gone through in making these dots and dashes are not shown. When they are shown by dotted lines, it becomes clear that the expenditure of time and effort in marking the vowels, almost doubles the time and effort previously expended in marking the consonants. A comparison between a word written in Phonography to which were added the dotted lines shewing the unseen motions, and the same word written in “Legible Shorthand,” proved to me conclusively that, when the vowels are used, the “Legible Shorthand” has a great advantage in brevity, as well as in legibility and elegance.
The study of my father’s system, thus commenced, had results some time afterwards.
A rationalized system of letters for writing, raised the thought of a rationalized system of letters for printing—a system which should preserve consistency in each of the several groups—mutes, semi-vocals, liquids, nasals, and vowels. I schemed sets of forms answering to these groups, and having throughout a certain general kinship, as well as a closer kinship within each group. The notion was plausible. It seemed clear that an alphabet so characterized would be desirable. But the conception was a mistaken one. The love of system had over-ridden the thought of use. It did not occur to me that the heterogeneous forms of the letters we now have, is conducive to legibility—renders identification of them much easier than it would be were many of the forms related to one another, as are the small letters b and d, or p and q: the common expression “mind your p’s and q’s,” evidently referring to the difficulty which children find in distinguishing letters that are alike save in the placing of the loop on opposite sides. In the proposed set of letters there were, within each group, kinships of this nature; and there would have been consequent tendencies to confusion. I may, indeed, remark, in passing, that because capital letters have no projections above and below the line, and in this respect present greater homogeneity than do low-case or small letters, lines of capital letters are less easy to read than lines of low-case letters. I was recently struck with this on comparing the product of a typewriter which rendered its matter in capitals only, with the products of those which rendered their matter in capitals and small letters.
Among my papers, associated with those which set forth this scheme, there are others concerning the structure desirable for a universal language. Probably thoughts about the one led to thoughts about the other. A predominant aim was brevity. The language was to be monosyllabic and, among the memoranda preserved, there is a calculation showing that there are more than a hundred thousand good monosyllables;—that is if, in addition to simple consonants and vowels, all the compound consonants and compound vowels are used. There are also proposals of methods by which a choice of words for things and acts may be guided—methods which, while paying due regard to logical relationships and classifications, would also pay due regard to euphony.
It seems to me quite possible—probable even—that the time will come when all existing languages will be recognized as so imperfect, that an artificial language to be universally used will be agreed upon. Within these few years we have seen, in the artificial language called “Volapuk,” an attempt to fulfil the requirements better than any natural language does. But I should be extremely sorry did there become current any artificial language which sets out with ideas derived uncritically from existing languages, and adopts the system of inflections—a radically bad system. Without intending to assume that they have much value, I think it not amiss to preserve, in Appendix E, the above-named suggestions—not respecting a universal language so much as respecting methods to be followed in forming one.
About this same time also, an allied matter occupied a little attention. During previous years I had often regretted the progress of the decimal system of numeration; the universal adoption of which is by many thought so desirable. That it has sundry conveniences is beyond question; but it has also sundry inconveniences, and the annoyance I felt was due to a consciousness that all the advantages of the decimal system might be obtained along with all the advantages of the duodecimal system, if the basis of our notation were changed—if, instead of having 10 for its basis, it had 12 for its basis: two new digits being introduced to replace 10 and 11, and 12 times 12 being the hundred. Most people are so little able to emancipate themselves from the conceptions which education has established in them, that they cannot understand that the use of 10 as a basis, is due solely to the fact that we have five fingers on each hand and five toes on each foot. If mankind had had six instead of five, there never would have been any difficulty.
To Appendix E, I have added these memoranda, in which I have set down the advantages of 12 over 10 for purposes of measurement, enumeration, and calculation. Of course to change the system would be difficult; and it would be rendered more difficult still should the use of the decimal notation for weights, measures, and values be established.
In the course of the autumn something beyond schemes and speculations began to occupy my time. I became an active politician.
The days were those of the Chartist agitation. The demand for universal suffrage, triennial parliaments, vote by ballot, payment of members, no property qualification, and equal electoral districts, embodied in a formal document, had become the shibboleth of a Radical working-men’s party. The Reform Bill had given predominant power to the £10 householders; and now the class below insisted that they, too, should share in making the laws. Their movement, carried on here and there in an intemperate manner, had led to a few riots, to a threatened vast demonstration which was stopped, and to some trials and imprisonments. Mr. Edward Miall, swayed by a pronounced sense of justice, sympathized with the men who put forward these claims; and his sympathy prompted him to write a series of articles in The Nonconformist, advocating an extension of the suffrage much like that which the Chartists wished to obtain, and, I think, advocating, with qualifications, some of the associated changes they urged. These articles were subsequently republished as a pamphlet, under the title “A Reconciliation of the Middle and Working Classes”—a pamphlet which had a wide circulation, especially throughout the dissenting world, of which The Nonconformist was the advanced organ. The result was the commencement of “The Complete Suffrage Movement.” Mr. Joseph Sturge, the well-known philanthropic Quaker of Birmingham, who had been active in the anti-slavery agitation, became a warm adherent; and, among other places, visited Derby to give an address in aid of Mr. Miall’s project: breakfasting at our house on the occasion. Presently a branch was established at Derby, of which I became honorary secretary; and, in The Nonconformist newspaper about that period, there exist sundry brief reports sent by me of local doings.
One of these doings produced some sensation in the town, and drew a certain amount of general attention. Of the Chartists who had, during the preceding agitation, got into trouble and been imprisoned, one was Mr. Henry Vincent—a man who, like two others among the early Chartists, Lovett and Collins, was much to be admired. He was evidently prompted by conscientious feeling to devote himself to the advancement of popular welfare, in doing which he displayed great oratorical power. Recognizing the sincerity of those who were following the lead of Mr. Miall, and probably thinking that it would be well to get rid of the odium which the Chartist demonstrations had produced, he joined the Complete Suffrage Movement, and went to leading towns lecturing in advocacy of it. At the beginning of September, 1842, he came to Derby. The announcement of his lecture raised alarm in the minds of the magistrates—predominantly Conservative; and the police were ordered to prevent the delivery of it. At a small gathering forthwith held of those who had been instrumental in bringing Mr. Vincent, it was decided that a protest should be made. I was appointed to write an address embodying the protest, which I did in the course of the ensuing night—sitting up until some three or four o’clock to do it. Next morning, after being approved, the address was printed, circulated, signed by numerous inhabitants, and in a day or two presented to the magistrates. Some of the Liberal London papers took the matter up. The Morning Chronicle and the Sun, both now extinct, reproduced the address in their issues of September 6th and 7th respectively and made editorial comments blaming the magistrates for their uncalled for interference.
In the course of the autumn, interest in the Complete Suffrage Movement so far increased that there was held, at Birmingham, a meeting of leading men from chief towns, to consult respecting the policy to be pursued. Among others present were one or two members of Parliament, and also Mr. John Bright, at that time not in Parliament, and known chiefly as a leading member of the Anti-Corn-Law League. My uncle Thomas, too, took part in the meeting. The decision arrived at was that there should be called a joint conference of the Complete Suffragists and the Chartists, with a view to union and concerted action: the hope being that the Chartists would concede some of their minor demands, and so conciliate their opponents.
This conference was held on the 27th December and following days, and I was sent to it as a delegate from Derby. Deeper knowledge of human nature on the part of those who summoned the conference, might have taught them that the Chartists would listen to no compromise. Fanatics soon acquire passionate attachments to their shibboleths. After a day’s debate it became manifest that no co-operation was possible. Even the very name, “the Charter,” was insisted upon as one which must be accepted. A division consequently took place, and the Complete Suffragists adjourned to another hall. A proposed Act of Parliament had been drawn up, embodying the desired constitutional changes. This, it was hoped, the Chartists would join in discussing clause by clause, and in the main agree to. On their refusal, the Complete Suffragists by themselves, in the space of some two days, went through the Bill; now approving, now modifying, its various provisions. The occasion was of course one which, to a young fellow of 22, was exciting; and it produced in me a high tide of mental energy. This is curiously shown by my copy, still preserved, of the draft Bill distributed among the delegates, on which I have written my name. The signature has a sweep and vigour exceeding that of any other signature I ever made, either before or since.
One of the incidents connected with this meeting of the Complete Suffragists at Birmingham, I must name, because of its important sequences. Liverpool had sent as a delegate, Mr. Lawrence Heyworth, afterwards member of Parliament for Derby. He and my uncle Thomas had been friends for several years. Their friendship had originated in their agreement on teetotalism; but they were also in sympathy on leading political questions. My uncle was delegate from Bath, and by him I was introduced to Mr. Lawrence Heyworth. The acquaintanceship then commenced, lasted until his death about 1870; and it opened the way to friendships which, after a time, greatly affected my life.
I may add, concerning this Birmingham conference and the Complete Suffrage movement, that nothing definite eventually resulted. The agitation carried on in furtherance of it, as well as that carried on for the enactment of the Charter, gradually died away; leaving only certain modifications of opinion. Such modifications may perhaps have had something to do with changes since made in our representative system; for these have, to a considerable extent, established in law the proposals which in those days were thought so revolutionary: rightly so thought, indeed; for the drift towards Socialism, now becoming irresistible, has resulted from giving to the masses not a due proportion of power but the supreme power.
The democratic leanings early shown by me, had long been manifest to the friends with whom I corresponded; and now that they had caused me to take so decided a step as participation in this Birmingham conference, there came from these friends strong expostulations. Certain passages in their letters seem worthy of quotation; both because of what they say and of what they imply. The first is from E. A. B———, who wrote:—
“You are formed for an active part in everything you undertake, and your energetic character would be very likely to lead you farther, than in sober reason and judgment you would go. If you have fully and maturely decided, that the principles you have adopted are right, and are expedient for the well-being of the country, I should be the last to wish you to abandon them to interested motives; but before finally committing yourself to the current, which may overwhelm you, I would have you pause. Consider carefully to what all you design, will tend, consider how in taking up such a cause, you lose all chance of advancement in the profession for which your talents and education so well fit you; examine carefully the principles, objects and interests of the men in whose company you will certainly sink or swim, and if after having done so you still remain of the same mind, in God’s name go on, but again, let me request of you to pause, and consider. You are now but on the threshold; you have scarcely taken the first step, in a path, the end of which it passes mortal power to foresee, but which may (though may God forbid it) eventually plunge the whole kingdom into anarchy and civil war. It is surely worth considering well, before finally deciding. Whatever may be your fate, or whatever may be mine, I shall always value your friendship very highly, and if at any time I can be of any service to you, I hope you will not hesitate to command me, with as much confidence as if I was of your own opinions. I only hope you may meet many among your own party who will feel as great an interest in you as I do.”
To the equally strong protest contained in a letter from Jackson, there is appended a protest, no less strong, against the change of career to which, it seems, I had indicated my leanings:—
“As for the good you’ve done, it is very questionable whether you’ve not done ill, for your time has been wasted in strife, your own temper has been ruffled, you’ve felt and wished ill towards those in power and you’ve in your pride thought that your mind talents and arm might effect a change. How like man! Think you that you can sway the destinies of mankind? Or perhaps you suppose yourself born to be the instrument in God’s hand of working a reformation in this land and of releasing the afflicted from the bondage under which they are suffering. Admitted for argument sake, tho’ it is far fetched, but you, my friend, are not following the steps of a Luther a Calvin a Knox a Wikliff, whose names are revered to this hour, holy men who taught and thought as the Holy Spirit directed them—no if an instrument you should be, ’tis not for the reformation of spiritual evil ’tis for what but like Cromwell to gain your own ambitious views under the mask of doing your country a service. Doing your country a service! alas! alas!” . . .
“You ask me to which I give the preference—to your remaining in the profession you have commenced or becoming a literary character. To this I decidedly say to the first, in it you are most likely to rise to eminence and thro’ it gain a comfortable income, but from the other never. You’ve never studied properly, you are no classic no poet. Perhaps you might say but I can write reviews and political opinions and by degrees so improve my style, &c., as to be able to appear fairly before the public. To this I can only repeat what I have often said—The public is never to be depended upon. Let one of its favourites once declaim against you and you’re done for. Neither do I believe that you can ever receive that emolument which you would seek, unless by very fortunate circumstances over which you can have no control.
“Let me therefore implore you once more to set hand to pencil and start afresh on the old course; apply thro’ your interest to Fox. He is now about to carry out the execution of the Dean Forest line of railway, and has the whole contract under Capt. Moorsom; offer your services to superintend, get Capt. Moorsom to recommend and so by fairly starting again cut all the political acquaintances you’ve picked up who will never do you any good, and your talents and energy will soon raise you to that pre-eminence to which you may aspire.—Did I not feel the same interest in you that I might have towards a brother, don’t think I should take the trouble to induce you to do this. Therefore at least give me credit for candour, and reflect before you go on any further.”
The first of these passages in Jackson’s letter, illustrates the truth that those who live in another sphere of thought and feeling, frequently show themselves incapable of comprehending the motives of those opposed to them. Knowing me intimately though he did, my friend could not conceive any other prompter than ambition for the course I took. Lacking, himself, any such political sentiments as mine, he could not imagine me to be moved solely by a desire to help in making what I conceived to be an equitable change. I can say with absolute certainty that the thought of personal advancement of any kind never entered my head. Respecting the second passage, I am led to remark on the amusing way in which people suppose that the writing of good or bad books is to be determined by the presence or absence of classical culture. The quality of the ideas expressed is tacitly ignored—style being everything and matter nothing! To which I may add that there is in this passage, as in the preceding one, the implication that no other desire than that of private advantage could possibly operate. The truth is that throughout my life the writing of books has resulted from the wish to set forth certain ideas, and that during sixteen years’ publication of them they brought me not profits but losses.
About my occupations during the early part of 1843, I remember little or nothing. A letter from my father to my uncle contains the sentence:—“Herbert is writing a tract upon ‘Pledging Electors.’ I think he will make it rather effective.” Absolute failure of memory is thus proved; for I should have said that no such thing was ever written by me. From the context I gather that it was intended to be one of a series of tracts issued by the Complete Suffrage Union. I also gather that I was to be one of a committee for selecting and criticizing tracts.
Whether anything was done in the way of engineering, or any other money-making occupation, I do not recollect. Probably there were the usual speculating and experimenting, leading to no practical results.
The latter parts of my days were, during this period, as before and after, miscellaneously filled—country walks in the afternoons, music and sometimes other distractions in the evenings. About this time, or earlier, there had been formed a “Literary and Scientific Society”—a small gathering of some dozen or so, meeting once a month, reading papers and discussing them. The members were mostly of no considerable calibre, and the proceedings were commonly rather humdrum. Further, there existed a Debating Society which I joined, and of course did not remain silent; and there was also, in the leading literary institution of the town, a chess-room, where an hour or so was occasionally spent. I had learnt to play chess at Hinton, and had there become quite a devotee of the game; but nothing beyond mediocrity was reached, either then or afterwards. I once joined with a friend in playing without the men, and succeeded in doing this pretty easily. We had, however, the empty board before us, which greatly aided imagination. Without that aid we should have found the feat impossible.
And now, towards the end of the Spring of 1843, after two years of life apparently futile—certainly futile in respect to “getting on”—it seemed needful to take some decisive step; and, in the hope of finding something to do, either in engineering or in literature, I resolved on going to London.