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WALSH’S CONTEMPORARY HISTORY 1836 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume VI - Essays on England, Ireland, and the Empire 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume VI - Essays on England, Ireland, and the Empire, ed. John M. Robson, Introduction by Joseph Hamburger (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982).
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WALSH’S CONTEMPORARY HISTORY
London and Westminster Review, III & XXV (July, 1836), 281-300. Headed: “Art. I. / sir john walsh’s contemporary history. / Chapters of Contemporary History. By Sir John Walsh, Bart. / Second Edition. [London:] Murray, 1836.” Running titles: left-hand, “Sir John Walsh’s Contemporary History”; right-hand, “Tories, Whigs, and Radicals.” Signed “A.” Not republished. Identified in Mill’s bibliography as “An article headed ‘Tories, Whigs, and Radicals’ being a Review of Sir John Walsh’s ‘Chapters of Contemporary History,’ in the London and Westminster Review for July 1836 (No 6 and 49)” (MacMinn, 47). There are no corrections or emendations in the copy (tear-sheets) in Somerville College.
Walsh’s Contemporary History
sir john walsh sat in one short Parliament, as the representative, we believe, of one of the rotten boroughs which the Reform Bill has spared. In his legislative career we have not heard of his signalizing himself by anything remarkable; but the general verdict of the Tory press has assigned to him the character of the first pamphleteer of their party. For this reason, together with some others to be hereafter noticed, we have chosen his latest production as a text for some remarks which we desire to promulgate respecting the same circle of topics. We could have wished for another kind of antagonist; for it is more agreeable to us to cope with the rational arguments, than with the vulgar fallacies, of our opponents. We can discern in the pamphlet nothing of the ability which has been attributed to the writer; but, on the contrary, a remarkable incapacity both for thinking and for the expression of thoughts. We are willing to rest this opinion upon a single specimen; being able to produce one which, by exhibiting multum in parvo of the character of Sir John Walsh’s mind, will enable us to be content with such further exemplification of it as may arise incidentally from our own course of remark.
I have always thought, [says Sir John,] that, in answer to the sophistries of those who so perpetually confound innovation and improvement, there is a very natural and obvious view of the subject which has not been frequently brought forward. It is common to say that innovation is not improvement; but we may carry out the position farther, and assert that innovation is always in its nature opposed to improvement. (P. 73.)
Sir John’s is not, as he flatters himself, a new view of this matter. He will find it in the celebrated Noodle’s Oration;[*] and there is not a noodle of his acquaintance who will not tell him that innovation and improvement are the most opposite things in nature; improvement the best, and innovation the worst thing conceivable. And why not? They are as contrary as praise and blame; as a good and a bad name for the same thing. What is the meaning of Innovation? Something new. And Improvement? Something new likewise. What then is the difference between Improvement and Innovation? Improvement means, “something new, which I like;” Innovation means, “something new, which I do not like.” Sir John Walsh’s discovery, put into plain English, reads thus: “It is common to say that [a new thing which I do not like] is not [a new thing which I do like]; but we may carry out the position farther, and assert that [a new thing which I do not like] is always in its nature opposed to [a new thing which I do like].”
We had not thought that the murkiest corner of Noodledom could still send forth a person capable of delivering this truth as a profound maxim of political wisdom, now first promulgated by himself to an admiring world.
Sir John has been misled into thinking himself the author of the maxim, by being really the author of a remarkably silly commentary upon it.
He shall have the advantage, if it be an advantage, of stating his meaning in his own words.
Innovation—I mean the substitution of a new and untried system for an old one—must generally be advocated upon the ground that we have been long in error,—that we have made many steps in a false direction, that we have blindly wasted and misapplied our time and efforts. Should the error be proved, it must be corrected; when we are convinced that our course is a mistaken one, we must retrace our path, but the necessity is dispiriting. The very conviction that we have been deceived when we believed that we were right, the very proof of our fallibility, is of itself a discouragement to attempts in a new track. We feel that we have wasted time and power, that we were buoyed up by a delusive belief that we were advancing; and we have at last to learn that we have lost our labour. We have been wrong, therefore we may be wrong again. What better security have we now than we had before? The improvement obtained by the mere rectification of error is of a negative and unsatisfactory nature. Substantial improvement, real progress, is gained by adding truth to truth, and building on the foundation which is already laid. If the foundation should prove unsound, or the plan defective, all may have to be begun again; but we do not commonly call this advancing. Apply this reasoning to some other science than politics. Let us take the discoveries of Newton for example, which shed undying glory on the country which gave him birth, and which raise human nature itself to a higher scale in the creation, to a more intimate knowledge of the scheme and the attributes of its mighty Author. When, by the great law of gravity, the immortal philosopher explained all the wonderful mechanism of planetary motion, certain slight irregularities caught his attention, trifling vacillations which he was unable to account for upon his system, and which he was disposed to consider as exceptions attributable to the little caprices of nature.
The later observations of the eminent French mathematicians, and their use of new and refined methods of calculation, proved those apparent deviations to be strict results of an extended application of his principles. They discovered that these disturbances, as they are called, were the effects of the reciprocal action of the gravity of the different planetary bodies upon each other, and farther, that by a beautiful nicety in the adjustment, they balanced each other, so as never to introduce any permanent irregularity into the system. Here, then, is progress, wholesome, sound, indisputable progress—a principle satisfactorily explaining new facts, and the new facts corroborating the truth of the principle. Suppose now that we had found in La Place or La Grange a radical reformer in astronomical science—that their ingenuity had detected a flaw in the reasoning of the Principia[*] —that the immortal discoveries of Newton had been reduced to the level of the whirlpools of Des Cartes,[†] or any other fanciful and exploded theory, would this have been advance? How we should have regretted the overthrow of that noble and lucid system—how we should have mourned that our mental vision, which had been extended almost to embrace infinity, should have again been contracted to a narrow span![*] How painfully and reluctantly should we have surrendered the high and pure thoughts, the splendid prospect of the economy of the universe, which this proudest achievement of human intellect had spread before us! and with what a cold scepticism as to the reality of truth in anything—with what a mortified sense of the fallibility of our powers should we have recalled our absolute belief in a theory, which, while it enables the imagination to wing its loftiest flight, rests upon reason’s firmest basis. (Pp. 74-6.)
Here is, at last, something like a meaning, gradually evolving itself: and we need nothing more to justify the opinion we have declared of Sir John Walsh’s intellect, than this meaning, together with the manner in which it is expressed.
For, first, as to his power of expressing his own meaning; look at his attempt to compress it into a logical definition. “Innovation—I mean the substitution of a new and untried system for an old one.” Would this enable any one even to guess what distinction the writer is about to draw? A person whose ideas are clear, uses words which make them sink into the mind, instead of letting them slide off it on the well-worn surface of a rhetorician’s stock phrases. What Sir John would say, as we gather from the remainder of the passage, is this: “Innovation is something new, which, if right, implies the supposition that something old was wrong; Improvement is something new which does not imply that supposition.” These two, he says, are contrary; and the former a direct, and the greatest possible, hinderance to the latter.
Now, admitting that it is one thing to change from wrong to right, and another thing to do something right which does not imply that we had previously done wrong, is it not in either case equally our business to do right now? And is there not something inconceivably pitiful in the attempt to insinuate that it is not quite so good a thing to do right in the one case as in the other? It deserves notice, moreover, that although in speculative inquiries (from which, with great inappropriateness, Sir John’s illustration is taken) we may sometimes add truth to truth without finding ourselves out in any error; in practical matters we hardly ever adopt anything new, without giving up something old which is superseded by it. By an invention in machinery, an article can be produced at half the cost: if you purchase the new machine, and use it together with the old, it is improvement; if you discard the worthless instrument, then, according to Sir John Walsh, it is innovation. Your servant is lazy, dishonest, and a drunkard: you hire a new one; if you also retain the rascal, it is improvement; if you dismiss him, the benefit is “negative and unsatisfactory,” and the change no better than an innovation. You inherit a fine estate, but in so unwholesome a situation that you cannot live in it: if you can afford to buy another estate, retaining the old one, according to Sir John Walsh you may; but if you sell the old estate to buy another, you do that which is not only not improvement, but “is always in its nature opposed to improvement, and of which the single tendency is always to suspend, often to retard it.” If we had time for verbal criticism, we might ask how that which is suspended can fail to be retarded?
Even after allowing himself so wide a scope for the choice of his illustration, he cannot use it without its recoiling upon himself. He tells us, with that inflation of language by which writers of no imagination fancy they give additional dignity to the great results of science, that La Place’s discoveries would have given him less pleasure if they had proved Newton to be wrong; but that proving him as they did to be right, here was “progress—wholesome, sound, indisputable progress.” What, then, thinks Sir John of Newton himself? Did he not prove his predecessors to have been in the wrong? Or were his discoveries no “progress;” and will Sir John Walsh say of them too, “we do not commonly call this advancing?” Are they not, on the contrary, the era from which alone any real advance became possible?
Sir John, with a candour which is no very arduous virtue while confined to generals, acknowledges that “should the error be proved, it must be corrected.” Then why profess so much dislike to correcting it? Men do not usually harp so much upon the painfulness of an operation which they are very sincerely desirous of seeing performed. “The necessity,” it seems, “is dispiriting,” and “the proof of our fallibility” (we quote his very words) “is a discouragement to attempts in a new track.” This, then, is the objection to innovation—that it is an acknowledgment of our fallibility. Sir John undertakes to prove that “innovation is always in its nature opposed to improvement.” And how does he substantiate the assertion? By saying that he dislikes to correct an error,—can the reader imagine why? because it proves to him that he is capable of committing one! a fact which, apparently, he would not otherwise have entertained a suspicion of.
We must tell Sir John Walsh, that when he says that detecting ourselves in an error disturbs our confidence in our own infallibility, he ascribes to it an effect which, by the consent of moralists, philosophers, Christians, and persons of common sense in all ages, is so far from being undesirable, that until it is accomplished neither wise thinking nor wise conduct is so much as possible; and that the discovery, instead of being one which ought to plunge us into dismay, is a necessary condition of all rational confidence in our own strength, or in the soundness of our own opinions. If Sir John Walsh were right, the discoveries of Bacon and Newton, instead of being the periods from which we reckon the improvement of physical science, should have struck a sudden damp into it, and chilled the heart of every scientific man with a “cold scepticism as to the reality of truth in anything.” Is such the historical fact? Speak, O contemporary historian!
If this writer had not been held up by the Tory critics as one of the great rising ornaments of their party, we should not have thrown away time and space upon a controversy in which we are neither called upon to say, nor to answer, anything requiring thought, anything not absolutely trite. But the character of Toryism is better seen in Sir John Walsh and his class, than in men of some originality and power of mind. Nothing has given us a lower opinion of the Tories as a body, than to observe on what class of their advocates it is that their applause is lavished. Let the young and ambitious adventurer, who would rise by Toryism notwithstanding the disadvantage of a clear head, observe whether what we say is not true. The man whom they recognise as their champion is never he who gives to Toryism (what can be given to it, though not to Whiggism) something like a philosophic basis; who finds for their opinions the soundest, the most ingenious, or the most moral arguments by which they can be supported; but invariably the man who, with greater fluency or a more daring manner than ordinary, gets up and vents their most shattered and worn-out absurdities. There is another cause for this besides the greater adaptation of the latter class of arguments to the general calibre of their understanding. No one can make speculative Toryism a thing that will bear the light, without cutting off many of the most lucrative parts of practical Toryism. We never knew a Tory of any power of mind, who did not, either secretly or openly, give up the Irish Church. But the Tories in general deem this too high a price for a small improvement in their argument, and a great one in their character for honesty. Sir John Walsh for them. He throws his mantle over all. Even Irish Toryism is not too shocking a thing for him.*
Having now assigned the class of writers to which Sir John Walsh belongs, it is but just to add that he is one of the best of the class. His language is not only decorous, but respectful to his opponents. They are not all of them, in his eyes, demons, or profligate adventurers, or sciolists and coxcombs. At least, he does not call them so; though he affirms of them things hardly reconcilable with any other supposition. But we are not to look for consistency in a partisan’s description of the opposite party. There is no want of candour in Sir John Walsh. He always states fairly the principles and arguments of opponents, so far as he knows them; but what he knows is very small. Almost the only authorities he cites are the Morning Chronicle and the Globe; and these only since they became slavishly ministerial. He has, nevertheless, the modesty to conclude, that because he knows no more of the sentiments of the Reformers than these sources supply, there is therefore nothing further to be known. He charges the Reformers in good set terms with having no purposes of their own, and says roundly, that their only principle is to follow the popular cry; though in the very next page (p. 103) he says that this popular cry is a creation of theirs, artfully got up by them for their own purposes. It puzzles us to think how these two assertions can both be true: that they may both be false, we assure him that on proper inquiry he would find. He calls upon them to state the ends they propose, and the evils they desire to remedy (p. 110); and seems to be sincerely persuaded that these are matters which have not yet been disclosed. A person who undertakes to answer others should be better instructed in what they say. Cicero tells us that he always studied his adversary’s side of the question, if possible more intensely than even his own.[*] We will not require so much from Sir John Walsh: to discover all that his opponents might say would be a task beyond his capacity; let him only make himself acquainted with what they have said. There are some parts of it, not unworthy of a politician’s attention in these days. Meanwhile, we must allow Sir John Walsh the credit of having made one or two admissions, of which we intend availing ourselves, and of having told about an equal number of wholesome truths to the Parliamentary and ostensible leaders of our own party. These are merits; and they are the only ones which we have been able to discover in the pamphlet.
In what follows we shall regard Sir John Walsh, not as Sir John Walsh, but as what he evidently desires to be considered, the representative of the opinions of his party; namely, that of which Sir Robert Peel is the head, and which may be defined as the more worldly-wise portion of the Tory faction. There need be no hesitation in admitting him as their organ, as we have not discovered one opinion, one sentiment, or one expression in the pamphlet, which might not just as well have been uttered by any other individual of the set.
The book professes to contain the Tory view of contemporary history. Sir John begins his history with the Reform Bill. As might be expected, his view of that measure differs considerably from that entertained by Reformers. Let us look at it. The time is never lost which is employed in understanding the state of mind of our opponents.
According to Sir John, the cry for reform was not produced by any real or supposed grievances; the people had no complaint against their governors, nor even thought they had. Complaints, though of the vaguest possible description, had indeed been made, and even, it would seem, believed. “We have heard, till reiterated assertion is taken for proof, of a century of misgovernment, a long monopoly of power, the perpetration of abuses, the rankness of corruption, the venality, extravagance, and incapacity of former ministries.” (P. 31.)
Sir John, however, attributes the demand for the Reform Bill to no such cause, but either to “the appetite for speculative innovation” (p. 3), or to “the desires of the body of the people for a more active and direct participation in political power” (p. 2). We say either, because Sir John does not always adhere to the same theory. Whichever of these views, however, he adopts (and he seems to adopt them alternately), in one point he is consistent: in affirming that the increased power which the Reform Bill gave to the democracy, was desired not as a means, but as an end; that this great constitutional change was effected, and the further organic changes of the Ballot, Triennial Parliaments, Reform of the House of Lords, &c., are now sought, for their own sake, and not for the sake of any improvement to be thereby wrought in the actual management of public affairs. It was the love of meddling in their own government, not the desire of being better governed, that actuated the people. The class of persons who were eager for “practical reform” (by which he means improvement in the actual working of the government, as distinguished from changes in the constitution of the governing body) were those whom the Reform Bill found in power, and displaced; namely, the Tory aristocracy, whom Sir John compliments with the appelation of “the educated classes” (p. 76). These, indeed, were actuated by a burning zeal for all improvement. “Every enlarged view of political economy, every judicious mode of retrenchment, every practical reform” (p. 77), found in them zealous advocates. A body possessed by such an ardour of reformation, and which had so long held in their hands full power to give effect to their wishes, naturally left nothing to reform. Accordingly, Sir John Walsh triumphantly announces that no abuses have been detected or remedied since the Reform Bill passed. To have justified the expectation of its supporters, it ought, he thinks, to have been the means of bringing to light some undiscovered mystery of iniquity. This, indeed, would have appalled Sir John.
Had the recent changes drawn the curtain aside which veiled political profligacy and corruption, I should have experienced the mortification of discovering myself the most egregious of dupes; I should have felt the most depressing of all sensations, that of discovering the worthlessness and deceit of what had been the cherished object of my earliest veneration, which had long commanded the homage rendered to excellence and virtue. (Pp. 33-4.)
A person who so candidly confesses the extreme mortification with which he abandons any idea which has been instilled into him by his nurse, is not exactly fitted for a public teacher in an age of revolutions. Sir John, however, did not experience this humiliation.
Let it be remembered that Lord Grey and his colleagues held office four years—that, after having triumphantly carried the Reform Bill, they still, at the head of an overwhelming majority in the House of Commons, conducted affairs during two parliamentary sessions, and brought forward two ministerial batches of measures. Where were the corruptions detected—where were the abuses exposed—where was the prodigality checked? What materials of power and popularity would they not have acquired, if they could have denounced and held up their predecessors as political delinquents? (P. 31.)
If the Constitution under which we were born, and the system under which we have passed the larger portion of our lives, were in reality but one mass of abuses, but one vast conspiracy against the interest and happiness of the community, how does it arise that so complete a reform, that so entire a change of men, has thrown no light upon the concealed iniquities? (P. 33.)
Such is the Tory statement of the origin, progress, and character of the spirit of reform. And we have been thus explicit in setting it forth, for the purpose of giving to it, in behalf of our countrymen, a solemn, absolute, and indignant denial. It is not true that the demand for parliamentary reform had anything to do either with any general theory of government (which would have been no imputation) or, which would have been a great imputation, with the mere passion for the exercise of power. So far from having no connexion with practical grievances, it was and is directed solely against practical grievances. There is no passion in England for forms of government, considered in themselves. Nothing could be more inconsistent with the exclusively practical spirit of the English people. There is no hostility to aristocracy in England; the people would far rather be governed by their superiors than by their equals. Like all other nations, they had the partiality of habit for the institutions under which they had grown up; and the artifices of a whole century had wrought up this partiality into one of the most obstinate of prejudices. Of this prejudice the majority of the Reformers have had their full share; and it only yielded to a long and bitter experience of practical grievances, combined with irresistible evidence, which forced itself upon the most unreflecting among them, of the connexion between every one of those grievances and the sinister interest of some portion of those whom Grattan emphatically called “the proprietors of Parliament.”[*]
Had we not repeatedly been startled by the shortness of men’s memories as to the events of their own time, it would astonish us that even a Tory should have forgotten what was the main occupation of the public mind during the ten years preceding the Reform Bill. It was, to a degree unparalleled in our history, and with constantly increasing intensity, engrossed, not with theories of government, but with the exposure and denunciation of practical abuses. Before that time the assailants of the existing constitution of Parliament had had the weakness to rest their case mainly upon generalities; upon the received theory of the House of Commons; upon history, and the ancient practice of the Constitution. Accordingly they preached to deaf ears, until the Cartwright school of reformers died out, and others of a more “practical” kind succeeded, who bade adieu to abstractions, and insisted upon judging the tree by its fruits. The movement which gave existence to the Reform Bill, dates in reality from the period when Mr. Hume commenced his memorable exposures of the almost inconceivable profligacies of our public expenditure.[†] He was soon aided by writers (among whom Mr. Black, of the Morning Chronicle, and Mr. Fonblanque, of the Examiner, were the most conspicuous) who, by their repeated exposures, made the people sensible of the enormities in the administration of justice, especially those of the unpaid magistracy. Was there not during all the same period a growing disapprobation of the corn-laws? of the game-laws? of slavery? of the restrictions on industry? of tithes? of corporation abuses? of the vices of the law? of the inefficiency and extravagance of the Church Establishment? of the atrocious principle of holding Ireland in subjection by foreign bayonets to the most profligately tyrannical of native oligarchies? Sir John Walsh should have carried his readings of the Morning Chronicle further back. A Contemporary Historian should know something of contemporary history.
From the eager zeal for the redress of all grievances, which, according to Sir John, animated the whole of the ruling classes previously to the Reform Bill, joined to the fact that none of the evils which we have enumerated were redressed, or had any prospect of being so, during the continuance of their ascendency, we can only infer that these, in the opinion of Sir John, were not grievances. And this, indeed, is no unlikely opinion to be held by Sir John; but we cannot quite reconcile it with the credit he takes to the Conservatives for concurring in the reform of some of these very grievances since the Reform Act, and for their readiness to reform others which are yet uncorrected. This readiness, according to him, is no new quality of theirs. They were as eager to make these improvements formerly, when they had the power and did not, as now, when it no longer depends upon them:
We are no reluctant, tardy, insincere converts to the cause of practical reform. We do not yield a constrained and interested acquiescence to an overpowering necessity. We are not inconsistent with ourselves. The great body of the Conservatives in the empire would have supported as heartily all Sir Robert Peel’s proposed measures of last session ten years ago as they would now. (Pp. 78-9.)
Indeed! But Sir Robert Peel, if we mistake not, was in office ten years ago: if “the great body of the Conservatives” were all eagerness to have these measures proposed, why did not that recognised leader of the party, and Sir John Walsh’s model of a statesman, propose them? And when, for instance, the Unitarian Marriage Bill,[*] which gave to one particular class of Dissenters a partial and scanty relief from that burden on their consciences which Sir Robert Peel last year proposed to take off entirely—when this Bill was thrown out by the House of Lords at the instigation of Lord Eldon[†] and the Bishops, the motive was doubtless an impatient frenzy of reformation, which would take no “instalment,” and regarded anything but the removal of the entire grievance as a compromise with iniquity. Or is Sir John’s statement (for it is ambiguously worded) satire in disguise; and does his assertion that the Tories would have supported the measures of Sir Robert Peel as heartily ten years ago as they would now, mean that they would give no more support to those measures now than they would have given formerly?
Sir John is more rational when he begins to treat not of past things, but of present. In this part of his discourse we are sometimes able to concur in his sentiments, and even to adopt his language.
For example, we agree with him when he says that the nation is rapidly arranging itself into the two divisions of Reformers and Anti-reformers, or, as he proposes to call them, Conservatives and Radicals: that these two parties (though the latter, as far as organization is concerned, is not a party) are both of them gaining strength, at the expense not of each other, but of the Indifferents and the juste milieu: and that there will soon be no middle party, as indeed what seemed such had long been rather an appearance than a reality.
“I believe,” says Sir John—and this is one of the admissions, of which, to employ a French phrase, nous prenons acte—
That, of what may be strictly called reaction, there has not been a particle. We have been strengthened by the accession of many neutrals, by the awakened energy of the timid and the careless, by the discovery of many in the ranks of our opponents that their position was a false one. We have not yet gained one inch upon the democratic spirit; on the contrary, the very same causes which have strengthened us, have strengthened it in a nearly similar ratio. . . . As the struggle becomes closer, and the objects less disguised and more apparent, each party will receive additions to its numbers up to a certain point; but a period may shortly arrive when almost every individual will have made his election between the two principles, and when these fluctuations will be rarer. (Pp. 83-5.)
Sir John is equally right in his character of the Whigs, which has excited such a storm of indignation from the Edinburgh Review.[*] They were, and are, a coterie, not a party; a set, confined to London and Edinburgh, who commanded a certain number of seats in Parliament, and a certain portion of the press, and were accepted by the Reformers as leaders, because they offered themselves, and because there was nobody else. When any man appeared in Parliament (they were too ignorant of their age ever to look beyond) whose talents qualified him to act a conspicuous part, they courted him, and if he was willing to become one of them, admitted him into the circle. They thus adopted Horner, and Romilly, and Brougham. By this means they always kept themselves apparently at the head of all that part of the public who professed liberal opinions. But their leadership was ostensible only. Since the questions arising out of the Hanoverian succession had been set at rest, the term Whig had never been the symbol of any principles. So long as popular dissatisfaction was directed against men, not things—against the particular acts of particular ministers—the Whigs, as being the men who were to replace those ministers if the people succeeded in turning them out, continued to be an essential element in the contest. Not so when the questions which divided the public came to be those which related to the reform of our institutions. The Whigs, who were a portion of the privileged class, and were under the full influence both of the interests and of the prejudices of that class, at once took up a position hostile to any thorough reform. This position the Liberals of the empire have never chosen to participate. They did not repudiate the Whigs; but as little did they repudiate what the Whigs repudiated. They were neither Whigs nor Radicals; they were Reformers. They had not predetermined how far parliamentary reform should go; but they were disposed to carry it as far as, on trial, should be found necessary for obtaining good government. They were not for the ballot, or annual parliaments, because the opinion did not generally prevail among them that nothing less would suffice; but they had no prejudice against either, if an extension of the suffrage, with septennial or triennial parliaments, should fail to give them a government of which the pervading spirit should be a regard to the public good.
This was the state of mind of the body of Reformers, down to the passing of the Reform Act; and for them it was essentially a sound and wholesome state. Those only who have qualified themselves by a greater degree of study and experience than has fallen to the lot of most, are entitled to have a confident opinion on the extent to which it may be necessary to carry a political change, previously to trial. The people, however, not having made up their minds, when the Reform Bill passed, whether any further constitutional change would be requisite or not, they naturally, where they were free to choose, chose mostly, as their first representatives, men whose minds were no more made up than theirs were: and hence that absence of any marked character or tendency, which our author notices in the new men who were then first introduced into public life (pp. 38-41). Sir John even states this less emphatically than it might be stated. He mistakes when he says (p. 10), “the elections of December 1832 returned two-thirds of the whole number decided Whigs.” They were neither Whigs, nor decided; they were the essence of everything that is undecided. They were that parti du ventre (as it was styled in the French Convention) which has existed in most countries, at most critical periods; men who have no principle of guidance but the fear of extremes; who are constantly “betwixt two minds,” and when they have made a step one way, make a step the contrary way for the sake of compensation; who have no confidence in any leaders, but having still less in themselves, are swayed by every breath, and may be driven even into the things they are most terrified at, by “pressure from without.”[*]
It was by practising upon the weakness of such men, that the Stanley Cabinet (for the conduct of that ministry took its character from its worst member) was enabled for a session and a half to carry on the system which one of its members has since avowed that it deliberately pursued—that of proposing nothing in the Reformed House of Commons but what was agreeable to the Tories. This system could not last. The people became alienated, not because the Whigs did not propose further organic changes, for the experiment had only just commenced which was to convince the people that such were necessary; but because their “practical reforms,” their “course of improvement in details,”[†] were shaped to the taste of those who were of Sir John Walsh’s opinion, that no abuses existed previously to the Reform Bill. The Whigs became unpopular, not because they wished the Reform Bill to be a “final measure,”[‡] but because, rather than risk a “collision”[§] which might prevent that wish from being realized, they were willing to abandon all the ends to which the Reform Bill was intended as a means.
This it was that ruined the Whig Ministry, and for ever extinguished the policy of which they were the representatives. “When the Ministry,” says Sir John, and we fully concur in the assertion—“when the Ministry of Lord Grey was broken up, first by the secession of Lord Stanley and his friends,[*] and subsequently by the Premier’s own resignation, it was not a cabinet which was dissolved, it was a system of government which was overturned.”(P. 1.)
The Grey Ministry represented one system of government, and fell because they would not abandon it. The Melbourne Ministry are the representatives of another system of government, one remove only from the former: and they too must soon make their election, to abandon it, or to fall.
The Grey Cabinet, as a body (though against the wishes of some of its individual members), acted on the principle not only of resisting any further Parliamentary Reform, but of not originating or supporting reforms of any kind, which, by producing a “collision,” might possibly lead to that result. The Melbourne Ministry, as a body (also, it is believed, against the wishes of several of its members), has abandoned only one-half of this policy, retaining the other. It resists, with as much obstinacy as its predecessors, not only any proposition for a further increase of the popular control over the legislature, but the bare idea that such can be rendered necessary by any conceivable prolongation of the struggle against good government. The difference between the policy of the Grey and that of the Melbourne Ministry is, that the latter, though they deprecate “organic change,”[†] do not, as the former did, make the prevention of it the grand business of their government. To save the Lords from themselves is still their object, but no longer their sole object. They do not shield the Lords from the odium of rejecting good measures, by taking that odium upon themselves; they propose what they think good, and what is acceptable to the House of Commons, and let the Peers reject it at their peril.
Such a policy does not preclude, in the same manner as Lord Grey’s did, the possibility of a co-operation between the Ministry and the more decided Reformers. But it limited greatly the class from which Lord Melbourne could recruit for his Ministry. In a cabinet constituted on such a principle, no Reformer could be included, whose convictions would not allow him to join in a determined resistance to all further organic changes. And this category now included every man of rising talent among the Reformers, except Lord Howick and perhaps one or two other scions of the great Whig families. Lord Melbourne was thus compelled to fall back upon those families, and upon the obscurer members of the old coterie; for all who were conspicuous by talents or reputation had been taken off, either by death or the progress of events. And hence that absence of individual weight of character and talent, which enemies and friends equally remark in the Melbourne Ministry. For it deserves notice as one of the signs of the times, that the Whig coterie is not renewed. There are no young Whigs. The vacancies which death makes in their ranks are not filled; and their ministry must henceforth be recruited from persons not of the clique.
Another effect of the adherence of the Whigs to that part of Lord Grey’s policy which consists of resistance to further organic change, is, that they are now the weakest of the three parties in Parliament. Without the systematic support of the Radicals, they could not exist for a day. Of that great numerical majority in the country who were undecided as to the sufficiency of the Reform Bill to produce good government, a preponderating portion have now made up their minds. Since the last election, the Radicals in the House of Commons exceed the combined strength of the personal adherents of Ministers and the parti du ventre. Nor does any one doubt that were a general election to take place just now, whether the Tories were reduced in number or not, the Radicals would gain still further upon the Whigs.
A momentous question follows. Thus undisputedly the predominant section of the party in power—holding the fate of the ministry in their hands, and being the body to which apparently the country must look for the men who are hereafter to direct its counsels—why are the Parliamentary Radicals making no exertions to prove themselves worthy of this exalted destiny? Instead of taking the lead, as belongs in all combinations to those who hold the most decided opinions, why have they sunk into a mere section of the supporters of the Whig ministry? Why is all their Parliamentary conduct passive, not active? Except an occasional motion, to which the reputation of some individual among them is pledged, and which he could not without disgrace abandon, why do they originate nothing, but content themselves with supporting what the Ministers originate? Why do they not bring forward a succession of matured and well-digested reforms, which, being sent to the House of Lords, might compel that body to choose between the adoption of them and its own ruin? Why do they let slip every opportunity not only for acting, but even for speaking, like men in earnest about their opinions?
It is painful that some of the severest things said by Sir John Walsh of the Parliamentary Radicals are those which can least be gainsaid by their friends and supporters.
How much has the strength of this party been increased! It now numbers from 160 to 170 members; and if it is not in office, it holds the fate of a weak Ministry at its disposal. All this, however, has been accomplished for the parliamentary party, and not by them. The power of the press and the instincts of the democracy have shoved these 160 members into the House, but they seem to have arrived there merely because they were nearest the door when it was opened. (P. 60.)
There was abundant encouragement for all the more ardent and adventurous spirits to flock to their ranks. Their side was evidently the rising one. Its places of distinction were as yet unoccupied. Their designation was no longer a nickname associated with the ideas of the Rotunda and Orator Hunt’s blacking van. The weight they had acquired in the scale, and the prospect of power, had given respectability to the term of Radical. And yet, with all these inducements, with so fair a field, no new candidate appeared qualified for the post of leader of the English Movement.
It is a favourite theory with political philosophers, and one which is entitled to consideration, that the occasion creates the man—that as, if a gentleman wants a butler or a bailiff, he advertises for one and finds him, so that, when society and the circumstances of the times require a Cromwell or a Napoleon, the Cromwell or Napoleon is forthcoming. If this be true, certainly English society had no need just then of a Radical statesman, for no democratic Pitt or Fox started forth, a ready-made head of the Movement. Mr. O’Connell was the only person qualified, by his talents for debate and his general ability, to perform the part; but the English members were reluctant to enrol themselves in the list of his followers, and he restricted himself to his peculiar province. Had the metropolitan boroughs or the Scotch constituencies been able to lay their hand upon a Mirabeau, I do not know where he might have carried us; but no such Coryphæus appeared, and the chords which might have responded to his touch remained mute. (Pp. 56-7.)
In the following passage Sir John Walsh hits the nail on the head:
It may be that what the Movement party had gained in the respectability of its more prominent supporters, it had lost in the power derived from congeniality of feeling and active sympathy with the masses without, who are the sources of its strength. . . . That party which enumerated among its adherents the varied information of Mr. Warburton, the ingenious philosophy of Mr. Grote, or the high literary talent of Mr. E. Lytton Bulwer, could not be stigmatized with coarseness or vulgarity. But if it was less displeasing in these respects to the fastidious, it was deficient in the enthusiasm, in the impetuosity which would have developed its full power, in vigour and earnestness of purpose. A man armed with a club may put himself into all the graceful positions of a fencing-master, but, if he desires to make the most of his weapon, he must grasp it in both hands, and lay about him without regard to rule. (Pp. 58-9.)
That any one of the three gentlemen who are here mentioned, or of several others who might be added to them, could singly have accomplished in the last four years more than has been done in that time by the whole body of Parliamentary Radicals, no one who knows them can doubt. If any one of them had put forth his whole strength, in how different a position would he have now stood! What corresponding energy he would have called forth in many who now have been quiescent! and how different a place would the Parliamentary Radicals have by this time occupied in the public eye! Why have these men not shown themselves equal to the emergency? Why are they allowing the destinies of the country to slip through their hands? Because “they are deficient in the enthusiasm, in the impetuosity which would have developed their full power, in vigour and earnestness of purpose.”
There never were men purer in intention than the more influential of the Parliamentary Radicals. The opinions of most of them are in opposition to their private interests. Personal ambition they have none—would that they had! In passive virtue—in determination to sully their hands with no iniquity—in resistance to all propositions, from whatever quarter coming, inconsistent with the most rigid justice—no body of politicians ever were so exemplary. Of the three parties in Parliament they are beyond question the party of the most scrupulous conscience. Sir John Walsh helps to swell the vulgar cry that property is in danger from them. Whenever, on the contrary, property is endangered, it is on them chiefly that reliance is to be placed for its security. Sir John is miserably mistaken when he says that Lord Grey at the meeting of the first Reformed Parliament could have “paid the fundholders 7s. in the pound” (p. 10). Had no one else resisted such an iniquity, it would have raised such a spirit among the Radicals as would have ignominiously hurled its author from power. It is by the opposition of the Radicals, that measures inconsistent with the legal rights or just expectations of individuals are usually defeated. Sir John seems to take credit to the Tories for compelling the relinquishment of the clause in the Irish Church Temporalities’ Bill which imposed a tax on existing incumbents.[*] That clause was abandoned in consequence of the general opposition of the Radicals. They had their full share in defeating the proposition of the Whigs in 1831 for taxing the transfer of stock, in violation of the express conditions on which every loan was concluded.[†]
How comes it that with so much passive integrity, there is in these men so little active energy? Why is it that men whom no consideration would bribe to do anything against their consciences, cannot be urged by any strength of motives to do anything for them? Because this is not an age of heroism, or of disinterested exertion, or of vigour of purpose; because the institutions which Sir John Walsh venerates, and the men whom he eulogizes, have actually extinguished activity of intellect and energy of character among our higher classes; because our church, our schools, and our universities, will not suffer great minds to grow up among us—minds fitted to accomplish great things, and to make their spirit pervade and elevate the smaller minds around them. It is because this people is becoming more and more a people of mere Mammon-worshippers—and will soon be irretrievably sunk into that worst degradation, unless our institutions of education, from Lambeth and Christchurch to the lowest charity school, shall be radically reformed,—unless a spirit in every respect the opposite of that which now prevails, shall penetrate into every nook and cranny of them, and give the dead carcasses a new life.
We offer this to Sir John Walsh as what he so earnestly demands, a categorical declaration of the principles and purposes of the Movement party. We hope he is satisfied. These are our purposes. We have others; but these being the greatest, the most distant, and the most difficult of accomplishment, may be considered our ultimate objects. When this point is reached, we will not say that we shall stop, for it would be absurd to set limits to improvement: but it is not probable that, these things being attained, anything very important will remain to be struggled for.
When therefore Sir John demands to be told how far we desire to go in constitutional change, we answer, that this depends mainly upon Sir John’s friends. We desire no constitutional changes, except as means; and necessary means we believe them to be, because the opinion we entertain of Sir John and his associates does not suffer us to believe that they will give us our ends without them. If we are wrong in this, the men whom Sir John celebrates have it in their power to undeceive us. They have only to be what Sir John says they already are. When they have given us a good code, a cheap procedure, courts which bring justice home to the people’s doors; when they have abrogated the corn laws, corrected all partial taxation, abolished all useless expenditure, and taken off all restrictions upon industry; when they have made Ireland what it is fitted to be, the garden, not the Golgotha of Europe; when they have given us (what most civilized countries possess) an organized system of administration, in which every public function has somebody trained to it, somebody responsible for its performance, regularly watched and systematically instructed by superior authority; when they have done all this, and last and greatest of all, when, in the place of a church and universities which are a disgrace to reason, and a laughing-stock to Europe, they have given us such places and such methods of education, both for young and old, as are suited to the wants, and therefore in some important respects opposed to the spirit, of the age;—when these things shall have been done, and done without organic changes, then let Sir John Walsh repeat his question, and he shall receive an answer to his heart’s desire.
[[*] ]“Noodle’s Oration” appears on pp. 386-8 of Sydney Smith, “Bentham’s Book of Fallacies,” Edinburgh Review, XLII (Aug., 1825), 367-89.
[[*] ]Isaac Newton, Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica, in Opera quae exstant omnia, ed. Samuel Horsley, 5 vols. (London: Nichols, 1779-85), Vols. II-III.
[[†] ]René Descartes, Principia philosophiae, in Opera philosophica, 4th ed. (Amsterdam: Elzevir, 1664), pp. 51, 61 ff. (III, xxx and liii ff.).
[[*] ]See George Herbert, “The Pulley,” in The Temple: Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations (Cambridge: Buck and Daniel, 1633), p. 153.
[* ]Sir John Walsh’s last chapter [pp. 114-40] is on “The State of Ireland,” and contains what he deems an idea of surpassing originality. This idea is ushered in by some remarks on the superficiality of the “boasted diffusion of knowledge,” [p. 114,] the shallowness of the ordinary run of minds, and the little progress which has been made towards understanding the subjects with which we are most occupied, and particularly Ireland. Having lamented the obscurity which still involves this subject, and given it to be understood who is the person destined to convert that obscurity into the clearest light, he proceeds to state, as follows, the current misconceptions:
[[*] ]See Cicero, De oratore (Latin and English), trans. E. W. Sutton and H. Rackham, 2 vols. (London: Heinemann; Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1942), Vol. I, pp. 108 (I, xxxiv), 272 (II, xxiv), and 304 (II, xxxiv). Cicero does not appear to have made explicitly the comparison with one’s own case.
[[*] ]Cf. Henry Grattan, Speech on Parliamentary Reform (15 May, 1797; Irish Commons), in The Speeches of the Right Honourable Henry Grattan, ed. Henry Grattan, 4 vols. (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown; Dublin: Milliken, 1822), Vol. III, p. 334.
[[†] ]For his first attack, see Joseph Hume, Speech in Introducing a Motion for Economy and Retrenchment (27 June, 1821), PD, n.s., Vol. 5, cols. 1345-1417.
[[*] ]“A Bill for Granting Relief to Certain Persons Dissenting from the Church of England,” 8 George IV (14 May, 1827), PP, 1826-27, II, 21-4 (not enacted).
[[†] ]John Scott, Speech on Dissenters’ Marriages Bill (26 June, 1827), PD, n.s., Vol. 17, cols. 1411-17.
[[*] ]William Empson, “Sir John Walsh’s Contemporary History,” Edinburgh Review, LXIII (Apr., 1836), 239-70.
[[*] ]Walsh, p. 32. For the concluding phrase, see Charles Grey, Letter to Lord Ebrington (31 May, 1834), in Examiner, 8 June, 1834, p. 355.
[[†] ]Walsh, pp. 77, 11.
[[‡] ]Cf. Walsh, p. 111. For the origin of the phrase, see John Charles Spencer, Speech on the Ministerial Plan of Parliamentary Reform (1 Mar., 1831), PD, 3rd ser., Vol. 2, cols. 1139-44.
[[§] ]Walsh, p. 19.
[[*] ]James Robert George Graham, Charles Gordon Lennox, and Frederick Robinson.
[[†] ]Walsh, p. 3.
[[*] ]Clause 14 of “A Bill to Alter and Amend the Laws Relating to the Temporalities of the Church in Ireland,” 3 William IV (11 Mar., 1833), PP, 1833, I, 345 (the bill was enacted as 3 & 4 William IV, c. 37).
[[†] ]Proposed by Spencer in his Speech on the Budget (11 Feb., 1831), PD, 3rd ser., Vol. 2, cols. 416-18; the proposition, after opposition led by Henry Goulburn and Robert Peel, was withdrawn by Spencer in his Report on the Budget (14 Feb., 1831), ibid., cols. 491-3.