George Otto Trevelyan.

The life and letters of Lord Macaulay online

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inconveniences arise from the liberty of political discussion, to those in-
conveniences we are already subject. Yet while our policy is thus liberal
and indulgent, we are daily reproached and taunted with the bondage in
which we keep the Press. A strong feeling on this subject appears to ex-
ist throughout the European community here ; and the loud complaints
which have lately been uttered are likely to produce a considerable effect
on the English people, who will see at a glance that the law is oppressive,
and who will not know how completely it is inoperative.

"To impose strong restraints on political discussion is an intelligible
policy, and may possibly — though I greatly doubt it — be in some conn-
tries a wise policy. But this is not the point at issue. The question be-
fore us is not whether the Press shall be free, but whether, being free, it
shall be called free. It is surely mere madness in a government to make
itself unpopular for nothing; to be indulgent, and yet to disguise its in-
dulgence under such outward forms as bring on it the reproach of tyran-
ny. Yet this is now our policy. We are exposed to all the dangers — dan-
gers, I conceive, greatly overrated — of a free Press ; and at the same time
we contrive to incur all the opprobrium of a censorship. It is universally
allowed that the licensing system, as at present administered, does not
keep any man who can buy a press from publishing the bitterest and most
sarcastic reflections on any public measure or any public functionary. Yet
the very words license to print' have a sound hateful to the ears of En-
glishmen in every part of the globe. It is unnecessary to inquire whether
this feeling be reasonable ; whether the petitioners who have so strongly
pressed this matter on our consideration would not have shown a better
judgment if they had been content with their practical libertj'^, and had
reserved their murmurs for practical grievances. The question for us is
not what they ought to do, but what we ought to do ; not whether it be
wise in them to complain when they suffer no injury, but whether it be
wise in us to incur odium unaccompanied by the smallest accession of se-
curity or of power.

" One argument only has been urged in defense of the present system.
It is admitted that the Press of Bengal has long been suffered to enjoy
practical liberty, and that nothing but an extreme emergency could jus-
tify the Government in curtailing that liberty. But, it is said, such an
emergency may arise, and the Government ought to retain in its hands the
power of adopting, in that event, the sharp, prompt, and decisive measures
which may be necessary for the preservation of the empire. But when we
consider with what vast powers, extending over all classes of people. Par-
liament has armed the goveruor-geueral in council, and, in extreme cases.


the governor-general alone, Tve shall probably be inclined to allow little
weight to this argument. No government in the world is better provided
with the means of meeting extraordinary dangers by extraordinary pre-
cautious. Five persons, who may be brought together in half an hour,
whose deliberations are secret, who are not shackled by any of those forms
which elsewhere delay legislative measures, can, in a single sitting, make
a law for stopping every press in India. Possessing as we do the unques-
tionable power to interfere, whenever the safety of the state may require
it, with overwhelming rapidity and energy, we surely ought not, in quiet
times, to be constantly keeping the offensive form and ceremonial of des-
potism before the eyes of those whom, nevertheless, we permit to enjoy the
substance of freedom."

Eighteen montlis elapsed, during which the Calcutta Press
found occasion to attack Macaulay with a breadth and ferocity
of calumny such as few public men, in any age and country,
have ever endured, and none, perhaps, have ever forgiven.
There were many mornings when it was impossible for him
to allow the newspapers to lie about his sister's drawing-room.
The editor of the periodical which called itseK, and had a right
to call itself, the Friend of India, undertook to shame his
brethren by publishing a collection of their invectives ; but it
w^as very soon evident that no decent journal could venture to
foul its pages by reprinting the epithets and .the anecdotes
which constituted the daily greeting of the literary men of
Calcutta to their fellow-craftsmen of the Ediiiburgh Review.
But Macaulay's cheery and robust common sense carried him
safe and sound through an ordeal w^hich has broken down
sterner natures than his, and imbittered as stainless lives.
The allusions in his correspondence, all the more surely be-
cause they are brief and rare, indicate that the torrent of ob-
loquy to which he was exposed interfered neither with his
temper nor with his happiness ; and how little he allowed it
to disturb his judgment, or distort his public spirit, is proved
by the tone of a state paper, addressed to the Court of Direct-
ors in September, 1836, in which he eagerly vindicates the
freedom of the Calcutta Press, at a time when the writers of
that Press, on the days when they were pleased to be decent,
could find for him no milder appellations than those of cheat,
swindler, and charlatan.

1834-'38,] LORD MACAULAY. 347

**I regret that on this, or on any subject, my opinion should differ from
that of the honorable court. But I still conscientiously think that we
acted wisely when we passed the law on the subject of the Press ; and I
am quite certain that we should act most unwisely if we were now to re-
peal that law.

" I must, in the first place, venture to express an opinion that the im-
portance of that question is greatlj'^ overrated by persons, even the best in-
formed and the most discerning, who are not actually on the spot. It is
most justly observed by the honorable court that many of the arguments
which may be urged in favor of a free Press at home do not apply to this
country. But it is, I conceive, no less true that scarcely any of those argu-
ments which have been employed in Europe to defend restrictions on the
Press apply to a press such as that of India.

" In Europe, and especially in England, the Press is an engine of tremen-
dous power, both for good and for evil. The most enlightened men, after
long experience both of its salutary and of its pernicious operation, have
come to the conclusion that the good, on the whole, preponderates. But
that there is no inconsiderable amount of evil to be set off against the good
has never been disputed by the warmest friend to freedom of discussion.

" In India the Press is comparatively a very feeble engine. It does far
less good, and far less harm, than in Europe. It sometimes renders useful
services to the public. It sometimes brings to the notice of the Govern-
ment evils the existence of which would otherwise have been unknown.
It operates, to some extent, as a salutary check on public functionaries.
It does something toward keeping the administration pure. On the other
hand, by misrepresenting public measures, and by flattering the prejudices
of those who support it, it sometimes produces a slight degree of excite-
ment in a very small portion of the community.

" How . slight that excitement is, even when it reaches its greatest
height, and how little the Government has to fear from it, no person whose
observation has been confined to European societies will readily believe.
In this country the number of English residents is very small, and of that
small number a great proportion are engaged in the service of the state,
and are most deeply interested in the maintenance of existing institu-
tions. Even those English settlers who are not in the service of the Gov-
ernment have a strong interest in its stability. They are few : they are
thinly scattered among a vast population with whom they have neither
language, nor religion, nor morals, nor manners, nor color, in common :
they feel that any convulsion which should overthrow the existing order
of things would be ruinous to themselves. Particular acts of the Govern-
ment — especially acts which are mortifying to the pride of caste natural-
ly felt by an Englishman in India — are often angrily condemned by these
persons. But every indigo-planter in Tirhoot, and every shop-keeper in
Calcutta, is perfectly aware that the downfall of the Government would

348 LIFE AND LETTERS OF [chap. vi.

be attended with the destruction of his fortune, and with imminent hazard
to his life.

" Thus, among the English inhabitants of India, there are no fit subjects
for that species of excitement which the Press sometimes produces at
home. There is no class among them analogous to that vast body of En-
glish laborers and artisans whose minds are rendered irritable by fi"equent
distress and privation, and on whom, therefore, the sophistry and rhetoric
of bad men often produce a tremendous effect. The English papers here
might be infinitely more seditious than the most seditious that were ever
printed in London without doing harm to any thing but their own circu-
lation. The fire goes out for want of some combustible material on which
to seize. How little reason would there be to apprehend danger to order
and property in England from the most inflammatory writings, if those
writings were read only by ministers of state, commissioners of the cus-
toms and excise, judges and masters in chancery, upper clerks in Govern-
ment offices, officers in the army, bankers, landed proprietors, barristers,
and master-manufacturers ! The most timid politician would not antici-
pate the smallest evil from the most seditious libels, if the circulation of
those libels were confined to such a class of readers ; and it is to such a
class of readers that the circulation of the English newspapers in India is
almost entirely confined."

The motive for the scurrility with which Macaulay was as-
sailed by a handful of sorry scribblers was his advocacy of the
act, familiarly known as the Black Act, which withdrew from
British subjects resident in the provinces their so-called privi-
lege of bringing civil appeals before the Supreme Court at Cal-
cutta. Such appeals were thenceforward to be tried by the
Sudder Court, which was manned by the company's judges,
" all of them English gentlemen of liberal education : as free
as even the judges of the Supreme Court from any imputa-
tion of personal corruption, and selected by the Government
from a body which abounds in men as honorable and as in-
telligent as ever were employed in the service of any state."
The change embodied in the act was one of little practical
moment ; but it excited an opposition based upon arguments
and assertions of such a nature that the success or failure of
the proposed measure became a question of high and undeni-
able importance.

'•'In my opinion," writes Macaulay, "the chief reason for preferring the
Sudder Court is this — that it is the court which we have provided to ad-

1834-'38.] LORD MAC AULA Y. 349

minister justice, in the last resort, to the great body of the people. If it is
not fit for that purpose, it ought to be made so. If it is fit to administer
justice to the great body of the people, why should we exempt a mere hand-
ful of settlers from its jurisdiction ? There certainly is, I will not say the
reality, but the semblance, of partiality and tyranny in the distinction
made by the Charter Act of 1813. That distinction seems to indicate a
notion that the natives of India may well put up with something less than
justice, or that Englishmen in India have a title to something more than
justice. If we give our own countrymen an appeal to the King's Courts,
in cases in which all others are forced to be contented with the Company's
Courts, we do, in fact, cry down the Company's Courts. We proclaim to
the Indian people that there are two sorts of justice — a coarse one, which
we think good enough for them, and another of superior quality, which we
keep for ourselves. If we take pains to show that we distrust our highest
courts, how can we expect that the natives of the country will place confi-
dence in them ?

" The draft of the act was published, and was, as I fully expected, not
unfavorably received by the British in the Mofussil.* Seven weeks have
elapsed since the notification took place. Time has been allowed for peti-
tions from the farthest corners of the territories subject to this ]3residency.
But I have heard of only one attempt in the Mofussil to get up a remon-
strance ; and the Mofussil newspapers which I have seen, though generally
disposed to cavil at all the acts of the Government, have spoken favorably
of this measure.

" In Calcutta the case lias been somewhat different ; and this is a re-
markable fact. The British inhabitants of Calcutta are the only British-
born subjects in Bengal who will not be affected by the proposed act, and
they are the only British subjects in Bengal who have expressed the small-
est objection to it. The clamor, indeed, has proceeded from a very small
portion of the society of Calcutta. The objectors have not ventured to
call a public meeting, and their memorial has obtained very few signa-
tures ; but they have attempted to make up by noise and virulence for
what has been wanting in strength. It may at first sight appear strange
that a law, which is not unwelcome to those who are to live under it, should
excite such acrimonious feelings among people who are wholly exempted
from its operation. But the explanation is simple. Though nobody who
lesides at Calcutta will be sued in the Mofussil courts, many people who
reside at Calcutta have, or wish to have, practice in the Supreme Court.
Great exertions have accordingly been made, though with little success, to
excite a feeling against this measure among the English inhabitants of

* The term "Mofussil" is used to denote the provinces of the Bengal
Presidency, as opposed to the capital.

350 LIFE AND LETTERS OF [chap. vi.

The political phraseology of the English in India is the same with the
political phraseology of our countrymeu at home ; hut it is never to he
forgotten that the same words stand for very different things at London
and at Calcutta. We hear much about public opinion, the love of liberty,
the influence of the Press. But we must remember that public opinion
means the opinion of five hundred persons who have no interest, feeling, or
taste in common with the fifty millions among whom they live ; that the
love of liberty means the strong objection which the five hundred feel to
every measure which can prevent them from acting as they choose toward
the fifty millions ; that the Press is altogether supported by the five hun-
dred, and has no motive to plead the cause of the fifty millions.

" We know that India can not have a free government. But she may
have the next best thing — a firm and impartial despotism. The worst
state in which she can possibly be placed is that in which the memorialists
would place her. They call on us to recognize them as a privileged order
of freemen in the midst of slaves. It was for the purpose of averting this
great evil that Parliament, at the same time at which it suffered English-
men to settle in India, armed us with those large powers which, in my opin-
ion, we ill deserve to possess if we have not the spirit to use them now."

Macaulay had made two mistakes. He had yielded to tlie
temptation of imputing motives, a habit which the Spectator
newspaper has pronounced to be his one intellectual vice, fine-
ly adding that it is ''the vice of rectitude;" and he had done
worse still, for he had challenged his opponents to a course of
agitation. They responded to the call. After preparing the
way by a string of communications to the public journals, in
which their objections to the act were set forth at enormous
length, and with as much point and dignity as can be obtained
by a copious use of italics and capital letters, they called a
public meeting, the proceedings at which were almost too lu-
dicrous for description. " I have seen," said one of the speak-
ers, " at a Hindoo festival, a naked, disheveled figure, his face
painted with grotesque colors, and his long hair besmeared
with dirt and ashes. His tongue was pierced with an iron
bar, and his breast was scorched by the fire from the burning
altar which rested on his stomach. This revolting figure, cov-
ered with ashes, dirt, and bleeding voluntary woimds, may the
next moment ascend the Sudder bench, and in a suit between
a Hindoo and an Enghshman think it an act of sanctity to de-
cide against law in favor of the professor of the true faith."

1834-'38.] LORD MACAULAY. 351

Another gentleman, Mr. Longueville Clarke, reminded " the
tyrant " that

There yawns the sack, and yonder rolls the sea.

" Mr. Macaulay may treat this as an idle threat ; but his
knowledge of history will supply him with many examples of
what has occurred when resistance has been provoked by mild-
er instances of despotism than the decimation of a people."
This pretty explicit recommendation to lynch a member of
council was received with rapturous applause.

At length arose a Captain Biden, who spoke as follows:
" Gentlemen, I come before you in the character of a British
seaman, and on that ground claim your attention for a few
moments. Gentlemen, there has been much talk during the
evening of laws, and regulations, and rights, and liberties;
but you all seem to have forgotten that this is the anniversary
of the glorious Battle of Waterloo. I beg to propose, and I
call on the statue of Lord Cornwallis and yourselves to join
me in, three cheers for the Duke of Wellington and the Bat-
tle of Waterloo." The audience, who by this time were pretty
well convinced that no grievance which could possibly result
under the Black Act could equal the horrors of a crowd in the
Town - hall of Calcutta during the latter- half of June, gladly
caught at the diversion, and made noise enough to satisfy even
the gallant orator. The business was brought to a hurried
close, and the meeting was adjourned till the following week.

But the luck of Macaulay' s adversaries pursued them still.
One of the leading speakers at the adjourned meeting, him-
self a barrister, gave another barrister the lie, and a tumult
ensued which Captain Biden in vain endeavored to calm by
his favorite remedy. " The opinion at Madras, Bombay, and
Canton," said he (and in so saying he uttered the only sen-
tence of wisdom which either evening had produced), " is that
there is no public opinion at Calcutta but the lawyers. And
now — who has the presumption to call it a burlesque? — ^let's
give three cheers for the Battle of Waterloo, and then I'll pro-
pose an amendment which shall go into the w^liole question."
The chairman, who certainly had earned the vote of thanks


352 LIFE AND LETTERS OF [chap. vi.

for "his very extraordinary patience" which Captain Biden
was appropriately selected to move, contrived to get resolu-
tions passed in favor of petitioning Parliament and the Home
Government against the obnoxious act.

The next few wrecks were spent by the leaders of the move-
ment in squabbling over the preliminaries of duels that nev-
er came off, and applying for criminal informations for libel
against each other, which their beloved Supreme Court very
judiciously refused to grant ; but in the course of time the pe-
titions were signed, and an agent was selected who undertook
to convey them to England. On the 22d of March, 1838,
a committee of inquiry into the operation of the act was
moved for in the House of Commons ; but there was noth-
ing in the question which tempted honorable members to
lay aside their customary indifference with regard to Indian
controversies, and the motion fell tlirough without a division.
The House allowed the Government to have its own way in
the matter; and any possible hesitation on the part of the
ministers was borne down by the emphasis with which Mac-
aulay claimed their support. " I conceive," he wrote, " that
the act is good in itself, and that the time for passing it has
been well chosen. The strongest reason, however, for passing
it, is the nature of the opposition which it has experienced.
The organs of that opposition repeated every day that the En-
glish were the conquerors and the lords of the country ; the
dominant race ; the electors of the House of Commons, wliose
power extends both over the company at home and over the
governor-general in council here. The constituents of the
British Legislature, they told us, were not to be bound by laws
made by any inferior authority. The firmness with which the
Government withstood the idle outcr}^ of two or three hun-
dred people, about a matter with which they had nothing to
do, was designated as insolent defiance of public opinion. We
were enemies of freedom, because we would not suffer a small
white aristocracy to domineer over millions. How utterly at
variance these principles are with reason, with justice, with
the honor of the British Government, and with the dearest in-
terests of the Indian people, it is unnecessary for me to point


1834-'38.] LORD MACAULAY. 353

out. For myself, I can only say that if the Government is to
be conducted on such principles, I am utterly disqualified, by
all my feelings and opinions, from bearing any part in it, and
can not too soon resign my place to some person better fitted
to hold it."

It is fortunate for India that a man v/ith the tastes and the
training of Macaulay came to her shores as one vested with
authority, and that he came at the moment when he did ; for
that moment was the very turning-point of her intellectual
progress. All educational action had been at a stand for
some time back, on account of an irreconcilable difference of
opinion in the Committee of Public Instruction ; which was
di\aded, five against five, on either side of a controversy, vital,
inev'itable, admitting of neither postponement nor compro-
mise, and conducted by both parties with a pertinacity and a
warmth that was nothing but honorable to those concerned.
Half of the members were for maintaining and extending the
old scheme of encouraging Oriental learnmg by stipends paid
to students in Sanscrit, Persian, and Arabic ; and by liberal
grants for the publication of works in those languages. The
other half were in favor of teaching the elements of knowl-
edge in the vernacular tongues, and the higher branches in
English. On his arrival, Macaulay was appointed president
of the committee ; but he declined to take any active part in
its proceedings until the Government had finally pronounced
on the question at issue. Late in January, 1835, the advo-
cates of the two systems, than whom ten abler men could not
be found in the service, laid their opinions before the Supreme
Council ; and, on the 2d of February, Macaulay, as a member
of that council, produced a minute in which he adopted and
defended the views of the English section in the committee.

" How stands the case ? We have to educate a people who can not at
present be educated by means of their mother tongue. We must teach
them some foreign language. The claims of our own language it is hard-
ly necessary to recapitulate. It stands pre-eminent even among the lan-
guages of the West. It abounds with works of imagination not inferior
to the noblest which Greece has bequeathed to us; with models of every
species of eloquence ; with historical compositions, which, considered mere-

YoL. I.— 23

354 LIFE AND LETTERS OF [chap. \t.

ly as narratives, have seldom been surpassed, and whielj, considered as ve-
hicles of ethical and political instruction, have never been equaled; "with
just and lively representations of human life and human nature ; with the
most profound speculations on metaphysics, morals, government, jurispru-
dence, and trade ; -with full and correct information respecting every ex-
perimental science which tends to preserve the health, to increase the com-
fort, or to expand the intellect of man. Whoever knows that language
has ready access to all the vast intellectual wealth which all the wisest
nations of the earth have created and hoarded in the course of ninety gen-
erations. It may safely be said that the literature now extant in that
language is of far greater value than all the literature which three hun-
dred years ago was extant in all the languages of the world together.
Nor is this all. In India, English is the language spoken by the ruling

Online LibraryGeorge Otto TrevelyanThe life and letters of Lord Macaulay → online text (page 31 of 79)