James Bryce Bryce.

Studies in contemporary biography online

. (page 14 of 29)
Online LibraryJames Bryce BryceStudies in contemporary biography → online text (page 14 of 29)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

better secured his own authority and the dignity
of the assembly. He proceeded on the assump-
tion, an unsafe one, as he had too much reason
to know, that every one else was a gentleman
like himself, penetrated by the old traditions ot
the House of Commons.

While superior to the prejudices of the old-

Sir Stafford Northcote 223

fashioned wing of his party, he was too cautious
and conscientious to join those who sought to
lead it into demagogic courses. So far as
poHtical opinions went, he might, had fortune
sent him into the world as the son of a Whig-
family, have made an excellent Whig, removed
as far from high Toryism on the one hand as
from Radicalism on the other. There was. there-
fore, a certain incompatibility between the m;m
and the position. Average partisans felt that a
leader so very reasonable was not in full sym-
pathy with them. Even his invincible optimism
displeased them. "Hang that fellow Northcote ! "
said one of them ; " he's always seeing blue sky."
The militant partisans, whatever their opinions,
desired a pugnacious chief. That a leader
should draw the enemy's fire does him good with
his followers, and makes them rally to him. But
the fire of his opponents was hardly ever directed
against Northcote, even when controversy was
hottest. Had he possessed a more imperious
will, he might have overcome these difficulties,
because his abilities and experience were of
the highest value to his party, and his char-
acter stood so high that the mass of sensible
Tories all over the country might perhaps have
rallied to him, if he had appealed to them
against the intrigues by which it was sought to
supplant him. He did not lack courage. But
he lacked what men call "backbone." B^or

2 24 Biographical Studies

practical success, it is less fatal to fail in wisdom
than to fail in resolution. He had not that un-
quenchable self-confidence which I have sought
to describe in Disraeli, and shall have to describe
in Parnell and in Gladstone. He yielded to pres-
sure, and people came to know that he would
yield to pressure.

The end of it was that the weakened prestige
and final fall of the Liberal Ministry were not
Gredited to his generalship, but rather to those
who had skirmished in advance of the main army.
That fall was in reality due neither to him nor to
them, but partly to the errors or internal divisions
of the Ministry itself, partly to causes such as the
condition of Ireland and the revolt of Arabi in
Egypt, for which Mr. Gladstone's Cabinet was
no more, perhaps less, to blame than were some
preceding Governments. No Ministry of recent
years seemed, when it was formed, to have such a
source of strength in the abilities of the men who
composed it as did the Ministry of 1880. None
proved so persistently unlucky.

The circumstances under which Northcote's
leadership came to an end by his elevation to the
Upper House (June 1885) as Earl of Iddesleigh,
as well as those under which he was subsequently
(1887) removed from the post of Foreign Secre-
tary in the then Tory Ministry, evoked much
comment at the time, but some of the incidents
attending them have not yet been disclosed, and

Sir Stafford Northcote 225

they could not be discussed without bringing in
other persons with whom I am not here concerned.
Conscious of his own loyalty to his party, and
remembering his long and laborious services, he
felt those circumstances deeply ; and they may have
hastened his death, which came very suddenly in
February 1887, and called forth a burst of sympathy
such as had not been seen since Peel perished by
an accident nearly forty years before.

In private life Northcote had the charm of
unpretending manners, coupled with abundant
humour, a store of anecdote, and a geniality
which came straight from the heart. No man
was a more agreeable companion. In 1884,
when the University of Edinburgh celebrated
its tercentenary, he happened to be Lord Rector,
and in that capacity had to preside over the
festivities. Although a stranger to Scotland,
and as far removed (for he was a decided
High Churchman) from sympathy with Scottish
Presbyterianism as he was removed in politics
from the Liberalism then dominant in Edin-
burgh, he won golden opinions from the Scotch,
as well as from the crowd of foreign visitors, by
the tact and grace he showed in the discharge of
his duties, and the skill with which, putting off
the politician, he entered into the spirit of the
occasion as a lover of letters and learning.
Though political eminence had secured his election
to the office, every one felt that it would have been


226 Biographical Studies

hard to find in the ranks of hterature and science
any one fitter to preside over such a gathering.

He left behind few in whom the capacities
of the administrator were so happily blended with
a philosophic judgment and a wide culture. It is
a combination which was inadequately appreciated
in his own person. Vehemence in controversy,
domineering audacity of purpose, the power of
moving crowds by incisive harangues, were the
qualities which the younger generation seemed
disposed to cultivate. They are qualities apt to be
valued in times of strife and change, times when
men are less concerned to study and apply prin-
ciples than to rouse the passions and consolidate
the organisation of their party, while dazzling the
nation by large promises or bold strokes of policy.
For such courses Northcote was not the man.
Were it to be observed of him that he was too
good for the work he had to do, it might be
answered that political leadership is work for
which no man can be too good, and that it was
rather because his force of will and his combative-
ness w^ere not commensurate with his other gifts,
that those other gifts did not have their full effect
and win their due success. Yet this at least may
be said, that if he had been less amiable, less fair-
minded, and less open-minded, he would have
retained his leadership to the end.


Though I do not propose to write even the briefest
narrative of Parnell's life, but only to note certain
salient features of his intellect and character, it
may be well to state a few facts and dates ; for in
these days of rapid change and hasty reading,
facts soon pass out of most men's memories,
leaving only vague impressions behind/

He belonged to a family which, established at
Congleton in Cheshire, had at the time of the
Restoration migrated to Ireland, had settled on
an estate in Wicklow, and had produced in every
subsequent generation a person of distinction.
Thomas Parnell, the friend of Pope and Swift,
is still remembered by his poem of The Ilcniiit.
Another Parnell (Sir John) was Chancellor of
the Irish Exchequer in the days of Henry
Grattan, whose opinions he shared. Another
(Sir Henry) was a leading Irish Liberal member
of the House of Commons, and died by his
own hand in 1842. Charles's father and grand-

^ The Life of rariicll, by Mr. R. Barry O'Brien, has laken rank aniuiiL;
the best biographies of the last half-ccniur\-.


22 8 Biographical Studies

father figured less in the public eye. But
his mother was a remarkable woman, and
the daughter of a remarkable man, Commodore
Charles Stewart, one of the most brilliant naval
commanders on the American side in the war of
1812. Stewart was the son of a Scoto-Irishman
from Ulster, who had emigrated to America in
the middle of the eighteenth century ; so there
was a strain of Scottish as well as a fuller strain
of English blood in the most powerful Irish
leader of recent times.

Parnell was born at Avondale, the family estate
in Wicklow, in 1846, and was educated mostly at
private schools in England. He spent some
months at Magdalene College, Cambridge, but,
having been rusticated for an affray in the street,
refused to return to the College, and finished his
education for himself at home. It was a very im-
perfect education. He cared nothing for study,
and indeed showed interest only in mathematics
and cricket. In 1874 he stood as a candidate for
Parliament, but without success. When he had to
make a speech he broke down utterly. In 1875 he
was returned as member for the county of Meath,
and within two years had made his mark in the
House of Commons. In 1880 he was elected leader
of the Irish Parliamentary party, and ruled it and
his followers in Ireland with a rod of iron until
he was deposed, in 1890, at the instance of
the leaders of the English Liberal party, who

Charles Stewart Parnell 229

thought that the verdict against him in a divorce
suit in which he was co-respondent had fatally
discredited him in the eves of the bulk of the
English Liberal party, and made co-operation
with him impossible. Refusing to resign his
leadership, he conducted a campaign in Ireland
against the majority of his former followers with
extraordinary energy till October 1891, when he
died of rheumatic fever after a short illness. A
constitution which had never been strong was
worn out by the ceaseless exertions and mental
tension of the last twelve months.

The whole of his political activity was com-
prised within a period of sixteen years, during
ten of which he led the Irish Nationalist party,
exercising an authority more absolute than any
Irish leader had exercised before.

It has often been observed that he was not
Irish, and that he led the Irish people with success
just because he did not share their characteristic
weaknesses. But it is equally true that he was
not English. One always felt the difference
between his temperament and that of the normal
Englishman. The same remark applies to some
other famous Irish leaders. Wolfe Tone, for
instance, and Fitzgibbon (afterwards Lord Clare)
were unlike the usual type of Irishman that is,
the Irishman in whom the Celtic element pre-
dominates ; but they were also unlike English-
men. The Anglo-Irish Protestants, a strong race

230 Biographical Studies

who have produced a number of remarkable men
in excess of the proportion they bear to the
whole population of the United Kingdom, fall
into two classes the men of North- Eastern
Ulster, in whom there is so large an infusion
of Scottish blood that they may almost be called
" Scotchmen with a difference," and the men
of Leinster and Munster, who are true Anglo-
Celts. It was to this latter class that Parnell
belonged. They are a group by themselves, in
whom some of the fire and impulsiveness of the
Celt has been blended with some of the firmness,
the tenacity, and the close hold upon facts which
belong to the Englishman. Mr. Parnell, how-
ever, though he might be reckoned to the Anglo-
Irish type, was not a normal specimen of it. He
was a man whom you could not refer to any
category, peculiar both in his intellect and in his
character generally.

His intellect was eminently practical. He
did not love speculation or the pursuit of
abstract truth, nor had he a taste for literature,
still less a delight in learning for its own sake.
Even of the annals of Ireland his knowledge
was most slender. He had no grasp of constitu-
tional questions, and was not able to give any
help in the construction of a Home Rule scheme
in 1886. His general reading had been scanty,
and his speeches show no acquaintance either
with history, beyond the commonest facts, or with

Charles Stewart Parnell 231

any other subject connected with politics. Very
rarely did they contain a maxim or reflection of
general applicability, apart from the particular
topic he was discussing. Nor did he ever
attempt to give to them the charm of literary
ornament. All was dry, direct, and practical,
without so much as a graceful phrase or a
choice epithet. Sometimes, when addressing a
great public meeting, he would seek to rouse the
audience by vehement language ; but though there
might be a glow of suppressed passion, there were
no flashes of imaginative light. Yet he never
gave the impression of an uneducated man.
His lanoruag-e, thoug-h it lacked distinction, was
clear and grammatical. His taste was correct.
It was merely that he did not care for any of
those things which men of ability comparable to
his usually do care for. His only interests, out-
side politics, lay in mechanics and engineering
and in the development of the material resources
of his country. He took pains to manage his
estate well, and was specially anxious to make
something out of his stone quarries, and to learn
what could be done in the way of finding and
working minerals.

Those who observed that he was almost
always occupied in examining and attacking the
measures or the conduct of those who governed
Ireland were apt to think his talent a purely
critical one. They were mistaken. Critical.

232 Biographical Studies

indeed, it was, in a remarkable degree ; keen,
penetrating, stringently dissective of the arguments
of an opponent, ingenious in taking advantage of
a false step in administration or of an admission
imprudently made in debate. But It had also a
positive and constructive quality. From time to
time he would drop his negative attitude and
sketch out plans of legislation which were always
consistent and weighty, though not made attractive
by any touch of imagination. They were the
schemes not so much of a statesman as of an able
man of business, who saw the facts, especially
the financial facts, in a sharp, cold light, and
they seldom went beyond what the facts could be
made to prove. And his ideas struck one as
being not only forcible but independent, the fruit
of his own musings. Although he freely used
the help of others in collecting facts or opinions,
he did not seem to be borrowing the ideas,
but rather to have looked at things for him-
self, and seen them as they actually were, in
their true perspective, not (like many Irishmen)
through the mists of sentiment or party feeling.
The impression made by one of his more elabo-
rate speeches might be compared to that which
one receives from a grey sunless day with an east
wind, a day in which everything shows clear, but
also hard and cold.

To call his mind a narrow one, as people some-
times did, was to wrong it. If the range of his

Charles Stewart Parnell 233

interests was limited, his intelligence was not.
Equal to any task it undertook, it judged soundly,
appreciating the whole phenomena of the case,
men and things that had no sort of attraction
for it. There was less pleasure in watching its
activities than the observation of a superior
mind generally affords, for it was always directed
to immediate aims, and it wanted the originality
which is fertile in ideas and analofjies. It
was not discursive, not versatile, not apt to
generalise. It did not rejoice in the exercise of
thought for thought's sake, but felt itself to be
merely a useful instrument for performing the
definite practical work which the will required
of it.

If, however, the intellect of the man could
not be called interesting, his character had at
least this interest, that it gave one many
problems to solve, and could not easily be
covered by any formulae. An observer who
followed the old method of explaining every
man by ascribing to him a single ruling passion,
would have said that his ruling passion was
pride. The pride was so strong that it
almost extinguished vanity. Parnell did not
appear to seek occasions for display, frequently
neglecting those which other men would have
chosen, seldom seeming to be elated by the
applause of crowds, and treating the House of
Commons with equal coolness whether it cheered

2 34 Biographical Studies

him or howled at him. He cared nothinsf for
any social compliments or attentions, rarely
accepted an invitation to dinner, dressed with
little care and often in clothes whose style and
colour seemed unworthy of his position. He
was believed to be haughty and distant to his
followers ; and although he could occasionally
be kindly and even genial, scarcely any were
admitted to intimacy, and few of the ordinary
signs of familiarity could be observed between
him and them. Towards other persons he was
sufficiently polite but warily reserved, show-
ing no desire for the cultivation of friend-
ship, or, indeed, for any relations but those
of business. Of some ordinarv social duties,
such as opening and answering letters, he was,
especially in later years, more neglectful than
good breeding permits ; and men doubted
whether to ascribe this fault to indolence or to
a superb disregard of everybody but himself
Such disregard he often showed in greater
matters, taking no notice of attacks made
upon him which he might have refuted, and
intimating to the English his indifference to
their praise or blame. On one remarkable
occasion, at the beginning of the session of
1883, he was denounced by Mr. W. E. Forster
in a long and bitter speech, which told power-
fully upon the House. Many instances were
given in which Irish members had palliated

Charles Stewart Parnell 235

or failed to condemn criminal acts, and Parnell
was arraigned as the head and front of this line
of conduct, and thus virtually responsible for the
outrages that had occurred. The Irish leader,
who had listened in impassive silence, broken
only by one interjected contradiction, to this
fierce invective, did not rise to reply, and was
with difficulty induced by his followers to de-
liver his defence on the following day. To the
astonishment of every one, that defence con-
sisted in a declaration, delivered in a cold,
careless, almost scornful way, that for all he
said or did in Ireland he held himself respons-
ible to his countrymen only, and did not in
the least regard what Englishmen thought ot
him. It was an answer not of defence but of

Even to his countrymen he could on occasion
be disdainful, expecting them to defer to his own
judgment of his own course. He would some-
times remain away from Parliament for weeks
together, although important business might be
under consideration, perhaps would vanish alto-
gether from public ken. Yet this lordly attitude
and the air of mystery which surrounded him
did not seem to be studied with a view to effect.
They were due to his habit of thinking first
and chiefly of himself If he desired to indulge
his inclinations, he indulged them. Some ex-
tremely strong motive of passion or interest might

236 Biographical Studies

interpose to restrain this desire and stimulate
him to an unwelcome exertion ; but no respect
for the opinion of others, nor fear of censure
from his allies or friends, would be allowed to
do so.

This boundless self-confidence and independ-
ence greatly contributed to his success as a leader.
His faith in his star inspired a conviction that
obstacles whose reality his judgment recognised
would ultimately yield to his will, and gave him in
moments of crisis an undismayed fortitude which
only once forsook him in the panic which was
suddenly created by the Phoenix Park murders of
May 1882. The confidence which he felt, or ap-
peared to feel, reacted upon his party, and became
a chief ground of their obedience to him and their
belief in his superior wisdom. His calmness, his
tenacity, his patience, his habit of listening quietly
to every one, but deciding for himself, were all
evidences of that resolute will which imposed
itself upon the Irish masses no less than upon
his Parliamentary following, and secured for him
a loyalty in which there was little or nothing of
personal affection.

In these several respects his overweening pride
was a source of strength. In another direction,
however, it proved a source of weakness. There
are men in whom the want of moral principle,
of noble emotions, or of a scrupulous conscience
and nice sense of honour, is partly replaced by

Charles Stewart Parnell 237

deference to the opinion of their class or of the
world. Such men may hold through life a
tolerably upright course, neither from the love
of virtue nor because they are ambitious and
anxious to stand well with those whom they
aspire to influence or rule, but because, having
a sense of personal dignity, combined with a
perception of what pleases or offends man-
kind, they are resolved to do nothing whereby
their good name can be tarnished or an opening
given to malicious tongues. But when pride
towers to such a height as to become a law to
itself, disregarding the judgment of others, it
may not only lead its possessor into an attitude
of defiance which the world resents, but may
make him stoop to acts of turpitude which dis-
credit his character. Mr. Parnell was certainly
not a scrupulous man. Without dwelling upon
the circumstances attendinof the divorce case
already referred to, or upon his betrayal of Mr.
Gladstone's confidences, and his reckless appeals
during the last year of his life to the most in-
flammable elements in Ireland, there are facts
enough in his earlier career to show that he had
little reofard for truth and little horror for crime.
A revolution may extenuate some sins, but even
in a revolution there are men (and sometimes
the strongest men) whose moral excellence shines
through the smoke of conflict and the mists of
detraction. In Mr. Parnell's nature the moral

238 Biographical Studies

element was imperfectly developed. He seemed
cynical and callous ; and it was probably his
haughty self-reliance which prevented him from
sufficiently deferring to the ordinary moralities
of mankind. His pride, which ought to have
kept him free from the suspicion of dishonour,
made him feel himself dispensed from the usual
restraints. Whatever he did was right in his
own eyes, and no other eyes need be regarded.
Phenomena somewhat similar were observable in
Napoleon. But Napoleon, though he came of a
good family, was obviously not a gentleman in
the common sense of the term. Mr. Parnell
was a gentleman in that sense. He had the
bearing, the manners, the natural easy dignity
of a man of birth who has always moved in
good society. He rarely permitted any one to
take liberties with him, even the innocent liber-
ties of familiar intercourse. This made his
departures from Avhat may be called the inner
and higher standard of gentlemanly conduct all
the more remarkable.

He has been accused of a want of physical
courage. He did no doubt after the Phoenix
Park murders ask the authorities in Eng-land for
police protection, being, not unnaturally, in fear
for his life ; and he habitually carried firearms.
He was at times in danger, and there was every
reason why he should be prepared to defend him-
self. An anecdote was told of another member

Charles Stewart Parnell 239

of the House of Commons whose initials were the
same as his own, and who, taking what he sup-
posed to be his own overcoat from the peg on
which it hung in the cloakroom of the House,
was startled when he put his hand into the pocket
to feel in it the cold iron of a pistol. Moral
courage he showed in a high degree during
his whole public career, facing his antagonists
with an unshaken front, even when they were
most numerous and bitter. Though he intensely
disliked imprisonment, the terms on which he
came out of Kilmainham Gaol left no discredit
upon him. He behaved with perfect dignity
under the attacks of the press in 1887, and in
the face of the use made of letters attributed to
him which turned out to have been forged by
Richard Pigott letters which the bulk of the
English upper classes had greedily swallowed.
With this courage and dignity there was, however,
little trace of magnanimitv. He seldom said a
generous word, or showed himself responsive to
such a word spoken by another. Accustomed to
conceal his feelings, except in his most excited
moments, he rarely revealed, but he certainly
cherished, vindictive sentiments. He never for-
gave either Mr. W. E. Forster or Mr. Gladstone
for having imprisoned him In 1881 ;^ and though

1 An anecdote was lold at the time that when he found himself in the
prison yard at Kilmainham, he said, in a sort of solilorjuy, " I shall live
yet to dance upon those :\vo old men's graves."

240 Biographical Studies

he stood in some awe of the latter, whom he
considered the only really formidable antagonist
he had ever had to confront, he bore a grudge
which smouldered under the reconciliation of 1886
and leapt into flame in the manifesto of November

The union in Mr. Parnell of intense passion
with strenuous self-control struck all who watched
him closely, though it was seldom that passion
so far escaped as to make the contrast visibly
dramatic. Usually he was cold, grave, deliberate,

Online LibraryJames Bryce BryceStudies in contemporary biography → online text (page 14 of 29)