James Bryce Bryce.

Studies in contemporary biography online

. (page 18 of 29)
Online LibraryJames Bryce BryceStudies in contemporary biography → online text (page 18 of 29)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


Had Robert Lowe died in 1868, when he became
a Cabinet Minister, his death would have been a
poHtical event of the first magnitude ; but when
he died in 1892 (in his eighty-second year) hardly
anybody under forty years of age knew who Lord
Sherbrooke was, and the new generation wondered
why their seniors should feel any interest in the
disappearance of a superannuated peer whose
name had long since ceased to be heard in either
the literary or the political world. It requires
an effort to believe that he was at one time held
the equal in oratory and the superior in intellect
of Mr. Bright and Mr. Gladstone. There are few-
instances in our annals of men who have been
equally famous and whose fame has been bounded
by so short a span out of a long life.

No one who knew Lowe ever doubted his
abilities. He made a brilliant reputation, first at
Winchester (where, as his autobiography tells us,

' A carefully written life of Lord Shcrl>ro()i<e fin two volumes) by Mr.
Patchett Martin was jaiblished in 1896. The most interesting part of
it is the short fragment of autobiograpliy with which it begins, and which
carries the story down to Lowe's arrival in Australia.

= 93

294 Biographical Studies

he was miserable) and then at Oxford, where he was
the contemporary and fully the peer of Roundell
Palmer (afterwards Lord Chancellor Selborne)
and of Archibald Tait (afterwards Archbishop of
Canterbury). He was much sought after and
wonderfully effective as a private tutor or "coach"
in classical subjects, being not only an excellent
scholar but extremely clear and stimulating as a
teacher. He retained his love of literature all
through life, and made himself, inter alia per-
multa, a good Icelandic scholar and a fair Sanskrit
scholar. For mathematics he had no turn at all.
Active sports, he tells us, he enjoyed, character-
istically adding, "they open to dulness also its road
to fame." When he left the University, where
anecdotes of his caustic wit were long current, he
tried his fortune at the Bar, but with such scant
success that he presently emigrated to New
South Wales, soon rose to prominence and un-
popularity there, returned in ten years with a
tolerable fortune and a detestation of democracy,
became a leading -article writer on the Times,
entered Parliament, but was little heard of till
Lord Palmerston gave him (in 1859) the place of
Vice-President of the Committee of Council on
Education. His function in that office was to
administer the grants made from the national
treasury to elementary schools, and as he found
the methods of inspection rather lax, and noted a
tendency to superficiality and a neglect of back-

Robert Lowe 295

ward children, he introduced new rules for the
distribution of the grant (the so-called " Revised
Code ") which provoked violent opposition. The
motive was good, but the rules were too mechani-
cal and rigid and often worked harshly ; so he
was presently driven from office by an attack led
by Lord Robert Cecil {afterwards Lord Salisbury).
Though Lowe became known by this struggle,
his conspicuous fame dates from 1865, when he
appeared as the trenchant critic of a measure for
extending the parliamentary franchise in boroughs,
introduced by a private member. Next year
his powers shone forth in their full lustre. The
Liberal Ministry of Lord Russell, led in the
House of Commons by Mr. Gladstone, had
brought in a Franchise Extension Bill (apply-
ing to boroughs only) which excited the dislike
of the more conservative or more timid among
their supporters. This dislike might not have gone
beyond many mutterings and a few desertions
but for the vehemence with which Lowe opposed
the measure. He fouo-ht aofainst it in a series of
speeches which produced a greater impression in
the House of Commons, and roused stronger
feelings of admiration and hostility in the
country, than any political addresses had done
since 1832. The new luminary rose so sud-
denly to the zenith, and cast so unexpected a
light that everybody was dazzled ; and though
many dissented, and some attacked him bitterly,

296 Biographical Studies

few ventured to meet him in argument on the
ground he had selected. The effect of these
speeches of 1866 can hardly be understood by
any one who reads them to-day unless he knows
how commonplace and "practical," that is to
say, averse to general reasonings and historical
illustrations, the character of parliamentary de-
bating was becoming even in Lowe's time. It
is still more practical and still less ornate in our
own day.

The House of Commons then contained,
and has indeed usually contained (though some
Houses are much better than others), many cap-
able lawyers, capable men of business, capable
country gentlemen ; many men able to express
themselves with clearness, fluency, and that sort
of temperate good sense which Englishmen
especially value. Few, however, were able to
produce finished rhetoric ; still fewer had a range
of thought and knowledge extending much be-
yond the ordinary education of a gentleman and
the ordinary ideas of a politician; and the assembly
was one so intolerant of rhetoric, and so much in-
clined to treat, as unpractical, facts and arguments
drawn from recondite sources, that even those who
possessed out-of-the-way learning were disposed,
and rightly so, to use it sparingly. In Robert
Lowe, however, a remarkable rhetorical and dia-
lectical power was combined with a command
of branches of historical, literary, and economic

Robert Lowe 297

knowledge so unfamiliar to the average member
as to have for him all the charm of novelty.
The rhetoric was sometimes too elaborate. The
political philosophy was not always sound. But
the rhetoric was so polished that none could fail
to enjoy it ; and the political philosophy was put
in so terse, bright, and pointed a form that it
made the ordinary country gentleman fancy him-
self a philosopher while he listened to it in the
House or repeated it to his friends at the club.
The speeches, which, though directed against
a particular measure, constituted an indictment
of democratic government in general, had the
advantages of expressing what many felt but
few had ventured to say, and of being delivered
from one side of the House and cheered by
the other side. No position gives a debater in
the House of Commons such a vantage ground
for securing attention. Its rarity makes it re-
markable. If the speaker who attacks his own
party is supposed to do so from personal motives,
the personal element gives piquancy. If he may
be credited with conscientious conviction, his
shafts strike with added weight, for how strong
must conviction be when it turns a man against
his former friends. Accordingly, nothing so
much annoys a party and gratifies its antag-
onists as when one of its own recalcitrant
members attacks it in flank. When one looks
back now at the contents of these speeches

298 Biographical Studies

there were only five or six of them and finds
one's self surprised at their success, this favour-
ing circumstance and the whole temper of the
so-called "upper classes" need to be remem-
bered. The bulk of the wealthier commercial
class and a large section of the landed class had
theretofore belonged to the Liberal party. Most
of them, however, were then already beginning
to pass through what was called Whiggism into
habits of thought that were practically Tory.
They did not know how far they had gone till
Lowe's speeches told them, and they welcomed
his ideas as justifying their own tendencies.

In themselves, as pieces either of rhetoric or
of "civil wisdom," the speeches are not first-rate.
No one would dream of comparing them to
Burke's, in originality, or in richness of diction,
or in weight of thought. But for the moment
they were far more appreciated than Burke's
were by the House of his time, which thought of
dining while he thought of convincing. Robert
Lowe was for some months the idol of a large
part of the educated class, and indeed of that
part chiefly which plumed itself upon its culture.
I recollect to have been in those days at a
breakfast party given by an eminent politician
and nominal supporter of the Liberal Ministry,
and to have heard Mr. G. S. Venables, the leader
of the SatiLrday Review set, an able and copious
writer who was a sort of literary and political

Robert Lowe 299

oracle among his friends, deliver, amid general
applause, including that of the host, the opinion
that Lowe was an intellectual giant compared to
Mr. Gladstone, and that the reputation of the
latter had been extinguished for ever.

This period of glory, which was enhanced by
the fall of Lord Russell and Mr. Gladstone from
power in June 1866 the defeat came on a minor
point, but was largely due to Lowe's speeches
lasted till Lowe, who had now become a force to
be counted with, obtained office as Chancellor of
the Exchequer in the Liberal Ministry which
Mr. Gladstone formed in the end of 1868. From
that moment his position declined. He lost popu-
larity and influence both with the country and in
the House of Commons. His speeches were
always able, but they did not seem to tell when
delivered from the ministerial bench. His fin-
ancial proposals, though ingenious, were thought
too ingenious, and showed a deficient perception
of the tendencies of the English mind. No
section likes being taxed, but Lowe's budgets
met with a more than usually angry opposition.
His economies and retrenchments, so far from
bringing him the credit he deserved, exposed
him to the charge of cheese -paring parsimony,
and did much to render the Ministry unpopular.
Before that ministry fell in 1874, Lowe, who
had in 1873 exchanged the Exchequer for the
Home Office, had almost ceased to be a personage

300 Biographical Studies

in politics. He did nothing to retrieve his fame
during the six years of Opposition that followed,
seldom spoke, took little part in the denunciation
of Lord Beaconsfield's Eastern and Afghan policy,
which went on from 1876 till 1880, and once at
least gave slight signs of declining mental power.
So in 1880 he was relegated to the House of
Lords, because the new Liberal Government of
that year could not make room for him. Very
soon thereafter his memory began to fail, and for
the last ten years of his life he had been practi-
cally forgotten, though sometimes seen, a pathetic
figure, at evening parties. There is hardly a
parallel in our parliamentary annals to so complete
an eclipse of so brilliant a luminary.

This rapid obscuration of a reputation which
was genuine, for Lowe's powers had been amply
proved, was due to no accident, and was apparent
long before mental decay set in. The causes lay
in himself. One cause was purely physical. He
was excessively short-sighted, so much so that
when he was writing a letter, his nose was apt to
rub out the words his pen had traced ; and this
defect shut him out from all that knowledge of
individual men and of audiences which is to be
obtained by watching their faces. Mr. Gladstone,
who never seemed to resent Lowe's attacks, and
greatly admired his gifts it was not so clear
that Lowe reciprocated the admiration used to
relate that on one occasion when a foreign poten-

Robert Lowe 301

tate met the Minister in St. James's Park and put
out his hand in friendly greeting, Lowe repelled
his advances, and when the King said, " But, Mr.
Lowe, you know me quite well," he answered,
" Yes, indeed, I know you far too well, and I don't
want to have anything more to do with you."
He had mistaken the monarch for a prominent
politician with whom he had had a sharp en-
counter on a deputation a few days before ! For
social purposes Lowe might almost as well have
been blind ; yet he did not receive that kind of
indulgence which is extended to the blind. In
the interesting fragment of autobiography which
he left, he attributes his unpopularity entirely to
this cause, declaring that he was really of a kindly
nature, liking his fellow-men just as well as most
of them like one another.^ But in truth his own
character had something to answer for. Without
being ill-natured, he was deemed a hard-natured
man, who did not appear to consider the feelings
of others. He had indeed a love of mischief,
and gleefully tells in his autobiography how,
when travelling in his youth through the Scottish
Highlands, he drove the too self-conscious Words-
worth wild by his incessant praise of Walter Scott."

^ In his autobiography he writes, " With a quiel temiier and a real
wish to please, I have been obliged all my life to submit to an amount of
unpopularity which I really did not deserve, and to teel myself condemned
for what were really physical rather than moral deliciencies."

- There was an anecdote current in the University of Oxford down to
my time that when Lowe was examining in the examination which the
statutes call " Responsions," the dons " Little-go," and the undergraduates

302 Biographical Studies

He had not in political life more than his fair
share of personal enmities. One of them was
Disraeli's. They were not unequally matched.
Lowe was intellectually in some respects stronger,
but he wanted Disraeli's skill in managing men
and assemblies. Disraeli resented Lowe's sar-
casms, and on one occasion, when the latter had
made an indiscreet speech, went out of his way
to inflict on him a personal humiliation.

Nor was this Lowe's only defect. Powerful
in attack, he was feeble in defence. Terrible as
a critic, he had, as his official career showed, little
constructive talent, little tact in shaping or recom-
mending his measures. Unsteady or inconstant
in purpose, he was at one moment headstrong,
at another timid or vacillating. These faults,
scarcely noticed when he was in Opposition,
sensibly reduced his value as a minister and as a
Cabinet colleague.

In private Lowe was good company, bright,
alert, and not unkindly. He certainly did not,
as was alleged of another famous contemporary,

" Smalls," a friend coming in while the viva voce was in progress, asked
him how he was getting on. "Excellently,"' said Lowe; "five men
plucked already, and the sixth very shaky." Another tale, not likely to
have been invented, relates that when he and several members of the
then Liberal Ministry were staying in Dublin with the Lord Lieutenant,
and had taken an excursion into the Wicklow hills, they found themselves
one afternoon obliged to wait for half an hour at a railway station. To
pass the time, Lowe forthwith engaged in a dispute about the charge with
.the car-drivers who had brought them, a dispute which soon became hot
and noisy, to the delight of Lowe, but to the horror of the old Lord
Chancellor, who was one of the party.

Robert Lowe 303

Lord Westbury, positively enjoy the giving of
pain. But he had a most unchristian scorn for the
slow and the dull and the unenlightened, and never
restrained his scorching wit merely for the sake of
sparing those who came in his way. If the dis-
tinction be permissible, he was not cruel but he
was merciless, that is to say, unrestrained by com-
passion. Instances are not wanting of men who
have maintained great influence in spite of their
rough tongues and the enmities which rough
tongues provoke. But such men have usually
also possessed some of the arts of popularity, and
have been able to retain the adherence of their
party at large, even when they had alienated
many who came into personal contact with them.
This was not Lowe's case. He did not conceal
his contempt for the multitude, and had not the
tact needed for humouring it, any more than for
managing the House of Commons. The very
force and keenness of his intellect kept him aloof
from other people and prevented him from under-
standing their sentiments. He saw things so
clearly that he could not tolerate mental con-
fusion, and was apt to reach conclusions so fast
that he missed perceiving some of the things
which are gradually borne in upon slower minds.
There are also instances of stroncj men who,
though they do not revile their opponents, incur
hatred because their strength and activity make
them feared. Hostilitv concentrates itself on the

304 Biographical Studies

opponents deemed most formidable, and a political
leader who is spared while his fellows are attacked
cannot safely assume that this immunity is a
tribute to his virtues. Incessant abuse fell to
the lot of Mr. Bright, who was not often, and of
Mr. Gladstone, who was hardly ever, personally
bitter in invective. But in compensation Mr.
Bright and Mr. Gladstone received enthusiastic
loyalty from their followers. For Lowe there was
no such compensation. Even his own side did
not love him. There was also a certain harshness,
perhaps a certain narrowness, about his views.
Even in those days of rigid economics, he took
an exceptionally rigid view of all economic prob-
lems, refusing to make allowance for any motives
except those of bare self-interest. Though he
did not belong by education or by social
ties to the Utilitarian group, and gave an un-
gracious reception to J. S. Mill's first speeches
in the House of Commons, he was a far more
stringent and consistent exponent of the harder
kind of Benthamism than was Mill himself. He
professed, and doubtless to some extent felt, a
contempt for appeals to historical or literary
sentiment, and relished nothing more than derid-
ing his own classical training as belonging- to an
effete and absurd scheme of education. He left
his mark on our elementary school system by
establishing the system of payment by results,
but nearly every change made in that system

Robert Lowe 305

since his day has tended to destroy the alterations
he made and to bring back the older condition
of things, though no doubt in an amended form.
His ideas of University reform were crude and
barren, limited, indeed, to the substitution of what
the Germans call " bread studies " for mental culti-
vation, and to the extension of the plan of com-
petitive examinations for honours and money
prizes, a plan which more and more displeases
the most enlightened University teachers, and
is felt to have done more harm than good to
Oxford and Cambridge, where it has had the
fullest play. He had also, and could give good
reasons for his opinion, a hearty dislike to en-
dowments of all kinds ; and once, when asked
by a Royal Commission to suggest a mode of
improving their application, answered in his
trenchant way, "Get rid of them. Throw them
into the sea."

It would not be fair to blame Lowe for the
results which followed his vigorous action against
the extension of the suffrage in 1866, for no one
could then have predicted that in the following
year the Tories, beguiled by Mr. Disraeli, would
reverse their former attitude and carry a suffrage
bill far wider than that which they had rejected a
year before. But the sequel of the successful
resistance of 1866 may stand as a warning to
those who think that the course of thoroughgoing
opposition to a measure they dislike is, because

3o6 Biographical Studies

it seems courageous, likely to be the right and
wise course for patriotic men. Had the moderate
bill of 1866 been suffered to pass, the question of
further extending the suffrage might possibly have
slept for another thirty years, for there was no
very general or urgent cry for it among the work-
ing people, and England would have continued
to be ruled in the main by voters belonging to
the middle class and the upper section of the
working class. The consequence of the heated
contest of 1866 was not only to bring about
a larger immediate change in 1867, but to
create an interest in the question which soon
prompted the demand for the extension of house-
hold suffrage to the counties, and completed in
1884-85 the process by which England has be-
come virtually a democracy, though a plutocratic
democracy, still affected by the habits and notions
of oligarchic days. Thus Robert Lowe, as much
as Disraeli and Gladstone, may in a sense be
called an author of the tremendous change which
has passed upon the British Constitution since
1866, and the extent of which was not for a
long while realised. Lowe himself never re-
canted his views, but never repeated his declara-
tion of them, feeling that he had incurred
unpopularity enough, and probably feeling also
that the case was hopeless.

People who disliked his lugubrious forecasts
used to call him a Cassandra, perhaps forgetting

Robert Lowe 307

that, besides the distinctive feature of Cassandra's
prophecies that nobody beHeved them, there was
another distinctive feature, viz, that they came
true. Did Lowe's? It is often profitable and
sometimes amusing to turn back to the predic-
tions through which eminent men reheved their
perturbed souls, and see how far these superior
minds were able to discern the tendencies, already
at work in their time, which were beginning to
o-ain streno-th, and were destined to determine
the future. Whoever reads Lowe's speeches of
1865-67 may do worse than glance at the same
time at a book,^ long since forgotten, which con-
tains the efforts of a group of young University
Liberals to refute the arguments used by him
and by Lord Cairns, the strongest of his allies,
in their opposition to schemes of parliamentary

To compare the optimism of these young
writers and Lowe's pessimism with what has
actually come to pass is a not uninstructive
task. True it is that England has had only
thirty-five years' experience of the Reform Act
of 1867, and only seventeen years' experience
of that even greater step towards pure demo-
cracy which was effected by the Franchise and
Redistribution Acts of 18S4-85. We are still
far from knowing what sorts of Parliaments and
policies the enlarged suffrage will end by giving.

' Essays on Reforrit, publislied in 1S67.

3o8 Biographical Studies

But some at least of the mischiefs Lowe foretold
have not arrived. He expected first of all a
rapid increase in corruption and intimidation at
parliamentary elections. The quality of the
House of Commons would decline, because money
would rule, and small boroughs would no longer
open the path by which talent could enter.
Members would be either millionaires or dema-
gogues, and they would also become far more
subservient to their constituents. Universal
suffrage would soon arrive, because no halting-
place between the ^lo franchise^ and universal
suffrage could be found. Placed on a democratic
basis, the House of Commons would not be able
to retain its authority over the Executive. The
House of Lords, the Established Church, the
judicial bench (in that dignity and that independ-
ence which are essential to its usefulness), would
be overthrown as England passed into "the bare
and level plain of democracy where every ant-hill
is a mountain and every thistle a forest tree."
These and the other features characteristic of
popular government on w^hich Lowe savagely
descanted were pieced together out of Plato and
Tocqueville, coupled with his own disagreeable
experiences of Australian politics. None of the
predicted evils can be said to have as yet be-
come features of the polity and government of

^ The then borough qualification, which jNIr. Gladstone's Bill proposed
to reduce to ^T-

Robert Lowe 309

England,^ though the power of the House rela-
tively to the Cabinet does seem to be declining.
Yet some of Lowe's incidental remarks are true,
and not least true is his prediction that democracies
will be found just as prone to war, just as apt to
be swept away by passion, as other kinds of
government have been. Few signs herald the
approach of that millennium of peace and en-
lightenment which Cobden foretold and for which
Gladstone did not cease to hope.

No one since Lowe has taken up the part of
advocattts diaboli against democracy which he
played in 1866.^ Since Disraeli passed the House-
hold Suffrage in Boroughs Bill in 1867, a nulli-
fication of Lowe's triumph which incensed him
more than ever against Disraeli, no one has ever
come forward in England as the avowed enemy
of changes designed to popularise our govern-
ment. Parties have quarrelled over the time and
the manner of extensions of the franchise, but the

1 Mr. Gladstone said to me in 1S97 that the extension of the sufl'raye
had, in his judgment, improved the quality of legishition, making it more
regardful of the interests of the body of the people, but had not improved
the quality of the House of Commons.

- Sir H. S. Maine's Quarterly Review articles, published in a volume

Online LibraryJames Bryce BryceStudies in contemporary biography → online text (page 18 of 29)