John Morley.

Critical miscellanies (Volume 3) online

. (page 19 of 25)
Online LibraryJohn MorleyCritical miscellanies (Volume 3) → online text (page 19 of 25)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

^ Si on avail 6U sageT those cry who consider the
Revolution as a futile mutiny. If people had only
been prudent, all would have been accomplished that
has been accomplished since, and without the san-
guinary memories, the constant interpolations of
despotism, the waste of generous lives and noble
purpose. And this is true. But then prudence itself
was impossible. The court and the courtiers were
smitten through the working of long tradition by
judicial blindness. If Lewis XVI. had been a
Frederick, or Marie Antoinette had been a Catherine
of Russia, or the nobles had even been stout-hearted
gentlemen like our Cavaliers, the great transformation
might then have been gradually effected without dis-
order. But they were none of these, and it was their
characters that made the fate and doom of the situa-
tion. As for the court, Vergennes used an expression
which suggests the very keyword of the situation.
He had been ambassador in Turkey, and was fond of
declaring that he had learnt in the seraglio how to
brave the storms of Versailles. Versailles was like
Stamboul or Teheran, oriental in etiquette, oriental
in destruction of wealth and capital, oriental in anti-


pathy to a reforming grand vizier. It was the Queen,
as we now know by incontestable evidence, who per-
suaded the King to dismiss Turgot, merely to satisfy
some contemptible personal resentments of herself
and her creatures.^ And it was not in Turgot's case
only that this ineptitude Avrought mischief. In June
1789 Neclcer was overruled in the wisest elements of
his policy and sent into exile by the violent inter-
vention of the same court faction, headed by the same
Queen, who had procured the dismissal of Turgot
thirteen years earlier. And it was one long tale
throughout, from the first hour of the reign down to
those last hours at the Tuileries in August 1792 ;
one long tale of intrigue, perversity, and wilful incor-
rigible infatuation.

Nor was the Queen only to blame. Turgot, says
an impartial eye-witness — Creutz, the Swedish am-
bassador — is a mark for the most formidable league
possible, composed of all the great people in the
kingdom, all the parliaments, all the finance, all the
women of the court, and all the bigots. It was
morally impossible that the reforms of any Turgot
could have been acquiesced in by that emasculated
caste, who showed their quality a few years after his
dismissal by flying across the frontier at the first
breath of personal danger. 'When the gentlemen
rejoiced so boisterously over the fall of Turgot, their
applause was blind ; on that day they threw away,

^ Cor. entrc Marie Tliirhse et le Comte Mercy -Argenteau, vol.


and in a manner that was irreparable, the opportunity
that was offered them of being born again to poHtical
life, and changing the state-candlestick of the royal
household for the influence of a preponderant class.
The nobility, defeated on the field of feudal privilege,
would have risen again by the influence of an assembly
where they would have taken the foremost place ; by
defending the interests of all, by becoming in their
turn the ally of the third estate, which had hitherto
fought on the side of the kings, they would have
repaired the unbroken succession of defeats that had
been inflicted on them since Lewis the Fat.'^ It
would be easy to name half a dozen patricians like
the Duke d'Ayen, of exceptional public spirit and
capacity, but a proud order cannot at the first exi-
gency of a crisis change its traditional front, and
abandon the maxims of centuries in a day. As has
been said more than once, the oriental policy of
the crown towards the nobles had the inevitable effect
of cutting them off from all opportunity of acquiring
in experience those habits of political wisdom which
have saved the territorial aristocracy of our own
country. The English nobles in the eighteenth cen-
tury had become, what they mostly are now, men of
business ; agriculturists at least as much as politi-
cians ; land agents of a very dignified kind, with very
large incomes. Sully designed to raise a working
agricultural artistocracy, and Colbert to raise a work-
ing commercial aristocracy. But the statesman cannot
1 Turgot, Philosoplic et Economiste. Par A. Batbic, p. 380.


create or mould a social order at will. Perhaps one
reason why the English aristocracy became a truly
agricultural body in the eighteenth century was the
circumstance that many of the great landowning
magnates were Tories, and remained sulking on their
estates rather than go to the court of the first two
kings of the Hanoverian line ; just as the dependence
of these two sovereigns of revolutionary title upon
the revolution families is one reason why English
liberties had time to root themselves thoroughly
before the monarchical reaction under George III.
In France, for reasons which we have no room to
expatiate upon, the experiments both of Sully and
of Colbert failed. The result may be read with
graphic effect in the pages of Arthur Young, both
before the Eevolution broke out and again after
Burke's superb rhetoric had biassed English opinion
against it.

M. L6once de Lavergne, it is true, in his most
interesting book upon the Provincial Assemblies under
Lewis XVI., has endeavoured to show that in the
great work of administrative reform all classes be-
tween 1778 and 1787 had shown themselves full of a
liberal and practical spirit. But even in his pages
we see enough of apprehensions and dissensions to
perceive how deep was the intestine disorganisation ;
and the attitude of the nobles in 1789 demonstrated
how incurable it was by any merely constitutional
modifications. Sir Philip Francis, to whom Burke
submitted the proof-sheets of the Reflections, at once


with his usual rapid penetration discerned the weak-
ness of the anti-revolutionary position. ' The French
of this day,' he told Burke, ' could not act as we did
in 1G88. They had no constitution as we had to
recur to. They had no foundation to build upon.
They had no walls to repair. Much less had they
"^/ic elements of a constitution very nearly as good as
could be wished." A proposition so extraordinary as
this last ought to have been made out in limine, since
the most important deductions are drawn from it.'^
But, though Burke insisted on drawing his deductions
from it with sweeping impetuosity, neither he nor
any one else has yet succeeded in establishing that
all-important proposition.

What we desire to say, then, comes, in short, to
this, that M. Taine has given an exaggerated import-
ance to the literary and speculative activity of the
last half century of the old monarchy. In measuring
the force of the various antecedents of the Eevolution,
he has assigned to books and philosophical ideas a
place in the scale of dissolvent conditions that belongs
more rightly to decayed institutions, to incompetent
and incorrigible castes, to economic incongruities that
could only be dealt with trenchantly. Books and
ideas acquired a certain importance after other things
had finally broken up the crumbling system. Tliey
supplied a formula for the accomplished fact. 'It
was after the Eevolution had fairly begun,' as a con-
temporary says, 'that they sought in Mably and
■* Burke's Correspondence, iii. 157.


Rousseau for arms to sustain the system towards
which the effervescence of some hardy spirits was
drassing; affairs. It was not the above-named
authors who set people's heads aflame. M. Necker
alone produced this effect, and determined the ex-

The predominance of a historic, instead of an
abstract, school of political thought could have saved
nothing. It could have saved nothing, because the
historic or conservative organs and elements of society
were incompetent to realise those progressive ideas
which were quite as essential to social continuity as
the historic ideas. The historic method in political
action is only practicable on condition that some, at
any rate, of the great established bodies have the sap
of life in their members. In France not even the
judiciary, usually the last to part from its ancient
roots, was sound and quick. ' The administration of
justice,' says Arthur Young, ' was partial, venal, in-
famous. The conduct of the parliament was profligate
and atrocious. The bigotry, ignorance, false prin-
ciples, and tyranny of these bodies were generally
conspicuous.'^ We know what the court was, we
know what the noblesse was, and this is what the
third great leading order in the realm was. We
repeat, then, that the historic doctrine could get no
fulcrum or leverage, and that only the revolutionary
doctrine, which the eighteenth century had got ready

1 Senac de Meilhan, Du Gouvernement en France, 129, etc.
(1795). ^ Travels in France, i. 603.


for the crisis, was adequate to the task of social

Again, we venture to put to M. Taine the following
question. If the convulsions of 1789-1794 were due
to the revolutionary doctrine, if that doctrine was the
poison of the movement, how would he explain the
firm, manly, steadfast, unhysterical quality of the
American Revolution thirteen years before ? It was
theoretically based on exactly the same doctrine.
Jefferson and Franklin were as well disciplined in the
French philosophy of the eighteenth century as Mira-
beau or Robespierre. The Declaration of Independ-
ence recites the same abstract and unhistoric proposi-
tions as the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Why
are Ave to describe the draught which Rousseau and
the others had brewed, as a harmless or wholesome
prescription for the Americans, and as maddening
poison to the French 1 The answer must be that the
quality of the drug is relative to the condition of the
patient, and that the vital question for the student of
the old rigime and the circumstances of its fall is
what other drug, what better process, could have ex-
tricated France on more tranquil terms from her
desperate case 1 The American colonists, in spite of
the over-wide formulae of their Declaration, really
never broke with their past in any of its fundamental
elements. They had a historic basis of laws and
institutions which was still sound and whole, and the
political severance from England made no breach in
social continuity. If a diflferent result followed in


France, it was not because France was the land of the
classic spirit, but because her institutions were inade-
quate, and her ruling classes incompetent to transform

M. Taine's figure of the man who drains the
poisonous draught, as having been previously ' a little
weak in constitution, but still sound and of peaceful
habits,' is entirely delusive. The whole evidence
shows that France was not sound, but the very re-
verse of sound, and no inconsiderable portion of that
evidence is to be found in the facts which M. Taine
has so industriously collected in his own book. The
description of France as a little weak in constitution,
but still sound and of peaceful habits, is the more
surprising to us because M. Taine himself had in
an earlier page (p. 109), when summing up the results
of Privilege, ended with these emphatic words : ' D6jk
avant I'^croulement final, la France est dissoute, et
elle est dissoute parce que les privil(^gi(^s ont oublie
leur caractfere d'hommes publics.' But then is not
this rather more than being only a little weak in con-
stitution, and still sound ?



' There is a vulgar vieAv of politics which sinks them
into a mere struggle of interests and parties, and there
is a foppish kind of history which aims only at literary
display, which produces delightful books hovering
between poetry and prose. These perversions, accord-
ing to me, come from an unnatural divorce between
two subjects which belong to one another. Politics
are vulgar when they are not liberalised by history,
and history fades into mere literature when it loses
sight of its relation to practical politics.' These very
just remarks are made by Mi\ Seeley in a new book
which everybody has been reading, and which is an
extremely interesting example of that union of politics
with history which its author regards as so useful or
even indispensable for the successful prosecution of
either history or politics. His lectures on the expan-
sion of England contain a suggestive and valuable
study of two great movements in our history, one of
them the expansion of the English nation and state
together by means of colonies ; the other, the stranger
expansion by which the vast population of India has
passed under the rule of Englishmen. Mr. Seeley has


in his new volume recovered his singularly attractive
style and power of literary form. It underwent some
obscuration in the three volumes in which the great
transformation of Germany and Prussia during the
Napoleonic age was not very happily grouped round
a biography of Stein. But here the reader once more
finds that ease, lucidity, persuasiveness, and mild
gravity that were first shown, as they were probably
first acquired, in the serious consideration of religious
and ethical subjects. Mr. Seeley's aversion for the
florid, rhetorical, and over-decorated fashion of writing
history has not carried him to the opposite extreme,
but it has made him seek sources of interest, where
alone the serious student of human affairs would care
to find them, in the magnitude of events, the changes
of the fortunes of states, and the derivation of mo-
mentous consequences from long chains of antecedent

The chances of the time have contributed to make
Mr. Seeley's book, in one sense at least, singularly
opportune, and have given to a philosophical study
the actuality of a political pamphlet. The history of
the struggle between England and France for Canada
and for India acquires new point at a moment when
the old rivalries are again too likely to be awakened
in Madagascar, in Oceania, and in more than one
region of Africa. The history of the enlargement of
the English state, the last survivor of a family of great
colonial empires, has a vivid reality at a time when
Australasia is calling upon us once more to extend


our borders, and take new races under our sway.
The discussion of a colonial system ceases to be an
abstract debate, and becomes a question of practical
emergency, when a colonial convention presses the
diplomacy of the mother-country and prompts its
foreign policy. Mr. Seeley's book has thus come
upon a tide of popular interest. It has helped, and
will still further help, to swell a sentiment that was
already slowly rising to full flood. History, it would
seem, can speak with two voices — even to disciples
equally honest, industrious, and competent. Twenty
years ago there was a Eegius Professor of History at
Oxford who took the same view of his study as is
expressed in the words at the head of this article.
He applied his mind especially to the colonial question,
and came to a conclusion directly opposed to that
which commends itself to the Kegius Professor of
History at Cambridge.^ Since then a certain reaction
has set in, which events will probably show to be
superficial, but of which while it lasts Mr. Seeley's
speculations will have the benefit. In 1867, when
the guarantee of the Canadian railway was proposed
in Parliament, Mr. Cave, the member for Barnstaple,
remarked that instead of giving three millions sterling
with a view of separating Canada from the United
States, it would be more sensible and more patriotic
to give ten millions in order to unite them. Nobody
protested against this remark. If it were repeated

1 The Empire, by Mr. Goldwiii Sinitli, published iu 1863— a
masterpiece of brilliant style and finished dialectics.


to-day there would be a sliout of disapprobation. On
the other hand we shall not have another proposal
to guarantee a colonial railway. This tcmiDorary
fluctuation in opinion is not the first instance of men
cherishing the shadow after they have rid themselves
of the substance, and clinging with remarkable ardour
to a sentiment after they have made quite sure that
it shall not inconvenience them in practice.

Writing as a historian, Mr. Seeley exhorts us to
look at the eighteenth century in a new light and from
a new standpoint, which he exhibits with singular
skill and power. We could only wish that he had
been a little less zealous on behalf of its novelty.
His accents are almost querulous as he complains of
historical predecessors for their blindness to what in
plain truth we have always supposed that they dis-
cerned quite as clearly as he discerns it himself.
' Our historians,' he says, ' miss the true point of
view in describing the eighteenth century. They
make too much of the mere parliamentary wrangle
and the agitations about liberty. They do not per-
ceive that in that century the history of England is
not in England, but in America and Asia.' ' I shall
venture to assert,' he proceeds in another place, ' that
the main struggle of England from the time of Louis
XIV. to the time of Napoleon was for the possession
of the New World ; and it is for want of perceiving
this that most of us find that century of English
history uninteresting.' The same teasing refrain runs
through the book. We might be disposed to traverse


]\rr. Seeley's assumption that most of us do find the
eighteenth century of English history uninteresting.
' In a great part of it,' Mr. Seeley assures us, ' we see
nothing but stagnation. The wars seem to lead to
nothing, and we do not perceive the working of any
new political ideas. That time seems to have created
little, so that we can only think of it as prosperous, but
not as memorable. Those dim figures, George i. and
George ii., the long tame administrations of Walpole
and Pelham, the commercial war with Spain, the battles
of Dettingen and Fontenoy, the foolish prime minister
Newcastle, the dull brawls of the Wilkes period, the
miserable American war — everywhere alike we seem
to remark a want of greatness, a distressing common-
ness and flatness in men and in affairs.' This would
be very sad if it were true, but is it true ? A plain
man rubs his eyes in amazement at such reproaches.
So far from most of us finding the eighteenth century
uninteresting, as prosperous rather than memorable,
as wanting in greatness, as distressing by the common-
ness and the flatness of its men and its affairs, we
undertake to say that most of us, in the sense of
most people who read the English language, know
more about, and feel less flatness, and are more
interested in the names of the eighteenth century
than in those of all other centuries put together.
If we are to talk about ' popular histories,' the writer
who distances every competitor by an immeasurable
distance is Macaulay. Wliatever may be said about
that illustrious man's style, his conception of history,


liis theories of liuman society, it is at least beyond
question or denial that his Essays have done more
than any other writings of this generation to settle
the direction of men's historical interest and curiosity.
From Eton and Harrow down to an elementary school
in St. Giles's or Bethnal Green, Macaulay's Essays
are a text-book At home and in the colonies, they
are on every shelf between Shakespeare and the
Bible. And of all these famous compositions, none
are so widely read or so well-known as those on Olive,
Hastings, Chatham, Frederick, Johnson, with the
gallery of vigorous and animated figures that Macaulay
grouped round these great historic luminaries. We
are not now saying that Macaulay's view of the actors
or the events of the eighteenth century is sound,
comprehensive, philosophical, or in any other way
meritorious; we are only examining the truth of
Mr. Seeley's assumption that the century which the
most popular writer of the day has treated in his
most glowing, vivid, picturesque, and varied style, is
regarded by the majority of us as destitute of interest,
as containing neither memorable men nor memorable
affairs, and as overspread with an ignoble pall of all
that is flat, stagnant, and common.

Nor is there any better foundation for Mr. Seeley's
somewhat peremptory assertion that previous writers
all miss what he considers the true point in our
history during the eighteenth century. It is simply
contrary to fact to assert that ' they do not perceive
that in that century the history of England is not iu


England, but in America and Asia.' Mr. Green, for
instance, was not strong in his grasp of the eighteenth
century, and that period is in many respects an ex-
tremely unsatisfactory part of his work. Yet if we
turn to his History of the English People, this is what
we find at the very outset of the section that deals
with modern England : —

The Seven Years' War is in fact a turning point in
our national history, as it is a turning point in the history
of the world. . . . From the close of the Seven Years'
War it mattered little whether England counted for less
or more with the nations around her. She was no longer
a mere European power ; she was no longer a rival of
Germany or France. Her future action lay in a wider
sphere than that of Europe. Mistress of Northern
America, the future mistress of India, claiming as her
own the empire of the seas, Britain suddenly towered
high above nations whose position in a single continent
doomed them to comparative insignificance in the after-
history of the world. It is this that gives William Pitt
60 unique a position among our statesmen. His figure
in fact stands at the opening of a new epoch in English
history — in the history not of England only, but of the
English race. However dimly and imperfectly, he alone
among his fellows saw that the struggle of the Seven
Years' War was a struggle of a wholly different order
from the struggles that had gone before it. He felt that
the stake he was playing for was something vaster than
Britain's standing among the powers of Europe. Even
while he backed Frederick in Germany, his eye was not
on the Weser, but on the Hudson and the St. Lawrence.
' If I send an army to Germany,' he replied in memorable
words to his assailants, * it is because in Germany I can
conquer America ! '


This must be pronounced to be, at any rate, a very
near approacli to that perception which Mr. Scclcy
denies to liis predecessors, of the truth that in the
eighteenth century the expansion of England was
the important side of her destinies at that epoch.

Then there is Carlyle. Carlyle professed to think
ill enough of the eighteenth century — poor bankrupt
century, and so forth, — but so little did he find it
common, flat, or uninteresting, that he could never
tear himself away from it. Can it be pretended that
he, too, 'missed the true point of view'? Every
reader of the History of Frederick remembers the
Jenkins's-Ear-Question, and how ' half the World lay
hidden in embryo under it. Colonial-Empire, whoso
is it to be ? Shall half the world be England's, for
industrial purposes ; which is innocent, laudable,
conformable to the Multiplication Table, at least,
and other plain laws 1 Shall there be a Yankee
Nation, shall there not be ; shall the New World be
of Spanish type, shall it be of English 1 Issues which
we may call immense.' This, the possession of the
new world, was ' England's one Cause of War during
the century we are now upon ' (Bk. xii. ch. xii.)
It is ' the soul of all these Controversies and the one
meaning thej'^ have' (xvi. xiv.) When the war was
over, and the peace made at Hubertsburgh, Carlyle
apprehended as clearly as words can express, what
the issue of it was for England and the English race.
England, he says, is to have America and the dominion
of the seas, — considerable facts both, — ' and in the


rear of these, the new Country is to get into such
merchandisings, colonisings, foreign settlings, gold
nuggetings, as lay beyond the drunkenest dreams of
Jenkins (supposing Jenldns addicted to liquor) — and
in fact to enter on a universal uproar of Machineries,

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 19 21 22 23 24 25

Online LibraryJohn MorleyCritical miscellanies (Volume 3) → online text (page 19 of 25)