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The life of William Ewart Gladstone, Volume 2 online

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opening the town library. I was rather jealous of a non-political
affair at such a time, but could not do less than speak for thirty or
thirty-five minutes for the two occasions. 4-8 to Park Farm, the
beautiful vales, breezy common and the curious chambered cairn.
Small dinner-party. 7. — Off at 8.15 and a hard day to London, the
occasion of processions, hustles, and speeches ; that at Newport in
the worst atmosphere known since the Black Hole. Poor C. too
was an invalid. Spoke near an hour to 3000 at Cardiff; about
£ hour at Newport; more briefly at Gloucester and Swindon.
Much enthusiasm even in the English part of the journey. Our
party was reduced at Newport to the family, at Gloucester to our
two selves. C. H. Terrace at 6.20. Wrote to get off the House
of Commons. It has really been a ' progress,' and an extraordinary
one.

In December 1887, under the pressing advice of his
physician, though ' with a great lazy reluctance/ Mr. Glad-
stone set his face with a family party towards Florence. He
found the weather more northern than at Hawarden, but it
was healthy. He was favourably impressed by all he saw of
Italian society (English being cultivated to a degree that
surprised him), but he did his best to observe Sir Andrew
Clark's injunction that he should practise the Trappist dis-
cipline of silence, and the condition of his voice improved
in consequence. He read Scartazzini's book on Dante, and
found it fervid, generally judicial, and most unsparing in
labour ; and he was much interested in Beugnot's Chute dii
Pagani&me. And as usual, he returned homeward as unwill-
ingly as he had departed. During the session he fought his
Irish battle with unsparing tenacity, and the most con-
spicuous piece of his activity out of parliament was a
pilgrimage to Birmingham (November 1888). It was a great



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1888.



628 THE ALTERNATIVE POLICY IN ACT

gathering of lieutenants and leading supporters from every
part of the country. Here is a note of mine : —

On the day of the great meeting in Bingley Hall, somebody
came to say that Mr. Gladstone wanted to know if I could supply
him with a certain passage from a speech of Lord Hartington's.
I found him in his dressing-gown, conning his notes and as lively
as youth. He jumped up and pressed point after point on me,
as if I had been a great public meeting. I offered to go down
to the public library and hunt for the passage; he deprecated
this, but off I went, and after some search unearthed the passage,
and copied it out. In the evening I went to dine with him before
the meeting. He had been out for a short walk to the Oratory
in the afternoon to call on Cardinal Newman. He was not
allowed, he told me, to see the cardinal, but he had had a long
talk with Father Neville. He found that Newman was in the
habit of reading with a reflector candle, but had not a good one.
' So I said I had a good one, and I sent it round to him.' He
was entirely disengaged in mind during dinner, ate and drank
his usual quantity, and talked at his best about all manner of
things. At the last moment he was telling us of John Hunter's
confirmation, from his own medical observation, of Homer's re-
mark about Dolon ; a bad fellow, whose badness Homer explains
by the fact that he was a brother brought up among sisters
only : —

avrhp b fiovvos iyv fieri. t4vt€ Kaviyrfrnp 1 *' l

Oliver Cromwell, by the way, was an only surviving boy among
seven sisters, so we cannot take either poet or surgeon for gospel.
Time was up, and bore us away from Homer and Hunter. He
was perfectly silent in the carriage, as I remembered Bright had
been when years before I drove with him to the same hall. The
sight of the vast meeting was almost appalling, from fifteen to
seventeen thousand people. He spoke with great vigour and
freedom ; the fine passages probably heard all over ; many other
passages certainly not heard, but his gesture so strong and varied
as to be almost as interesting as the words would have been. The
speech lasted an hour and fifty minutes ; and he was not at all

1 Iliad, x. 317. See Homer and Homeric Age, iii. 467 n.



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AT BIKMINGHAM 629

exhausted when he sat down. The scene at the close was absolutely
indescribable and incomparable, overwhelming like the sea.

He took part in parliamentary business at the beginning
of December. On December 3rd lie spoke on Ireland with
immense fervour and passion. He was roused violently by
the chairman's attempt to rule out strong language from
debate, and made a vehement passage on that point.
The substance of the speech was rather thin and not new,
but the delivery magnificent. The Irish minister rose to
reply at 7.50, and Mr. Gladstone reluctantly made up his
mind to dine in the House. A friend by his side said,
No, and at 8.40 hurried him down the back-stairs to a
hospitable board in Carlton Gardens. He was nearly voice-
less, until it was time for the rest of us to go back. A
speedy meal revived him, and he was soon discoursing on
CConnell and many other persons and things, with bound-
less force and vivacity.



^Et. 79.



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CHAPTER III

THE SPECIAL COMMISSION

{1887-1890)

My Lords, it appears to me that the measure is unfortunate in its
origin, unfortunate in its scope and object, and unfortunate in the
circumstances which accompanied its passage through the other
House. It appears to me to establish a precedent most novel, and
fraught with the utmost danger. — Lord Hkbschkll. 1

Mr. Gladstone's ceaseless attention to the many phases of
the struggle that was now the centre of his piblic life, was
1887. especially engaged on what remains the most amazing of
them. I wish it were possible to pass it over, or throw it
into a secondary place ; but it is too closely connected with
the progress of Mr. Gladstone's Irish policy in British opinion
at a critical stage, and it is still the subject of too many
perversions that affect his name. Transactions are to be
found in our annals where wrong was done by government
to individuals on a greater scale, where a powerful majority
devised engines for the proscription of a weak minority
with deadlier aim, and where the omnipotence of parliament
was abused for the purpose of faction with more ruthless
result. But whether we look at the squalid fraud in which
the incident began, or at the tortuous parliamentary pre-
tences by which it was worked out, or at the perversion of
fundamental principles of legal administration involved in
sending men to answer the gravest charges before a tribunal
specially constituted at the absolute discretion of their
bitterest political opponents — at the moment engaged in
a fierce contest with them in another field — from whatever
point of view we approach, the erection of the Special Com-
mission of 1888 stands out as one of the ugliest things done
in the name and under the forms of law in this island during
the century.

1 House of Lords, August 10, 1888.
680



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THE FACSIMILE .LETTER 631

In the spring of 1887 the conductors of The Times, CHAP,
intending to strengthen the hands of the government in > * '
their new and doubtful struggle, published a series of iET * 78 -
articles, in which old charges against the Irish leader and
his men were served up with fresh and fiery condiments.
The allegations of crime were almost all indefinite; the
method was by allusion, suggestion, innuendo, and the com-
bination of ingeniously selected pieces, to form a crude and
hideous mosaic. Partly from its extravagance, partly be-
cause it was in substance stale, the thing missed fire.

On the day on which the division was to be taken on the
second reading of the Coercion bill, a more formidable bolt
was shot. On that morning (April 18th, 1887), there ap-
peared in the newspaper, with all the fascination of fac-
simile, a letter alleged to be written by Mr. Parnell. It was
dated nine days after the murders in the Phoenix Park,
and purported to be an apology, presumably to some
violent confederate, for having as a matter of expediency
openly condemned the murders, though in truth the writer
thought that one of the murdered men deserved his. fate. 1
Special point was given to the letter by a terrible charge,
somewhat obliquely but still unmistakably made, in an
article five or six weeks before, that Mr. Parnell closely
consorted with the leading Invincibles when he was released
on parole in April 1882 ; that he probably learned from
them what they were about; and that he recognised the
murders in the Phoenix Park as their handiwork. 2 The
significance of the letter therefore was that, knowing the
bloody deed to be theirs, he wrote for his own safety to
qualify, recall, and make a humble apology for the condemna-
tion which he had thought it politic publicly to pronounce.

1 Here is the text of this once to admit that Burke got no more than

famous piece : — his deserts. You are at liberty to

' 15/5/82. show him this, and others whom you

* Deab Sib, — I am not surprised at can trust also, but let not my address

your friend's anger, but he and you be known. He can write to the House

should know that to denounce the of Commons. — Yours very truly,

murders was the only course open to ' Chas. S. Parnell.'

us. To do that promptly was plainly a The three judges held this to be

our best policy. But you can tell a correct interpretation of the Ian-

him and all others concerned, that guage used in the article of March

though I regret the accident of Lord 10th, 1887. Report, pp. 57-8.
F. Cavendish's death, I cannot refuse



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632 THE SPECIAL COMMISSION

BOOK The town was thrown into a great ferment. At the political

^ * clubs and in the lobbies, all was complacent jubilation on

1887 - the one side, and consternation on the other. Even people

with whom politics were a minor interest were shocked by

such an exposure of the grievous depravity of man.

Mr. Parnell did not speak until one o'clock in the morn-
ing, immediately before the division on the second reading
of the bill He began amid the deepest silence. His denial
was scornful but explicit The letter, he said, was an auda-
cious fabrication. It is fair to admit that the ministerialists
were not without some excuse of a sort for the incredulous
laughter with which they received this repudiation. They
put their trust in the most serious, the most powerful, the
most responsible, newspaper in the world; greatest in re-
sources, in authority, in universal renown. Neglect of any
possible precaution against fraud and forgery in a document
to be used for the purpose of blasting a great political
opponent would be culpable in no common degree. Of this
neglect people can hardly be blamed for thinking that the
men of business, men of the world, and men of honour
who were masters of the Times, must be held absolutely
incapable.

Those who took this view were encouraged in it by the
prime minister. Within four-and-twenty hours he publicly
took the truth of the story, with all its worst innuendoes,
entirely for granted. He went with rapid stride from possi-
bility to probability, and from probability to certainty. In
a speech, of which precipitate credulity was not the only
fault, Lord Salisbury let fall the sentence : * When men who
knew gentlemen who intimately knew Mr. Parnell murdered
Mr. Burke.' He denounced Mr. Gladstone for making a
trusted friend of such a man — one who had 'mixed on
terms of intimacy with those whose advocacy of assassina-
tion was well known.' Then he went further. ' You may
go back," he said, 'to the beginning of British govern-
ment, you may go back from decade to decade, and from
leader to leader, but you will never find a man who has
accepted a position, in reference to an ally tainted with the
strong presumption of conniving at assassination, which



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MR. PARNELL'S COURSE 633

has been accepted by Mr. Gladstone at the present time/ x
Seldom has party spirit led eminent personages to greater *
lengths of dishonouring absurdity. ^ T * 78#

Now and afterwards people asked why Mr. Parnell did
not promptly bring his libellers before a court of law. The
answer was simple. The case would naturally have been
tried in London. In other words, not only the plaintiffs
own character, but the whole movement that he represented,
would have been submitted to a Middlesex jury, with all the
national and political prejudices inevitable in such a body,
and with all the twelve chances of a disagreement, that
would be almost as disastrous to Mr. Parnell as an actual
verdict for his assailants. The issues were too great to be
exposed to the hazards of a cast of the die. Then, why not
lay the venue in Ireland ? It was true that a favourable
verdict might just as reasonably be expected from the pre-
possessions of Dublin, as an unfavourable one from the
prepossessions of London. But the moral effect of an Irish
verdict upon English opinion would be exactly as worthless,
as the effect of an English verdict in a political or inter-
national case would be upon the judgment and feeling of
Ireland. To procure a condemnation of the Times at the
Four Courts, as a means of affecting English opinion, would
not be worth a single guinea. Undoubtedly the subsequent
course of this strange history fully justified the advice that
Mr. Parnell received in this matter from the three persons
in the House of Commons with whom on this point he took
counsel

II

The prudent decision against bringing a fierce political
controversy before an English judge and jury was in a few
months brought to nought, from motives that have remained
obscure, and with results that nobody could foresee. The
next act in the drama was the institution of proceedings
for libel against the Times in November 1887, by an Irish-
man who had formerly sat in parliament as a political
follower of Mr. Parnell The newspaper met him by denying
that the articles on ParneUism and Crime related to him.

1 April 20, 1887.



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634 THE SPECIAL COMMISSION

It went on to plead that the statements in the articles were
true in substance and in fact. The action was tried before
1888. lard Coleridge in July 1888, and the newspaper was repre-
presented by the advocate who happened to be the principal
law officer of the crown. The plaintiffs counsel picked out
certain passages, said that his client was one of the persons
intended to be libelled, and claimed damages. He was
held to have made an undoubted prima fade case on the
two libels in which he had been specifically named. This
gave the enemy his chance. The attorney general, speak-
ing for three days, opened the whole case for the newspaper;
repeated and enlarged upon the charges and allegations
in its articles ; stated the facts which he proposed to give in
evidence ; sought to establish that the fac-simile letter was
really signed by Mr. Parnell ; and finally put forward other
letters, now produced for the first time, which carried com-
plicity and connivance to a further point. These charges he
said that he should prove. On the third day he entirely
changed his tack. Having launched this mass of criminat-
ing imputation, he then suddenly bethought him, so he said,
of the hardships which his course would entail upon the
Irishmen, and asked that in that action he should not be
called upon to prove anything at all Hhe Irishmen and
their leader remained under a load of odium that the law
officer of the crown had cast upon them and declined to
substantiate.

The production of this further batch of letters stirred Mr.
Parnell from his usual impassiveness. His former deter-
mination to sit still was shaken. The day after the
attorney general's speech, he came to the present writer to
say that he thought of sending a paragraph to the news-
papers that night, with an announcement of his intention
to bring an action against the Times, narrowed to the issue
of the letters. The old arguments against p,n action were
again pressed upon him. He insisted, on the other side,
that he was not afraid of cross-examination; that they
might cross-examine as much as ever they pleased, either
about the doings of the land league or the letters ; that his
hands would be found to be clean, and the letters to be gross



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DEMAND FOR A COMMITTEE 635

forgeries. The question between us was adjourned; and CHAP,
meanwhile he fell in with my suggestion that he should the *
next day make a personal statement to the House. The ^ T * 79 -
personal statement was made in his most frigid manner, and
it was as frigidly received. He went through the whole of
the letters, one by one ; showed the palpable incredibility of
some of them upon their very face, and in respect of those
which purported to be written by himself, he declared, in
words free from all trace of evasion, that he had never
written them, never signed them, never directed nor
authorised them to be written.

So the matter was left on the evening of Friday (July 6,
1888). On Monday Mr. Parnell came to the House with the
intention to ask for a select committee. The feeling of the
English friend to whom he announced his intention in the
lobby, still was that the matter might much better be left
where it stood. The new batch of letters had strengthened
his position, for the Kilmainham letter was a fraud upon the
face of it, and a story that he had given a hundred pounds to a
fugitive from justice after the murders, had been demolished.
The press throughout the country had treated the subject
very coolly. The government would pretty certainly refuse
a select committee, and what would be the advantage to him
in the minds of persons inclined to think him guilty, of
making a demand which he knew beforehand would be
declined? Such was the view now pressed upon Mr.
Parnell. This time he was not moved. He took his own
course, as he had a paramount right to do. He went
into the House and asked the ministers to grant a select
committee to inquire into the authenticity of the letters
read at the recent trial Mr. Smith replied, as before, that
the House was absolutely incompetent to deal with the
charges. Mr. Parnell then gave notice that he would that
night put on the paper the motion for a committee, and on
Thursday demand a day for its discussion.

When Thursday arrived, either because the hot passion
of the majority was irresistible, or from a cool calcula-
tion of policy, or simply because the situation was be-
coming intolerable, a new decision had been taken, itself



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636 THE SPECIAL COMMISSION

BOOK far more intolerable than the scandal that it was to dis-
^ , sipate. The government met the Irish leader with a refusal
1888. an( j ajj offer. They would not give a committee, but they
were willing to propose a commission to consist wholly
or mainly of judges, with statutory power to inquire into
'the allegations and charges made against members of
parliament by the defendants in the recent action.' If the
gentlemen from Ireland were prepared to accept the offer,
the government would at once put on the paper for the
following Monday, notice of motion for leave to bring in a
bill 1

When the words of the notice of motion appeared in
print, it was found amid universal astonishment that the
special commission was to inquire into the charges and
allegations generally, not only against certairi members of
parliament, but also against ' other persons/ The enormity
of this sudden extension of the operation was palpable. A
certain member is charged with the authorship of incrimi-
nating letters. To clear his character as a member of
parliament, he demands a select committee. We decline to
give a committee, says the minister, but we offer you a com-
mission of judges, and you may take our offer or refuse, as
you please ; only the judges must inquire not merely into
your question of the letters, but into all the charges and
allegations made against all of you, and not these only, but
into the charges and allegations made against other people
as well. This was extraordinary enough, but it was not all

It is impossible to feel much surprise that Mr. Parnell
was* ready to assent to any course, however unconstitutional
that course might be, if only it led to the exposure of an
insufferable wrong. The credit of parliament and the
sanctity of constitutional right were no supreme concern of
his. He was burning to get at any expedient, committee or
commission, which should enable him to unmask and smite
his hidden foes. Much of his private language at this time
was in some respects vague and ineffectual, but he was
naturally averse to any course that might, in his own words,
look like backing down. ' Of course,' he said, ' I am not

1 Hans. July 12, 1888, p. 1102.



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ACTION OF MINISTEBS 637

sure that we shall come off with flying colours. But I think
we shall. I am never sure of anything.' He was still con-
fident that he had the clue.

On the second stage of the transaction, Mr. Smith, in
answer to various questions in the early part of the sitting,
made a singular declaration. The bill, he said, of which he
had given notice, was a bill to be introduced in accordance
with the offer already made. * I do not desire to debate the
proposal ; and I have put it in this position on the Order
Book, in order that it may be rejected or accepted by the
honourable member in the form in which it stands/ Then
in the next sentence, he said, ' If the motion is received and
accepted by the House, the bill will be printed and circu-
lated, and I will then name a day for the second reading.
But I may say frankly that I do not anticipate being able to
make provision for a debate on the second reading of a
measure of this kind. It was an offer made by the govern-
ment to the honourable gentleman and his friends, to
be either accepted or rejected/ x The minister treated his
bill as lightly as if it were some small proposal of ordinary
form and of even less than ordinary importance. It is not
inconceivable that there was design in this, for Mr. Smith
concealed under a surface of plain and homely worth a
very full share of parliamentary craft, and he knew well
enough that the more extraordinary the measure, the more
politic it always is to open with an air of humdrum.

The bill came on at midnight July 16, in a House stirred
with intense excitement, closely suppressed. The leader of
the House made the motion for leave to introduce the most
curious innovation of the century, in a speech 6i half-a-
minute. It might have been a formal bill for a provisional
order, to be taken as of course. Mr. Parnell, his ordinary
pallor made deeper by anger, and with unusual though very
natural vehemence of demeanour, at once hit the absurdity
of asking him whether he accepted or rejected the bill, not
only before it was printed but without explanation of its
contents. He then pressed in two or three weighty sen-
tences the deeper absurdity of leaving him any option at

1 Hans. July 16, p. 1410.




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638 THE SPECIAL COMMISSION

all. The attorney general had said of the story of the
> facsimile letter, that if it was not genuine, it was the worst
1888. lib e i ever launched on a public man. If the first lord
believed his attorney, said Mr. Parnell, instead of talking
about making a bargain with me, he ought to have come
down and said, 'The government are determined to have
this investigation, whether the honourable member, this
alleged criminal, likes it or not. '*

That was in feet precisely what the government had
determined. The profession that the bill was a benevolent
device for enabling the alleged criminals to extricate them-
selves was very soon dropped. The offer of a boon to be
accepted or declined at discretion was transformed into a
grand compulsory investigation into the connection of
the national and land leagues with agrarian crime, and
the members of parliament were virtually put into the
dock along with all sorts of other persons who chanced
to be members of those associations. The effect was
certain. Any facts showing criminality in this or that
member of the league would be taken to show criminality
in the organization as a whole, and especially in the political
leaders. And the proceeding could only be vindicated by
the truly outrageous principle that where a counsel in a
suit finds it his duty as advocate to make grave charges
against members of parliament in court, then it becomes an



Online LibraryJohn MorleyThe life of William Ewart Gladstone, Volume 2 → online text (page 58 of 91)