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ances between an eager House and an excithig an-
nouncement. A certain piquancy was lent, however,
to the performance of the duty by the fact, which the
speeches made evident beyond the possibility of mis-
take, that the proposer of the address knew quite well
what the Government were about to do, and that the
seconder knew nothing whatever.

Now the formal task is done. The address has
been moved and seconded. The Speaker puts the
question that the address be adopted. Now is the time
for debate, if debate there is to be. On such occa-
sions there is always some discussion, but it is com-
monly as mere a piece of formality as the address
itself. It is understood that the leader of opposition
will say something meaning next to nothing ; that
two or three men will grumble vaguely at the Minis-
try ; that the leader of the House will reply ; and then
the affair is all over. But on this occasion it was
certain that some momentous announcement would
have to be made ; and the question was when it would
come. Perhaps no one expected exactly what did
happen. Nothing can be more imusual than for the
leader of the House to open the debate on such an
occasion ; and Sir Robert Peel was usually somewhat
of a formalist, who kept to the regular ways in all
that pertained to the business of the House. . No
eyes of expectation were turned therefore to the
ministerial bench at the moment after the formal put-
ting of the question by the Speaker. It was rather
expected that Lord John Russell, or perhaps Mr.



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1846. PEEL'S EXPLANATION. 381

Cobden, would arise. But a surprised murmur run-
ning through all parts of the House soon told those
who could not see the Treasury bench that something
unusual had happened ; and in a moment the voice of
the Prime Minister was heard — that marvellous voice
of which Lord Beaconsfield says that it had not in
his time any equal in the House ' unless we except
the thrilling tones of O'Connell' — and it was known
that the great explanation was coming at once.

The explanation even now, however, was some-
what deferred. The Prime Minister showed a deli-
berate intention, it might have been thought, not to
come to the point at once. He went into long and
laboured explanations of the manner in which his
mind had been brought into a change on the subject
of Free Trade and Protection ; and he gave exhaus-
tive calculations to show that the reduction of duty
was constantly followed by expansion of the revenue,
and even a maintenance of high prices. The duties
on glass, the duties on flax, the prices of salt pork
and domestic lard, the contract price of salt beef for
the navy — ^these and many other such topics were
discussed at great length, and with elaborate fulness
of detail in the hearing of an eager House anxious
only for that night to know whether or not the
minister meant to introduce the principle of Free
Trade. Peel, however, made it clear enough that
he had become a complete convert to the doctrines of
the Manchester school, and that in his opinion the
time had come when that protection which he had
taken office to maintain must for ever be abandoned.



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382 A HISTORY OF OUR OWN TIMES.



CH. XV.



One sentence at the close of his speech was made
the occasion of much laboured criticism and some
severe accusation. It was that in which Peel de-
clared that he foimd it * no easy task to ensure
the harmonious and united action of an ancient
monarchy, a proud aristocracy, and a reformed House
of Commons.'

The explanation was over. The House of Com-
mons were left rather to infer than to understand
what the Government proposed to do. Lord John
Russell entered into some personal explanations re-
lating to his endeavour to form a Ministry, and the
causes of its failure. These have not much interest
for a later time. It might have seemed that the
work of the night was done. It was evident that the
ministerial policy could not be discussed then ; for in
fact it had not been announced. The House knew
that the Prime Minister was a convert to the princi-
ples of Free Trade ; but that was all that anyone could
be said to know except those who were in the secrets
of the Cabinet. There appeared therefore nothing for
it but to wait imtil the time should come for the for-
mal annoimcement and the ftiU discussion of the Gro-
vemment measures. Suddenly, however, a new and
striking figure intervened in the languishing debate,
and fiUed the House of Commons with a fii-esh life.
There is not often to be foimd in our Parliamentary
history an example like this of a sudden turn given
to a whole career by a timely speech. The member
who rose to comment on the explanation of Sir
Robert Peel had been for many years in the House



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1846. A NEW DEPARTUBE. 383

of CommonB. This was his tenth session. He had
spoken often in each session. He had made many
bold attempts to win a name in Parliament, and
hitherto his political career had been simply a failure.
From the hour when he spoke this speech, it was
one long, unbroken, brilliant success.



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384 A HISTORY OF OUR OWN TIMES. oh. xtl



CHAPTER XVI.

MR. DISRAELI.

The speaker who rose into such sudden prominence
and something like the position of a party leader was
one of the most remarkable men the politics of the
reign have produced. Perhaps, if the word remark-
able were to be used in its most strict sense, and
without particular reference to praise, it would be
just to describe him as emphatically the most re-
markable man that the political controversies of the
present reign have called into power, Mr. Disraeli
entered the House of Commons as Conservative
member for Maidstone in 1837. He was then about
thirty-two years of age. He had previously made
repeated and unsuccessful attempts to get a seat in
Parliament. He began his political career as an ad-
vanced Liberal, and had come out under the auspices
of Daniel O'Connell and Joseph Hume. He had
described himself as one who desired to fight the
battle of the people, and who was supported by
neither of the aristocratic parties. He failed again
and again, and apparently he began to think that it
would be a wiser thing to look for the support of
one or other of the aristocratic parties. He had
before this given indications of remarkable literary



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1826-^7: VIVIAN GREY. 385

talent, if indeed it might not be called genius. His
novel, ' Vivian Grey,' published when he was in his
twenty-third year, was suffused with extravagance,
affectation, and mere animal spirits ; but it was full
of the evidences of a fresh and brilliant ability. The
son of a distinguished literary man, Mr. Disraeli had
probably at that time only a young literary man's
notions of politics. It is not necessary to charge
him with deliberate inconsistency because from having
been a Radical of the most advanced views he became
by an easy leap a romantic Tory. It is not likely
that at the beginning of his career he had any very
clear ideas in connection with the words Tory or
Radical. He wrote a letter to Mr. W. J. Fox, already
described as an eminent Unitarian minister and rising
politician, in which he declared that his forte waa
sedition. Most clever young men who are not bom
to fortune, and who feel drawn into political life,
fancy too that their forte is sedition. When young
Disraeli found that sedition and even advanced Radi-
calism did not do much to get him into Parliament, he
probably began to ask himself whether his Liberal
convictions were so deeply rooted as to call for the
sacrifice of a career. He thought the question over,
and doubtless found himself crystallising fast into
an advocate of the established order of things. In a
purely personal light this was a fortunate conclusion
for the ambitious young politician. He could not then
have anticipated the extraordinary change which was to
be wrought in the destiny and the composition of the
Tory party by the eloquence, the arguments, and the

VOL. I. CO



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886 A HISTORY OF OUR OWN TIMES. oh.xtx.

mfluenoe of two men who at that tune were almost
absolutely unknown. Mr. Cobden stood for the first
time as a candidate for a seat in Parliament in the
year that saw Mr. Disraeli elected for the first time,
and Mr. Cobden was unsuccessfdl. Cobden had to
wait four years before he found his way into the
House of Commons ; Bright did not become a mem-
ber of Parliament until some two years later still.
It was, however, the Anti-Corn Law agitation which,
by conquering Peel and making him its advocid^e,
brought about the memorable split in the Conserva-
tive party, and carried away fix)m the cause of the
country squires nearly all the men of talent who had
hitherto been with them. A new or middle party of so-
called Peelites was formed. Graham, Gladstone, Sidney
Herbert, CardweU, and other men of equal mark or
promise, joined it, and the country party was left to
seek for leadership in the earnest spirit and very
moderate talents of Lord George Bentinck. Mr.
Disraeli then found his chance. His genius was such
that it must have made a way for him anywhere and
in spite of any competition ; but it is not too mu6h
to say that his career of political advancement might
hav6 been very dififerent if in place of finding himself
the only man of first-class ability in the party to
which he had attached himself, he had been a member
of a party which had Palmerston and Russell and
Gladstone and Graham for its captams, and Cobden
and Bright for its habitual supporters.

This, however, could not have been in Mr. Dis-
raeli's thoughts when he changed firom Radicalism to



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182&-87. PICTURESQUE POLITIOS. 387

<3onservati8m. No trace of the progresB of conver-
sion can be found in his speeches or his writings. It
is not unreasonable to infer that he took up Radical-
ism at the beginning because it looked the most pic-
turesque and romantic thing to do, and that only as
he found it fail to answer his personal object did it
occur to him that he had after aU more affinity with
the cause of the country gentlemen. The reputation
he had made for himself before his going into Parlia-
ment was of a nature rather calculated to retard than
to advance a political career. He was looked upon
almost universally as an eccentric and audacious
adventurer, who was kept from being dangerous by
the affectations and absurdities of his conduct. He
dressed in the extremest style of preposterous fop-
pery; he talked a blending of cynicism and senti-
ment; he had made the most reckless statements;
his boasting was almost outrageous ; his rhetoric of
abuse was, even in that free-spoken time, astonishingly
vigorous and unrestrained. Even his literary eflForts
did not then receive anything like the appreciation
they have obtained since. At that time they were
regarded rather as audacious whimsicalities, the
fantastic freaks of a clever youth, than as genuine
works of a certam kind of art. Even when he did
get into the House of Commons, his first experience
there was little calculated to give him much hope of
«uccess. Reading over this first speech now, it seems
hard to understand why it should have excited so
much laughter and derision; why it should have
<^alled forth nothing but laughter and derision. It is

2



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388 A HISTORY OF OUR OWN TIMES. ch. tyu

a clever speech, fiill of point and odd conceits ; very
like in style and structure many of the speeches which
in later years won for the same orator the applause of
the House of Commons. But Mr. Disraeli's reputa-
tion had preceded him into the House. Up to this
time his life had been, says an unfriendly but not an
unjust critic, * an almost uninterrupted career of follies
and defeats.' The House was probably in a humour
to find the speech ridiculous because the general
impression was that the man himself was ridiculous.
Mr. Disraeli's appearance, too, no doubt, contributed
something to the contemptuous opinion which was
formed of him on his first attempt to address the
assembly which he afterwards came to rule. He is
described by an observer as having been attired * in a
bottle-green fi'ock coat and a waistcoat of white, of
the Dick Swiveller pattern, the front of which ex-
hibited a network of glittering chains ; large fancy-
pattern pantaloons, and a black tie, above which no
shirt-collar was visible, completed the outward man.
A countenance lividly pale, set out by a pair of in-
tensely black eyes, and a broad but not very high
forehead, overhung by clustering ringlets of coal-
black hair, which, combed away fi^m the right
temple, fell in bunches of well-oiled small ringlets
over his left cheek.'. His manner was intensely
theatric; his gestures were wild and extravagant.
In all this there is not much, however, to surprise
those who knew Mr. Disraeli in his greater days.
His style was always extravagant ; his rhetoric con-
stantly degenerated into vulgarity ; his whole manner



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1837. THE MAIDEN SPEECH. 389

was that of the t3rpical foreigner whom English people
regard as the illustration of all that is vehement and
unquiet. But whatever the cause, it is certain that
on the occasion of his first attempt Mr. Disraeli made
not merely a failure, but even a ludicrous failure. One
who heard the debate thus describes the manner in
wrhich, baffled by the persistent laughter and other
interruptions of the noisy House, the orator with-
drew fi-om the discussion, defeated but not dis-
•couraged. ' At last, losing his temper, which until
now he had preserved in a wonderful manner, he
paused in the midst of a sentence, and lookmg the
Liberals indignantly in the face, raised his hands, and
opening his mouth as widely as its dimensions would
admit, said in a remarkably loud and almost terrific
tone, " I have begun several times, many things and
I have often succeeded at last ; ay, sir, and though
I sit down now, the time will come when you will
hear me." ' This final prediction is so like what a
manuJGacturer of biography would make up for a hero,
and is so like what was actually said in one or two
other remarkable instances, that a reader might be
excused for doubting its authenticity in this case.
But nothing can be more certain than the fact that
Mr. Disraeli did bring to a close his maiden speech
in the House of Commons with this bold prediction.
The words are to be found in the reports published
next morning in all the daily papers of the metro-
polis.

It was thus that Mr. Disraeli began his career as
-a Parliamentary orator. It is a curious fact that on



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390 A HISTORY OF OUR OWN TIMES. oh. twu

that bccasion almost the only one of his hearers wha
seems to have admired the speech was ^ir Robert
Peel. It is by his philippic against Peel that Disraeli
is now about to convince the House of Commons that
the man they laughed at before is a great Parliamen-
tary orator.

Disraeli was not in the least discouraged by his
first failure. A few days after it he spoke again, and
he spoke three or four times more during his first
session. But he had learned some wisdom by rough
experience, and he did not make his oratorical flights
so long or so ambitious as that first attempt. Then
he seemed after a while, as he grew more familiar with
the House, to go in for being paradoxical ; for making
himself always conspicuous ; for taking up positions
and expounding political creeds which other men
would have avoided. It is very difficult to get any
clear idea of what his opinions were about this period
of his career, if he had any political opinions at all*
Our impression is that he really had no opinions
at that time ; that he was only in quest of opinions.
He spoke on subjects of which it was evident that
he knew nothing, and sometimes he managed by the
sheer force of a strong intelligence to discern the
absurdity of economic sophistries which had baffled
men of far greater experience, and which indeed, ta
judge fi*om his personal declarations and political
conduct afterwards, he allowed before long to baffle
and bewilder himself. More often, however, he talked
with a grandiose and oracular vagueness which seemed
to imply that he alone of all men saw into the very



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1387-46. AFFECTED AFFECTATION. 391

heart of the question, but that he, of all men, must
not yet reveal what he saw. At his best of times
Mr. Disraeli was an example of that class of being
whom Macaulay declares to be so rare that Lord
Chatham appears to him almost a solitary illustra-
tion of it — *a great man of real genius and of a
brave, lofty and commanding spirit, without simpli-
city of character.' What Macaulay goes on to say
of Chatham will bear quotation too. ' He was an
actor in the closet, an actor at council, an actor
in Parliament ; and even in private society he could
not lay aside his theatrical tones and attitudes.' Mr.
Disraeli was at one period of his career so affected
that he positively affected affectation. Yet he was a
man of undoubted genius ; he had a spirit that never
quailed under stress of any circumstances, however
disheartening ; he commanded as scarcely any states-
man since Chatham himself has been able to do ; and
it would be imjust and absurd to deny to a man
giftied with qualities like these the possession of a
lofty nature.

For some time Mr. Disraeli then seemed resolved
to make himself remarkable — to be talked about. He
succeeded admirably. He was talked about. All
the political and satirical journals of the day had
a great deal to say about him. He is not spoken
of in terms of praise as a rule. Neither has he much
praise to shower about him. Anyone who looks
back to the political controversies of that time will
be astounded at the language which Mr. Disraeli
addresses to his opponents of the press, and which



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392 A mSTORY OF OUR OWN TIMES. oh.xyt.

his opponents address to him. In some esses it is
no exaggeration to say that a squabble between
two Billingsgate fishwomen in our day would have
good chance of ending without the use of words
and phrases so coarse as those which then passed
between this briUiant literary man and some of his
assailants. We have all read the history of the con-
troversy between him and O'Connell, and the savage
ferocity of the language with which O'Connell de-
nounced him as ' a miscreant/ as ' a wretch/ ' a liar/
' whose life is a living lie' ; and finally as * the heir-at-
law of the blasphemous thief who died impenitent on
the Cross/ Mr. Disraeli begins his reply by describ-
ing himself as one of those who ' will not be insulted
even by a Yahoo without chastising it'; and after-
wards, in a letter to one of Mr. O'ConneU's sons, de-
clares his desire to express ' the utter scorn in which
I hold his [Mr. O'Connell's] character, and the dis-
gust with which his conduct inspires me'; and in-
forms the son that ' I shall take every opportunity of
holding your father's name up to public contempt, and
I fervently pray that you or some one of your blood
may attempt to avenge the inextinguishable hatred
with which I shall pursue his existence.' In reading
of a controversy like this between two public men, we
seem to be transported back to an age having abso-
lutely nothing in common with our own. It appears
almost impossible to believe that men still active in
political life were active in political life then. Yet
this is not the most astonishing specimen of the sort
of controversy in which Mr. Disraeli became engaged



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1837-46. THE BOBADIL FASHION IN POLITICS. 393

in his younger days. Nothing perhaps that the poli-
tical literature of the time preserves could exceed the
ferocity of his controversial duel with O'Connell ; but
there are many samples of the rhetoric of abuse to be
found in the journals of the time which would far less
bear exposure to the gaze of the fastidious public of
our day. The duelling system survived then and for
long after, and Mr. Disraeli always professed himself
ready to sustain with his pistol anything that his lips
might have given utterance to, even in the reckless
heat of controversy. The social temper which in our
time insists that the first duty of a gentleman is to
apologise for an unjust or oflfensive expression used
in debate, was unknown then. Perhaps it could
hardly exist to any great extent in the company of
the duelling system. When a man's withdrawal of
an oflfensive expression might be imputed to a want
t>f physical courage, the courtesy which impels a
gentleman to atone for a wrong is not likely to
triumph very often over the fear of being accounted a
coward. K anyone doubts the superiority of man-
ne^ as well as of morals which comes of our milder
ways, he has only to read a few specimens of the con-
troversies of Mr. Disraeli's earlier days, when men
who aspired to be considered great political leaders
thought it not unbecoming to caU names like a cos-
termonger, and to swagger like Bobadil or the Copper
Captain.

Mr. Disraeli kept himself well up to the level of
his time in the calling of names and the swaggering.
But he was making himself remarkable in political



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394 A HISTORY OP OUR OWN TIMES. ot. x?i.

controversy as well. In the House of Commons he
b^an to be regarded as a dangerous adversary in
debate. He was wonderfully ready with retort and
sarcasm. But during all the earlier part of his career
he was thought of only as a free lance. He had
praised Peel when Peel said something that suited
him, or when to praise Peel seemed likely to wound
someone else. But it was during the debates on the
abolition of the Com Laws that he first rose to the
fiime of a great debater and a powerfiil Parliamentary
orator. We use the words Parliamentary orator with
the purpose of convejring a special qualification. He
is a great Parliamentary orator who can employ the
kind of eloquence and ai^iunent which tell most
readily on Parliament. But it must not be supposed
that the great Parliamentary orator is necessarily a
great orator in the wider sense. Some of the men
who made the greatest successes s& Parliamentary
orators have failed to win any genuine reputations as
orators of the broader and higher school. The fiune
of Charles Townshend's 'champagne speech' haa
vanished, evanescent almost as the bubbles firom
which it derived its inspiration and its name. No-
one now reads many even of the fi*agments pre-
served for us of those speeches of Sheridan which
those who heard them declared to have surpassed all
ancient and modem eloquence. The House of Com-
mons often found Burke dull, and the speeches of
Burke have passed into English literature secure of a
perpetual place there. Mr. Disraeli never succeeded
in being more than a Parliamentary orator, and pro-



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1846. *0P A FALLEN PARTY.' 39S

bably would not have cared to be anything more.
But even at this comparatively early date, and while
he had still the reputation of being a whimsical, self-
confident and feather-headed adventurer, he soon won
for himself the name of one who could hold his own
in retort and in sarcasm against any antagonist. The
days of the more elaborate oratory were going by^
and the time was coming when the pungent epigram^
the sparkling paradox, the rattling attack, the vivid
repartee, would count for the most attractive part of
eloquence with the House of Commons.

Mr. Disraeli was exactly the man to succeed
under the new conditions of Parliamentary eloquence.
Hitherto he had wanted a cause to inspire and justify
audacity, and on which to employ with effect his re-
markable resources of sarcasm and rhetoric. Hitherta
he had addressed an audience out of sympathy with
him for the most part. Now he was about to become
the spokesman of a large body of men who, chafing
and ahnost choking with wrath, were not capable ot
speaking effectively for themselves. Mr. Disraeli did
therefore the very wisest thing he could do when he
launched at once into a savage personal attack upon
Sir Robert Peel. The speech abounds in passages of
audaciously powerful sarcasm. ^ I am not one of the
converts/ Mr. Disraeli said. ^ I am perhaps a mem-
ber of a fallen party. To the opinions which I have
expressed in this House in favour of Protection I still
adhere. They sent me to this House, and if I had
relinquished them I should have relinquished my seat



Online LibraryJustin McCarthyA history of our own times, from the accession of Queen Victoria to the ... → online text (page 26 of 29)