Personal History of Lord Bacon


From Unpublished Papers. By WILLIAM HEPWORTH DIXON, of the Inner Temple. Boston: Ticknor & Fields. 12mo. pp.424.

THE life of Bacon, as it has been ordinarily written, presents contrasts so strange, that thoughtful readers have been compelled either to doubt the accuracy of the narrative, or to admit that in his case Nature departed from her usual processes, and embodied antithesis in a man. The character suggested by the events of his life has long been in direct opposition to the character impressed on his writings; and Macaulay, who gave to the popular opinion its most emphatic and sparkling expression, increased this difference by exaggerating the opposite elements of the human epigram, and ended in manufacturing the most brilliant monstrosity that ever bore the name of a person. Lord Campbell followed with a biography having all the appearance of conscientious research and judicial impartiality, but which was really nothing more than a weak translation of Macaulay’s vivid sentences into such English “ as it had pleased God to endow him withal.” Bacon, to all inquiring men, still remained outside of the statements of both ; and after the lapse of nearly two centuries, the slight biographical sketch by his chaplain, Dr. Rawleigh, conveyed a juster idea of the man than all the biographies by which it had been succeeded, but not superseded.
Mr. Dixon’s “ Personal History of Lord Bacon ” is the first attempt to vindicate his fame by original research into unpublished documents. It is a mortifying reflection to all who speak the English tongue, that this task should have been deferred so long. There has been no lack of such research in regard to insignificant individuals who have been accidentally connected with events which come within the cognizance of English historians ; but the greatest Englishman among all English politicians and statesmen since the Norman Conquest has heretofore been honored with no biographer who considered him worthy the labor which has been lavished on inferior men. The readers of Macaulay’s four volumes of English history have often expressed their amazement at his minute knowledge of the political mediocrities of the time of James II. and William III. He spared neither time nor labor in collecting and investigating facts regarding comparatively unknown persons who happened to be connected with his subject; but in his judgment of a man who, considered simply as a statesman, was infinitely greater than Halifax or Danby, he depends altogether on hearsay, and gives that hearsay the worst possible appearance. In his article on Bacon, he not merely evinces no original research, but he so combines the loose statements he takes for granted, that, in his presentation of them, they make out a stronger case against Bacon than is warranted by their fair interpretation. Indeed, leaving out the facts which Macaulay suppresses or is ignorant of, and taking into account only those which he includes, his judgment of Bacon is still erroneous. Long before we read Mr. Dixon’s book, we had reversed Macaulay’s opinion merely by scrutinizing, and restoring to their natural relations, Macaulay’s facts.
But Mr. Dixon’s volume, while in style and matter it is one of the most interesting and entertaining books of the season, is especially valuable for the new light it sheds on the subject by the introduction of original materials. These materials, to be sure, were within the reach of any person who desired to write an impartial biography; hut Mr. Dixon no less deserves honor for withstanding the prejudice that Bacon’s moral character was unquestionably settled as base, and for daring to investigate anew the testimony on which the judgment was founded. And there can be no doubt that he has dispelled the horrible chimera, that the same man can be thoroughly malignant or mean in his moral nature and thoroughly beneficent or exalted in his intellectual nature. While we do not doubt that depravity and intelligence can make an unholy alliance, we do doubt that the intelligence thus prompted can exhibit, to an eye that discerns spirits, all the vital signs of benevolence. If, in the logic of character, Iago or Jerry Sneak he in the premises, it is impossible to find Bacon in the conclusion.
The value of Mr. Dixon’s book consists in its introduction of new facts to illustrate every questionable incident in Bacon’s career. It is asserted, for instance, that Bacon, as a member of Parliament, was impelled solely by interested motives, and opposed the government merely to force the government to recognize his claims to office. Mr. Dixon brings forward facts to prove that his opposition is to be justified on high grounds of statesmanship; that he was both a patriot and a reformer; that great constituencies were emulous to make him their representative; that in wit, in learning, in reason, in moderation, in wisdom, in the power of managing and directing men’s minds and passions, he was the first man in the House of Commons; that the germs of great improvements are to be found in his speeches; that, when he was overborne by the almost absolute power of the Court, his apparent sycophancy was merely the wariness of a wise statesman; that Queen Elizabeth eventually acknowledged his services to the country, and, far from neglecting him, repeatedly extended to him most substantial marks of her favor. This portion of Mr. Dixon's volume, founded on state-papers, will surprise both the defamers and the eulogists of Bacon. It contains facts of which both Macaulay and Basil Montagu were ignorant.
facts, which no individual, and no society of individuals, could possibly make. He himself was never weary of asserting that the Method could never produce its beneficent effects, unless it were assisted by the revenues of a nation. Of the course which physical science really followed he had no prevision. Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Gilbert, he never appreciated. He was an intellectual autocrat, who had matured his own scheme of interpreting Nature, and thought, that, if it were systematically carried out, the inmost secrets of Nature could be mastered. His desire to be Lord Chancellor of England was subsidiary to his larger desire to be Lord Chancellor of Nature herself. He hoped, by managing James and Buckingham, to flatter them into aiding, by the revenues of the State, his grand philosophical scheme. Combine the facts which Mr. Dixon has disinterred with the facts which every thoughtful reader of Bacon's philosophical works already knows, and the vindication of Bacon as a man is complete.
We are inclined to think that he failed in both of the objects of his highest ambition. His philosophic Method is demonstrably a failure ; his attempt to convert James and Buckingham to his views resulted in his own unjust disgrace with contemporaries and posterity. The truth is, that, cool, serene, comprehensive, and unimpassioned as he appears, he was from his youth actuated by a fanaticism which seems less intense than the fanaticism of a man like Cromwell only because it was infinitely more broad. Had he succeeded in the design he proposed to himself, his intellectual domination would not be confined to England, or the kingdoms of the civilized world, but would be commensurate with the whole domain of Nature and man.
We are so grateful to Mr. Dixon for what he has done, that we are not disposed to quarrel with him for what he has left undone. He has added such a mass of incontrovertible facts to the materials which must enter into the future biography of Bacon, that his book cannot fail to exact cordial praise from the most captious critics. Bacon, in his aspirations and purposes, was a very much greater man than he appears in Mr. Dixon’s biography ; but still to Mr. Dixon belongs the credit of rescuing his personal reputation from undeserved ignominy. If we add to this his vivid pictures of the persons and events of the Elizabethan age, and his bright, sharp, and brief way of flashing his convictions and discoveries on the mind of the reader, we indicate merits which will make his volume generally and justly popular. The letters of Lady Ann Bacon, the mother of the philosopher and statesman—letters for which we are indebted to Mr. Dixon’s exhaustive research — would alone be sufficient to justify the publication of his interesting book.
Of Bacon’s relations with Essex we never had but one opinion. All the testimony brought forward to convict Bacon of treachery to Essex seemed to us inconclusive. The facts, as stated by Macaulay and Lord Campbell, do not sustain their harsh judgment. A parallel may be found in the present political condition of our own country. Let us suppose Senator Toombs so fortunate as to have had a wise counsellor, who for ten years had borne to him the same relation which Bacon bore to Essex. Let us suppose that it was understood between them that both were in favor of the Union and the Constitution, and that nothing was to be done to forward the triumph of their party which was not strictly legal. Then let us suppose that Mr. Toombs, from the impulses of caprice and passion, bad secretly established relations with desperate disunionists, and had thus put in jeopardy not only the interests, but the lives, of those who were equally his friends and the friends of the Constitution. Let us further suppose that he had suddenly placed himself at the head of an armed force to overturn the United States government at Washington, while he was still a Senator from Georgia, sworn to support the Constitution of the United States, and that his cheated friend and counsellor had just left the President of the United States, after a long conference, in which he had attempted to show, to an incredulous listener, that Senator Toombs was a devoted friend to the Union, though dissatisfied with some of the members of the Administration. This is a very faint illustration of the political relations between Essex and Bacon, admitting the generally received facts on which Bacon is execrated as false to his friend. Mr. Dixon adduces new facts which completely justify Bacon's conduct. If Bacon, like Essex, had been ruled by his passions, he would have been a far fiercer denouncer of Essex’s treason. He had every reason to be enraged. He was a wise man duped by a foolish one. He was in danger of being implicated in a treason which he abhorred, through the perfidy of a man who was generally considered as his friend and patron, and who was supposed to act from his advice. As Bacon doubtless knew what we now for the first time know, every candid reader must be surprised at the moderation of his course. Essex would not have hesitated to shoot or stab Bacon, had Bacon behaved to him as he had behaved to Bacon. But we pardon, it seems, the most hateful and horrible selfishness which springs from the passions; our moral condemnation is reserved for that faint form of selfishness which may be suspected to have its source in the intellect.
In regard to the other charges against Bacon, we think that Mr. Dixon has brought forward evidence which must materially modify the current opinions of Bacon’s personal character. He has proved that Bacon, as a practical statesman, was in advance of his age, rather than behind it. He has proved that his philosophy penetrated his politics, and that he gave wise advice, and recommended large, liberal, and humane measures to a generation which could not appreciate them. He has proved that he did everything that a man in his situation could do for the cause of truth and justice which did not necessitate his retirement from public life. The abuses by which he may have profited he not only did not defend, but tried to reform. Among the statesmen of his day he appears not only intellectually superior, but conventionally respectable,—a fact which would seem to be established by the bare statement, that he died wretchedly poor, while most of them died enormously rich.
But Mr. Dixon, in his advocacy of Bacon, overlooks the circumstance, that no man could hold high office under James I., without complying with abuses calculated to damage his reputation with posterity. We have no doubt that Bacon’s compliance was connected with considerations which Mr. Dixon entirely ignores. Far from discriminating between Bacon the philosopher and Bacon the politician, we have always thought that they were intimately connected. Bacon’s Method, the thing on which, as a philosopher, he especially prided himself, was defective. It left out that power by which all discoveries have since his time been made, namely, scientific genius. Its successful working depended on an immense collection of