THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY.
A MAGAZINE OF LITERATURE, ART, AND POLITICS.
VOL. XII.—AUGUST, 1863.—NO. LXX.
HAVING in a former number of this magazine attempted to give some account of the House of Commons, and to present some sketches of its leading members,1 I now design to introduce my readers to the House of Lords.
It is obviously unnecessary to repeat so much of the previous description as applies to the general external and internal appearance of the New Palace of Westminster. It only remains to speak of the hall devoted to the sessions of the House of Lords. And certainly it is an apartment deserving a more extended notice than our limits will allow. As the finest specimen of Gothic civil architecture in the world, perfect in its proportions, beautiful and appropriate in its decorations, the frescoes perpetuating some of the most striking scenes in English history, the stained glass windows representing the Kings and Queens of the United Kingdom from the accession of William the Conqueror down to the present reign, the niches filled with effigies of the Barons who wrested Magna Charta from King John, the ceiling glowing with gold and colors presenting different national symbols and devices in most elaborate workmanship and admirable intricacy of design, it is undeniably worthy of the high purpose to which it is dedicated.
The House of Lords also contains the throne occupied by the reigning sovereign at the opening and prorogation of Parliament. Perhaps its more appropriate designation would be a State - Chair. In general form and outline it is substantially similar to the chairs in which the sovereigns of England have for centuries been accustomed to sit at their coronations. We need hardly add that no expense has been spared to give to the throne such intrinsic value, and to adorn it with such emblems of national significance, as to furnish renewed evidence of England’s unwavering loyalty to the reigning house.
In pointing out what is peculiar to the House of Lords, I am aware that there is danger of falling into the error of stating what is already familiar to some of my readers. And yet a traveller’s narrative is not always tiresome to the tourist who has himself visited the same localities and witnessed the same scenes. If anxious for the “ diffusion of useful knowledge,” he will cheerfully consent that the curiosity of others, who have not shared his good fortune, should be gratified, although it be at his expense. At the same time, he certainly has a right to insist that the extraordinary and improbable stories told to the too credulous voyageur by some lying scoundrel of a courier or some unprincipled valet - de - place shall not be palmed upon the unsuspecting public as genuine tales of travel and adventure.
Entered according to Act of Congress, in the year 1863, by TICKNOR AND FIELDS, in the Clerk's Office of the District Court of the District of Massachusetts.
The House of Lords is composed of lords spiritual and lords temporal. As this body is now constituted, the lords spiritual are two archbishops, twenty-four bishops, and four Irish representative prelates. The lords temporal are three peers of the blood royal, twenty dukes, nineteen marquises, one hundred and ten earls, twenty-two viscounts, two hundred and ten barons, sixteen Scotch representative peers, and twenty-eight Irish representative peers. There are twentythree Scotch peers and eighty-five Irish peers who have no seats in Parliament. The representative peers for Scotland are elected for every Parliament, while the representative peers for Ireland are elected for life. As has been already intimated, this enumeration applies only to the present House of Lords, which comprises four hundred and fifty-eight members,—an increase of about thirty noblemen in as many years.
The persons selected from time to time for the honor of the peerage are members of families already among the nobility, eminent barristers, military and naval commanders who have distinguished themselves in the service, and occasionally persons of controlling and acknowledged importance in commercial life. Lord Macaulay is the first instance in which this high compliment has been conferred for literary merit; and it was well understood, when the great essayist and historian was ennobled, that the exception in his favor was mainly due to the fact that he was unmarried. With his untimely death the title became extinct. Lord Overstone, formerly Mr. Loyd, and a prominent member of the banking firm of Jones, Loyd, and Co. of London, elevated to the peerage in 1850, is without heirs apparent or presumptive, and there is good reason to believe that this circumstance had a material bearing upon his well-deserved promotion. But these infrequent exceptions, these rare concessions so ungraciously made, only prove the rigor of the rule. Practically, to all but members of noble families, and men distinguished for military, naval, or political services, or eminent lawyers or clergymen, the House of Lords is unattainable. Brown may reach the highest range of artistic excellence, he may achieve world-wide fame as an architect, his canvas may glow with the marvellous coloring of Titian or repeat the rare and delicate grace of Correggio, the triumphs of his chisel may reflect honor upon England and his age; the inventive genius of Jones, painfully elaborating, through long and suffering years of obscure poverty, the crude conceptions of his boyhood, may confer inestimable benefits upon his race ; the scientific discoveries of Robinson may add incalculable wealth to the resources of his nation : but let them not dream of any other nobility than that conferred by Nature ; let them he content to live and die plain, untitled Brown, Jones, and Robinson, or at best look forward only to the barren honors of knighthood. Indeed, it is not too much to say that for plebeian merit the only available avenues to the peerage are the Church and the Bar.
The proportion of law lords now in the House of Lords is unusually large,—there being, besides Lord Westbury, the present Lord-High-Chancellor, no fewer than six Ex-Lord-Chaneellors, each enjoying the very satisfactory pension of five thousand pounds per annum. Lord Lyndhurst still survives at the ripe age of ninety-one ; and Lord Brougham, now in his eighty-sixth year, has made good his promise that he would outlive Lord Campbell, and spare his friends the pain of seeing his biography added to the lives of the Lord-Chancellors to whom, in Lord Brougham’s opinion, Lord Campbell had done such inadequate justice.
The course of proceeding in the House of Lords differs considerably from that pursued in the House of Commons. The Lord-High-Chancellor, seated on the wool-sack,—a crimson cushion, innocent of any support to the back, and by no means suggestive of comfort, or inviting prolonged occupation,— presides over the deliberations of the peers, but is never addressed by the speakers. “ My lords ” is the phrase with which every peer commences his remarks.
Another peculiarity patent to the stranger is the small number usually present at the debates. The average attendance is less than fifty, and often one sees only fifteen or twenty peers in their seats. Two or three leading members of the Ministry, as many prominent members of the opposition, a bishop or two, a score of deluded, but well-meaning gentlemen, who obstinately adhere to the unfashionable notion, that, where great political powers are enjoyed, there are certain serious duties to the public closely connected therewith, a few prosy and pompous peers who believe that their constant presence is essential to the welfare and prosperity of the kingdom, — such, I think, is a correct classification of the ordinary attendance of noblemen at the House of Lords.
This body possesses several obvious advantages over any other deliberative assembly now existing. Not the least among these is the fact that the oldest son of every peer is prepared by a careful course of education for political and diplomatic life. Every peer, except some of recent creation, has from childhood enjoyed all conceivable facilities for acquiring a finished education. In giving direction to his studies at school and at the university, special reference has been had to his future Parliamentary career. Nothing that large wealth could supply, or the most powerful family-influence could command, has been spared to give to the future legislator every needed qualification for the grave and responsible duties which he will one day be called to assume. His ambition has been stimulated by the traditional achievements of a long line of illustrious ancestors, and his pride has been awakened and kept alive by the universal deference paid to his position as the heir apparent or presumptive of a noble house.
This view is so well presented in “ The Caxtons,” that I need offer no apology for making an extract from that most able and discriminating picture of English society. “ The fact is, that Lord Castleton had been taught everything that relates to property (a knowledge that embraces a very wide circumference). It had been said to him, * You will be an immense proprietor: knowledge is essential to your self-preservation. You will be puzzled, ridiculed, duped every day of your life, if you do not make yourself acquainted with all by which property is assailed or defended, impoverished or increased. You have a stake in the country: you must learn all the interests of Europe, nay, of the civilized world ; for these interests react on the country, and the interests of the country are of the greatest possible consequence to the interests of the Marquis of Castleton.’ Thus, the state of the Continent, the policy of Metternich, the condition of the Papacy, the growth of Dissent, the proper mode of dealing with the spirit of democracy which was the epidemic of European monarchies, the relative proportions of the agricultural and manufacturing population, corn-laws, currency, and the laws that regulate wages, a criticism on the leading speakers in the House of Commons, with some discursive observations on the importance of fattening cattle, the introduction of flax into Ireland, emigration, the condition of the poor: these and such-like stupendous subjects for reflection — all branching more or less intricately from the single idea of the Castleton property — the young lord discussed and disposed of in half a dozen prim, poised sentences, evincing, I must say in justice, no inconsiderable information, and a mighty solemn turn of mind. The oddity was, that the subjects so selected and treated should not come rather from some young barrister, or mature political economist, than from so gorgeous a lily of the field.”
But to all these preeminent advantages of early education and training there must be added the invaluable opportunities of enlarged and extended legislative experience in the House of Commons. If we examine the antecedents of some of the most prominent men now in the House of Lords, we shall discover abundant evidence of this fact. Earl Russell was a member of the House of Commons for more than thirty years ; Earl Derby, more than twenty-five years; the Earl of Shaftesbury, for about twenty - four years; the Duke of Richmond, the; Earl of Shrewsbury, and the Duke of Rutland, for about the same period. And of the present House of Commons more than fifty members are heirs apparent or presumptive to existing peerages.
And then there is the further circumstance that seats in the House of Lords are for life. Members of this body do not stand in fear of removal by the votes of disappointed or indignant constituents. Entirely independent of public opinion, they can defy the disapprobation of the masses, and smile at the denunciation of the press. Undoubtedly, this fact has a twofold bearing, and deprives the peers of that strong incentive to active exertion and industrious legislation which the House of Commons, looking directly to the people for support and continuance, always possesses. Yet the advantages in point of prolonged experience and ever increasing familiarity with the details of public business arc unquestionable.
As a matter of course, there are many noblemen upon whom these rare facilities of education and this admirable training for public life would seem to have been wasted. As Americans, we must be pardoned for expressing our belief in the venerable doctrine that there is no royal road to learning. If a peer of the realm is determined to be a dunce, nothing in the English Constitution prevents him from being a dunce, and “ not all the blood of all the Howards” can make him a scholar or a statesman. If, resting securely in the conviction that a nobleman does not need to be instructed, he will not condescend to study, and does not avail himself of his most enviable advantages, whatever may be his social rank, his ignorance and incapacity cannot be disguised, but will even become more odious and culpable in the view of impartial criticism by reason of his conspicuous position and his neglect of these very advantages.
But frequent as these instances are, it will not be for a moment supposed that the whole peerage would justly fall under such censure. Nor will it be thought surprising that the House of Lords contains a considerable number of men of sterling ability, statesmen of broad and comprehensive views, accustomed to deal with important questions of public interest and national policy with calm, deliberate judgment, and far-reaching sagacity. Hampered as they certainly are by a traditional conservatism often as much at variance with sound political philosophy as it is with the lessons of all history, and characterized as their attitude towards foreign nations always has been by a singular want of all generosity, still it must be confessed that their steady and Unwavering adherence to a line of conduct which has made England feared and her power respected by every country in the world has a certain element of dignity and manly self-reliance which compels our admiration. And while they have been of late; so frequently outwitted by the flexible, if not tortuous, policy of Louis Napoleon, it yet remains to be seen whether the firm and unyielding course of the English Ministry will not in the end prove quite as successful as the more Machiavellian management of the French Emperor.
I hardly know how to describe accurately the impression made upon the mind of an American by his first visit to the House of Lords. What memories haunt him of the Norman Conquest and the Crusades, of Magna Charta and the KingMaker, of noblemen who suffered with Charles I. and supped with Charles II., and of noblemen still later whose family-pride looked down upon the House of Hanover, and whose banded political power and freely lavished wealth checked the brilliant career of Napoleon, and maintained the supremacy of England on sea and land !
Enter, then, the House of Lords with these stirring memories, and confess frankly to a feeling of disappointment. Here are seated a few well-behaved gentlemen of all ages, often carelessly dressed, and almost invariably in English morning-costume. They are sleepily discussing some uninteresting question, and you are disposed to retire in view of the more powerful attractions of Drury Lane or the Haymarket, or the chance of something better worth hearing in the House of Commons. Take my advice, and wait until the adjournment. It will not be long, and by leaving now you may lose an important debate and the sight of some men whose fame is bounded only by the limits of Christendom. Even now there is a slight stir in the House. A nobleman has entered whose movements you will do well to follow. He takes his place just at the left of the LordChancellor, but remains seated only for a moment. If you are familiar with the pencil of Punch, you will recognize him at a glance. A thin, wiry, yet muscular frame, a singularly marked and expressive face and mobile features, a nose that defies description, a high cravat like a poultice covered with a black silk bandage, clothes that seem to have been made for a much larger man, and always a pair of old-fashioned checked trousers,— of course, this can only be Lord Brougham. He is eighty-five years old, and yet his physical activity would do no injustice to a man in the prime of life. If you watch him a few moments, you will have abundant evidence of Lis restless energy. While we look, he has crossed to the opposite side of the House, and is enjoying a hearty laugh with the Bishop of Oxford. The round, full face of “ Slippery Sam” (as he is disrespectfully called throughout England) is beaming with appreciative delight; but before the Bishop has time to reply, the titled humorist is on the wing again, and in an instant we see him seated between Earl Granville and the Duke of Somerset, conversing with all the vivacity and enthusiasm of a school-boy. In a moment he is in motion again, and has shaken hands with half a dozen peers. Undeterred by the supernaturally solemn countenance of the Marquis of Normanby, he has actually addressed a joke to that dignified fossil, and has passed on without waiting to observe its effect. A few words with Earl Derby, a little animated talk with the Earl of Ellenborough, and he has made the circuit of the House, everywhere received with a welcoming smile and a kindly grasp of the hand, and everywhere finding willing and gratified listeners. Possibly that is pardoned to his age and eminence which would be resented as impertinence in a younger man, but certainly he enjoys a license accorded to no one else in this aristocratic assembly.
The dull debate of the past hour is now concluded, the House is thin, and there are indications of immediate adjournment. Remain a little longer, however, and your patience may possibly be richly rewarded. There is no order in the discussion of topics, and at any moment while the House continues in session there may spring up a debate calling out all the ability of the leading peers in attendance. After a short pause the quiet is broken by an aged nobleman on the opposition benches. He rises slowly and feebly with the assistance of a cane, but his voice is firm and his manner is forcible. That he is a man of mark is evident from the significant silence and the deferential attention with which his first words are received. You ask his name, and with ill-disguised amazement at your ignorance a gentleman by your side informs you that the speaker is Lord Lyndhurst.
Perhaps the life of no public man in England has so much of interest to an American as that of this distinguished nobleman. Born in Boston while we were still in a condition of colonial dependence, he has lived to see his native land emerge from her state of vassalage, pass through a long-protracted struggle for liberty with the most powerful nation on earth, successfully maintain her right to be free and independent, advance with giant strides in a career of unexampled prosperity, assume an undisputed position as one of the great powers of Christendom, and finally put forth the most gigantic efforts to crush a rebellion compared with which the conspiracy of Catiline was but the impotent uprising of an angry dwarf.
Lord Lyndhurst was called to the bar of England in 1804. It was before the splendid forensic successes of Erskine had been rewarded by a seat on the wool-sack, or Wellington had completed his brilliant and decisive campaign in India, or the military glory of Napoleon had culminated at Austerlitz, or Pitt, turning sadly from the map of Europe and saying, “ Henceforth we may close that map for half a century,” had gone broken-hearted to an early grave, or Nelson had defeated the combined navies of France and Spain at Trafalgar. Lord Byron had not yet entered Cambridge University, Sir Walter Scott had not published his first poem, and Canova was still in the height of his well-earned fame. It was before the first steamboat of Robert Fulton had vexed the quiet waters of the Hudson, or Aaron Burr had failed in his attempted treason, or Daniel Webster had entered upon his professional career, or Thomas Jefferson had completed his first official term as President of the United States.
Lord Lyndhurst’s advancement to the highest honors of his profession and to a commanding place in the councils of his adopted country was rapid almost beyond precedent. He was appointed SolicitorGeneral in 1819, Attorney-General in 1823, Master of the Rolls in 1826, and Lord-Chancellor in 1827. He remained in this office until 1830, and retired only to be created Lord-Chief-Baron of the Exchequer. In 1835 he was again appointed Lord-Chancellor, and once more, for the third time, in 1841.
The characteristic qualities of the oratory of Lord Lyndhurst, when in his prime, were perfect coolness and self-possession, a most pleasing and plausible manner, singular ingenuity in dealing with a difficult question or in weakening the effect of an argument really unanswerable, a clear and musical voice, great ease and felicity of expression, and a wonderful command, always discreetly used, of all the weapons of irony and invective. He is, perhaps, the only nobleman in the House of Lords whom Lord Brougham has ever feared to encounter. All these elements of successful oratory Lord Lyndhurst has retained to an extraordinary degree until within a year or two.
I chanced to hear this remarkable man during an evening in the month of July, 1859. The House of Lords was thinly attended. There had been a short and uninteresting debate on “ The AtlanticTelegraph Bill,” and an early adjournment seemed certain. But at this juncture Lord Lyndhurst rose, and, after adverting to the fact that he had previously given notice of his design to draw their lordships’ attention to the military and naval defences of the country, proceeded to address the House upon this question. It should be borne in mind that this was a period of great and engrossing excitement in England, created by the supposed danger of invasion by France. Volunteer rifle-companies were springing up all over the kingdom, newspapers were filled with discussions concerning the sufficiency of the national defences, and speculations on the chances for and against such an armed invasion. There was, meanwhile, a strong peace-party which earnestly deprecated all agitation of the subject, maintained that the sentiments of the French Emperor and the French nation were most friendly to England, and contended that to incur largely increased expenses for additional war-preparations was unnecessary, impolitic, and ruinously extravagant. At the head of this party were Cobden and Bright.
It was to answer these arguments, to convince England that there was a real and positive peril, and to urge upon Her Majesty’s Government the paramount importance of preparing to meet not only a possible, but a probable danger, that Lord Lyndhurst addressed the House of Lords. He began by impressing upon their lordships the fact that the policy which he advocated was not aggressive, but strictly defensive. He reviewed the history of previous attempts to invade England. He pointed out the significant circumstance, that these attempts had hitherto failed mainly by reason of the casualties to which sailing-vessels were always exposed. He pressed upon their attention the change which steam-navigation had recently wrought in naval warfare. He quoted the pithy remark of Lord Palmerston, that “ steam had converted the Channel into a river, and thrown a bridge across it.”
He demonstrated from recent history the facility with which France could transport large forces by sea to distant points. Then, in tones tremulous with emotion, he drew upon the resources of his own marvellous memory. “ I have experienced, my lords, something like a sentiment of humiliation in going through these details. I recollect the day when every part of the opposite coast was blockaded by an English fleet. I remember the victory of Camperdown, and that of St. Vincent, won by Sir J. Jervis. I do not forget the great victory of the Nile, nor, last of all, that triumphant fight at Trafalgar, which almost annihilated the navies of Franee and Spain. I contrast the position which we occupied at that period with that which we now hold. I recollect the expulsion of the French from Egypt, the achievement of victory after victory in Spain, the British army established in the South of France, and then the great battle by which that war was terminated. I cannot glance back over that series of events without feeling some degree of humiliation when I am called upon to state in this House the measures which I deem it to be necessary to take in order to provide for the safety of the country.”
Then pausing a moment and overcoming his evident emotion, he continued, with a force of manner and dignity of bearing which no words can fitly describe, — “ But I may be asked, ‘ Why do yon think such measures requisite ? Are we not in alliance with France ? Are we not on terms of friendship with Russia? What other power can molest us ? ’ To these questions, my lords, my answer shall be a short and simple one. I will not consent to live in dependence on the friendship or forbearance of any country. I rely solely on my own vigor, my own exertion, and my own intelligence.” It will be readily believed that cheer after cheer rang through the House when this bold and manly announcement was made.
Then, after alluding to the immense armament by sea and land which France had hurled with such incredible rapidity upon the Austrian Empire during the recent war in Italy, he concluded by saying,— “ Are we to sit supine on our own shores, and not to prepare the means necessary in case of war to resist that power? I do not wish to say that we should do this for any aggressive purpose. What I insist upon is, that we are bound to make every effort necessary for our own shelter and protection. Beside this, the question of expense and of money sinks into insignificance. It is the price we must pay for our insurance, and it is but a moderate price for so important an insurance. I know there are persons who will say, 'Let us run the risk.' Be it so. But, my lords, if the calamity should come, if the conflagration should take place, what words can describe the extent of the calamity, or what imagination can paint the overwhelming ruin that would fall upon us ? I shall be told, perhaps, that these are the timid counsels of old age. My lords, for myself, I should run no risk. Personally I have nothing to fear. But to point out possible peril and how to guard effectively against it, — that is surely to be considered not as timidity, but as the dictate of wisdom and prudence. I have confined myself to facts that cannot be disputed. I think I have confined myself to inferences that no man can successfully contravene. I hope what I have said has been in accordance with your feelings and opinions. I shall terminate what I have to say in two emphatic words, ' Væ victts! ’—words of solemn and most significant import.”
So spoke the Nestor of the English nation. Has our country no lesson to learn from the well-considered words of this aged and accomplished statesman ? Are we not paying a large insurance to secure permanent national prosperity? And is it not a wise and profitable investment, at any cost of blood and treasure, if it promises the supremacy of our Constitution, the integrity of our Union, and the impartial enforcement of our laws ?
When it is remembered that Lord Lyndhurst was at this time in his eightyeighth year, this speech of nearly an hour in length, giving no evidence from first to last of physical debility or mental decay, delivered in a firm, clear, and unfaltering voice, admirable for its logical arrangement, most forcible and telling in its treatment of the subject, and irresistible in its conclusions, must be considered as hardly finding a parallel in ancient or modern times. We might almost call it his valedictory ; for his lordship’s subsequent speeches have been infrequent, and, with, we believe, a single exception, short, and he is now rarely, if ever, seen in the House of Lords.
I shall not dwell upon the speeches that followed this earnest and eloquent appeal to the wisdom and patriotism of the listening peers. They were mainly confined to grateful recognition of the service which Lord Lyndhurst had rendered to the nation by his frank and fearless avowal of those principles which alone could preserve the honor and independence of England. The opposition urged the most vigorous preparations for resisting invasion, while Her Majesty’s ministers disclaimed any intention of weakening or neglecting the national defences. As the speeches, however, exhibited little worthy of mention beyond the presentation of these points, I have supposed that a more general description of some of the leading members of the Upper House would be more interesting to my readers than a detailed account of what was said upon this particular occasion.
I have already alluded to the personal appearance and bearing of Lord Brougham. By reason of his great age, his long Parliamentary experience, (he has been in the House of Commons and House of Lords for nearly fifty years,) his habit, of frequent speaking, and the commanding ability of many of his public efforts, his name as an orator is perhaps more widely known, and his peculiar style of declamation more correctly appreciated, than those of any other man now living. It would therefore seem unnecessary to give any sketch of his oratory, or of his manner in debate. Very few educated men in this country are unfamiliar with his eloquent defence of Queen Caroline, or his most bitter attack upon Mr. Canning, or his brilliant argument for Mr. Williams when prosecuted by the Durham clergy. Lord Brougham retains to this day the same fearless contempt of all opposition, the same extravagant and often inconsistent animosity to every phase of conservative policy, and the same fiery zeal in advocating every measure which he has espoused, that have ever characterized his erratic career. The witty author of “ The Bachelor of the Albany " has tersely, and not without a certain spice of truth, described him as “a man of brilliant incapacity, vast and various misinformation, and immense moral requirements.”
The Duke of Argyle deserves more than a passing mention. Although comparatively a young man, he has already had a most creditable career, and given new lustre to an old and honored name. In politics he is a decided and consistent Liberal, and he merits the favorable consideration of all loyal Americans from the fact that he has not failed on every proper occasion to advocate our cause with such arguments as show clearly that he fully understands our position and appreciates the importance of the principles for which we are contending. It is a curious coincidence, that his style of address bears a close resemblance to what may be called the American manner. Rapid, but distinct, in utterance, facile and fluent in speech, natural and graceful in gesticulation, he might almost be transplanted to the halls of Congress at Washington without betraying his foreign birth and education.
Lord Derby is undoubtedly the most skilful Parliamentary tactician and the most accomplished speaker in the House of Lords. In 1834, (when he was a member of the House of Commons,) Macaulay said of him, that “ his knowledge of the science of parliamentary defence resembled an instinct.” He is the acknowledged leader of the Tories or Conservatives in England, and dictates the policy of his party with absolute despotism. Belonging to one of the oldest peerages in the kingdom, having already filled some of the most important offices in Her Majesty’s Government, occupying the highly honorable position of Chancellor of the University of Oxford, (as successor of the first Duke of Wellington,) an exact and finished scholar, enjoying an immense income, and the proprietor of vast landed estates, he may be justly considered one of the best types of England’s aristocracy. He has that unmistakable air of authority without the least alloy of arrogance, that “ pride, in his port,” which quietly asserts the dignity of long descent. As a speaker, his manner is impressive and forcible, with a rare command of choice language, an accurate and comprehensive knowledge of all subjects connected with the administration of public affairs, and that entire self-control which comes from life-long contact on terms of equality with the best society in Europe and a thorough confidence in his own mental resources. Lord Derby is preeminently a Parliamentary orator, and furnishes one of the unusual instances where a reputation for eloquence earned in the House of Commons lias been fully sustained by a successful trial in the House of Lords.
Another debater of marked ability in this body is Dr. Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford. He is the third son of William Wilberforce, the celebrated philanthropist, but by no means inherits the simplicity of character and singular absence of all personal ambition which made his father so widely beloved and respected. He is known as tlie leading exponent of High-Church views, and has been heard in the House of Lords on every question directly or indirectly affecting the interests of the Establishment. It was long ago said of him, that, had he been in political life, he would surely and easily have risen to the position of Premier. He has for years been charged with a marked proclivity to the doctrines of the Puseyites; and his adroitness in baffling all attempted investigation into the manner in which he has conducted the discipline of his diocese has perhaps contributed more than any other cause to fasten upon him the significant sobriquet to which I have already alluded.
Any sketch of the prominent members of the House of Lords would be imperfect which should omit to give some account of Lord Westbury, the present Lord-High-Chancellor. Having been Solicitor-General in two successive Administrations, he was filling for the second time the position of Attorney-General, when, upon the death of Lord Campbell, he was raised to the wool-sack. As a Chancery practitioner he was for years at the head of his profession, and is supposed to have received the largest income ever enjoyed by an English barrister. During the four years next preceding his elevation to the peerage his average annual earnings at the bar were twenty thousand pounds. In the summer of 1860 it was my good fortune to hear the argument of Lord Westbury (then Sir Richard Bethell) in a case of great interest and importance, before Vice-Chancellor Wood. The point at issue involved the construction of a marriage-settlement between the Earl of Shrewsbury and the Prince Borghese of Rome, drawn up on the occasion of the marriage of the Prince with Lady Talbot, second daughter of the Earl. The interpretation of the terms of the contract was by express stipulation to be in accordance with the Roman common law. A commission sent to Rome to ascertain the meaning of certain provisions contained in the contract resulted in several folio volumes, embodying “ the conflicting opinions of the most eminent Roman lawyers,” supported by references to the Canonists, the decisions of the "Sacred Rota,” the great text-writers upon jurisprudence, the Institutes and Pandects, and ascending still higher to the laws of the Roman Republic. and the Augustan era.
The leading counsel in the kingdom were retained in the case, and unusual public interest was enlisted. The amount at stake was twenty thousand pounds, and it was estimated that nearly, if not quite, that amount had already been consumed in costs. Legal proceedings are not an inexpensive luxury anywhere; but “ the fat contention and the flowing fee ” have a significance to English ears which we can hardly appreciate in this country.
It will be at once apparent even to the unprofessional reader that most difficult and complicated questions were presented by this case, — questions turning on the exact interpretation of contracts, involving delicate verbal distinctions, and demanding a thorough comprehension of an immense and unwieldy mass of Roman law embraced in the dissenting dicta of Roman lawyers. It required the exercise of the very highest legal ability, trained and habituated by long and patient discipline to grapple with great issues.
The argument of Sir Richard Bethell abundantly demonstrated his capacity to satisfy the demands of the occasion, and displayed most triumphantly his perfect mastery of the whole subject. As the time drew near when he was expected to close for the defence, barristers and students - at - law began to flock into the small and inconveniently arranged courtroom. A stranger and a foreigner could not but see at onee that the AttorneyGeneral was the cynosure of all eyes. And, indeed, no one in the room more thoroughly appreciated the fact that he was the central and controlling attraction than Sir Richard himself. I must be pardoned for using an English slangphrase, but I can convey the impression which he inevitably makes upon a spectator in no other way than by saying that he is “ a most magnificent swell.” And I do this with the more confidence as I have heard him characterized in precisely these words by members of the English bar. Every motion, every attitude, indicates an intense self-consciousness. The Earl of Chatham had not a greater passion for theatrical effect, nor has a more consummate and finished actor ever graced the stage. If the performance had been less perfect, it would have been ludicrous in the extreme ; for it did not overlook the minutest details. He could not examine his brief, or make a suggestion to one of his associates, or note an important point in the argument of opposing counsel, or listen to an intimation of opinion from the Bench, without an obvious eye to dramatic propriety. During the trial, an attorney's clerk handed him a letter, and the air with which it was opened, read, and answered was of itself a study. Yet it was all in the highest style of the art. No possible fault could he found with the execution. Not a single spectator ventured to smile. The supremacy of undoubted genius was never more apparent, and never exacted nor received more willing worship. Through the kindness of a friendly barrister I was introduced to one of the juniors of the Attorney-General,—a stripling of about fifty years of age. While we were conversing about the case, Sir Richard turned and made some comment upon the conduct of the trial; but my friend would no more have thought of introducing me to the leader of the bar than he would have ventured to stop the carriage of the Queen in Hyde Park and present me then and there to Her Majesty.
I remember as well as if it were but yesterday how attorneys and junior counsel listened with the utmost deference to every suggestion which he condescended to address to them, how narrowly the law-students watched him, as if some legal principle were to be read in his cold, hard countenance, and, as he at last rose slowly and solemnly to make his longexpected argument, how court, bar, and by-standers composed themselves to hear, He spoke with great deliberation and distinctness, with singular precision and propriety of language, without any parade of rhetoric or attempt at eloquence. After a very short and appropriate exordium, he proceeded directly to the merits of the case. His words were wellweighed, and his manner was earnest and impressive. It was, in short, the perfection of reason confidently addressed to a competent tribunal.
And yet his manner was by no means that of a man seeking to persuade a superior, but rather that of one comparing opinions with an equal, if not an inferior mind, elevated by some accident to a position of factitious importance. One could not but feel that here was a power behind the throne greater than the throne itself.
It cannot be doubted that this consciousness of mental and professional preeminence, sustained by the unanimous verdict of public opinion, has given to Lord Wostbury a defiant, if not an insolent bearing. The story is current at the English bar, that, some years ago, when offered a seat on the Bench, with a salary of five thousand pounds, he promptly declined, saying, “ I would rather earn ten thousand pounds a year by talking sense than five thousand pounds a year by hearing other men talk nonsense.” Anecdotes are frequent in illustration of his ^supercilious treatment of attorneys and clients while he was a barrister. And since his elevation to the wool-sack there has been no abatement or modification of his offensive manner. His demeanor toward counsel appearing before him has been tlic subject of constant and indignant complaint. It will be remembered by some of my readers, that, not long since, during a session of the House of Lords, he gave the lie direct to one of the peers, — an occurrence almost without precedent in that decorous body. Far different from this was the tone in which Lord Thurlow, while Lord-Chancellor, asserted his independence and vindicated his title to respect in his memorable rebuke addressed to the Duke of Grafton. If the testimony of English travellers in this country is to be believed, the legislative assemblies of our own land have hitherto enjoyed the unenviable monopoly of this species of retort.
The House of Lords contains other peers of marked ability and protracted Parliamentary experience, among whom are Earl Granville, the Earl of EUenborough, the Duke of Somerset, and the Earl of Shaftesbury; but we cannot dwell in detail upon their individual characteristics as speakers, or upon the share they have severally taken in the public councils, without extending this article beyond its legitimate limits.
As genius is not necessarily or usually transmitted from generation to generation, while a seat in the House of Lords is an inheritable privilege, it will be readily believed that there is a considerable number of peers with no natural or acquired fitness for legislative duties, — men whose dulness in debate, and whose utter incapacity to comprehend any question of public interest or importance, cannot be adequately described. They speak occasionally, from a certain ill-defined sense of what may be due to their position, yet are obviously aware that what they say is entitled to no weight, and are greatly relieved when the unwelcome and disagreeable duty has been discharged. They are the men who hesitate and stammer, whose hats and canes are always in their way, and who have no very clear notions about what should be done with their hands. A visitor who chances to spend an evening in the House of Lords for the first and last time, while noblemen of this stamp are quieting their tender consciences by a statement of their views upon the subject under discussion, will be sure to retire with a very unfavorable and wholly incorrect estimate of the speaking talent of English peers.
It would hardly seem necessary to devote time or space to those members of the House of Lords who are rarely, if ever, present at the debates. As has been already stated, the whole number of peers is about four hundred and sixty, of whom less than twenty-five are minors, while the average attendance is less than fifty. The right to vote by proxy is a peculiar and exclusive privilege of the Upper House, and vicarious voting to a great extent is common on all important issues. Macaulay, many years ago, pronounced the House of Lords " a small and torpid audience”; and certainly, since the expression of this opinion, there has been no increase of average attendance. A considerable proportion of the absentees will be found among the “ first noblemen ” of the kingdom,—the men who prostitute their exalted social position to the basest purposes, squandering their substance and wasting their time in degrading dissipation, the easy prey of accomplished sharpers, and a burning disgrace to their order. Sometimes, indeed, they pause on the brink of utter ruin, only to become in their turn apostles of iniquity, and to lure others to a like destruction. The unblushing and successful audacity ot these titled roues is beginning to attract the attention and awaken the fears of the better part of the English people. Their pernicious example is bearing most abundant and bitter fruit in the depraved morals of what are called the “ lower classes ” of society, and their misdeeds are repeated in less fashionable quarters, with less brilliant surroundings. Against this swelling tide of corrupting influence the press of England is now raising its warning voice, and the statements which are publicly and unreservedly made, and the predictions which are confidently given, are very far from being welcome to English eyes or grateful to English ears.
Another class of the House of Lords, and it is a large one, is most happily characterized by Sydney Smith in his review of “ Granby.” “ Lord Chesterton we have often met with, and suffered a good deal from his lordship : a heavy, pompous, meddling peer, occupying a great share of the conversation, saying things in ten words which required only two, and evidently convinced that he is making a great impression; a large man, with a large head, and a very landed manner; knowing enough to torment his fellow-creatures, not to instruct them; the ridicule of young ladies, and the: natural butt and target of wit. It is easy to talk of carnivorous animals and beasts of prey; but does such a man, who lays waste a whole civilized party of beings by prosing, reflect upon the joy he spoils and the misery he creates in the course of his life, and that any one who listens to him through politeness would prefer toothache or ear-ache to his conversation? Does he consider the great uneasiness which ensues, when the company has discovered a man to be an extremely absurd person, at the same time that it is absolutely impossible to convey by words or manner the most distant suspicion of the discovery ? ”
Now, most unfortunately, the noble House of Chesterton is still extant, and its numerous representatives cherish with jealous care every inherited absurdity of the family. Their favorite field of operations is the House of Lords, partly because the strict proprieties of the place protect them from rude and inconvenient interruption, and partly because they can be sure of a “fit audience found, though few,” —an audience of equals, whom it is no condescension to address. In the House of Commons they would be coughed down or groaned down before they had wasted ten minutes of the public time, and that they escape as swift suppression in the House of Lords is much more creditable to the courtesy of that body than to its just appreciation of the shortness of human life. There is rarely a debate of importance in the House of Lords during which some one of the Chesterton family does not contribute his morsel of pompous imbecility, or unfold his budget of obsolete and exploded prejudices, or add his mite of curious misinformation. That such painful exhibitions of callow and contracted bigotry should so frequently be made in a body claiming for itself the finest culture and the highest civilization in Christendom is certainly a most mortifying circumstance, and serves to show that narrow views and unstatesmanlike opinions are not confined to democratic deliberative assemblies, and that the choicest advantages of education, literary and political, are not at all inconsistent with ignorance and arrogance.
But we will allow his lordship to tell his own story. Here is his set speech, only slightly modified from evening to evening, as may be demanded by the difference in the questions under debate.
“ My lords, the noble lord who has just taken his seat, although, I am bound to say, presenting his view of the case with that candor which my noble friend (if the noble lord will allow me to call him so) always displays, yet, my lords, I cannot but add, omitted one important feature of the subject. Now, my lords, I am exceedingly reluctant to take up the time of your lordships with my views upon the subject-matter of this debate ; yet, my lords, as the noble and learned lord who spoke last but one, as well as the noble earl at the head of Her Majesty’s Government, and the noble marquis who addressed your lordships early in the evening, have all fallen into the same mistake, (if these noble lords will permit me to presume that they could be mistaken,) I must beg leave to call your lordships’ attention to the significant fact, that each and all of these noble lords have failed to point out to your lordships, that, important and even conclusive as the arguments and statistics of their lordships may at first sight appear, yet they have not directed your lordships to the very suspicious circumstance that our noble ancestors have never discovered the necessity of resorting to this singular expedient.
“For myself, my lords, I confess that I am filled with the most gloomy forebodings for the future of this country, when I hear a question of this transcendent importance gravely discussed by noble lords without the slightest allusion to this vital consideration. I beg to ask noble lords, Are we wiser than our forefathers ? Are any avenues of information open to us which were closed to them? Were they less patriotic, less intelligent, less statesmanlike, than the present generation ? Why, then, I most earnestly put it to your lordships, should we disregard, or, certainly, lose sight of their wisdom and their experience ? I implore noble lords to pause before it is too late. I solemnly call upon them to consider that the proposed measure is, after all, only democracy under a thin disguise. Has it never occurred to noble lords that this project did not originate in this House? that its warmest friends and most ardent and persevering advocates are found among those who come from the people, and who, from the very nature of the case, are incompetent to decide upon what will be for the best interests of the kingdom ? My lords, I feel deeply upon this subject, and I must be pardoned for expressing myself in strong terms. I say again, that I see here the clearest evidence of democratic tendencies, a contempt for existing and ancient institutions, and an alarming want of respect for time-honored precedents, which, I am bound to say, demand our prompt and indignant condemnation,” etc., etc., etc.2
This is the regular speech, protracted in the same strain for perhaps half an hour. Of the manner of the noble orator I will not venture a description. Any attempt to convey an idea of the air of omniscience with which these dreary platitudes are delivered would surely result in failure. It is enough to say that the impression which the noble lord leaves upon an unprejudiced and un-English mind is in all respects painful. Indeed, one sees at a glance how absolutely hopeless would be any finite effort to convince him of the absurdity of his positions or the weakness of his understanding. There he stands, a solemn, shallow, conceited, narrow-minded, imperturbable, impracticable, incorrigible blockhead, on whom everything in the shape of argument is utterly wasted, and from whom all the arrows of wit and sarcasm fall harmless to the ground. In fact, he is perfectly proof against any intellectual weapons forged by human skill or wielded by mortal arm, and he awaits and receives every attack with a stolid and insulting indifference which must be maddening to an opponent.
I hasten to confess my entire incapacity to describe the uniform personal bearing of a Chesterton in or out of the House of Lords. It is strictly sui generis. It has neither the quiet, unassuming dignity of the Derbys, the Shaftesburys, or the Warwicks, nor the vulgar vanity of the untravelled Cockney. It simply defies accurate delineation. Dickens has attempted to paint the portrait of such a character in “Bleak House”; but Sir Leicester Dedlock, even in the hands of this great artist., is not a success, — merely because, in the case of the Baronet, selfishness and self-importance are only a superficial crust, while with your true Chesterton these attributes penetrate to the core, and are as much a part of the man as any one of his limbs or any feature of his face. A genuine Chesterton is as unlike his stupid caricature in our own theatres in the person of “ Lord Dundreary,” as the John Bull of the French stage, leading a woman by a halter around her neck, and exclaiming, “ G— d—! I will sell my wife at Smithfield,” is unlike the Englishman of real life. Lord Chesterton does not wear a small glass in his right eye, nor commence every other sentence with “ Aw ! weally now.” He does not stare you out of countenance in a café, nor wonder “ what the Devil that fellaw means by his insolence.” So much by way of negative description. To appreciate him positively, one must see him and hear him. No matter when or where you encounter him, you will find him ever the same ; and you will at last conclude that his manners are not unnatural to a very weak man inheriting the traditions of an ancient and titled family, and educated from childhood to believe that he belongs to a superior order of beings.
Of course the strong point of a Chesterton is what he calls his “conservatism.” He values everything in proportion to its antiquity, and prefers a timehonored abuse to a modern blessing. With a former Duke of Somerset, he would pity Adam, “because he had no ancestors.” His sympathies, so far as he has any sentiments which deserve to be dignified by that name, are ever on the side of tyranny. He condescends to give his valuable sanction to the liberal institutions of England, not because they are liberal, but because they are English. Next after the Established Church, the reigning sovereign and the royal family, his own order and his precious self, his warmest admiration is bestowed on some good old-fashioned, thorough-going, grinding despotism. He defends the Emperor of Austria, and considers the King of Naples a muchabused monarch.
If his lordship has ever been in diplomatic life,—an event highly probable,— he becomes the most intolerable nuisance that ever belied the noblest sentiments of civilized society or blocked the wheels of public debate. Flattered by the interested attention of despotic courts, his poor weak head has been completely turned. He has seen everything en couleur de rose. He assures their lordships that he has never known a single well-authenticated ease of oppression of the lower classes, while it is within his personal knowledge that many of the best families (in Italy, for instance) have been compelled to leave all their property behind them, and fly for their lives before an insolent and unreasoning mob. How be deluges the House with distorted facts and garbled statistics! How he warns noble lords against the wiles of Mazzini, the unscrupulous ambition of Victor Emmanuel, and the headlong haste of Garibaldi!
Of course, his lordship’s bitterest hatred and intensest aversion are reserved for democratic institutions. Against these he wages a constant crusade. Armed capà-pie in his common-sense-proof coat of mail, he charges feebly upon them with his blunt lance, works away furiously with his wooden sword, and then ambles off with a triumphant air very ludicrous to behold. Democracy is the bête noir of all the Chestertons. They attack it. not only because they consider it a recent innovation, but also because it threatens the permanence of their order. About the practical working of a republic they have no better information than they have about the institutions of Iceland or the politics of Patagonia. It is quite enough for them to know that the theory of democracy is based on the equality of man, and that where democracy prevails a privileged class is unknown.
It is hardly necessary to add, that the present condition of the United States is a perfect godsend to the whole family of Chestertons. Have they not long predicted our disgrace and downfall? Have they not, indeed, ever since our unjustifiable Declaration of Independence, anticipated precisely what has happened ? Have they not always and everywhere contended that a republic had no elements of national cohesion ? In a word, have they not feared our growing power and population as only such base and ignoble spirits can fear the sure and steady progress of a rival nation ? Unhappily, their influence in the councils of the kingdom is by no means inconsiderable. The prestige of an ancient family, the obsequious deference paid in England to exalted social position, and the power of patronage, all combine to confer on the Chestertons a commanding and controlling authority absurdly out of proportion to their intrinsic ability.
There has been a prevalent notion in this country that England was slowly, but certainly, tending towards a more democratic form of government, and a more equal and equitable distribution of power among the different orders of society. This is very far from being the case. It has been well said, that “ it is always considered a piece of impertinence in England, if a man of less than two or three thousand a year has any opinions at all upon important subjects.” But if this income is quadrupled, and the high honor of a seat in the House of Lords is superadded, it is not difficult to understand that the titled recipient of such a revenue will find that his opinions command the greatest consideration. The organization of the present Cabinet of England is a fresh and conclusive illustration of this principle. It is not too much to say, that at this moment the home and foreign administration of the government is substantially in the hands of the House of Lords. Indeed, the aristocratic element of English society is as powerful to-day as it has been at any time during the past century. To fortify this statement by competent authority, we make an extract from a leader in the London “ Times,” on the occasion of the elevation of Lord John Russell to the peerage. “ But however welcome to the House of Lords may be the accession of Lord John Russell, the House of Commons, we apprehend, will contemplate it with very little satisfaction. While the House of Lords does but one-twentieth part of the business of the House of Commons, it boasts a lion’s share of the present administration. Three out of our five Secretaries of State, the Lord-Chancellor, the First Lord of the Admiralty, the Lord-President of the Council, the Postmaster-General, the Lord Privy Seal, all hold seats in the Upper House, while the Home-Secretary, and the Secretary for India, the First Lord of the Treasury, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the President of the Board of Trade, the President of the Poor-Law Board, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and the Secretary for Ireland hold seats in the House of Commons. Lord John Russell goes to give more to that which had already too much. At the present moment, the two ministers whose united departments distribute between twenty and thirty millions of the national revenue sit in the House which does not represent the people. In voting the army and navy estimates, the House of Commons received this year from the Undersecretaries that information which they ought to have from the best and most authentic sources. To these is now added the all-important department of Foreign, Affairs; so that, if things remain as they are, the representatives of the people must be content to feed on second-hand information..... Most of us can re-
member a time when it was a favorite topic with popular agitators to expatiate on the number of lords which a government contained, as if every peer of Parliament wielded an influence necessarily hostile to the liberties of the country. We look down in the present age with contempt on such vulgar prejudices; but we seem to be running into the contrary extreme, when we allow almost all the important offices of our government to be monopolized by a chamber where there is small scope for rhetorical ability, and the short sittings and unbusiness-like habits of which make it very unsuited for the enforcement of ministerial responsibility. The statesmen who have charge of large departments of expenditure, like the army and navy, and of the highest interests of the nation, ought to be in the House of Commons, — not because a member of the House of Commons is necessarily superior to a member of the House of Lords, but it is to the House of Commons that these high functionaries are principally accountable, and because, if they forfeit the confidence of the House of Commons, the House of Lords can avail them but little. The matter is of much importance and much difficulty. We can only hope that the opportunity of redressing this manifest imperfection in the structure of the present government will not be lost, and that the House of Commons may recover those political privileges which it has hitherto been its pride to enjoy.”
This distribution of power in the English Cabinet furnishes a sufficient solution of the present attitude of the English Government towards this country. The ruling classes of England can have no sincere sympathy with the North, because its institutions and instincts are democratic. They give countenance to the South, because at heart and in practice it is essentially an aristocracy. To remove the dangerous example of a successful and powerful republic, where every man has equal rights, civil and religions, and where a privileged order in Church and State is impossible, has become in the minds of England’s governing classes an imperious necessity. Compared with the importance of securing this result, all other considerations weigh as nothing. Brothers by blood, language, and religion, as they have been accustomed to call us while we were united and formidable, we are now, since civil war has weakened us and great national questions have distracted our councils, treated as aliens, if not as enemies. On the other hand, the South, whose leaders have ever been first to take hostile ground against England, and whose “ peculiar institution ” has drawn upon us the eloquent and unsparing denunciations of English philanthropists, is just now in high favor with the “ mother-country.” Not only has the ill-disguised dislike of the Tories ripened into open animosity, not only are we the target for the shallow scorn of the Chestertons, (even a donkey may dare to kick a dying lion.) but we have lost the once strongly pronounced friendship of such ardent antislavery men as Lord Brougham and the Earl of Shaftesbury. Why is this ? Docs not the explanation lie in a nutshell ? We were becoming too strong. We were disturbing the balance of power. We were demonstrating too plainly the inherent activity and irresistible energy of a purely democratic form of government. Therefore Carthago delenda est. “But yet the pity of it, Iago! ” Mark how a Christian nation deals with a Christian ally. Our destruction is to be accomplished, not by open warfare, but by the delusive and dastardly pretence of neutrality. There is to be no diplomatic recognition of an independent Southern Confederacy, but a formidable navy is to be furnished to our enemies, and their armies arc to be abundantly supplied with the munitions of war. But how? By the English Government ? Oh, no ! This would be in violation of solemn treaties. Earl Russell says, “ We have long maintained relations of peace and amity” with the United States. England cannot officially recognize or aid the South without placing herself in a hostile attitude towards this country. Yet meanwhile English capitalists can publicly subscribe to the loan which our enemies solicit, and from English ship-yards a fleet of iron-clad war-vessels can be sent to lay waste our commerce and break our blockade of Southern ports. What the end will be no one may venture to foretell; but it needs no prophet to predict that many years will not obliterate from the minds of the American people the present policy of the English Cabinet, controlled as it is by the genius of English aristocracy.
- Atlantic Monthly for December, 1861.↩
- If any one of my readers is inclined to suspect that I have drawn upon my imagination for this specimen speech, I will only say, that, if he were my bitterest enemy, I could wish him no more severe punishment than to undergo, as I have done, (horresco referens,) an hour of the Marquis of Normanby, the Earl of Malmesbury, and a few other kindred spirits. If he have no opportunity of subjecting the truth of my statement and the accuracy of my report to this most grievous test, I beg to assure him that I have given no fancy sketch, but that I have heard speeches from these noblemen in precisely this tone and to exactly this effect.↩