The Last State of English Whiggery

THE Early History of Charles James Fox,1 by Mr. Trevelyan, is a disappointment. Those who hoped for good biography are disappointed because there is really little about Fox in the book, which is mostly given up to a sketch of a society which is tolerably familiar to the reading public; while as an historical essay it is commonplace to the last degree.

Moreover, the patience of an American reader is somewhat tried by that obtrusive worship of Parliament in which Englishmen of the type of Mr. Trevelyan delight. Doubtless, Parliament is, and has been, one of the most striking and important institutions in the world ; but nevertheless its history is not the history of human civilization, nor even of the British empire, and there are other matters quite as well worth attention as parliamentary divisions and debates. To know what took place in the Commons is very well, but it is not well for an author to have his mental horizon bounded by the gossip of Westminster. In a word, Mr. Trevelyan is an old-fashioned, conventional whig, crammed with whig opinions and prejudices, and fully convinced that the traditions of his party are authentic and philosophical history. Indeed, his faith in the old dogmas is sometimes almost comical. He is firmly persuaded that English liberty was put in dire peril by the machinations of George III. and the party of the “ king’s friends.” There is something curious in the mental condition of a man who at so great a distance of time can take so distorted a view of past events.

When Strafford held power, when the Star Chamber flourished, and when Eliot was imprisoned, liberty did indeed tremble in the balance. When, at a later time, the charter of London was declared forfeited by the courts, when Scroggs and Jeffries sat upon the bench, and when the bishops were sent to the Tower, the free constitution was attacked, though the enemy fled without a blow at the first onset of the people. But these evil days were long past when George III. was crowned. However firmly he may have believed in divine right, or however arbitrary his temper, he could no more have governed against a majority in the Commons than he could have held London single-handed against the mob. He could, indeed, use the royal patronage to influence votes in Parliament, but had the whig party been united in resistance, or had the body of the nation been seriously alarmed, it would have been simple work not only to have

checked the king but to have reformed the system of representation. In point of fact, however, the whig party was not in earnest. They had no wish to abolish sinecures or pensions, or to secure a fair representation of the people. On the contrary, their object was to divide the spoil and to control the boroughs. No whig ever objected to the corruption of Walpole or of Newcastle, when corruption benefited whigs. But they declaimed against the king for organizing a corrupt party to drive them from office, in the same way they used money and influence to keep in power. It seems strange, after the lapse of a century, for a writer of reputation to maintain gravely that the liberty of the English people was seriously menaced by a man like Lord Bute, who did not dare to face a stormy debate, or by a parliamentary majority that was ignominiously routed by the mayor and aldermen of London. Yet to Mr. Trevelyan the squabbles between the king and the whig factions, and between the House of Commons and Wilkes, have all the dignity and interest of the grand remonstrance, or the stamp act. To the general public, however, who do not belong to the whig communion, the parliamentary history of the early years of George III. is lacking in interest. There was no principle at issue on which men divided. The contest between the crown and the people was ended. That struggle had torn the nation for more than a century. But the party of divine right that was shattered at Naseby had its death-blow at Culloden, and from that day onward no man had doubted or disputed the triumph of the principles of the Revolution of 1688, or the predominance of Parliament in England. But although the wrangles at Westminster during these years are rather dreary reading for us now, they were years which, in another point of view, are full of deep interest; for it was during them that the world was preparing for those tremendous revolutions which were so soon to sweep away the old social system, and establish that which now exists. It was indeed time that the existing order of things should perish, and the statesmen of that day must be judged by their appreciation of the awful crisis in which they lived. The first object of government being to keep order, it is obvious that the making and execution of laws must be in the hands of the strongest power in the nation, or there will be anarchy. What the strongest power is at any particular time is a matter of fact that can only be settled by an appeal to force : in feudal times it was the nobility, in periods of centralization it is the crown, in an age of popular intelligence it is generally the people. It is the shifting of power from class to class, and the effort of the new force to assert itself, that causes revolutions. Thus in the last century the power had passed from the few to the many, the centre of social gravity had shifted, the whole social fabric was rotten, and was doomed to fall with a crash, because the feeble were in authority, and the weak cannot control the strong.

Privilege was the basis of mediæval society ; free competition is the foundation of modern. The Reformation was a struggle for individual freedom of thought; the principle at stake in both the American and the French revolution was the right of individual freedom of action. In the last century the system of privilege, which was an inheritance from the Middle Ages, still flourished; that system was antagonistic to modern civilization, and had to be destroyed, and the reason why it was antagonistic is sufficiently plain. In barbarous ages, when the central authority was weak, men had to look elsewhere for defense. The peasant looked to his lord for protection, and ho paid for this protection in services. He was necessarily hardly more than a chattel that passed with the land. So as towns grew, the burghers could only protect themselves and obtain the means of carrying on trade by organizing into a society or guild, and buying from their lord the right to tax themselves, to hold fairs and markets, to elect a mayor, in a word, to do anything else. In this way towns became corporations, whose membership, as time went on, tended to become hereditary and exclusive. Thus it came to pass that men did not vote for members of Parliament as men, but because they belonged to a corporate body that had the right, among other privileges, of returning a member to the House of Commons; so voting, like everything else, became a monopoly. The position of the mechanic or the trader was the same. There was a time when all the men following a craft were forced to form a guild, in order to secure for themselves the immunities and the protection without which they could not carry on their trade. In the beginning, of course, these guilds were popular bodies, and included all the craftsmen in each town ; but as it was clearly impossible for the guild to regulate the trade without it could control the tradesmen, one of the first privileges generally obtained by the craft guilds was to prevent any man from exercising a craft unless he was a guild member; and thus guild membership became a valuable privilege, to the hereditary and exclusive, and trades grew to be monopolies.

Foreign commerce fell beneath the same general influence. In early times an English merchant trading in Flanders, or a German merchant trading in England, was in almost as much danger as a European is now who has a factory in Arabia or the wilds of Africa. The only resource was for all the Englishmen who traded in any particular country — in Flanders, for example — to form a company for mutual protection. Together they were able to buy permission to establish fortified houses in foreign cities for the safe-keeping of their goods, to obtain the right of choosing officers whose duty should be to attend to their interests, and of holding courts in which they could obtain a fair hearing for their causes. In this way the great trading companies grew up, of which the most famous was the East India Company. They, too, were monopolies, and their members were privileged. With the progress of civilization, however, and the improvements in police, these bodies, which were once necessary to protect the life of commerce, became intolerable fetters on its growth. And although the strictness of these ancient usages was continually relaxing with the passage of time, yet men were still hampered at every turn: the peasant could not farm his land, the mechanic could not practice his craft, the merchant could not carry on his trade, without constant interference from antiquated customs or laws, or from paternal governments, as antiquated as the laws themselves.

People were willing to submit to feudal dues when their safety depended on a warlike baron, who was able and willing to fight all comers ; or to put up with the exactions of guilds and trading companies, which stood up for their rights against domestic or foreign enemies, and in whose courts they could obtain justice for their wrongs. But it was quite another thing to pay hardearned gains to fellow-subjects, whose duties toward them were confined to standing by and taking away their property. The whole intellectual movement of the age was a rebellion against this injustice. The principles of political economy were beginning to be understood, the many demanded that all should have an equal chance, and the great doctrine of modern times was being preached, — that all men have an equal right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or, in other words, to make the most of themselves in free competition. The practical question, however, still remained to be settled, whether power had passed to the many, or still rested with the few. In England, it is true, this movement had comparatively little force, because the English, in their isolated position, and with their impatience of restraint, had worked themselves tolerably free at a somewhat early period ; but restraints which Englishmen would by no means tolerate themselves they were quite ready to impose on others. The English revolution was fought out in America.

The position of the American colonists was as different from that of the common people of Europe as it well could be, yet the principle upon which they rebelled against the mother country was the same that underlay the French Revolution. They had always managed their own affairs, they had fought their own wars, they had made their laws, they had imposed their own taxes, and they would not submit to be interfered with. They would not admit the principle that the English had the right to impose burdens on them for the benefit of England. They contended that their hands should be free to make the most of themselves and their country, without paying toll to any one. And to the successful establishment in the A merican Revolution of this great social principle of individual freedom of action we owe, more than to any other thing, not only the greatness and the prosperity of this nation, but the greatness and prosperity of all English colonies.

The French Revolution, on the contrary, was not a popular rising in defense of the existing order of things; it was a crusade against it. The principle at bottom was the same in France as in America, but the manner in which it was asserted there was offensive, not defensive, as it was here. The French Revolution was not the rising of the scum of society against property ; it was not a rebellion against despotism; it was the movement of the mass of the people. The men who wanted a day’s pay for a day’s work, and could not get it; the men who asked to be allowed to earn their living by selling their labor in the open market, and found the market closed; the men who demanded a fair field and no favor in the race of life, were the men who crushed the ancient monarchies of Europe like egg-shells, and who made the modern world a fact.

The violence and cruelty of the French Revolution may be a subject for regret, but no one now can doubt that it has wrought unmixed good to mankind. Since the commotion that attended the outbreak has subsided, and society has settled itself firmly on its new foundation, the properity of the civilized world has been something that has surpassed the wildest dreams of former times. It would not be hazarding much to assert that the increase of wealth in Europe and America has been greater during the last eighty years than during the seven preceding centuries. The main reason for this prosperity is the earnest desire which every man feels to better his condition.

No obstacles now stand in his way, all paths are open to him, the money he earns is his own, and the only limit to his success is his own capacity ; and it is precisely in those nations in which these social conditions have been longest and most thoroughly established that the material prosperity has been greatest and most rapid.

The French aristocracy perished, and rightly perished, because they were cumberers of the earth and did no useful work whatever. They had neither courage nor sagacity. They knew neither when to yield nor when to fight. They were simply dawdlers at the court and oppressors of the people. The glory and the strength of the English aristocracy have been its great statesmen, — men who could understand and grapple with a political convulsion, and who could both lead the people and protect their own order. Among the greatest of these was Charles James Fox. He was gifted with the marvelous political instinct that marks the statesman. Hampden had it, and Chatham and Washington and Lincoln. At whatever crisis Fox might have lived he would have surely sided with that party whose success would have meant progress, and whose defeat would have been a disaster to civilization. In 1640 he would have opposed the king, in 1688 he would have joined Prince William, in 1830 he would have voted for the reform bill, just as in 1775 he struggled for the cause of constitutional liberty in America, and in 1793 fought for it. in England. Brought up, as Fox was, in an atmosphere in which principles were derided and office-holding was regarded as the legitimate end of political ambition, it was not surprising, it was almost inevitable, that he should have made such errors of judgment as the coalition with Lord North ; and it was by such mistakes that lie wrecked his success. But when it comes to dealing broadly with great questions, to looking beyond the uproar of the moment and comprehending the true bearings of the vast movement of the age in which he lived, he stands alone ; his contemporaries are dwarfed beside him.

Burke would now be called a sentimentalist. He was the slave of his prejudices and affections. He was unable to see that institutions which he had grown to love must perish, in order to make way for others that the age demanded. He could defend the cause of the American colonies because he could there see that men were striving to maintain what they already possessed; but he was unable to comprehend that the people of France, in their Revolution, were only asserting for themselves the same right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness for which Americans had fought. He was so blinded by his passions, and so maddened by scenes of cruelty and tales of horror, that he, the man who spent the best years of his life in demanding justice for the natives of India, had no sympathy with the sufferings of the peasants of Europe. He could not, or would not, understand their wants or their wrongs, and he clamored without ceasing for the people of England to plunge into war, to restore the rotten aristocracy of France, and to crush the liberal movement of the world.

The life of Pitt, also, strange as it seems to say so, was a failure. Brilliant as were his triumphs, absolute as was his power, long as he continued the greatest subject in Europe, his life was a failure. By nature and education he was a liberal; he was forced by events to be a reactionist. Had he lived in earlier or later times he might have left his mark upon the institutions of his age. But he was forced into a disastrous war, in waging which he never had his whole heart; he was driven from office by a crazy king, when he insisted that tardy relief should be given to the most cruelly oppressed of his fellow-subjects ; and he died at forty-seven of a broken heart, his policy brought to naught and his coalition shattered by the French at Austerlitz. It is sad to remember that the worst onslaught on the liberty of Englishmen since the abdication of James was made by the administration of William Pitt, and that the greatest triumph of the principle of personal freedom was the verdict of not guilty at the trial of Hardy for treason.

The mind of Eos was broad and vigorous enough to comprehend that there are movements among men which may be guided, but which cannot be subdued by force. He saw and felt that power had passed from the few to the many, and that it was therefore fit the many should rule. His views are those on which alone a modern commonwealth can rest, and his precepts and his teaching, rather than those of any other man, have moulded the principles and policy of that great liberal party which has carried England safely through the social revolution of the last hundred years which has convulsed every other nation of Europe.

  1. The Early History of Charles James Fox. By GEORGE OTTO TREVELYAN, M. P. New fork: Harper and Brothers. 1880.