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Judgment and Temper of Sir James Mackintosh

British Isles Genealogy | Critical And Historical Essays, Volume I

We own that nothing gives us so high an idea of the judgment and temper of Sir James Mackintosh as the manner in which he shaped his course through those times. Exposed successively to two opposite infections, he took both in their very mildest form. The constitution of his mind was such that neither of the diseases which wrought such havoc all round him could in any serious degree, or for any great length of time, derange his intellectual health. He, like every honest and enlightened man in Europe, saw with delight the great awakening of the French nation. Yet he never, in the season of his warmest enthusiasm, proclaimed doctrines inconsistent with the safety of property and the just authority of governments. He, like almost every other honest and enlightened man, was discouraged and perplexed by the terrible events which followed. Yet he never in the most gloomy times abandoned the cause of peace, of liberty, and of toleration. In that great convulsion which overset almost every other understanding, he was indeed so much shaken that he leaned sometimes in one direction and sometimes in the other; but he never lost his balance. The opinions in which he at last reposed, and to which, in spite of strong temptations, he adhered with a firm, a disinterested, an ill-requited fidelity, were a just mean between those which he had defended with youthful ardor and with more than manly prowess against Mr. Burke, and those to which he had inclined during the darkest and saddest years in the history of modern Europe. We are much mistaken if this be the picture either of a weak or of a dishonest mind.

What the political opinions of Sir James Mackintosh were in his later years is written in the annals of his country. Those annals will sufficiently refute what the Editor has ventured to assert in the very advertisement to this work. "Sir James Mackintosh," says he, "was avowedly and emphatically a Whig of the Revolution: and since the agitation of religious liberty and parliamentary reform became a national movement, the great transaction of 1688 has been more dispassionately, more correctly, and less highly estimated." If these words mean anything, they must mean that the opinions of Sir James Mackintosh concerning religious liberty and parliamentary reform went no further than those of the authors of the Revolution; in other words, that Sir James Mackintosh opposed Catholic Emancipation, and approved of the old constitution of the House of Commons. The allegation is confuted by twenty volumes of Parliamentary Debates, nay, by innumerable passages in the very fragment which this writer has defaced. We will venture to say that Sir James Mackintosh often did more for religious liberty and for parliamentary reform in a quarter of an hour than most of those zealots who are in the habit of depreciating him have done or will do in the whole course of their lives.

Nothing in the "Memoir" or in the "Continuation of the History" has struck us so much as the contempt with which the writer thinks fit to speak of all things that were done before the coming in of the very last fashions in politics. We think that we have sometimes observed a leaning towards the same fault in writers of a much higher order of intellect. We will therefore take this opportunity of making a few remarks on an error which is, we fear, becoming common, and which appears to us not only absurd, but as pernicious as almost any error concerning the transactions of a past age can possibly be.

We shall not, we hope, be suspected of a bigoted attachment to the doctrines and practices of past generations. Our creed is that the science of government is an experimental science, and that, like all other experimental sciences, it is generally in a state of progression. No man is so obstinate an admirer of the old times as to deny that medicine, surgery, botany, chemistry, engineering, navigation, are better understood now than in any former age. We conceive that it is the same with political science. Like those physical sciences which we have mentioned, it has always been working itself clearer and clearer, and depositing impurity after impurity. There was a time when the most powerful of human intellects were deluded by the gibberish of the astrologer and the alchemist; and just so there was a time when the most enlightened and virtuous statesmen thought it the first duty of a government to persecute heretics, to found monasteries, to make war on Saracens. But time advances; facts accumulate; doubts arise. Faint glimpses of truth begin to appear, and shine more and more unto the perfect day. The highest intellects, like the tops of mountains, are the first to catch and to reflect the dawn. They are bright, while the level below is still in darkness. But soon the light, which at first illuminated only the loftiest eminences, descends on the plain and penetrates to the deepest valley. First come hints, then fragments of systems, then defective systems, then complete and harmonious systems. The sound opinion, held for a time by one bold speculator, becomes the opinion of a small minority, of a strong minority, of a majority of mankind. Thus, the great progress goes on, till schoolboys laugh at the jargon which imposed on Bacon, till country rectors condemn the illiberality and intolerance of Sir Thomas More.

Seeing these things, seeing that, by the confession of the most obstinate enemies of innovation, our race has hitherto been almost constantly advancing in knowledge, and not seeing any reason to believe that, precisely at the point of time at which we came into the world, a change took place in the faculties of the human mind, or in the mode of discovering truth, we are reformers: we are on the side of progress. From the great advances which European society has made during the last four centuries, in every species of knowledge, we infer, not that there is no more room for improvement, but that, in every science which deserves the name, immense improvements may be confidently expected.

But the very considerations which lead us to look forward with sanguine hope to the future prevent us from looking back with contempt on the past We do not flatter ourselves with the notion that we have attained perfection, and that no more truth remains to be found. We believe that we are wiser than our ancestors. We believe, also, that our posterity will be wiser than we. It would be gross injustice in our grandchildren to talk of us with contempt, merely because they may have surpassed us; to call Watt a fool, because mechanical powers may be discovered which may supersede the use of steam; to deride the efforts which have been made in our time to improve the discipline of prisons, and to enlighten the minds of the poor, because future philanthropists may devise better places of confinement than Mr. Bentham's Panopticon, and better places of education than Mr. Lancaster's Schools. As we would have our descendants judge us, so ought we to judge our fathers. In order to form a correct estimate of their merits, we ought to place ourselves in their situation, to put out of our minds, for a time, all that knowledge which they, however eager in the pursuit of truth, could not have, and which we, however negligent we may have been, could not help having. It was not merely difficult, but absolutely impossible, for the best and greatest of men, two hundred years ago, to be what a very commonplace person in our days may easily be, and indeed must necessarily be. But it is too much that the benefactors of mankind, after having been reviled by the dunces of their own generation for going too far, should be reviled by the dunces of the next generation for not going far enough.

The truth lies between two absurd extremes. On one side is the bigot who pleads the wisdom of our ancestors as a reason for not doing what they in our place would be the first to do; who opposes the Reform Bill because Lord Somers did not see the necessity of Parliamentary Reform; who would have opposed the Revolution because Ridley and Cranmer professed boundless submission to the royal prerogative; and who would have opposed the Reformation because the Fitzwalters and Mareschals, whose seals are set to the Great Charter, were devoted adherents to the Church of Rome. On the other side is the sciolist who speaks with scorn of the Great Charter because it did not reform the Church of the Reformation, because it did not limit the prerogative; and of the Revolution, because it did not purify the House of Commons. The former of these errors we have often combated, and shall always be ready to combat. The latter, though rapidly spreading, has not, we think, yet come under our notice. The former error bears directly on practical questions, and obstructs useful reforms. It may, therefore, seem to be, and probably is, the more mischievous of the two. But the latter is equally absurd; it is at least equally symptomatic of a shallow understanding and an unamiable temper: and, if it should ever become general, it will, we are satisfied, produce very prejudicial effects. Its tendency is to deprive the benefactors of mankind of their honest fame, and to put the best and the worst men of past times on the same level. The author of a great reformation is almost always unpopular in his own age. He generally passes his life in disquiet and danger. It is therefore for the interest of the human race that the memory of such men should be had in reverence, and that they should be supported against the scorn and hatred of their contemporaries by the hope of leaving a great and imperishable name. To go on the forlorn hope of truth is a service of peril. Who will undertake it, if it be not also a service of honor? It is easy enough, after the ramparts are carried, to find men to plant the flag on the highest tower. The difficulty is to find men who are ready to go first into the breach; and it would be bad policy indeed to insult their remains because they fell in the breach, and did not live to penetrate to the citadel.

Now here we have a book which is by no means a favorable specimen of the English literature of the nineteenth century, a book indicating neither extensive knowledge nor great powers of reasoning. And, if we were to judge by the pity with which the writer speaks of the great statesmen and philosophers of a former age, we should guess that he was the author of the most original and important inventions in political science. Yet not so: for men who are able to make discoveries are generally disposed to make allowances. Men who are eagerly pressing forward in pursuit of truth are grateful to every one who has cleared an inch of the way for them. It is, for the most part, the man who has just capacity enough to pick up and repeat the commonplaces which are fashionable in his own time who looks with disdain on the very intellects to which it is owing that those commonplaces are not still considered as startling paradoxes or damnable heresies. This writer is just the man who, if he had lived in the seventeenth century, would have devoutly believed that the Papists burned London, who would have swallowed the whole of Oates's story about the forty thousand soldiers, disguised as pilgrims, who were to meet in Gallicia, and sail thence to invade England, who would have carried a Protestant flail under his coat, and who would have been angry if the story of the warming-pan had been questioned. It is quite natural that such a man should speak with contempt of the great reformers of that time, because they did not know some things which he never would have known but for the salutary effects of their exertions. The men to whom we owe it that we have a House of Commons are sneered at because they did not suffer the debates of the House to be published. The authors of the Toleration Act are treated as bigots, because they did not go the whole length of Catholic Emancipation. Just so we have heard a baby, mounted on the shoulders of its father, cry out, "How much taller I am than Papa!"

This gentleman can never want matter for pride, if he finds it so easily. He may boast of an indisputable superiority to all the greatest men of all past ages. He can read and write: Homer probably did not know a letter. He has been taught that the earth goes round the sun: Archimedes held that the sun went round the earth. He is aware that there is a place called New Holland: Columbus and Gama went to their graves in ignorance of the fact. He has heard of the Georgium Sidus: Newton was ignorant of the existence of such a planet. He is acquainted with the use of gunpowder: Hannibal and Caesar won their victories with sword and spear. We submit, however, that this is not the way in which men are to be estimated. We submit that a wooden spoon of our day would not be justified in calling Galileo and Napier blockheads, because they never heard of the differential calculus. We submit that Caxton's press in Westminster Abbey, rude as it is, ought to be looked at with quite as much respect as the best constructed machinery that ever, in our time, impressed the clearest type on the finest paper. Sydenham first discovered that the cool regimen succeeded best in cases of small-pox. By this discovery he saved the lives of hundreds of thousands; and we venerate his memory for it, though he never heard of inoculation. Lady Mary Montague brought inoculation into use; and we respect her for it, though she never heard of vaccination. Jenner introduced vaccination; we admire him for it, and we shall continue to admire him for it, although some still safer and more agreeable preservative should be discovered. It is thus that we ought to judge of the events and the men of other times. They were behind us. It could not be otherwise. But the question with respect to them is not where they were, but which way they were going. Were their faces set in the right or in the wrong direction? Were they in the front or in the rear of their generation? Did they exert themselves to help onward the great movement of the human race, or to stop it? This is not charity, but simple justice and common sense. It is the fundamental law of the world in which we live that truth shall grow, first the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear. A person who complains of the men of 1688 for not having been men of 1835 might just as well complain of a projectile for describing a parabola, or of quicksilver for being heavier than water.

Undoubtedly we ought to look at ancient transactions by the light of modern knowledge. Undoubtedly it is among the first duties of a historian to point out the faults of the eminent men of former generations. There are no errors which are so likely to be drawn into precedent, and therefore none which it is so necessary to expose, as the errors of persons who have a just title to the gratitude and admiration of posterity. In politics, as in religion, there are devotees who show their reverence for a departed saint by converting his tomb into a sanctuary for crime. Receptacles of wickedness are suffered to remain undisturbed in the neighborhood of the church which glories in the relics of some martyred apostle. Because he was merciful, his bones give security to assassins. Because he was chaste, the precinct of his temple is filled with licensed stews. Privileges of an equally absurd kind have been set up against the jurisdiction of political philosophy. Vile abuses cluster thick round every glorious event, round every venerable name; and this evil assuredly calls for vigorous measures of literary police. But the proper course is to abate the nuisance without defacing the shrine, to drive out the gangs of thieves and prostitutes without doing foul and cowardly wrong to the ashes of the illustrious dead.

In this respect, two historians of our own time may be proposed as models, Sir James Mackintosh and Mr. Mill. Differing in most things, in this they closely resemble each other. Sir James is lenient. Mr. Mill is severe. But neither of them ever omits, in the apportioning of praise and of censure, to make ample allowance for the state of political science and political morality in former ages. In the work before us, Sir James Mackintosh speaks with just respect of the Whigs of the Revolution, while he never fails to condemn the conduct of that party towards the members of the Church of Rome. His doctrines are the liberal and benevolent doctrines of the nineteenth century. But he never forgets that the men whom he is describing were men of the seventeenth century.

From Mr. Mill this indulgence, or, to speak more properly, this justice, was less to be expected. That gentleman, in some of his works, appears to consider politics not as an experimental, and therefore a progressive science, but as a science of which all the difficulties may be resolved by short synthetical arguments drawn from truths of the most vulgar notoriety. Were this opinion well founded, the people of one generation would have little or no advantage over those of another generation. But though Mr. Mill, in some of his Essays, has been thus misled, as we conceive, by a fondness for neat and precise forms of demonstration, it would be gross injustice not to admit that, in his History, he has employed a very different method of investigation with eminent ability and success. We know no writer who takes so much pleasure in the truly useful, noble and philosophical employment of tracing the progress of sound opinions from their embryo state to their full maturity. He eagerly culls from old dispatches and minutes every expression in which he can discern the imperfect germ of any great truth which has since been fully developed. He never fails to bestow praise on those who, though far from coming up to his standard of perfection, yet rose in a small degree above the common level of their contemporaries. It is thus that the annals of past times ought to be written. It is thus, especially, that the annals of our own country ought to be written.

The history of England is emphatically the history of progress. It is the history of a constant movement of the public mind, of a constant change in the institutions of a great society. We see that society, at the beginning of the twelfth century, in a state more miserable than the state in which the most degraded nations of the East now are. We see it subjected to the tyranny of a handful of armed foreigners. We see a strong distinction of caste separating the victorious Norman from the vanquished Saxon. We see the great body of the population in a state of personal slavery. We see the most debasing and cruel superstition exercising boundless dominion over the most elevated and benevolent minds. We see the multitude sunk in brutal ignorance, and the studious few engaged in acquiring what did not deserve the name of knowledge. In the course of seven centuries the wretched and degraded race have become the greatest and most highly civilized people that ever the world saw, have spread their dominion over every quarter of the globe, have scattered the seeds of mighty empires and republics over vast continents of which no dim intimation had ever reached Ptolemy or Strabo, have created a maritime power which would annihilate in a quarter of an hour the navies of Tyre, Athens, Carthage, Venice, and Genoa together, have carried the science of healing, the means of locomotion and correspondence, every mechanical art, every manufacture, everything that promotes the convenience of life, to a perfection which our ancestors would have thought magical, have produced a literature which may boast of works not inferior to the noblest which Greece has bequeathed to us, have discovered the laws which regulate the motions of the heavenly bodies, have speculated with exquisite subtilty on the operations of the human mind, have been the acknowledged leaders of the human race in the career of political improvement. The history of England is the history of this great change in the moral, intellectual, and physical state of the inhabitants of our own island. There is much amusing and instructive episodical matter; but this is the main action. To us, we will own, nothing is so interesting and delightful as to contemplate the steps by which the England of Domesday Book, the England of the Curfew and the Forest Laws, the England of crusaders, monks, schoolmen, astrologers, serfs, outlaws, became the England which we know and love, the classic ground of liberty and philosophy, the school of all knowledge, the mart of all trade. The Charter of Henry Beauclerk, the Great Charter, the first assembling of the House of Commons, the extinction of personal slavery, the separation from the See of Rome, the Petition of Right, the Habeas Corpus Act, the Revolution, the establishment of the liberty of unlicensed printing, the abolition of religious disabilities, the reform of the representative system, all these seem to us to be the successive stages of one great revolution--nor can we fully comprehend any one of these memorable events unless we look at it in connection with those which preceded, and with those which followed it. Each of those great and ever-memorable struggles, Saxon against Norman, Villein against Lord, Protestant against Papist, Roundhead against Cavalier, Dissenter against Churchman, Manchester against Old Sarum, was, in its own order and season, a struggle, on the result of which were staked the dearest interests of the human race; and every man who, in the contest which, in his time, divided our country, distinguished himself on the right side, is entitled to our gratitude and respect.

Whatever the editor of this book may think, those persons who estimate most correctly the value of the improvements which have recently been made in our institutions are precisely the persons who are least disposed to speak slightingly of what was done in 1688. Such men consider the Revolution as a reform, imperfect indeed, but still most beneficial to the English people and to the human race, as a reform, which has been the fruitful parent of reforms, as a reform, the happy effects of which are at this moment felt, not only throughout Our own country, but in half the monarchies of Europe, and in the depth of the forests of Ohio. We shall be pardoned, we hope, if we call the attention of our readers to the causes and to the consequences of that great event.

We said that the history of England is the history of progress; and, when we take a comprehensive view of it, it is so. But, when examined in small separate portions, it way with more propriety be called a history of actions and reactions. We have often thought that the motion of the public mind in our country resembles that of the sea when the tide is rising. Each successive wave rushes forward, breaks, and rolls back; but the great flood is steadily coming in. A person who looked on the waters only for a moment might fancy that they were retiring. A person who looked on them only for five minutes might fancy that they were rushing capriciously to and fro. But when he keeps his eye on them for a quarter of an hour, and sees one seamark disappear after another, it is impossible for him to doubt of the general direction in which the ocean is moved. Just such has been the course of events in England. In the history of the national mind, which is, in truth, the history of the nation, we must carefully distinguish between that recoil which regularly follows every advance and a great general ebb. If we take short intervals, if we compare 1640 and 1660, 1680 and 1685, 1708 and 1712, 1782 and 1794, we find a retrogression. But if we take centuries, if, for example, we compare 1794 with 1660 or with 1685, we cannot doubt in which direction society is proceeding.

The interval which elapsed between the Restoration and the Revolution naturally divides itself into three periods. The first extends from 1660 to 1678, the second from 1678 to 1681, the third from 1681 to 1688.

In 1660 the whole nation was mad with loyal excitement. If we had to choose a lot from among all the multitude of those which men have drawn since the beginning of the world, we would select that of Charles the Second on the day of his return. He was in a situation in which the dictates of ambition coincided with those of benevolence, in which it was easier to be virtuous than to be wicked, to be loved than to be hated, to earn pure and imperishable glory than to become infamous. For once the road of goodness was a smooth descent. He had done nothing to merit the affection of his people. But they had paid him in advance without measure. Elizabeth, after the destruction of the Armada, or after the abolition of monopolies, had not excited a thousandth part of the enthusiasm with which the young exile was welcomed home. He was not, like Lewis the Eighteenth, imposed on his subjects by foreign conquerors; nor did he, like Lewis the Eighteenth, come back to a country which had undergone a complete change. The House of Bourbon was placed in Paris as a trophy of the victory of the European confederation. The return of the ancient princes was inseparably associated in the public mind with the cession of extensive provinces, with the payment of an immense tribute, with the devastation of flourishing departments, with the occupation of the kingdom by hostile armies, with the emptiness of those niches in which the gods of Athens and Rome had been the objects of a new idolatry, with the nakedness of those walls on which the Transfiguration had shone with light as glorious as that which overhung Mount Tabor. They came back to a land in which they could recognize nothing. The seven sleepers of the legend, who closed their eyes when the Pagans were persecuting the Christians, and woke when the Christians were persecuting each other, did not find themselves in a world more completely new to them. Twenty years had done the work of twenty generations. Events had come thick. Men had lived fast. The old institutions and the old feelings had been torn up by the roots. There was a new Church founded and endowed by the usurper; a new nobility whose titles were taken from fields of battle, disastrous to the ancient line; a new chivalry whose crosses had been won by exploits which had seemed likely to make the banishment of the emigrants perpetual. A new code was administered by a new magistracy. A new body of proprietors held the soil by a new tenure. The most ancient local distinctions had been effaced. The most familiar names had become obsolete. There was no longer a Normandy or a Burgundy, a Brittany and a Guienne. The France of Lewis the Sixteenth had passed away as completely as one of the Preadamite worlds. Its fossil remains might now and then excite curiosity. But it was as impossible to put life into the old institutions as to animate the skeletons which are imbedded in the depths of primeval strata. It was as absurd to think that France could again be placed under the feudal system, as that our globe could be overrun by Mammoths. The revolution in the laws and in the form of government was but an outward sign of that mightier revolution which had taken place in the heart and brain of the people, and which affected every transaction of life, trading, farming, studying, marrying, and giving in marriage. The French whom the emigrant prince had to govern were no more like the French of his youth, than the French of his youth were like the French of the Jacquerie. He came back to a people who knew not him nor his house, to a people to whom a Bourbon was no more than a Carlovingian or a Merovingian. He might substitute the white flag for the tricolor; he might put lilies in the place of bees; he might order the initials of the Emperor to be carefully effaced. But he could turn his eyes nowhere without meeting some object which reminded him that he was a stranger in the palace of his fathers. He returned to a country in which even the passing traveler is every moment reminded that there has lately been a great dissolution and reconstruction of the social system. To win the hearts of a people under such circumstances would have been no easy task even for Henry the Fourth.

In the English Revolution the case was altogether different. Charles was not imposed on his countrymen, but sought by them. His restoration was not attended by any circumstance which could inflict a wound on their national pride. Insulated by our geographical position, insulated by our character, we had fought out our quarrels and effected our reconciliation among ourselves. Our great internal questions had never been mixed up with the still greater question of national independence. The political doctrines of the Roundheads were not, like those of the French philosophers, doctrines of universal application. Our ancestors, for the most part, took their stand, not on a general theory, but on the particular constitution of the realm. They asserted the rights, not of men, but of Englishmen. Their doctrines therefore were not contagious; and, had it been otherwise, no neighboring country was then susceptible of the contagion. The language in which our discussions were generally conducted was scarcely known even to a single man of letters out of the islands. Our local situation made it almost impossible that we should effect great conquests on the Continent. The kings of Europe had, therefore, no reason to fear that their subjects would follow the example of the English Puritans, and looked with indifference, perhaps with complacency, on the death of the monarch and the abolition of the monarchy. Clarendon complains bitterly of their apathy. But we believe that this apathy was of the greatest service to the royal cause. If a French or Spanish army had invaded England, and if that army had been cut to pieces, as we have no doubt that it would have been, on the first day on which it came face to face with the soldiers of Preston and Dunbar, with Colonel Fight-the-good-Fight, and Captain Smite-them-hip-and-thigh, the House of Cromwell would probably now have been reigning in England. The nation would have forgotten all the misdeeds of the man who had cleared the soil of foreign invaders.

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