Images de page
PDF
ePub

lays her hand upon his shoulder, and says to him, reproachfully and lovingly, Why so hot, my little sir ? and the man looks back with wonder and shame upon the heat and agitation into which he had been betrayed. This sick room has a similar effect upon me. It seems to have removed me from the heat and clamour of affairs quorum magna pars fui, and made me a calm and almost unconcerned spectator.

“'Tis pleasant through the loopholes of retreat,
To peep at such a world; to see the stir
Of the great Babel, and not feel the crowd ;
To hear the roar she sends through all her gates
At a safe distance, where the dying sound
Falls a soft murmur on the uninjured ear.
Thus sitting, and surveying thus at ease
The globe and its concerns, I seem advanced
To some secure and more than mortal height,
That liberates and exempts me from them all.”

JOHN BRIGHT.

man, athese were thebt each on hallow

The assaults recently directed against Mr. John Bright were, happily, of a kind altogether unknown of late years in English politics. Political antagonism is generally distinct and decided enough, and the feeling which it awakens, often very keen ; but there is a degree of malignity in the attacks upon Mr. Bright which is quite exceptional. We do not allude to the persistent, and often very unfair, references to “the honourable member for Birmingham,” with which the Tory speeches in the recent Reform debates were so full, that a casual hearer might have easily supposed that it was the personal character of the honourable gentleman, and not the merits of a Reform Bill that were being discussed. These were the natural incidents of political warfare, and the speakers no doubt each one acted after his kind. It was natural enough that pompous, shallow Sir John Pakington should eagerly seize the first opportunity of administering that solemn rebuke, which he had been preparing during the recess, as it was equally of course that Mr. Bright should administer such a castigation as may teach the pretentious baronet the necessity of more caution in the future. It was to be expected that Messrs. Lowe and Horsman should pour forth the vials of their indignation upon the champion of a cause which they hate with a bitterness of which only renegades are capable, and not very wonderful that, after having had one expe

Brighhom suchuflicted ung was cert gratificats

rience of his power of reply, they should afterwards have been very chary of a fresh encounter. Of course, too, it was the most natural thing in the world that the rank and file of the Tory party, the young lordlings who were anxious to flesh their maiden swords, the Adullamites who wished to find some plausible reason for their shameless violation of their own pledges, and the stolid section of the House, who are influenced by a blind, unreasoning dislike to any change, should all indulge in a fling at John Bright. They had really nothing else to say, and anything they could say on this point was sure to draw down those vociferous cheers which must have been the more welcome as they were so unusual. It would be very foolish to complain of these men. They simply obeyed their own instincts, and did their own proper work. Those instincts may have been very mean, and that work very contemptible, but they could rise to no higher level. They did what they could, and the gratification they found for themselves in the doing was certainly far greater than any injury they inflicted upon their opponent. There are few men on whom such assaults will produce less impression than Mr. Bright, and, perhaps, could these gentlemen have understood how little their reiterated assaults disturbed him, and how much they disgusted impartial men, and even the more rational supporters of their own views, and, especially, how much they increased Mr. Bright's popularity among the masses of the people, who however despised, or calumniated, or reviled, must ultimately exercise a mighty power in the country, they might think that even the pleasure of abusing the honourable member for Birmingham, sweet as it was, had been purchased at too high a price.

It is, however, neither of these Parliamentary assaults, nor of the ordinary criticisms of the newspapers, that we complain. Their frequency, the persistency with which they are repeated, the severity by which they are often characterized, all indicate the bitterness of the feeling from which they proceed, but if it stopped here, it might safely be left unnoticed. It is the intensity of personal feeling which has been imported into the discussion, the evident determination to extract from Mr. Bright's words, a meaning which they were never intended to bear, the attempt to drag his private conductinto public, and to make it the groundwork of an attack upon his public policy, and the frequent refusal to treat him with that common fairness, which is rarely found wanting in our political conflicts, that has made these attacks so discreditable. They are not at all likely to influence the highest kind of public opinion to any appreciable extent, or materially to affect the settlementof thegreat political question of the day, but they diffuse a great amount of

unreasoning popular prejudice, they fan the violence of political passion, and they do gross injustice to one of the ablest and most honest statesmen of his day.

A recent incident, which may have escaped the notice of many, especially of those who take their ideas entirely from the Times, is an illustration of a mode of warfare, which, if it is allowed to continue and increase, must eventually lower the whole tone of our political life. A Mr. Alfred Harris, a political nobody, who may, in fact, be the son or husband of Mrs. Gamp's illustrious friend for anything that the world knows about him, recently won for himself a brief and unenviable notoriety by an attack on Mr. Bright, for his conduct during the cotton famine. After enumerating Lord Derby's eminent and praiseworthy services at this great crisis (services, however, which might not unreasonably be expected from a nobleman who, perhaps, owes more to the cotton trade than any other man in England), he inqnired, with great vehemence, what had Mr. Bright done? The Times report represented him as answering, “Nothing," amid the loud cheers of a sympathizing audience. The charge is not a new one. It is a favourite Tory calumny, which we have ourselves heard again and again in private circles. But having been put in this palpable form, one of Mr. Bright's managers gave it a formal and unmistakable contradiction, and wrote to Mr. Harris, asking him for his proofs. Of course he had no satisfactory answer to give, but yet he was unwilling to give the amende honorable. He could not sustain the charge, but he could assume a high and mighty tone, and then sneak out of the very uncomfortable position in which he found himself; and he did this by asserting that though he asked the question, the answer was given by the audience. And this is Tory fairness! Mr. Bright is, as his slanderer might have known, had he cared to enquire, ready for every work of practical benevolence in Rochdale, and he had certainly not been found wanting during the cotton famine. But what of that? It suited Mr. Harris to make a point against him by asking a question, evidently intended to have one answer, and then, when he was taxed with the calumny, it equally suited him to evade the responsibility, and shift it on to the people, who only shouted as they were prompted to shout. What matter? It was only Mr. Bright that was injured, and is not the one object of snobbery of every class, literary, commercial, or political, all over England, to put him down ? Why should a country orator beso careful, when great orators and leading journals are so reckless ? But mark the sequel. The Times published the original accusation; of course the Times was eager to supply the correction. The first journal of the kingdom, which lectures everybody all round on all sorts of subjects, must doubtless be a very pattern of political chivalry and courtesy. It may make some mistakes in its policy, but it is always correct and impartial in its statement of facts. Yet the Times has never thought it worth its while to publish the correspondence; and English people, Londoners in particular, go on believing in the Times, as though its reputation were immaculate, and its authority indisputable.

It is well indeed that misrepresentation is perhaps the worst that some of these men are able to do against Mr. Bright, for there have not been wanting indications that if some strong mode of repressing him is not adopted, it is for want of power, not of will. It is not long since we happened to hear a conversation in a railway carriage, in which one of the speakers very significantly exclaimed, “ I do not say I would hang Mr. Bright. but—" the sentence was left unfinished, but the tone and gesture of the speaker indicated plainly enough his animus and purpose. But we need not wonder at such sallies as these, when we find the Record, that paragon of Christian meekness and charity, plainly intimating that Mr. Bright's sympathy with poor Gordon, was owing to the consciousness that he deserved the same fate. We should be sorry to suppose that such ebullitions had any very clear purpose and meaning, or that they would be endorsed by any of the more intellectual members of the Tory party. The writers for the Saturday Review or the Pall Mall Gazette mean nothing more than to indicate their sympathy with all that is aristocratic and exclusive, and their sneering contempt for the unconventional straight-forwardness and determination with which Mr. Bright conducts political struggles. But the virulence of their attacks produces in the minds of their more ignorant and excited partizans the kind of feeling which expresses itself in these violent outbursts.

Certain it is that the rancour of political hate has seldom been so strongly developed as in the state of feeling existing throughout the Tory party, and even among a certain class of so-called Liberals, towards John Bright, and which, in whatever aspect it may be regarded, is extremely discreditable to those by whom it is manifested. Mr. Bright is a man of whom Englishmen of all classes, whether friends or foes, might well be proud. The position which he, a private citizen of the middle classes, who has never held even the humblest official position in the country, has won for himself by his extraordinary talents and stainless political integrity, reflects not only honour on himself, but also on the institutions of a country where such a career is possible. His marvellous oratory, his indomitable courage, his steady adherence to principles, however unpopular for the time, his unblemished character, his superiority to any self-interest and

purpose, his devotion to the one work of securing his country's freedom and real prosperity, have given him a power which ought to have secured the respect even of those who do not adopt his opinions. Grant, even, that some of his views are extreme, that his language is sometimes as dangerous as his enemies represent it to be; yet, surely, the transparent honesty which has marked his whole political career ought to count for something in the estimate of his character. This, however, is continually forgotten in the denunciations directed against him. He is spoken of as though he were a fierce revolutionary leader, whose ambition can only be gratified by exciting popular violence, and whose one desire is to create tumult and revolution, in order that he himself may ride on the whirlwind and direct the storni.

Nothing could be more contrary to the fact. In the common acceptation of the term, Mr. Bright is anything but a demagogue. He is indeed well fitted to be the leader of the people; for his sympathy with the popular cause is intense and sincere, and his power is unquestionable. Neither pique, nor selfish ambition, has been the moving spring of his political action. He has strong faith in the justice of the people's cause, and an equally firm belief that what is just must also be wise and expedient. He stirs the hearts of the people, not more by his matchless eloquence than by that moral power which always attends a course of unselfish devotion, and undeviating consistency. In the highest sense, therefore, John Bright is a demagogue,—that is, a brave, skilful, true-hearted, mighty leader of the people. But in the lower and more general sense—the sense in which the term may properly be applied to O'Connell, or Wilkes, or Danton-John Bright is not a demagogue. He does not flatter popular vanity, he does not study popular prejudice, he does not accept popular opinion, he does not trade upon popular credulity. Having no object to serve, but the interests of truth and patriotism, he can dare to be independent; for applause or honour won by any tampering with truth and right would not to him be worth seeking or accepting.

Hence, on more than one occasion, he has placed himself in determined opposition to that popular opinion which he is said to be so anxious to conciliate. His enemies at present are very anxious to draw attention to the fact that he has opposed many measures supposed to be for the good of the working classes, and notably the Ten Hours' Bill. They seem to forget, that if they injure on one side, they elevate him on the other. Even if they should succeed in alienating from him a certain amount of popular sympathy, they can do it by showing the world how superior is this demagogue, as they call him, to the tricks and arts of the vulgar

« PrécédentContinuer »