Eminent English liberals in and out of Parliament/Edward Augustus Freeman
EDWARD AUGUSTUS FREEMAN.
"The Politics are base;
The Letters do not cheer;
And 'tis far in the deeps of History
The voice that speaketh clear."
AMONG eminent English Radicals, Freeman the historian occupies a unique place. He goes forward by going backward. He is a Radical because he is a Conservative. He is a democrat because he is a student of antiquity. Addressing the Liverpool Institute in November last, he described himself as "belonging to that old-fashioned sect that dreads nothing so much as the change of novelty." It is his boast to be one of the trusty few who "cleave to the old faith that there is something in the wisdom of our forefathers, and that the right thing is to stand fast in the old paths." The Tories are dangerous innovators. Our political progress has consisted in setting aside "the leading subtleties which grew up from the thirteenth century to the seventeenth," and reverting "to the plain common sense of the eleventh or tenth, and of times far earlier." The most primitive institutions of the English race were based on universal suffrage. The Swiss Republic is the oldest polity in Europe, and the best. In all history there is hardly a more picturesque chapter than that with which Freeman's "Growth of the English Constitution" opens: "Year by year, on certain spots among the dales and mountain-sides of Switzerland, the traveller who is daring enough to wander out of beaten tracks, and to make his journey at unusual seasons, may look on a sight such as no other corner of the earth can any longer set before him. He may there gaze and feel what none can feel but those who have seen with their own eyes, what none can feel in its fulness but once in a lifetime,—the thrill of looking for the first time face to face on freedom in its purest and most ancient form. He is there in a land where the oldest institutions of our race—institutions which may be traced up to the earliest times of which history or legend gives us any glimmering—still live on in their primeval freshness. He is in a land where an immemorial freedom—a freedom only less eternal than the rocks that guard it—puts to shame the boasted antiquity of kingly dynasties, which by its side seem but as innovations of yesterday. There year by year, on some bright morning of the springtide, the sovereign people, not intrusting its rights to a few of its own numbers, but discharging them itself in the majesty of its own corporate person, meets in the open marketplace or in the green meadow at the mountain's foot to frame the laws to which it yields obedience as its own work, to choose the rulers whom it can afford to greet with reverence as drawing their commission from itself. Such a sight there are but few Englishmen who have seen. To be among those few I reckon among the highest privileges of my life.
"Let me ask you to follow me in spirit to the very home and birthplace of freedom, to the land where we need not myth and fable to add aught to the fresh and gladdening feeling with which we for the first time tread the soil and drink in the air of the immemorial democracy of Uri. It is one of the opening days of May; it is the morning of Sunday, for men there deem that the better day the better deed. They deem that the Creator cannot be more truly honored than in using in his fear and in his presence the highest of the gifts which he has bestowed on man. But deem not, that, because the day of Christian worship is chosen for the great yearly assembly of a Christian commonwealth, the more direct sacred duties of the day are forgotten. Before we in our luxurious island have lifted ourselves from our beds, the men of the mountains—Catholic and Protestant alike—have already paid the morning worship in God's temple. They have heard the mass of the priest, or they have listened to the sermon of the pastor, before some of us have awakened to the fact that the morn of the holy day has come. And when I saw men thronging the crowded church, or kneeling, for want of space within, on the bare ground beside the open door; and, when I saw them marching thence to do the highest duties of men and citizens, I could hardly forbear thinking of the saying of Holy Writ, that 'where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.'
"From the market-place of Altdorf, the little capital of the canton, the procession makes its way to the place of meeting at Bozlingen. First marches the little army of the canton, an army whose weapons never can be used save to drive back an invader from their land. Over their heads floats the banner, the bull's head of Uri, the ensign which led the men to victory on the fields of Sempach and Morgarten; and before them all, on the shoulders of men clad in a garb of ages past, are borne the famous horns, the spoils of the wild bull of ancient days, the very horns whose blast struck such dread into the fearless heart of Charles of Burgundy. Then, with then lictors before them, come the magistrates of the commonwealth on horseback, the chief magistrate, the landamman, with his sword by his side. The people follow the chiefs whom they have chosen to the place of meeting,—a circle in a green meadow, with a pine forest rising above their heads, and a mighty spur of the mountain range facing them on the other side of the valley. The multitude of freemen take their seats around the chief ruler of the commonwealth, whose term of office comes that day to an end. The assembly opens. A short space is first given to prayer, silent prayer, offered up by each man in the temple of God's own rearing. Then comes the business of the day. If changes in the law are demanded, they are then laid before the vote of the assembly, in which each citizen of full age has an equal vote and an equal right of speech. The yearly magistrates have now discharged all their duties: their term of office is at an end. The trust which has been placed in their hands falls back into the hands of those by whom it was given,—into the hands of the sovereign people. The chief of the commonwealth, now such no longer, leaves his seat of office and takes his place as a simple citizen in the ranks of his fellows. It rests with the free will of the assembly to call him back to his chair of office, or to set another there in his stead.
"Men who have neither looked into the history of the past, nor yet troubled themselves to learn what happens year by year in their own age, are fond of declaiming against the caprice and ingratitude of the people, and of telling us that under a democratic government neither men nor measures can remain for an hour unchanged. The witness alike of the present and of the past is an answer to baseless theories like these. The spirit which made democratic Athens year by year bestow her highest offices on the patrician Pericles and the re-actionary Phokion still lives in the democracies of Switzerland, and alike in the Landesgemeinde of Uri and in the Federal Assembly at Berne. The ministers of kings, whether despotic or constitutional, may vainl}"^ envy the same tenure of office which falls to those who are chosen to rule by the voice of the people. Alike in the whole confederation and in the single canton, re-election is the rule: the rejection of the outgoing magistrate is the rare exception. The Landamman of Uri, whom his countrymen have raised to the seat of honor, and who has done nothing to lose their confidence, need not fear that when he has gone to the place of meeting in the pomp of office his place in the march homeward will be transferred to another against his will."
In the foregoing extract the reader has Freeman at his best,—Freeman the Liberal politician and Freeman the devout Christian. His politics and his religion, like Gladstone's, inspire all his writings. His life has been one strenuous endeavor to vindicate by precept and example the noblest traditions of the one and of the other. As a man of Teutonic stock, he has at all times taken strong ground against unhappy Celts; and, as a follower of Christ, he has assuredly never shown undue compassion for the disciples of Mahomet. Yet it were hard to tax Mr. Freeman with prejudice. The strength and honesty of his intellect no man can question. Of historians he is the most industrious and accurate, and he is by no means deficient in imagination. In this last quality he is of course immeasurably inferior to a prose poet like Carlyle; but there is compensation. He has never sunk a Vengeur, and I could scarcely conceive of him having the philological credulity to connect "king" with "cunning man." History is but past politics, just as politics are present history. This cardinal truth Mr. Freeman, as a narrator of events, fully apprehends; and this it is that gives such lucidity and value to all his writings. He has, moreover, moral courage of the highest order, and admirable tenacity of purpose. To his own mind his objects are invariably clear; and he takes the most direct, if sometimes not the most pleasant, means of clarifying the minds of others. For such constitutionally inaccurate persons as Beaconsfield and Froude he has, like experience, proved himself a hard taskmaster; but the public has reaped the benefit of his occasionally "brutal frankness."
Yet with all these varied qualifications, moral and intellectual, Mr. Freeman is not without his limitations. His mind is a peculiarly English mind, strong in facts and shrewd at inferences, but weak and timid in the application of first principles. Original speculators like Spencer or Bain might logically overthrow the very foundations of his political and religious beliefs, and he would never know or care. He is an accomplished specialist in letters, and he is content so to be. Living all his days the life of a squire of his county, his habits of thought are as realistic as those of the class of which he is so great and unwonted an ornament. All the difference is that his historical recollection is better than theirs. Things that they regard as sacred by reason of their antiquity, he knows to be of comparative!}' modern origin. In a note to "The Growth of the English Constitution," he makes the following manly declaration with regard to the monarchical superstition which is so sedulously fostered in this country: "There really seems no reason why the form of the executive government should not be held as lawful a subject for discussion as the House of Lords, the Established Church, the standing army, or any thing else. It shows simple ignorance, if it does not show something worse, when the word 'republican' is used as synonymous with cut-throat or pickpocket. I do not find that in republican countries this kind of language is applied to the admirers of monarchy; but the people who talk in this way are just those who have no knowledge of republics, either in past history or in present times. They may very likely have climbed a Swiss mountain; but they have taken care not to ask what was the constitution of the country at its foot."
Edward Augustus Freeman was born at Harborne, in the neighborhood of Birmingham, in 1823. He unfortunately lost both parents before he was one year old; his father, John Freeman, Esq., of Pedmore Hall, Worcestershire, dying at the comparatively early age of forty. His paternal grandmother, who resided at Northampton, became his guardian, and with her he had his home till his removal to Oxford in 1841. Before proceeding to the university, he had attended for several years a school at Cheam, Surrey; a private tutor, the Rev. Mr. Gutch, subsequently preparing him for matriculation at Trinity College. There his great talent and industry were not without their reward. He was elected a scholar, and in 1845 he became a fellow of his college. Twelve years later, after the publication of several of his historical works, he was made examiner in law and modern history, and, in 1873, examiner in the school of modern history. Both universities have vied with each other in recognizing his vast attainments: Oxford conferring on him the honorary degree of D.C.L., and Cambridge that of LL.D. Like many other Oxford men who have subsequently arrived at a knowledge of the truth as it is in Radicalism, Mr. Freeman was brought up in the strictest bonds of political and ecclesiastical Toryism. His grandmother had sown seed at Northampton which the tractarians, then in the ascendant, watered at Oxford. Among his college friends was Patterson, now Monsiguor, and other incipient Romanists of distinction. About this period, likewise, he wrote verses, and very good verses too, as regard form, of an ultra-royalist or Jacobite character; Carlos, a maternal ascendant, who, tradition says, was the last man to strike a blow for the king at Worcester, being a favorite subject of his muse.
But so sound an intelligence as Freeman's could not long draw sustenance from such unrealities. In 1847 he married an estimable lady, the daughter of his former tutor, Mr. Gutch, and gradually put away the more childish things of political and ecclesiastical reaction. Slight, and it might be said almost whimsical, considerations at first weighed with him. Always an interested and critical student of history, church history at first more particularly, he was struck with the unsatisfactory bearings of two ecclesiastical facts or fictions. Edward the Confessor had a wife, and the kingdom sorely wanted an heir to the crown; but the saintly character of the monarch could only be sustained by practical celibacy. Was this asceticism rational sanctity? Again, the salvation of some millions of unfortunate Swedes was made to turn on the sufficiency of the consecration of a particular bishop of the sixteenth century. Was this reasonable theology? Clearly the chaff of ritualism must be separated from the older and more solid grain of Anglicanism.
The tractarian movement was not, however, all loss to Mr. Freeman. It made him a profound student of architecture, and a clever sketcher of ecclesiastical buildings. In such matters he has often been consulted by the greatest authorities, among others by Sir Author:Gilbert Scott. His "History of Architecture" (1849), "An Essay on Window Tracery" (1850), and "The Architecture of Llandaff Cathedral" (1851), his earliest publications, are still works of acknowledged merit.
While I am dealing with church matters, I may as well note the progress which this enlightened churchman has made in respect of the question of disestablishment and disendowment. He heartily supported the abolition of the Irish establishment; and in 1874 he published a curiously tentative volume, in which he discussed the position of the English Church, arriving at the somewhat novel conclusion that the property of the national church is not national property. Its revenues, he argues, are in precisely the same position as those of Nonconformist communions. The sovereign power, however, being absolute, may appropriate whatever it has a mind. A neater little juggle with Austin's definition of sovereignty I do not remember to have seen. True, the state may never have by any formal act, as Mr. Freeman alleges, endowed the church as by law established; but surely Mr. Freeman will not deny that there was a time when the church and the people were co-extensive, and in theory they are still one and indivisible. In practice the so-called state church is merely a monopolizing sect which has fraudulently appropriated the shares of all the other sects. These latter, when they are strong enough to bring sovereign authority to bear, will eject the dispossessor, and compel him to disgorge his ill-gotten gains. He would be a bold churchman, indeed, who should propose to deal similarly with the revenues of Nonconformist communions. More recently, however, the attitude of the state church towards the struggling Christian populations of Turkey has satisfied Mr. Freeman, that, having ceased to act as the conscience of the nation, its moral justification is at an end. It is to be hoped Mr. Gladstone and other zealous churchmen will likewise discern how faithfully the Nonconformists of England have done what the established sect has so conspicuously left undone.
In the autumn of 1869 Mr. Freeman pricked the national conscience in a memorable manner regarding the "morality of field-sports." He held up the barbarities of the battue to the shame and scorn of mankind. The withers of "quality" were mercilessly wrung, from those of the Prince of Wales downwards. There were numberless attempted defences, but not one that Mr. Freeman was not able to break down with the greatest ease. The contemptible hypocrisy of persons like his Royal Highness who act as patrons of societies for the prevention of cruelty to costermongers' donkeys, while themselves delighting in the cruel and unmanly massacre of tame pigeons and semi-domesticated pheasants, was thoroughly exposed in the course of the controversy, and a well-aimed blow struck at the heart of the abomination of the game-laws, which have so long disgraced the statute-book of the country.
"Strange that of all the living chain
That binds creation's plan,
There is but one delights in pain,—
The savage monarch man!"
It is hardly necessary to say, that, with perhaps the single exception of Mr. Gladstone, Mr. Freeman is the greatest living master of the Eastern question in all its details. He was four years of age when the battle of Navarino was fought, and he remembers the receipt of the intelligence. He may be said to have been interested in the emancipation of the Eastern Christians ever since. At the time of the Crimean war his pen was incessantly employed in combating the national madness. The number of persons in this country who then understood the real issues in the East was insignificant, and Freeman was one of the few. He may be said to have advocated the "bag and baggage" policy from the beginning; and he never lost sight of his object. When the city fell down and worshipped the Sultan on the occasion of his visit to London, Mr. Freeman almost alone entered a spirited protest against the base idolatry, and described the Oriental tyrant in befitting terms. When the Herzegovinian insurrection broke out he was one of the first who strove to range his countrymen on the side of the oppressed. By innumerable letters to the newspapers, and speeches in various towns, he did an immense deal to enlighten public opinion; and he succeeded personally in raising no less a sum than fifty thousand dollars in furtherance of the good cause. In 1877 he visited Greece, and was received by the people of such places as Zante, Corfu, Ithaca, and Athens, with unbounded enthusiasm and gratitude. He addressed them in their own tongue, and, as he himself has related, was not merely cheered but kissed by certain of his audience. Among the Christian population of the Balkan Peninsula the names of Gladstone and Freeman are deservedly regarded as household words.The greatest impeachment, in my opinion, of the soundness of Mr. Freeman's political judgment, was his justification of the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine—I beg a thousand pardons, Elsass-Lothringen—by the Germans at the conclusion of the Franco-German war. He boldly argued that Germany was entitled to rend from France a portion of territory which had once been Teutonic, whatever the inhabitants, who were notoriously French in sympathy, might say to the contrary. The consent of the governed, the necessary condition of free government, was nowise needed when the precious Teuton had his fish to fry. Now, I admit that France had many offences at her back for which it was right that she should atone; but had the "man of blood and iron" and the Majesty of Prussia none? What of bleeding Poland? what of Silesia? what of Hanover? what of Schleswig-Holstein? All this Pan-Teutonism conveniently overlooked. And what has been the result? A war of revenge has been rendered a dead certainty.
"Out of evil evil flourishes;
Out of tyranny tyranny buds."
An imperial despotism has been established in Germany, at least as detestable as that which Louis Napoleon Bonaparte set up in France. The iron of that tyranny has entered into the very soul of the German people, and, so long as it can be pretended that a Gallic revanche is possible, there will it remain. How Mr. Freeman could have justified such a palpable sowing of dragons' teeth, I have never been able to fathom.
In 1868 Mr. Freeman contested Mid-Somerset in the Liberal interest, but without success. His failure, I consider, was a public loss of no small magnitude. He is a good speaker, and his special knowledge would, on many occasions in recent sessions, have been of the highest utility in Parliament. For five and twenty years he was a "Saturday Reviewer," and he wrote much in "The Pall Mall Gazette" in its more Liberal days. The House of Commons contains no member who, as a student of constitutional history, could compare for a moment with the author of the "Norman Conquest," the "History of Federal Government," and "Comparative Politics." Any legislature might well be honored by the presence of such a scholar, and any constituency in the kingdom might be proud of such a representative.