Eminent English liberals in and out of Parliament/Frederick Augustus Maxse
FREDERICK AUGUSTUS MAXSE.
"To side with Truth is noble
When we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit
And 'tis prosperous to be just."
IT is now several years since I first chanced to meet Rear-Admiral Maxse at a Reform conference; but, until quite recently, I have had no opportunity of verifying my early impressions. These, with certain reservations, were of a most favorable kind; and they have been abundantly confirmed on closer acquaintance.
Maxse is, what so very few Englishmen are, an idealist in politics, a singularly poor hand at a compromise. Instead of accommodating his theory to the facts, he strives to bend the facts to his theory. With sailor-like single-mindedness, he has an awkward trick—awkward in a politician—of making use of language in order to express his meaning, instead of concealing it, as a good wire-puller should. His more candid political friends, consequently, complain that he cannot be got, even at critical electoral seasons, to recognize the advantage of calling a spade an elongated agricultural implement. Hence the damning suspicion which obtains in certain quarters that the admiral is, with all his ability, "impracticable." An Englishman, and not "practical"! How could such a one hope to enter in at the strait gate which leadeth to St. Stephen's? Impracticability were a grievous fault, and grievously did the gallant admiral answer it at Southampton in 1868, and in the Tower Hamlets in 1874. But the fault; and I frankly admit its existence, lay at least as much with the admiral's critics as with himself. If he were too much devoted to the ideal, they were too little. I agree, for once, with the prophet of "sweetness and light," that "Philistia has come to be thought by us as the true land of promise. The born lover of ideas, the born hater of commonplaces, must feel in this country that the sky over his head is of brass and iron."
Now, Admiral Maxse is a born lover of ideas, a born hater of commonplaces, and he has never been adequately able to apprehend how inaccessible are the vast majority of his countrymen to such sentiments. In this sense has he shown himself really impracticable. Among a quicker-witted and more logical people like the French, the chances are that he would have found himself quite at home. He ought to have known Englishmen better. A London constituency, unlike a Parisian, will always prefer a gluttonous alderman with a marked aversion to the letter h to the profoundest philosopher or to the truest philanthropist. Blessed is the cultivated Radical who expects little of the average English elector, for he shall not be disappointed. Admiral Maxse, I have heard it said, has been seriously disappointed by his political experiences. Not disappointed, though disenchanted he has certainly been. But, like other true soldiers of democracy, he has "learned to labor and to wait."
The disillusioning process is always a painful one for a lofty, ardent nature like Maxse's; but it is salutary all the same. It does not alter, by a hair's breadth, one's sense of duty, while it teaches invaluable lessons of method and adaptation in relation to the social environment. Progress, though inevitable, is seldom to be obtained by a coup.
"We see dimly in the present what is small and what is great;
Slow of faith, how weak an arm may turn the iron helm of fate."
Frederick Augustus Maxse was born in London in the year 1833. He is now consequently in the full vigor of manhood, lithe of limb, and intrepid of carriage,—every inch an "officer and a gentleman." He is on the retired list; but in an emergency he might well become the Blake of a second commonwealth. Speculative, perhaps somewhat chimerical, in religion and politics, he is yet obviously a man of action, a born commander of men. His father, James Maxse, was a Tory squire of the old school, who had inherited immense wealth, honorably acquired by the Maxse family as merchants in Bristol. He was one of the best heavy-weight riders across country of his generation; and, as for his feats, have they not been duly recorded by Nimrod in connection with the famous Melton meets? On the mother's side the admiral is a Berkeley, his mother being Lady Caroline Maxse, daughter of the fifth Earl of Berkeley. The Berkeleys have for generations been noted for great physical toughness and consistent political Whiggery, the late "Ballot" Berkeley, M.P. for Bristol, being Maxse's uncle. Family politics, however, never influenced the admiral's opinions in the least. He left home too early for that. He was afloat in his thirteenth year, having previously attended successively good private schools at Brighton, Hampton, and Paris. In Paris he acquired a mastery of the French language, which he has since found of the greatest benefit. His interest in French politics is at least as keen as in those of his own country. He is on terms of intimacy with nearly all the great men of the Third Republic, with whom he has so much more in common than with the ruck of English Liberals.
Excellent busts of Hugo and Gambetta—the best I have seen—adorn his mantel-piece at The Chestnuts, Wimbledon, where all things bespeak the apple-pie order of the captain's cabin. One room is entirely hung with marine drawings, consisting chiefly of ships in which the owner had sailed. His first ship, which he joined on passing the examination then set to cadets, was "The Raleigh," Captain Sir Thomas Herbert. "The Raleigh" sailed for the South American station, where she remained for three years. There was a naval brigade on shore to protect the town of Montevideo; and "The Raleigh" lay lazily off the coast to succor the marines if need were, "as idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean." These three years Maxse as good as completely lost. He was supposed to learn navigation; but the chaplain, who was his instructor, knew little or nothing about the subject which he was supposed to teach.
In his sixteenth year he returned to England, but was speedily again afloat as midshipman in H.M.S. "Frolic," Captain Vansittart. "The Frolic" went to the Mediterranean. In 1852 he served as lieutenant on board H,M. sloop "Espiègle " in the West Indies, whence he was invalided home just in time to take part in the Crimean war. He was appointed acting flag-lieutenant to Sir Edmund Lyons, and sailed for the scene of conflict. No sooner had the allied troops disembarked than his commanding officer recognized his special fitness to act as naval aide-de-camp to Lord Raglan. He was attached to the headquarter staff in naval uniform, but with a cavalry sword. Prompt, daring, intelligent, an opportunity for earning distinction was not long in occurring. He carried an important message to the fleet from headquarters, riding across the head of the Bay of Sebastopol, a distance of fifteen miles, through a territory alive with Cossacks and fugitive Russian regulars. Happily the gallant youth accomplished his task in safety; but it might well have been otherwise. So much was Lord Raglan impressed with this act of courage that he made it the subject of special commendation in an early despatch, and young Maxse was at once promoted to the rank of commander. The admiral, who is as modest as he is brave, makes light of the matter; but the example was much needed, and it had its effect on older officers, who, it may be remembered, were at the time much hampered in the discharge of their military duties by "urgent private affairs." Maxse was subsequently engaged in the battle of Inkermann, and witnessed "the six hundred" ride "into the jaws of death, into the mouth of hell," at Balaklava; his brother. Col. Fitzhardinge Maxse, acting on the occasion as aide-de-camp to Lord Cardigan. On the death of Lord Raglan, whose memory he fondly cherishes, he returned with his remains to England on board H.M.S. "Caradoc," and was shortly afterwards appointed to the command of the steam-corvette "Ariel" in the Mediterranean. Thereafter his promotion in the service was, and would have continued, rapid; but circumstances arose which tended materially to divert his thoughts from purely professional objects.
Maxse's education had been purely naval. It ought, I think, to have been literary or philosophic. Ideas take possession of him with overpowering force. He is their servant rather than their master. He has read extensively and closely, but with passion,—I do not say prejudice. The consequence is, that he is at times apt to see objects in considerable disproportion,—a defect which a more systematic scholastic training in youth would have done much to cure. While yet a "middy," he had read star-eyed Shelley; and the humanitarian impression made on his mind has never been effaced. The seeds of Radicalism were thus early laid, though they took some little time to germinate.
"There is no wind but soweth seeds
Of a more true and open life,
Which burst, unlooked for, into high-souled deeds,
With wayside beauty rife."
Let us hear the admiral's own account of his conversion to the gospel of aggressive Radicalism: "My profession has been that of a naval officer. I was brought up to the tune of 'Rule Britannia' and 'Britons never shall be slaves.' Ignorant of politics, when at sea I was indifferent to politics. If I had been polled for my vote as a young lieutenant, I dare say I should have voted Conservative, indifferentism forming a main element of Conservatism. What made me an active politician was, when I came to live on shore, observing the condition of the English agricultural laborers, I found that a large number of Britons were slaves,—slaves to artificial oppressive circumstances, for the maintenance of which the governing classes stood, in my eyes, responsible; and upon the discovery of this I determined, that, if during the whole of my life I could carry but a single handful of earth towards the foundation of a better state of society, that handful I would carry." Accordingly, the admiral, acting on his well-worn maxim, "People who do not care for politics do not care for their fellow-creatures," has twice, as has been said, sought the suffrages of popular constituencies.
At Southampton, in 1868, he addressed himself more particularly to questions affecting the land and education. He is a fluent, forcible speaker, too earnest to be amusing, but always attractive because instructive. You feel that his mind is made up, and that what he says he will infallibly perform. But he does not see the by-play of electioneering; and, from sheer honesty of purpose and detestation of chicane, he falls into the most obvious traps laid for him by the enemies of his cause. "Leading questions" are put to him, which he answers with ruinous candor. He knows nothing of the Scotsman's art of answering one inconvenient question by asking another. He seems never even to have profited by the illustrious example of Mr. Gladstone's "three courses," which intimates to the caviller, "You pays your money, and you gets your choice." It is seemingly impossible to get into the admiral's head what is almost an axiom in electioneering; viz., that the shortest line that can be drawn between two political points is often a mighty circumbendibus. Neither at Southampton nor in the Tower Hamlets did the gallant admiral evince the smallest appreciation of these elementary campaigning truths.
In the Tower Hamlets, though personally an abstainer, he took strong ground against the Permissive Bill; and he would have nothing to do with the publicans. Both parties, of course, voted against him. Again: Liberal churchmen would have none of him because of his Strong advocacy of disestablishment; while the Nonconformists, to their everlasting discredit, threw him completely overboard because of his advanced views regarding the opening of museums on Sundays. The committee of the Tower Hamlets Nonconformist Liberal Association had actually the indecency to issue a manifesto during the contest, wherein, after premising that they had carefully considered the claims of the various candidates, they went on to say, "Captain Maxse, by his advocacy of the opening of museums on Sunday and his sympathies in favor of 'home rule,' precluded a consideration of his name." This being the enlightened verdict of Little Bethel, the defeat of the Radical candidate is not, perhaps, much to be wondered at, especially when it is added that only seventeen thousand electors took the trouble to go to poll for five candidates out of a constituency of thirty-two thousand. Some of these "fixes" the gallant admiral could never be put in again; the advocates of the Permissive Bill, for example, having themselves abandoned their measure, and in its stead substituted "local option," a change of front which will enable Admiral Maxse and many other genuine Radicals in future to render them willing aid. By way of equivalent it will be their duty to help to keep off the land-sharks that prey on candidates of such exceptional honesty of purpose as the admiral. His high courage, resolute purpose, and lofty enthusiasm would be a very clear addition of strength to the flaccid Radicalism of St. Stephen's. His failings outside Parliament would very closely resemble virtues inside.
Admiral Maxse's name is closely identified with several questions of vital interest to the nation, more particularly with electoral reform, land-tenure reform, religious equality, national education, the enfranchisement of the agricultural laborers, and woman suffrage. He has probed the inequalities of our representative system to the core; and if there be any one who still believes in the delusion that this is a self-governed land, and has any desire to know the naked truth, I cannot do better than recommend him to peruse Maxse's pamphlet, "Whether the Minority of Electors should be represented by a Majority in the House of Commons." Thirty thousand electors, he shows, in small constituencies, elect forty-four members of Parliament, while five hundred and forty-six thousand in large boroughs return only thirty-five. Thirty thousand electors thus outvote five hundred and forty-six thousand. At the last general election eighteen thousand electors of Manchester, who recorded their votes in favor of a candidate, failed to return him; while eighteen thousand electors, living in petty boroughs or rural constituencies, seated no fewer than thirty honorable members! Fourteen thousand electors in Buckinghamshire return eight members; fifty thousand in Lambeth have but two allotted to them.
Commenting on such stupendous anomalies, the admiral indignantly observes, "The splendid outcome of our parliamentary system is that a minority of electors appoint a majority of members of Parliament, and the majority of electors appoint their minority to be steadily outvoted and beaten; and all the while statesmen and journalists vie with one another in national brag, and tell the deluded people that they are blessed above all other peoples in their institutions and in their laws. And the story is circulated so persistently that at last, as people are ultimately convinced by a perpetual advertisement, they think that it is even so."
During the autumn of 1874, chiefly through the exertions of the admiral, was formed the Electoral Reform Association. It had for its chief object the equalization of constituencies, and started with the promise of a most useful career. It made shipwreck, however, unfortunately, over the question of woman suffrage, against which Admiral Maxse set his face with, I think, most injudicious vigor. It is a problem which may be safely left for such goody-goody sentimental people to solve, in their own fashion, as we see voting for incompetent women in preference to competent men in school-board elections. I have read with some curiosity the admiral's "Woman Suffrage, the Counterfeit and the True: Reasons for opposing Both." and can only feel astonishment that he should have been at so much pains to argue so stoutly either on the one side or the other. Female suffrage would have done very well if only the admiral had had the good sense to let it alone. It is a topic which females and feminine men should be permitted wholly to monopolize. It will please them, and do no one much injury.
As a member of the executive council of the Land-Tenure Reform Association, Maxse did yeoman's service. He lectured on the subject in various towns, and always with effect. At the great public meeting held in Exeter Hall in March, 1873, presided over by the late John Stuart Mill, Admiral Maxse moved the first resolution, and anticipated in his speech much that is now being forced on public attention by the agricultural distress which has set in with such severity. The association was perhaps before its time somewhat; but its attitude was prophetic. Maxse's best known pamphlet, which has had a deservedly large circulation, is entitled "The Causes of Social Revolt," being the substance of a lecture delivered in London, Portsmouth, Bradford, Nottingham, and other towns. It will repay careful perusal.
It is not often that Admiral Maxse has concerned himself about foreign affairs; but his letters to "The Morning Post" on "the German yoke" in Alsace-Lorraine were most valuable contributions towards the proper understanding of a nefarious "imperial" proceeding, which, it is safe to prophesy, will yet cause much blood and many tears to be shed. The bravest of the brave and a Crimean hero, he has been throughout our "spirited foreign policy" a steady anti-Jingo and a foe to militarism. Indeed, wherever the admiral has erred, it has been on the side of a frankness rare in English public life. With his aristocratic and professional connections he might years ago have entered Parliament either as a nominee of the Whigs or the Tories. Instead of that, "he humbly joined him to the weaker side" with the usual result. His choice of sides is an eloquent and spontaneous testimony to the grievances endured by the English people at the hands of an oppressive oligarchy. Such men as Frederick Augustus Maxse are an honor to any class, but belong to none. Their capacity for self-sacrifice is their true patent of nobility, and that no sovereign can either confer or take away.