Eminent English liberals in and out of Parliament/Peter Alfred Taylor
PETER ALFRED TAYLOR.
"And I have walked with Hampden and with Vane,
Names once so gracious in an English ear."
HAVING now portrayed, however imperfectly, our two most illustrious Radical statesmen,—Mr. Gladstone and Mr. Bright, I come to deal with one who is not a statesman,—who makes no pretension to statesmanship,—but who, as a politician, has nevertheless "been fashioned unto much honor." His name will not be found, I think, even among that multitude which no man can number, the "Men of the Times." Nor is the omission so culpable as may at first sight appear; for Mr. P. A. Taylor belongs at once to the Radical past and the Radical future rather than to the opportunist present. He is the most unique figure in the House of Commons,—a man who, in the days of the Long Parliament, would have been after gentle Lucy Hutchinson's own republican heart, and who, in those of Queen Victoria, has been best appreciated by such gifted pioneers of progress as Mazzini and Mill. He has now represented Leicester in Parliament for eighteen years, and all that time he has neither led nor followed,—neither been misled by the leaders of his party, nor been found following the multitude to do evil. If he has led at any time, it has been as the captain of forlorn hopes, the champion of forgotten rights, the redresser of unheeded wrongs. He is the Incorruptible of the House. In evil and in good report he has striven to subject every issue that has presented itself to the test of general principles of human well-being.
I am not now considering whether he has been uniformly right in particular deductions from these principles: he may, or he may not. All I say is, that he has been uniformly true to his principles from his youth up. They alone have been his leaders. Of "doctrines fashioned to the varying hour," he has known nothing, and, from the constitution of his mind, will never know.
Mr. Taylor is generally considered an eccentric member; but his eccentricity is wholly on the surface. Once understand his principles, or rather solitary principle of action,—viz., that liberty, liberty, liberty, is the best of all things in all things political, religious, social, or commercial,—and the course which the senior member for Leicester will pursue on any given question may be predicted almost with mathematical certainty.
I always remember a curiously instructive telegraphic summary of a speech delivered by Mr. Taylor to his constituents about the time of the republican agitation in 1870. It was a model of compression; but it illustrates admirably what I have been saying. It appeared among other items of "election news," and ran thus: "Mr. P. A. Taylor, the member for Leicester, addressed his constituents last night. He declared for the republic and against the Permissive Bill." I don't know whether the intelligent reporter saw any irony in the juxtaposition into which the republic and the Permissive Bill were thus brought; but sure I am that Mr. Taylor would have recognized none. According to his views, the one was in favor of, the other in opposition to, liberty. Hence his support and his antagonism. Both flowed naturally from the same source,—a source at once of strong personal conviction and ancestral pride.
It may appear somewhat strange to attribute ancestral pride to an out-and-out democrat like Mr. Taylor; but it is impossible fully to understand his character without taking the markedly liberal tendencies of his forefathers, both in politics and religion, into account. Mr. Taylor may be described as a hereditary Radical of two and a half centuries standing.
The pseudo-science of heraldry is coming to have an unexpected value as an aid to the study of the laws of heredity. Mental, like physical characteristics, are shown to persist and recur from generation to generation, contrary to all our preconceived notions of the determining causes of the opinions of individuals and the way in which they are formed. The acquisition of riches is vulgarly supposed to make the best of Radicals Conservatives. Self-interest, it is held, induces them instinctively to throw in their lot with the privileged classes; but the history of some of the most respectable and well-to-do families in England proves the very opposite. The instinct in favor of progress may fail for a generation; but it soon reappears.
Mr. Taylor's genealogy is in itself a standing refutation of ordinarily accepted theories. The name is distinctly of plebeian origin; but, as early as the reign of Edward III., Mr. Taylor's progenitors possessed large estates in Huntingdonshire. They "bore arms" of course; and evidently with the desire, if possible, to aristocratize their name, they called themselves Taylards. And this continued to be the spelling till the close of the sixteenth century, when the patronymic was restored to the more ancient plebeian form by an irate Taylard who considered that he had had enough of aristocracy. The head of the family had died, leaving a pregnant wife behind him, and a will which intentionally or otherwise omitted the normal word "male." A girl was born; and an astute gentleman, named Brudenell, who afterwards became Earl of Cardigan, married the heiress and her estates in her fourteenth year. The Taylards took the matter into chancery, but failed to secure the succession; and, being greatly impoverished, their chief representative came to London, and established himself on the spot where Messrs. Longmans' well-known publishing-house now stands as plain "Mr. Taylor, Haberdasher."
He prospered in business, and was asupporter of the Commonwealth, which rewarded his zeal by several important appointments. He was a warm friend of the regicides, and added to his political misconduct religious heresy. He ably defended the noted Socinian preacher of the day, Goodwin.
At the Restoration, William Taylor, son of this republican haberdasher, was pardoned by Charles II. for his father's manifold offences on the payment of a heavy fine,—pardoned (he was but fourteen!) "for all manners of treacheries, crimes, treasons, misprisions, … all and singular murders."
Passing rapidly down the stream of time, we come to the Rev. Henry Taylor of Portsmouth, who matriculated at Cambridge University in 1729. He is better known as Ben Mordecai, from the production of a very clever book entitled "The Apology of Benjamin Ben Mordecai for embracing Christianity." He possessed all the family characteristics in an eminent degree. In religion he was an Arian and a Universalist, and neither menace nor persuasion could ever induce him to read the Athanasian Creed from his pulpit. He tried hard to get the Prayer Book reformed, and all but succeeded in procuring the objects for which Broad Churchmen still sigh. He denounced the game-laws, and would not turn on his heel to be introduced to royalty when it came in his way. Albeit a churchman, he was in all respects the prototype of the honorable member for Leicester,—Radical in politics as in religion, with a caustic vein of drollery, of which the following extract from a circular to the clergy, found among his papers, may serve as a specimen. It reminds one forcibly of Mr. Taylor's own very clever contribution to the "Pen and Pencil Club," styled "Realities." It is fittingly labelled "Impudent," and begins: "One hundred and fifty sermons, such as are greatly admired and are but little known, engraved in a masterly running-hand, printed on stout writing-paper, and made to resemble manuscript as nearly as possible; in length from twenty to twenty-five minutes, as pithy as possible, intelligible to every understanding, and as fit to be preached to a polite as to a country congregation," &c.
Nor is Mr. Taylor descended from a Radical stock on the paternal side alone. His maternal grandfather was George Courtauld, who travelled much on philanthropic missions in America, and was the fast friend of Dr. Priestley and Thomas Paine. The first of the Courtaulds is said in infancy to have been smuggled to England in a pannier by his Huguenot guardians at the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Not only was George Courtauld a zealous Unitarian, but his political sympathies appear also to have been republican. Writing from America to a relative in England, he shrewdly remarks, "I cannot but think with Mr. Paine that you have no constitution. You have, indeed, a form of government; but how you came by that it is very difficult to say,—certainly it was not that form which, after mature deliberation, the people of England chose for themselves."
Within the last few years Lord Beaconsfield has demonstrated to all whom it may concern that Mr. Taylor's grandfather and Mr. Paine were not far wrong in divining that the English people have "no constitution," only "a form of government," which, in the hands of a despotic Minister, may be twisted into the most dangerous imperialistic shape. "Our glorious constitution "is a political imposture and superstition which the member for Leicester, the descendant of such a clear-sighted race of iconoclasts, can hardly be expected to swallow without protest.
Mr. P. A. Taylor, M.P., was born in London in 1819. He is the eldest son of Peter Alfred Taylor, of the old and highly respected firm of Courtauld, Taylor, & Courtauld, silk-manufacturers. Booking, Braintree, Halstead. He was educated in the first instance at the Unitarian school at Brighton, then taught by the Rev. J. P. Malleson. At fourteen years of age he was removed to London, and for a short time he attended University College.
Of the Unitarians, as a sect, it has been wittily said. that, if they can only see their way to believe in one God, they invariably pay twenty shillings in the pound. They are an eminently rational, upright, and progressive people; and politica113^ their services to the country have been invaluable. In all respects Mr. Taylor's educational and social advantages were of the most enviable kind. His father was an ardent opponent of the corn laws, of church rates, and of a limited franchise. The friends of Mr. Taylor's youth were reformers of the highest intellectual grasp, including Mill, Mazzini, Col. Perronet Thomson, and Ebenezer Elliot, the corn-law rhymer.
The man, however, to whom Mr. Taylor owed most was the celebrated W. J. Fox, the minister of Southplace Chapel, Finsbury, where the Taylors, father and son, attended for many years. Mr. Fox was a preacher of extraordinary talent and energy. From being the "Norwich Weaver-Boy," he became simultaneously minister of the most intellectual congregation in the metropolis, member of Parliament for Oldham; and last, not least, he wielded the powerful pen of "Publicola" in "The "Weekly Dispatch." After his death, Mr. Taylor, in one of the best speeches he ever delivered, said of him, with much truth, "His political principles were not so weakly based that he feared to trace the result in the history of various kinds of government; nor his religion so poorly grounded as to fear scientific inquiry. He searched after truth, and followed wherever it might lead him." In portraying Fox's virtues, Mr. Taylor described the leading features of his own mind.
Very early in life Mr. Taylor entered his father's business, for which he showed aptitude of the highest order, and by 1866 he was able to retire from the firm with a handsome competency. This fact is all the more gratifying that for upwards of twenty years previously he had been giving up much of his time to the public service.
In quitting connection with the firm, Mr. Taylor addressed a characteristic circular to all the employés. "My friends," it said among other things, "with the close of the old year has ceased, as you all probably are aware, my connection with the business, and therefore with you. I cannot let such a connection cease without just one word of kindly farewell, of hearty good wishes. In wishing you farewell, I reflect with satisfaction that the name of Taylor will still be represented in the house by my brother. Finally, let me say, that, should my name ever reach you in connection with any question of public interest, I can promise beforehand that it will only be on the side ever upheld by my father before me,—that, viz., of justice for all, and of political enfranchisement for the working-classes."
In Parliament Mr. Taylor is rapt and solitary, living in the world of his own ideas. Nevertheless, his singleness of purpose, accuracy of statement, genuine humor, originality of ideas, and clear, effective speaking never fail to secure for him a respectful hearing, however distasteful may be the subject of his address. At home he is a delightful host, an inveterate joker of jokes. His wife, a lady of great accomplishments, is hardly behind him in zeal for the public good. Every post brings heaps of letters from aggrieved subjects of her Majesty in all parts of the world. They are all carefully considered, and parliamentary or extra-parliamentary redress invoked, according to circumstances. In his capacity of redresser-general of unheeded wrongs and oppressions, Mr. Taylor has quite a business to attend to; and in this character have some of his greatest senatorial successes been achieved.
He is the terror of the "great unpaid," whose cruel antics throughout rural England he has done much to curb. Every day "justices' justice" is more of a byword and a reproach. He has striven hard to remove the inequalities of Sunday legislation; and the poor of London in particular owe him a debt of gratitude for taking the sting out of the great harasser of then lives, that too "busy bee," Bee Wright. It is but the other day that Mr. Taylor, at a cost of more than ten thousand dollars, presented the workingmen of Brighton with a People's Club, which will secure to them on Sundays something like the advantages of a local Carlton or Reform.
In the attempt to bring General Eyre to justice, he was hardly less active than Mr. Mill.
The "cat," he has satisfied all humane minds, is twice accursed,—cursing him that administers, and him to whom it is administered.
The game-laws he has had the courage to expose in all then naked infamy to a country still held tight in the vice of feudalism.
He has been one of three in resisting the spoliation of the exchequer by royal princes and princesses; and the most important perhaps of all future parliamentary reforms—the payment of members—he has made peculiarly his own. His speech on the latter subject is one of the most convincing ever delivered by him or any other living member of the House.
As president of the "People's International League," Mr. Taylor in his younger days was untiring in his endeavors to liberate Poland, Hungary, and Italy from the oppressor's grasp. By voice, pen, and purse, he did his best for the popular cause.
The only conspicuous blunder of his life was his advocacy^ of the Crimean war in opposition to Cobden and Bright. The wrongs of Poland rankled in his breast and blinded his judgment, as it fatally darkened the understanding of so many other true friends of freedom. In the American civil war, needless to say, his sympathies were entirely with the North and the policy of abolition, of which he had long been a -strenuous advocate.
In America the name of P. A. Taylor is perhaps as well known as in England, and it will be better known to posterity than to his contemporaries. Nor is this to be wondered at; for in this royalty and aristocracy ridden land the member for Leicester is a "rare" figure, and precious as he is rare. He is, in a sense, a "survival" from the great era of the Commonwealth,—a mind of the type of Vane, Ludlow, Hutchinson, Scott, and Hazelrig,—an idealist in politics, but withal a practical idealist. He is more human than English, his principles being more or less applicable to all times and to all places. Having embraced a principle, he holds to it with the tenacity of a bull-dog, fearlessly pushing it to its remotest consequences.
This was the distinguishing mental characteristic of all the great republicans of the seventeenth century. Since then an extraordinary blight has fallen on the political intelligence of Englishmen. They waste their best intellect in the defence of palpable anomalies and pernicious compromises. Even Gladstone and Bright have not escaped the contagion of compromise. They go to court, and are caught in the net of "society," which sticks to them like a Nessus shirt. Peter Alfred Taylor has never been caught. He has gone to no court but that of the sovereign people. I honor the man and the constituency which has so long honored itself by honoring him.
"Stainless soldier on the walls,
Knowing this and knows no more,—
Whoever fights, whoever falls,
Justice conquers evermore;
And he who battles on her side,
God, if he were ten times slain,
Crowns him victor glorified,—
Victor over death and pain."