Littell's Living Age/Volume 144/Issue 1856/A Plea for the Eighteenth Century

Littell's Living Age
Volume 144, Issue 1856 : A Plea for the Eighteenth Century by William Stebbing

Originally published in Nineteenth Century.

Mr. Lecky, in his "History of England in the Eighteenth Century," censures the reigns of the first two Georges for the withdrawal of government patronage from literature. Among other instances he gives of the cold shade under which men of letters were allowed to languish, is Tobias Smollett. "Smollett," lamented Mr. Lecky, "was compelled to degrade his noble genius to unworthy political libels, and, at last, after a life which was one long struggle for bread, died in utter poverty in a foreign land." Our age has to blame Sir Robert Walpole and the Duke of Newcastle for the works their neglect cornpelled Smollett to undertake even more than for the possible "Peregrine Pickles" and "Roderick Randorns" it has lost us. To Smollett’s "Continuation of Hume," and the book trade which tyrannically forced it upon several much-enduring generations of readers, must be imputed the extraordinary superstition that the eighteenth century is the most level and monotonous tract of English history. Students of morals, of theology, of politics, of the belles-lettres know what a delusion this is; hut men generally, even when they are readers, are very far from students. It would seem to most persons a paradox, but it would be simple truth, to say that the eighteenth century would be the best period from which to begin the study of the history of England. The real difficulty is that the century is too rich in phases, and that no sooner is attention concentrated on one problem of which the age promises a solution than another and yet another present themselves. Yet this is the century which a multitude of people would pronounce barren. The reigns are supposed to be without human interest which saw to their close the careers of Bolingbroke and Chatham, which had moralists like Butler and Johnson, preachers like Whitefield, an economist like Adam Smith, metaphysicians like Hume and Berkeley, jurists like Hardwicke and Mansfield, a musician like Handel, an actor like Garrick, poets in verse or prose, or both, like Sterne and Goldsmith, novelists like Richardson, and Fielding, and Smollett, a historian like Gibbon, a satirist like Swift, a leader of society like Chesterfield, and an administrator like Walpole. So far from being monotonous, never was there an age fuller of variety and contrasts. Jacobitism and sneers at the divine right, deism and the theology, of the October Club, face each other elsewhere than in the character of St. John; the Church rears at once a Warburton and a Wesley. Parliament acknowledges the sovereignty, now of a Walpole, now of a Pitt. Country gentlemen believe that absolution by an Episcopalian is essential to salvation, and the immortality of the soul dependent on the intervention of a bishop, yet expect their chaplains to rise with the entrance of the pastry, and to marry their wives’ waiting-maids, or worse; passive obedience is taught as an article of faith, but the heir of the king de jure marches through England and gathers scarcely a recruit to his standard; women are whipped at the cart-tail, or publicly burnt to death by the executioner, and Pope is the poet of society. We may be well satisfied that our lives are set in smoother places than an age which shot Byng for an error of judgment, and connived for a dozen years at the wholesale purchase by a minister of Parliamentary votes, which sat by turns at the feet of Hume and of Wesley, believing now in evil spirits, and now in no spirit at all; in which young gentlemen thought it a merry jest to bore out the eyes of quiet wayfarers with their fingers, and wrecking was a vocation; but the period, at all events, cannot be supposed tame and unrelieved by incident, except by those who survey it at such a distance that it becomes a catalogue of names.

The interest of the eighteenth century has suffered in comparison with other periods of English history, partly because it presents none of those epochs which belong to constitutional history in the making, and yet more that its life is so complex, and has so many centres of interest as to appear a confused maze to casual observers. Not merely does the array of Catholicism against Protestant ism lend unity to the reign of Elizabeth, but even its literature has a oneness of its own, which makes Marlowe throw light on Shakespeare, and the prose of Bacon enable us to measure the stately rhythm of Ben Jonson’s verse. The battle of privilege against prerogative is the keynote to the reign of the first Charles. The dreary degradation of England under his son has its special interest too, that we hear through its hollowness the arming of the nation for the last and triumphant vindication of its liberties. England had happily no such mortal combats to wage in the eighteenth century. Anne respected the Constitution, and the Georges had neither the power nor the will to assail it. Abroad hopes were cherished of restoring the Stuarts, but the foreign powers which adopted their cause used them as a mere wheel in a complicated machinery which was designed with a view much more to Continental than to English politics. Readers look upon even the brilliant campaigns of Marl borough with something of the same disgust at their supposed futility from an English point of view as did Harley and St. John. The alliances in the next two reigns with or against France, and with or against Austria, seem to most English men now, as they did to most Englishmen at the times they were contracted, simple devices for wasting English money for the benefit of Dutchmen or Hanoverians. The Septennial Act appears no more than a temporary device for preventing the election of a Tory House of Commons, and Excise Bills, Toleration Acts, and Marriage Acts, show like measures of parochial legislation by the side of the Test and Habeas Corpus Acts of the previous century.

But it is not only that in the eighteenth century the English Constitution has reached the harbor, and the excitement as well as the terror of the tempest is matter of the past; the century as a century, loses in historical interest far more from having so many different points of interest that every one can pick out what he chooses and leave the rest as lumber. The student of the art of war has in the career of Marlborough and Frederick the Great a vein he can work without concerning himself with the tortuous intrigues of Harley, or the place-mongering of Newcastle and Bute. The metaphysician can pit the theologians in whom Queen Caroline delighted against each other, without bestowing a thought on the miracles of political man by which Walpole was converting a nation with a majority of its population still loyal to the cause of the Pretender, old or young, into the most absolute faith that the house of Hanover had reigned from before the Conquest. The Methodist, as he traces the crusade the authors of his creed led against latitudinarian and moral theology, is hardly conscious that Pitt was rivaling Demosthenes in the House of Commons, and adding Canada and India to the British empire. The novel-reader, as he dwells on the sorrows of Clarissa Harlowe, or the adventures of Joseph Andrews, or even the barbed experiences of Gulliver, does not pause to consider what a flood of light on contemporary society is shed by the first two, and on contemporary politics by the last. Only the student who regards the century as a whole, in its letters, its philosophy, its divinity, and its politics, knows how completely they illustrate each other, and that all considered together would present a microcosm of national life in which might be discerned not only what England was in the days of Bolingbroke and Walpole, but what it had been in the days of Laud, and was to be in those of Canning and Peel.

Certain periods of history are like watersheds. It is possible to see in them currents flowing down into the plains on either side. The eighteenth century is one of those periods. Therein lies its special value to students of history, and also perhaps the secret of the repulsion it exercises on those who are not. The mass of the people still revered the dogmas which had been living realities in the seventeenth century; their rulers repeated them; but protests had already begun to be raised against them; and means had been found to nullify their practical effect. The Test Act remained in force. In vain Swift mocked, and Speaker Onslow deplored, a law which, as Cowper complained,

            made the symbols of atoning grace,
      An office key, a picklock to a place.

Yet though the act was on the statute-book its operation was neutralized. Whig Parliaments and ministers rejected by overwhelming majorities proposals for its repeal; but they passed annual indemnity acts which rendered it nugatory. The act which punished witchcraft with death was repealed in 1736, but five persons, according to Dr. Parr, had been executed for this imaginary crime at Northampton so late as 1722; the lower classes clung to their belief in witches; and the early Methodist preachers vaunted their rescues of the victims of demoniacal possession. Henry Pelham passed in 1755 an act for legalizing naturalization of Jews; it had been introduced first in the House of Lords, and had there received the assent of the bishops; but Conservative members complained that ministers were welcoming a people that, as soon as they had obtained power through the elevation of Queen Esther, used it to "put to death in two days seventy-six thousand of those whom they were pleased to call their enemies without either judge or jury." The fear of another Feast of Purim was so great that Mr. Pelham had, in 1756, to repeal the law. An act passed in the reign of George the First forbade Popish recusants to come within ten miles of London, and gave them the alternative, on their refusal to recant Catholicism, of exile or death. But such laws were enacted more to keep up the tradition of English irreconcilability with Rome, than from any serious thought of putting them in operation in England. While Parliament menaced the believers in transubstantiation with death, the clergy preached a gospel of which it might have been much more truly said than was alleged by Whitefield of Tillotson, that it had "as little of true Christianity as the religion of Mahomet." Wilson was evangelizing the Isle of Man, and Butler reconciling faith and reason; at the same time the minister who controlled the ecclesiastical patronage of England for nearly a generation laid it down as his principle of selection, that he "would no more employ a man to govern and influence the clergy who did not flatter the parsons, than he would make a man chancellor who was constantly complaining of the grievances of the bar, and threatening to rectify the abuses of Westminster Hall." The same minister had a fine taste for art, and understood obscenity to be equivalent to wit. The kingdom was yearly growing in wealth; hut the poor-rates and the amount of able-bodied pauperism kept steadily increasing. It was growing in general intelligence, yet Whitefleld found close to Bristol, the second city in the empire, a population of many thousands "sunk in the most brutal ignorance and vice, and entirely excluded from the ordinances of religion." "Crime was so rampant that," wrote Horace Walpole, "one is forced to travel even at noon as if one were going to battle." Drunkenness had so lost shame that retailers of gin were in the habit of painting announcements outside their houses that men could be made "drunk for a penny, dead drunk for twopence, and should have straw for nothing." Past the middle of the century a panic was aroused by the reform of the calendar, and people thought they had been robbed of eleven days of life. In the mean time Clarke was popularizing the philosophy of Newton, and Berkeley sounding the depths of metaphysics.

The nation had not awoke to the calls of philanthropy; it could give 100,000l. to the relief of the sufferers by the earthquake of Lisbon; but a few men like Oglethorpe had not yet succeeded in making charity fashionable. As Mr. Lecky says: "In no respect does the legislation of this period present a more striking contrast to that of the nineteenth century than in the almost complete absence of attempts to alleviate the social condition of the poorer classes, or to soften the more repulsive features of English life." Not only was there a complete want of sympathy with other types of humanity, but there was little appearance of any with its own. The kingdom continued to insist on its monopoly of the supply of African slaves to the Spanish West Indies, and its own laws against domestic crimes were as savage as its measures to repress crime were inefficient. A hundred and sixty offences were punishable with death. There was neither pity for the criminal, nor horror at the crime, but there was a great deal of curiosity. Famous offenders, like Jack Sheppard and Dr. Dodd, were exhibited by the turnkeys in the press-room for two hours before execution at a shilling a head. Criminals had the chance of being released from jail by the hangman; insolvent debtors at the Fleet and the Marshalsea might linger for years amid horrors unspeakable till small-pox or jail-fever ransomed them. Yet Englishmen who viewed these atrocities of their law as matters of course, cherished a keen suspicion of designs against their liberty. They scented despotism in Walpole’s wisely-conceived Excise Bill, and plots against their commerce in Bolingbroke’s project for a treaty of free trade with France; but they outlawed three-quarters of the population of Ireland, and did all that in them lay to destroy the whole of its trade. The House of Commons was made up half of placemen. For a member to be reputed inaccessible to a bribe weighed down the odium of a life passed in concerting schemes for subverting the dynasty. "Parliament," says Mr. Lecky, "was thoroughly vicious in its constitution, narrow, corrupt, and often despotic in its tendencies;" yet it reflected fairly enough the national will, and registered obediently the national decision that this minister should resign and that minister govern.

The first George remained a petty German prince to his death, and the second, though he could speak a kind of English, cared more for the electorate than all the fortunes of England. But they never violated the British Constitution, or pillaged the public domain, and their wars, whether or not undertaken in the interests of Hanover, were more fruitful to England than the great victories of Marlborough. Their court was mean and coarse, and their private lives did not bear inspection; but their German environings set them apart from ordinary English society, and their vices did not injure the tone of public life a hundredth part as much as the profligacy of Charles the Second, or even of James. Their subjects did not affect to love or admire them. They sympathized heartily with Pitt’s invectives against George the Second’s "absurd, ungrateful, and perfidious partiality for Hanover." But they had accepted them for their sovereigns once for all. The sentimental devotion to the house of Stuart professed by millions when George the First ascended the throne, and not repudiated during the reign of his son, was a mere will-o’-the-wisp deluding foreign powers into a belief that they could retort attacks from England by lighting the flames of civil war. The nation burst into periodical paroxysms of passion for war; but it hired Hessians to fight its battles. Englishmen who thought it quite natural that the kingdom should mix itself with European politics, and the quarrels of thrones based on enormous armies, continued to declaim against standing armies in England.. Lord Bath lamented in 1760, when the nation was exulting in the triumphs of the Seven Years’ War, that "our nobility, born to be the guardians of the Constitution against prerogative, solicit the badge of military subjection, not merely to serve their country in times of danger, which would be commendable, but in expectation of being continued soldiers when tranquillity shall be restored." Above all, the erection of bar- racks was resisted, even by so calm and temperate a jurist as Blackstone; and a soldier like General Wade acknowledged that "the people of this kingdom have been taught to associate the ideas of barracks and slavery, like darkness and the devil." They saw nothing so very atrocious in the manning of the navy by the pressgang; nor did they extend their tenderness for their own liberties to any regard for the condition of the soldiers. These were so scandalously neglected that in 1707, sickness, want of firing, bad barracks, and desertion reduced the garrison of Portsmouth by half in less than a year and a half.

The picture of the eighteenth century, as painted by Mr. Lecky, has abundance of harsh shadows. The shadows are, perhaps, painted a little deeper than they need have been ; and exceptions may have been sometimes offered as instances. But the account as a whole is scarcely exaggerated. The charge, however, popularly brought against the age is not that it was immoral and cruel, but that it was dull. On the contrary, the century, if only it be looked at close enough, is seen to be full of life and color. It was a hard fate for a writer whose bold and vivid pen sketched, so that they actually live before us, the varied phases of English life, from the country squire’s household and the miseries of a British man-of-war, to the humors of a prime minister’s levée in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, that the necessity of supporting existence should have compelled him to libel his own times by a history which is about as broadly philosophical as an Annual Register, and as absolutely without the local color of an Annual Register as one of Pinnock’s Catechisms. But the task in which Smollett did not attempt to succeed is not one to be lightly undertaken. The only mode in which it could be really achieved would be by treating the century more as matter for a drama than a history. Lord Macaulay might have done it; but it would have been necessary for him to live to a hundred instead of to sixty. Mr. Lecky has produced two charming volumes, generous and liberal in sentiment, picturesque in style, and running over with information, laboriously collected and skilfully sifted. He has selected St. John and Walpole, and Pitt and Wesley, as types of the movements and counter-movements of the century, or rather its first three quarters. He has admirably delineated their characters and careers, and he has connected them with groups of essays, full of the variety, and point, and thought we should have anticipated from his previous works, on the social and political phenomena of the time, and the prejudiced mistakes of Mr. Froude. But when we have read them we find ourselves still asking, "What, then, is the secret of the eighteenth century? What has it which other centuries of English history have not? What has it not which they have?"

A history of society would he the truest history of the eighteenth century. Its work was the fusion of classes. The English Constitution was formed by a series of struggles from the reign of John to that of William the Third. The reigns of Anne and the Georges could contribute nothing to the history of the Constitution in its broad outlines. Those had already been defined before the century opened; but the full operation of the Constitution was as yet far from ascertained. Its principles were understood, but they had not been thoroughly applied. The present century has shown, by its Reform Acts, and its repeal of an infinity of legal disabilities and some legal immunities, that the Constitution had not been followed out to its logical conclusions. It has shown by its financial and commercial measures that the State often interfered formerly when its interference was useless or worse. It has shown by its factory and educational legislation that it omitted formerly to interfere when it was its duty to interfere. But it is only in tracing the history of the eighteenth century that we begin to be conscious of such shortcomings in the State and the legislature. We are ready to’ complain of the age for being barren of the political and social reforms in which the nineteenth century has been rich. We do not censure the seventeenth century for such deficiencies, for in those times we never expect to find them supplied. The intermingling of classes which set in with the Revolution, and was encouraged by the Whig régime, gave Parliament, in spite of all its rotten boroughs, a sense that it represented the whole of the nation, and inspired courage to interfere with class interests. In the seventeenth, as in earlier centuries, different classes had allied to secure the nation’s constitutional rights against the crown and court; but there was no solid fusion. Occasionally a member of one class passed into another, but he ceased to belong to the class he had sprung from. Trade and manufactures and financing were the social solvent which the last century applied to England. The great landowners bought out the small; but contractors of loans and merchants, and, later in the century, the so-called "nabobs" bought out both. Even borough-mongering, with all its mischievous and immoral scandals, promoted the general tendency by tempering the dominant country-gentleman element in Parliament with the capitalist element. Government by a Whig aristocracy, or oligarchy, gave vogue to the economical aspects of politics which Whiggism had always encouraged. When the House of Lords displayed as much interest in the Bank Charter as in the balance of power in Europe, the House of Commons,.. notwithstanding only landowners could be members, was not likely to resist very successfully the tendency of the age to attach special importance to trade and commerce. Mr. Lecky says: "A competition of economy reigned in all parties. The questions which excited most interest in Parliament were chiefly financial and commercial ones." A century in which a Parliament, with a majority made up of country gentlemen, attends more closely to finance and trade than to questions of constitutional safeguards and foreign politics, is already on the threshold of current history. Mr. Lecky is surprised that St. John could not win favor for his proposed treaty of commerce with France. On the contrary, the wonder is not that merchants were so short-sighted as not to perceive the advantages of free trade with France, but that the merchants possessed power to rouse the passionate interest of the whole country in the defeat of a measure which they feared might diminish the profits of a class. Mr. Lecky points out the rottenness of a multitude of constituencies. Nothing was done to cure the evil in the eighteenth century; but in the eighteenth century the scandal of rotten boroughs began to be understood and condemned. In the reigns of Elizabeth, and even Charles the First, there were as many rotten boroughs; but they caused little or no odium. The country took them for granted, and candidates for them could scarcely be found.

The eighteenth century is so much more like the century which followed than those which preceded, that the temptation is natural to compare it with later times rather than the earlier. Thus Mr. Lecky remarks, as we have seen, that "in no respect does the legislation of this period present a more striking contrast to that of the nineteenth century than in the almost complete absence of attempts to alleviate the social condition of the poorer classes, or to soften the more repulsive features of English life." It is perfectly true, just as is his other observation that "the vast development of the British empire, and of manufacturing industry, the extension of publicity, and the growth of an inquiring and philanthropic spirit that discerns abuses in every quarter, have together immeasurably increased both the range and the complexity of legislation. In the early Hanoverian period the number of questions treated was very small, and few subjects were much attended to which did not directly affect party interests." But no one would think of blaming the Parliaments of James the First, or Charles the Second, for not reforming social abuses, or providing wholesome dwellings for the working classes. Parliament in those days did not strive to soften repulsive features of English life, because it had no sense of an obligation to interfere with such matters. It had no sense of such an obligation, because classes were not sufficiently intermingled to make the representatives of the nation feel that they had the right or duty to meddle with matters which were the concern of private persons. By the reign of George the Second Parliament was coming to understand that it was answerable for the whole country. When Mr. Lecky expresses surprise at the inertness it showed in accepting its liability, he is measuring the age by a standard still in process of creation.

Englishmen were studying each other in the eighteenth century; they had not yet formed the conception that they might or ought to legislate for the conduct of each other’s homes. An Englishman’s house was still his castle; but a castle ceases to be much of a fastness when the minutest details of its internal arrangements become the concern of all its neighbors. The eighteenth century was an age when the favorite classic was Horace, and the favorite poet was Pope, who never wrote a line which was not an epigram, and did not inclose a portrait. The jewels of his verse, so exquisitely cut that we pardon some want of purity in the water, occupy a niche in English literature from which they will never be dislodged. But we can form but a faint surmise of the impression they must have made on his contemporaries. We admire the archer and listen with literary delight to the sharp whirr of the arrow; his own age followed it to its mark, and shuddered or mocked at the scream of its victim. Every line of Pope is a witness how, in the eighteenth century, courtiers and citizens, statesmen and men of letters, watched one another in cities; every page of Boswell tells how they conversed. Later on Crabbe records, in tales which our generation has not the wit to appreciate, how the same spirit of personal criticism moved the village. Classes were breaking up and melting into each other. The town was experimenting in rural life, though satisfied as yet to acclimatize itself at Bath and Tunbridge Wells, and try the pleasures, hitherto unknown, of the seashore. The country was migrating to the towns. A wave of mutual curiosity was rolling over and through English society. Dettingen and Minden were toughly contested fields, and Frederick’s campaigns had a certain political importance to England; but to the England of the Georges they were most of all important as furnishing illimitable themes for talk. Chesterfield lamented after the Convention of Closterseven, that "we were no longer a nation." Are we to suppose that he ceased his polished trifling for an afternoon, or savored a scandalous anecdote a whit the less? Methodism scourged the frivolities of life; but like every other movement of the times, it has the same effect of rendering one class inquisitive as to the sayings and doings of every other class. It was no age for those who

      Do not much delight in personal talk.

The English lakes had not yet been discovered. Such recluses had to take refuge, like Cowper, in some remote village from the life of busy idleness Walpole depicts. Even on the banks of the Ouse they could not escape being touched themselves with the humor of their time.

The century has bequeathed us letters like Lady Mary’s and Walpole’s, which were written to a sister or friend, but addressed to a circle, diaries which are a gallery of miniature, vers de societé, still witty though blurred to us by time, comedies which keep the stage and kill their modern rivals, and novels which inspired "Waverley" and "Pickwick," and which "Waverley" and "Pickwick" have not superannuated. The belles-lettres of the eighteenth century embody ifs history, and a sparkling history it is. So studied, its brilliancy and variety are precisely proportionate to its dreary monotony when read in Parliamentary history and gazettes. But to study it as it deserves to be studied needs leisure and insight which few can bring. The secret of a period furrowed by a reformation or a civil war, can be learned by those who would never have discovered it; it is hard to teach the true character of a period when its charm is the perpetual shifting of its lights and shadows, and the transitions from one stage to another. Yet if, from the nature of things, Mr. Lecky can present to us no bird’s-eye view of the century, his pages offer in their author the most convincing, because himself the most convinced, of witnesses to the fascination of its history. Its personages are portrayed by him with a loving minuteness of detail; it muse be a dull reader who can resist the contagion of the historian’s own obvious interest in the oddities and eccentricities of its society. No pains bestowed on the exploration of such a period are in fact thrown away, though the labor may not result in more than a series of eloquent and picturesque sketches. It is the drama of the nineteenth century which is being rehearsed in the eighteenth. The players do not know their parts; the prompter’s voice breaks the unity of the action there is no audience but the company of the theatre; and the author seems to have not yet decided upon the dénoûment. But, on the other hand, there is an absence of formality which atones for much confusion; we see how the points are made which give the piece its final success, and we hear the stage directions. The two centuries of English history must be studied together to understand either. We can observe in the earlier preparations making for the work the later has done. In the one the legislative history is the more instructive, in the other the history of society and of thought. England has won greater political triumphs in other centuries than the eighteenth, and has produced a nobler literature; but on those who love to talk face to face with another age than their own, there is no period in English history which will fasten a tighter grasp.