Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/Last week (December 15, 1860)
The Emperor of the French has just shown himself infinitely superior in statesmanship and intelligence to the courtiers whom he has hitherto used rather as the instruments of his policy than as his councillors and colleagues. For some nine years past France has been dumb. For nine years that great country which has contributed so much to the intellectual life of Europe has been struck with the curse of sterility in this respect. What has become of all the great speakers, and writers, and lawyers, and dramatists, and actors, and painters, who exercised so great an influence upon the thoughts, and who so much guided the taste of the human race? Without stopping to inquire whether in all instances this authority was exercised for good—the great intellectual stir and hubbub were a fact. But for nine years, with some inconsiderable exceptions, such as the work of M. E. About upon the Roman Question, there has not been a historical or political publication from the Paris press which has been spoken of in the capitals of other lands. If we make exception of an impure work or two, which had better remain unnamed, there has not for nine years been a work of fiction produced by French writers which deserves the name. What has become of Thiers, Guizot, Barante, Thierry, and of those who should have succeeded them when the hand of death had fallen upon any of the illustrious band? Balzac is gone; Dumas the elder has turned buffoon; Charles de Bernard, the most graceful of French novelists, will write no more pendants to the Femme de Quarante Ans; but where are those legions of busy pens which used day by day to contribute so largely to the amusement of France and of Europe? Lamartine writes no more “Reveries;” Victor Hugo seems to have hung up for ever one of the two only lyres which ever vibrated to French song. Even upon the stage Rachel, Bouffé, Déjazet, have left no successors. The great race of French painters has died out; and, with the exception, perhaps, of Rosa Bonheur, who is there to follow in the footsteps of Paul Delaroche, of Ary Scheffer, of Gudin in his prime? Music, too, that soft art which tyrants love, seems to have died an unnatural death in Paris. The pulpit and the bar have been reduced to equal silence, if we make honourable exception of two or three efforts made by members of the Parisian bar, at the risk of their own fortunes—perhaps of their personal liberty. They went down to plead, as our own great constitutional lawyers did in London in the arbitrary days of the First Charles or the Second James—true to the tradition of their order, and to their own dignity—whatever might be the cost. Of political eloquence the less said the better. The condition of Louis Napoleon’s power has been that he must consign all French orators to the lock-up, or drive them out of a country which they might animate to moral resistance, if not to armed rebellion.
Now the small men whom the French Emperor has been compelled to use as the tools of his policy hitherto have not, as their Master has, the intelligence to comprehend that you cannot kill, though you may stamp under foot for a while, the intellectual energy of such a country as France. The cuckoo cry of all tyrants great or small,—Francis-Joseph, now of Austria, or Squire Western, late of Somersetshire, has always been material well-being for the working classes—but against intellectual struggles—war to the knife! What does a man want more than a belly-full of victuals, and a kind master? It was not so long since in our island there were not wanting buzzards—Honourable Buzzards, too, duly girt with swords as Knights of Shires—who were not ashamed to say that Education was a country’s curse. We—for our parts—have done with human folly in that kind, but it is just in the same spirit that the Mornys and Walewskis of France have counselled the Emperor to maintain the Imperial ban against Genius and Intellect. Louis Napoleon knows better. Shakspeare’s Moor pauses by the lamp in Desdemona’s death-room.
Put out the light—and then—put out the light!
If I quench thee, thou flaming minister, &c.
It is one thing to extinguish a lamp, and another to kill for ever that vital spark by virtue of which the eye sees—the ear hears—the brain understands—the heart thrills with sorrow or joy. Louis Napoleon, too, has paused for a time before his lamp—how dim it now is!—which represents the genius of the French nation—but he has arrived at a happier conclusion than the Moor. The parallel, to be sure, will not hold throughout, for in the war—had war à l’outrance been declared between Cæsar and his legions, on the one side, and that little flame on the other, the flame would have conquered in the long run. Louis Napoleon has had the sense to perceive this. Count Morny offers the extinguisher with a grin.
Amidst the signs of the times which may be looked to with reasonable confidence, here is one. Whenever Louis Napoleon is about to do anything, or to enter upon any course of policy which is really for the good of France, he sends for Count Persigny. Whenever he intends an act, or a course of policy which makes the judicious grieve, the first thing is to get Count Persigny out of the way. This Count Persigny is a Frenchman to the heart’s core, which is his praise. He is a Bonapartist by political conviction, and who shall blame him for sticking fast to his party? More than this, he is a personal adherent of the present French Emperor, tried and found faithful through years of penury and adversity. Thus he has earned the right to speak out, and he does speak out. If Louis Napoleon never heard a word of truth from the lips of any other man, he would hear it from Count Persigny. The late French Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, and actual Minister for the Home Department at Paris, has shown that neither by threats nor by favour, neither by appeals to his fidelity, nor by apprehensions for his own future, can he be induced to give the sanction of his name to a course of policy which he deems injurious to the Emperor, and the Imperial cause. Louis Napoleon knows this, and he knows the value of the man. Neither Count Persigny nor any one else can be said to possess absolute influence over Louis Napoleon in last resort, if his mind were once made up; but in the making of it up, Persigny’s advice, no doubt, counts for much. It may be taken as a great guarantee of the Emperor’s sincerity, that at so critical a time he has entrusted the direction of his domestic policy to Count Persigny. There is harmony between the measures announced, and the man who has been appointed to carry them into effect.
This resolution of Louis Napoleon’s—independently of its influence upon the future fortunes of the French nation—has a direct and positive bearing upon the results of the time. To us, subjects of the British Queen, it is all important, because it is a pledge of peace. We shrink from an armed contest with France, not because we are under the influence of any unworthy apprehensions, nor that we have any reason to dread the issue of the contest more than our forefathers had, but because we know what the inevitable result of such a war must be. The records of Europe are there to show that during eight centuries England and France have attacked each other under many forms, and with alliances of various kinds; and after years of struggle, and misery, and bloodshed, each nation has remained just where it was as regards the other—but not so far advanced in wealth and civilisation as it would have been had the swords remained in the scabbards. What has been, will be—all Armstrong guns, rifled cannon, steam-rams, Minis and Enfield rifles, Cherbourgs and Portsmouths to the contrary notwithstanding. This nation or that might acquire a slight preponderance at the outset of a contest—it is probable enough that such momentary preponderance would not be in favour of England—but after a few years or months of fighting, and when each nation had brought its full strength into play, there would be little indeed—save slaughter—to show on either side in the way of gain. Therefore it is that all Englishmen of the present generation, who have outlived the first hot fervour of their youth, are anxious to avoid the renewal of struggles which have cost so much, and led to so little. Nor if we had it in our power to ensure the destruction of France, ought we to wish it.
The human race would not be the gainers if the continent of Europe were handed over to the stupid despotism of Austrian officers, nor to the guardianship of the Prussian police, as that notable institution is worked out by the Hinckeldeys and Stiebers of Berlin. We may go further, and say with perfect confidence that no Englishman of common intelligence does desire to see the nation engaged in war with France. The danger is all from the other side—and the danger mainly consists in this, that, from that second day of December on which Louis Napoleon seized the reins of empire with so firm a grasp even until now, the armed force and military energy of France have been at the disposal of a single man, and that man the most sober of speech, the most impenetrable in design, of whom we have had knowledge in these modern days. All the mischief might have fermented in the laboratory of a single brain. The first intelligence we should have received of the attack would have been that the expedition was about to set out, if we had been fortunate; that it had arrived at its destination, if we had at all relaxed in our vigilance and suspicions. What had we in which we could trust but the bare word of the man who invited the Deputies to an entertainment at the Eysée on the very night which he had assigned for their arrest?—who had loudly declared that he was not prepared for war at the very moment when he was about to cover Lombardy with his legions, and to make trial upon the Austrians of his new and formidable artillery? We might indeed suppose that a ruler who has given proof of such strong sense as Louis Napoleon has done would not, save as a last desperate throw for empire, rush into a contest with England—but the calculations even of prudent men are sometimes mistaken.
In a word, all was mystery and darkness, and so it must have remained, had not the French nation been once more admitted to the privilege of self-government. Either the resolutions announced are a sham—in which case nothing is done—or the privilege of parliament at Paris will develope itself into its natural consequences. Freedom of debate means publication of debates. The publication of debates means the liberty of the press, and the liberty of the press means that a nation dwells in a glass-house, very much to their own advantage and to the advantage of their neighbours. If Louis Napoleon is honestly backed by the support of the great French statesmen, who have declined all share in the administration of public affairs since the coup d’état, the parliamentary system may again be established in France. They have the experience of the Past before them. They have seen to what deplorable consequences the abuse of parliamentary privilege, and of the liberty of the press, led during the years 1830-48,—are they willing again to try the event? Whilst Louis Napoleon lives and reigns, France can scarcely be a constitutional country—that is to say, a country where the sovereign is a state-cypher, and the minister a creature of a parliamentary majority. But if Berryer, Thiers, Guizot, in their old age, and other considerable French statesmen who have been too long under eclipse, would lend the Emperor their assistance to build up once more a parliamentary system more in accordance with the genius of the French people than the one which degenerated so speedily into mere licentiousness of speech and writing, happy would the day be for France, and for Europe! It must not, however, be supposed that Louis Napoleon would tolerate any form of parliamentary government which would give to individuals, or to parties, the power of conspiring against his throne or dynasty, or of animating the country to any serious resistance to his authority. Should it ever come to this, there is a 2nd of December in the calendar of every year!
It has been suggested that a minor and secondary object which the French Emperor has in view is to obtain the sanction of a free Chamber, which should in some degree represent the country, to the measures which he may deem necessary for his own extrication from the Italian—mainly, from the Roman difficulty. There may be truth in this. An inference may fairly be drawn from the juxta-position of events when such a man as Louis Napoleon is concerned. The position in which he is placed at Rome seems to us untenable at the present moment, and the present moment is the one he has chosen for the summoning of a Chamber which may possess some claim to independent thought. He can scarcely, in the long run, persist in undoing at Rome, and in its immediate neighbourhood, the work which he did so well, and at the cost of so much French blood and treasure, in the north of Italy. He who has done so much to free the Italians from the Austrian yoke, must find himself but awkwardly placed if he remains one of the two great obstacles to the complete independence of the Peninsula. Arguing from the tortuous policy which he pursued with reference to Nice and Savoy, it has been supposed that he would never be brought to give his consent to the entire liberation from foreign influence, and to the consolidation of Italy as a strong and united kingdom, unless he were to obtain for France considerable territorial aggrandizement down about Genoa—in the island of Sardinia, or elsewhere; and no doubt both his past and present policy lay him open to such a suspicion. At the same time, it is difficult to suppose that a man who has shown himself possessed of so much foresight and prudence, should not discern that the inevitable result of such an acquisition of territory—so played for, and so won—would be that the cabinets of Europe would be drawn into a coalition against him, and that his isolation in Europe would be the price which he must pay for his gain of territory. Such a consideration might well give pause, even to a ruler of so firm a mind.
As the aspect of affairs stands at present. Louis Napoleon may still rest upon the friendship and alliance of England; and as long as France and England remained united, no French sovereign has ever yet been driven from his throne. Louis XVI. quarrelled with us about our American colonies;—his end—poor soul!—was tragical enough. Napoleon Bonaparte maintained a duel to the death with us for years—the end of his life was occupied in dictating the history of this contest at Longwood. Louis Philippe, after many years of ostentatious friendship, preferred the policy of Louis XIV. to that which had been the inspiration of his own common sense. He indulged himself in dreams of power in the Spanish Peninsula; and, as has been since pretty well ascertained, he was actually preparing for hostilities against this country when he was overtaken by the days of February. He invaded this country in person, landing one morning at Newhaven upon the Sussex coast. He died amongst us, and his children remain under the protection of our laws, and of our Government. We cannot conquer France; but it seems to be historically proved, that despite of all their expressions of national antipathy, the French people themselves will, in the long run, drive from power any one of their sovereigns who involves them in hostilities with the British Islands. The lessons of history are scarcely thrown away upon Louis Napoleon.
A true and cordial alliance with this country is to him a far better guarantee for the security of his dynasty, than an acquisition of territory which, if inconsiderable, would be of no great use to him, if considerable, would stir up against him the jealousies and animosities of Europe, with England at their head.
The assent of a Chamber would be all important for the success of any measures which the French Emperor might deem it necessary to take for the evacuation of the Patrimony of St. Peter, and still more so, if he should have it in contemplation to bring about the secession of the Gallican Church from strict allegiance to the Roman See. The time chosen for so considerable a change in his policy as the restoration of free speech to the Chamber, coupled with the existing anomalies of his position at Rome, and with the annoyances he is now receiving from his own clergy, may lead one to the conclusion that he is about to invoke the assistance of the nation to help him out of the difficulty. But this is guesswork. We must see further into matters before we venture to accept the suggestion as more than a probable one. This summoning of the French Chamber—this tardy appeal to the French people, is certainly the most important event of Last Week.
In all other respects the situation of affairs upon the continent of Europe remains unchanged. Cialdini has begun the bombardment of Gaëta, the young ex-King still lingers in the citadel, and the Pope remains at Rome. Hungary, indeed, by the latest accounts, is far more incensed than ever at the last attempt made by the Imperial Court to deprive her of the last rag of her liberties under the name of concession. The Hungarians refuse to pay the taxes, and the Austrians threaten to place the rebellious provinces at once in a state of siege, so that what between Hungary and Venetia, Francis Joseph seems to have business enough on hand for the ensuing winter and spring. But our domestic chronicles during the Last Week have not been so devoid of interest as for some time past. We have had a cause célèbre in the trial of the cause Dent v. Denison, which was tried before Sir Cresswell Cresswell and a special jury down at Westminster last week. We have had a ludicrous attempt over in Ireland to galvanise the old Repeal Agitation into something like fresh vitality. Finally, in a letter from Lord Ebury to the Editor of the “Times,” we have seen the discussion with reference to the best means of alleviating the miseries of our suffering Poor in London during the ensuing winter brought to a head. Of these three subjects the last is the only one of real importance—the other two only deserve to take their place amongst the follies of the day. A certain section of the Irish people, and more particularly a certain section of the Irish members, cannot be brought to understand why the patronage of the Treasury and of the Government is not more particularly exercised in their behalf, as in the good old days when Ireland was a source of serious uneasiness to British statesmen, and when Daniel O’Connell used to work up the Irish peasantry as fine raw material for his own political purposes. They have accordingly, under the chivalrous guidance of The O’Donoghue, sounded the first notes of a fresh Repeal Agitation. O’Connell, with all his gigantic aptitudes for the business he had taken in hand, miserably failed in carrying it through. The glories of Smith O’Brien were eclipsed for ever in the cabbage-garden of Balingarry; his colleague, O’Meagher of the Sword, having previously retired from the scene at Limerick under the influence of a nervous attack. The days have fled for ever when the Irish Brass Band in the House of Commons could command their price for silence as regularly as a troop of German musicians are accustomed to levy black-mail on a peaceful neighbourhood as the consideration for “moving on.” Perhaps the death of John Sadleir, a man who had a real head for political combinations, was the event which extinguished the last hope of the impudent political adventurers who trafficked in their country’s name for their own personal advantage. John Sadleir might have organised an Irish Party which would have enabled him to deal with the Government face to face—but that hope perished one misty morning on Hampstead Heath, when the lifeless body of that keen-witted schemer was found by a passing labourer near where the donkeys usually stand.
There is little danger now to the country from the union of a Rump of Irish members in the Lower House, ready to sell their votes to the highest bidder. A political chief who had bargained for the support of such a band, would incur so much indignation from the country that his own lease of power would be brought to a speedy conclusion. The British Empire can no longer be governed by a combination between the representatives of a dozen, or even of a score, obscure Irish constituencies. Of Irish agitation there is an end, because it no longer represents a truth. If Irishmen, in the absence of any true grievances, should still remain of opinion that they do not enjoy that share in the government of the country to which they are entitled, they would do well to hold a conference with the First Minister of the British Crown—a countryman of their own—upon the point. Perhaps the abolition of the useless and vulgar pageantry in Dublin would be the best answer to this new cry. Lord Palmerston and his colleagues may justly congratulate themselves that they have held the balance with so even a hand in the administration of Irish affairs, that they have equally incurred the displeasure of the extreme Papist, and of the extreme Orange faction. A good word from either would have exposed them to the suspicion of the empire.
The story of Mr. Edmund Beckett Denison, and of his pertinacious fight for a legacy of 45,000l., was certainly a curious episode in the intelligence of Last Week. Here we find a gentleman of acknowledged ability and position, to say the least of it, so dead to all delicacy and propriety of feeling, that he absolutely prepared, with his own hand the draught of a will for the late Mr. Frederick Dent—the well-known watchmaker—added his own name as executor with full powers, leaving a blank for the insertion of the name of the residuary legatee. The name of Edmund Beckett Denison was subsequently inserted as such residuary legatee, and under the bequest—had it taken effect—he would have become entitled to the sum of 45,000l. The disposal of so large a sum in Mr. Denison’s favour would have been to the injury of Mr. Dent’s own mother, and of others—his close relations. On the 1st of April Mr. Dent revoked the will, by causing it to be torn in his presence; and on the 25th of the same month he died. It was admitted that, on the 10th of March, Mr. Dent was of competent understanding to make a will. The question for the jury was, whether, on the 1st of April, he was equally of competent understanding to give directions for its destruction? The jury, after a very few minutes’ consultation, found a verdict in favour of the plaintiff, Mrs. Dent, the mother of the deceased, and thus the family have not been despoiled of the property for the benefit of a stranger.
The third subject named is one which at the present season of the year is very properly attracting a large share of attention. As many of us as are blessed with the comforts of a cheerful fire-side, of warm clothing, and of abundant food, must not forget that in this huge town of London there are thousands and thousands of miserable creatures who are not so utterly and absolutely destitute that they will consent to apply for admission to the public workhouses, and who yet are suffering all but the extremities of human misery. Political Economy bids us leave such unfortunate persons to their fate—Humanity refuses to comply with the stern direction. Some persons are opposed to the granting of any relief save such as is doled out from the public funds; others, of softer feelings, are for giving almost indiscriminate relief. If we were absolutely compelled to make our election between the economists and the philanthropists, the more merciful course to the poor would probably be to cast in our lot even with the sternest devotees of the Poor Law. Should any such project as the one which has been talked about for the last few weeks ever take effect, it would do more to demoralise the poor of London, and to foster hot-beds of crime, than any which human ingenuity—misdirected—could devise. Let the vagabondism and idleness of the country once clearly understand that, here in London, food and shelter and warmth are to be found without labour, and the metropolis will soon be inundated with applicants for relief upon such easy terms. By all means let each of us give, and give freely, from our own abundance to the necessities of the poor whom we know to be deserving of such sympathy and assistance.
As soon as any one departs from this plain and obvious course of giving charitable aid only in cases which he knows to be deserving of relief, the chances are that he is doing not good, but harm, to the individual, and inflicting incalculable harm upon the community. It is not of course necessary that all of us, engaged as we are in occupations which exhaust all our energies, and absorb our whole attention, should convert ourselves into district visitors. That is clearly impossible; but at least, before giving alms, we can satisfy ourselves that each case brought before us has been investigated by persons on whose intelligence and firmness we can place reliance. For this purpose small associations, if associations there must be, are better than large ones. Where the area of inquiry is limited, the conclusions arrived at are more satisfactory.