Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 4/Last week (February 23, 1861)


Gaëta has fallen. Italy is by one step—but what a step !—nearer to independence, and in her case independence means freedom.

Turkey is not free, but independent—because of her very weakness. The mutual jealousies of the nations which are covetous of the Sultan's inheritance, for all practical purposes, act as well as though he were at the head of numerous and well-appointed fleets and armies. At the present moment the French are in military occupation of Syria. They are there to do the Sultan's work—to maintain his authority, to prevent his subjects from tearing each other to pieces. The French Emperor has been permitted to play the Sultan's game, but as soon as he endeavours to move the pieces on the Eastern chess-board on his own account, Europe is in arms. There is to be a conference at Paris with France and Russia on one side—England and Austria on the other, and the end will certainly be just what the end of all such attempts has been during the last half-century. The Power which has endeavoured to speculate upon the weakness of the Sultan will be compelled to retire. Turkey is independent, and there is a great calm at Constantinople, just as there is a calm in the centre of a circular storm.

Russia again is independent, but not free. Woe to that power which shall attempt to wage offensive war against the stubborn genius of Frost! The great historical failure of the First Napoleon is there to warn all conquerors of the consequences of a campaign against Nature. It is not in vain that a million of warriors were frozen to death. Other nations may endeavour to draw down the forces of the Russian empire to a frontier point, and to confront them there, as was done in the Crimea, but such a campaign as that of 1812 will never again be taken in hand. In Russia, the power which undertakes the marching is doomed to destruction. But is Russia free? Send for a Russian newspaper, and procure some friend who can act as interpreter to explain to you its contents, and you will soon find the measure of freedom as the term is understood at St. Petersburgh!

In France again we find independence without freedom, if by freedom is meant self-government. The best expedient which has been yet devised in France to reconcile the theory of freedom with its opposite in practice, is the election of a despot by universal suffrage. It is the will of all that one should rule. The minority are bound by the voice of the majority, and the decision of the majority is, that to Louis Napoleon shall be entrusted an entire control over the liberties and resources of France. Under such circumstances a nation is powerful abroad, because a nation is an army; but it sacrifices the advantages if it escapes the inconveniences of freedom.

Of our own country let nothing be said. We leave it to others to judge us as we judge them. The time is happily gone by, when a few platitudes about the majesty and matchless wisdom of all English arrangements could command the sympathies and cheers of an assembly of well-educated Englishmen. The days of post-prandial eloquence and of unctuous cheering are at an end. Well nigh half a century has been spent in unravelling the blunders of our forefathers. The work of one generation—and nobly has this work been done !—in the main has consisted of the repeal of statutes. From 1815 to 1829 there was the collapse, and then the collection of strength for a series of efforts. From 1829 to 1846 disabilities of all kinds—religious, political, and commercial— were removed by our reformers, until, substantially, reform has become a matter of detail. The battle of principles is over, in the British Islands at least.

But now Gaëta has fallen, and unless some very untoward event—such as would disappoint all expectation—should occur, we may shortly look forward to a time when Italy will again be called upon to play such a part in the comity of nations as she has not played since there was a schism between the western and eastern branches of the Roman Empire. We can afford to maintain the argument now that Italy stands once more upon the threshold of independence. Genoa and Venice had their days of magnificence and glory. Time was when high state was kept at Milan. Florence could boast not only of its splendour in the arts, but of its struggles for freedom, which, through their very excesses, terminated under the Medici, pretty much as such struggles upon a far grander scale have terminated in France under the Bonapartes in our own days and in the days of our fathers. There was a period in history when the Kings of Naples counted for something in the counsels of Europe—although upon that burning soil, whilst a grain of independence existed, the rivalry of dynasties killed the nation's strength. No doubt there was also a period when Roman priests ruled in Europe; but such rule as this— necessarily dependant upon opinion, and not reposing upon its own absolute strength—from its nature fluctuated according to the vicissitudes of opinion, and now seems to stand at its lowest ebb. From the days of Pagan Rome until those of Victor Emmanuel, Italy has never been a Power, as Spain, France, and England have been r and now it becomes a question of the highest importance, what course will be taken by Italian statesmen as soon as they have contrived to purge their country of thraldom to the foreigner, and of domestic superstition.

Italy, however, is not independent yet. All that we can say with safety is, that by the fall of Gaëta Italian matters are placed in such a condition that the French Emperor can scarcely attempt to check the course of events by further acts of authoritative interference. The order to detain the French fleet before Gaëta has already cost him dearly, not only in the opinion of Europe, but in the minds of Frenchmen themselves. It may have been a last clumsy endeavour to carry out the policy announced in the famous pamphlet which was published under his authority before the Italian campaign. As such it has signally failed. It has led to the destruction of the regiments which still remained faithful to the cause of the young Bourbon, and which certainly might have been used to better purpose than to be destroyed in and about Gaëta without a result. If Louis Napoleon supposed that by upholding the defence of Gaëta he was playing into the hands of the reactionary party, and enabling them to keep the Two Sicilies in such a state of turmoil that European interference might have become a necessity, he has also been disappointed in this respect. A flying column of Sardinians, with the hearty co-operation of the peasantry, has been sufficient to restore order. It has been proved to conviction, that brigandage as a reactionary element is of no great account. If the prolonged defence of Gaëta has not been available for the purpose of promoting disorder, in the most vulgar acceptation of the term, neither has it influenced the elections. What between Louis Napoleon’s exertions on the one side, and the efforts of Signor Mazzini on the other, the Neapolitans have had the sense to see that the safety of the Two Sicilies depended upon their remaining staunch to the cause of Italian unity. They have done so—and have accordingly elected men of moderate opinions, but well known as true lovers of their country, to represent them in the Italian parliament.

Again, if the French Emperor intended by the detention of his fleet before Gaëta to give satisfaction to the Absolutist and Ultra-Montane faction in his own country, that satisfaction has been transitory indeed, and has been replaced by the bitterest disappointment. It will now be said that he has betrayed the young Bourbon’s cause, simply because he upheld it for a brief space, and then abandoned it in despair. Nor has Gaëta proved a very formidable breakwater for the defence of the Pope’s temporal power. Now, as before, he is surrounded on all sides by the hostile bayonets of the Italians, and is defended from day to day solely by the French troops in garrison at Rome. So thoroughly is the government of the Pope and the priests execrated in Italy, that were the French to evacuate Rome to-morrow, the presence on the spot of a few Sardinian regiments would be instantly necessary, in order to save the priests from the anger of the people. Let devout Roman Catholics explain the matter as they will, such is the fact.

It is difficult, however, to believe that the fall of Gaëta will lead to decisive action at Rome. All we know is, that the French garrison, both at Civita Vecchia and at Rome, has been heavily reinforced, and that the French army generally has been placed upon a war-footing. This does not look much like concession. At the same time, Louis Napoleon must soon make his election between an act of violence, such as would stultify his own previous policy, and prove to his subjects that their sacrifices of blood and treasure in the Lombard campaign had been thrown away; or, he must prolong the occupation of Rome and the Patrimony of St. Peter as heretofore, and thereby render himself and the French name odious to the Italian people; or he must come to some arrangement with the sovereign who will no doubt soon be acknowledged as King of Italy for the safeguard of the Pope as a spiritual ruler. Politically speaking, this must be done by the Italians themselves. They could never tolerate the occupation by foreign troops of a central point in the peninsula, in easy communication with a fortified harbour and arsenal, which in the hands of a strong naval power would be practically impregnable. The Pope, after all, must be somewhere; and no doubt the Italians would be willing enough to acquiesce in his residence at Rome, so that he remained there simply in his spiritual capacity. Nor is it likely that they would urge any strong objection to a guarantee of the Roman Catholic Powers—so the terms were simple, and such as would not easily expose them to the danger of foreign intervention upon frivolous pretexts.

Such an arrangement with regard to the Pope, and the purchase of Venetia from embarrassed Austria, would be the natural settlement of the Italian question; but we must look for many evil days, and many struggles yet, before Italy and Europe arrive at so favourable a conclusion. Meanwhile the existing evils are not wholly without compensation. As long as the Italians are threatened from without, they cannot afford to indulge in the luxury of domestic dissension. There does not, indeed, exist the shadow of a reason for charging them with such an inclination; for the moderation, forbearance, and sobriety of thought, of which they have given proof since these troubles began, have been almost without a parallel in history. Again it is only in times of difficulty that the foremost men of a nation rise to the direction of affairs—and for a generation or two to come Italy is much in need of the counsels of her wisest men. It is only under continuous pressure, moreover—as far as the multitudes are concerned—that the temporary exaltation of the moment is hardened by habit into real power. All men—at least most men—are brave and prepared for self-sacrifice by fits and starts; but the soldier is brave, and prepared to give his life for his country when a drum is beaten, or a trumpet calls him forth. Now, what Italy requires is the disciplined courage of the soldiers—not the violent, but transitory enthusiasm of the mere patriot. Italian independence must be maintained with the old prosaic helps of strong armies, well-appointed fleets, and well furnished arsenals. The government which is powerful to maintain independence against the foreigner, will also be strong to maintain order at home. That also is an Italian necessity. Nor should it be forgotten that one of the most serious dangers which threatens Italy, is lest she should degenerate into a satellite and satrapy of France. Now, if Louis Napoleon should persist in his present policy, he will blot out the recollection of his past services, and make his own name, and that of France, odious throughout Italy. In Rome and throughout the Two Sicilies, even as it is, the French are not very popular. The continued occupation of Rome, and the detention of the French fleet before Gaëta, are quite sufficient to explain this result. In the north of the Peninsula the extortion from Piedmont of Savoy and Nice, as the blood-money for Magenta and Solferino, has not particularly improved the relations between the Italians and their French allies. Nor in Central Italy have the efforts of the French Emperor to realise the clauses of his Italian programme had much tendency to maintain the enthusiasm of the nation for his name at fever point. After Villafranca, Louis Napoleon was considered half an Austrian. He had removed the great obstacle to Italian independence, and then in his turn became the obstacle himself.

Here in England we need not make ourselves seriously uneasy about the progress of French influence in Italy. The more it is enforced—the more the spirit of the people will revolt against it. After so many centuries of oppression, it is not the object of the Italians to exchange yokes, but to have done with the yoke altogether. Besides, if they win their way to independence in any thorough manner, their future destiny is that of a great naval power in the Mediterranean, and their position, therefore, antagonistic to that of France. We have many a bloody page in our history which bears record of our folly in attempting to do for others that which they were perfectly ready to do for themselves. In Spain, in Germany, in Italy, after the invasions and successes of the First Napoleon, the very sound of the French language was abominable in the ears of the nations which he had reduced into submission, and plundered, and insulted in a hundred ways. The Italians will choose their own time for casting off the leading-strings; but that they will not rest until they have done so we may be sure.

In looking over the events of LastWeek we find the two great questions of European policy, and of the turn which affairs may take in the United States, to be still the only ones of great and permanent interest. What does it signify to our readers that Sir John Trelawny has again introduced his bill for the abolition of church-rates?—that Sir Richard Bethell’s “fragmentary” measure for the improvement of our bankruptcy laws has passed into committee ?—that Mr. Monckton Milnes has again brought forward in Parliament the proposition for legalising marriage with the sister of a deceased wife? These matters are, so to speak, the very bread and water of a parliamentary session. The point which is really remarkable is, that whilst other nations are struggling for national existence, or endeavouring to settle questions which our forefathers and fathers settled, as far as we are concerned, in the days of the Long Parliament, of the Great Revolution, and between 1829 and 1846, we find ourselves at liberty to deal with the smaller matters of legislation. The government of India, and the most efficient method of keeping that country in such a state of armed preparation that the sovereigns of Europe must be content to leave us in peace, are the only two great points of policy which remain for the consideration of the British people. Of course we must endeavour to reduce our taxation; of course we must examine into the working of our Poor Law, as Mr. Charles Villiers has proposed we should do; of course we must strain every nerve to educate the masses, and to admit them, not grudgingly, but in a free and liberal spirit, to their share of political power; of course we must endeavour to purge our Statute Book of irksome and antiquated laws; but such matters as these are the ordinary day-work of a nation. At the end of this century the British Islands and their dependencies should constitute the best governed—because the least governed— community of which there is record in history. No doubt our law of real property, the corporation of the City of London, and many difficulties of the like kind, still exist—but when these are all disposed of, little will remain at the beginning of a session for the Sovereign to ask of the Noble Peers and Faithful Commons but that they shall vote the supplies, pass the mutiny act, and depart each man to his house. The British people, however, will never stand in need of occupation with Australia and India as fields of enterprise, and with the sea and earth open to their ingenuity and industry.

It would be idle indeed at the end of this brief notice of the transactions of seven days to attempt any comment upon the great events which are now passing on the other side of the Atlantic Rather, since we have begun with the Italian question, let us confine our attention to it for this week. The key of the situation at the present moment lies in Hungary. The Hungarians seem disposed to impose their own terms upon the Austrian Emperor, and to hold him almost at their mercy. Another generation has grown up since the days when the Russian emperor rushed into the shambles to help his young Austrian friend. Children, who were then but six or seven years of age, are now capable of bearing arms. The nation appears disposed to treat face to face with the sovereign who represents to them the violated faith of Royalty. If they force his hand, the cause of Italian independence is won, and Italy is liberated at once from the leading-strings of France. It should never be forgotten that this result is due in large measure to that great man, who, starting from the little island of Caprera, not only won a kingdom, but did more, inasmuch as he proclaimed this principle in the ears of the continental sovereigns—that nations themselves were to take in hand the cause of their own regeneration. If the key of the “Italian difficulty” lies at the present moment in Hungary—and in a very handy way—this result is far more due to the imprudence of Garibaldi than to the diplomacy of Cavour. Since he proclaimed this principle, the Hungarians have called an emperor, and the Prussians a king, to account. They will no longer be led or driven against their will. Garibaldi has unloosed a force against which the discipline of trained armies, and the resources of cunning diplomatists will not avail in the long run. The mere announcement of it, illustrated by his own achievements in the Two Sicilies, has already lighted up an insurrection in Hungary, and even warmed the sluggish blood of the Prussians to a nobler life. Surely the name of Joseph Garibaldi will endure to future generations as amongst the noblest of his race.

Even whilst we write, it seems to be uncertain whether the Austrians will not take courage from their very despair, and cross their own frontier to seek the Italians, as they did in 1859. 11 so, the dynasty is lost. Louis Napoleon has already intimated to the Cabinet of Turin, that if Italy remains quiescent, and Austria commences the attack, the plains of Lombardy will once again be covered with French troops. On the other hand, if Francis Joseph declines the awful hazard of a last cast, empire is gradually slipping from his hands.