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

LAST WEEK.


Have the Northern States of the late North American Confederation declared war against the Southern States? Has there been a collision between the Papal Zouaves and a regiment in the service of the French Emperor? Has Messina surrendered to the discretion of Victor Emmanuel’s general? Has a young lady admitted—or is it at last proved, partly by her confession, partly upon corroborative evidence—that she was the murderess of the Road victim? By the time these pages are in the hands of our readers there may be a satisfactory answer to each of these questions; but meanwhile we know, as a question of fact, that Lord Palmerston’s administration, during the last seven days, has been in imminent danger, owing to the dissensions which exist amongst the Liberal party.

The conviction is dawning upon the minds of the chiefs that they were premature when they expressed their opinion so openly in favour of abandoning all attempts to pass a Reform Bill of some kind or another through the two Houses. A party must have a “cry.” Now when you have made abstraction of the clamour for a Reform Bill, what is the band which unites the Liberal party together? It is perfectly true, that the country upon the whole, if not indifferent, is not very eager about the matter. We are far more intent upon Garibaldi and Pio Nono than upon Mr. Locke King’s motion; but, at the same time, it is felt that considerations connected with our foreign policy can never entirely supersede the interest which we all feel in the conduct of our own domestic affairs. For many centuries past the whole tendency of our constitutional arrangements has been to train up a body of men as political gladiators—let the phrase be understood in its most honourable sense—and now we suddenly leave them without employment. These men have been at one moment engaged in fighting the battle of religious liberty—then they struggled for great constitutional changes—finally, for an entire revolution in the commercial system of this country, and of the world. Many of these great Parliamentary champions still survive, and those who have succeeded them are heirs to the traditions of their fame, to their ardour, to their ambition. A moment has arrived when the political chiefs and the directors of public opinion say to them:—“Peace; pause for a while; put aside all constitutional strife; watch the progress of events on the continent of Europe. Support Lord Palmerston, and be very sedulous in committee upon the Bankruptcy Bill.” At first they seemed not altogether indisposed to obey the injunction; but as time has worn on, as continental affairs have not taken the turn of a great catastrophe, they have become uneasy, they fret and chafe under the unwonted restraint. They long once more for the excitement and emotions of Parliamentary warfare. Even if the result is temporary defeat, they had rather be up and be doing than subside into a calm Epicurean indifference. Had the progress of affairs upon the continent of Europe been different—had the Italians taken the Austrian bull prematurely by the horns down yonder to the southward of the Lake of Garda—had the Hungarians burst out into open insurrection, or had the Poles been so imprudent as to anticipate events, it might have been different. In the presence of such overwhelming events our professional politicians might have been content to bide their time, and to adjourn all discussion upon our own constitutional changes, whilst that greater Reform Bill was under the consideration of Europe. This, however, has not been so. In very truth, Europe is casting off her old slough, and the purple rags which represent but the pageantry of former days, far more quickly than if the telegraph brought to us from day to day intelligence of bombarded cities, and hotly-contested fields; but we are not called upon to take any active part in the great drama. Hence the discontent in the Liberal camp, and all this talk about forgotten pledges and forsaken policy. Let us next see what during Last Week have been the actions of our great neighbour.

Louis Napoleon has caused it to be intimated to the Pope, that he disavows all responsibility for the statement made the other day by his cousin, in that famous speech which the Minister of the Interior circulated so rapidly throughout the French Departments. Could any sign more ominous to the Papacy—more significant of a speedy cessation of the French occupation—be conceived? It has been Louis Napoleon’s invariable policy in all such matters to act as each of the authors has done with regard to his contribution towards those Essays and Reviews, the sale of which our Archbishops and Bishops have so highly promoted. He publishes his little Essay with a contribution from La Guéronnière, and a Review by Prince Napoleon, &c., &c. Each writer disclaims complicity with his fellow; but their works are bound up together—are sold together—are read together, and produce a common effect. Each piece of an eight gun battery no doubt might bellow out a claim to independent action, but the result is the same as though they had all been of one mind. Prince Napoleon’s shell has fallen with great precision into the very presence-chamber of the Pope. The Emperor washes his hands, and declares he has nothing to do with it. As we look at these transactions from a distance, we are all declaring that the Papacy is at its last gasp—the same thing might have been said any day since it became clear that Garibaldi’s landing in Sicily did not mean a mere marauding expedition, but the conquest of Two Kingdoms. The Southern section of the Peninsula was even as a matter of opinion the last Harbour of Refuge for the Papacy. As soon as that was closed against the Pope, as a temporal Prince he ceased to exist, save in so far as a foreign—that is a non-Italian nation—might be disposed to maintain his authority for awhile at the bayonet’s point. The question, then, is not what is occurring at Rome just now, but, to a certain extent, what is the state of affairs at Vienna?—above all, what is the state of public opinion in France? This French public opinion is the master of the French Emperor as he is the master of the Pope. It is by careful study of it in all its variations that Louis Napoleon is what he is. Very often, round the dinner-tables of England, you hear discussions as to what is the real secret of Louis Napoleon’s success! He is not a very acute man—he is not a very accomplished man. Most of us could name, amongst our friends and acquaintances—certainly amongst the public men of our time—persons apparently of higher pretensions to success, and yet somehow or another they don’t succeed. True, he is the nephew of the most ‘successful’ man of modern times; but it must be admitted on the other hand, that he has turned his position as residuary legatee to the very best possible account. Our explanation of this phenomenon is two-fold. First, there is the wonderful taciturnity of the man: he can hold his tongue—that is a great matter; but still more, without a passion—without a prejudice—without a conviction—without an angularity of mind (save the Imperial Angle)—he can quietly watch the fluctuations of the political barometer—it is filled with quicksilver which we call “public opinion”—and regulate his policy by the register. A man who will and who can do this is in a very fair way to become a very great man in action. Now the private opinion of Louis Napoleon with regard to the Papal question is possibly one of absolute indifference;—probably if the decision of the question lay with him, he would get rid of the Pope to-morrow; but certainly, as a fact, he will go just so far, and not one step further, than the public opinion of France will permit.

What then is the turn of men’s ideas in France upon this subject? This is to us the momentous question not only of Last Week, but of many weeks past, and of many weeks to come. In it is involved the reply to this demand of the Birmingham men who met together, the other day, in such numbers, and declared that the question of Reform should no longer be treated as a sham—a mere stalking-horse for the Ins or the Outs. Upon its solution depends the amount and quality of our Navy Estimates—the number and cost to the nation of our new Iron Navy—the reform of the Admiralty, and almost the intensity or slackness of the chace after Sir Baldwin Walker, that run-away Admiral of ours whom we must first catch, and then examine. Is there to be a peaceful end of the Italian—that is, of the Papal question? Our Army Estimates, our expenditure upon fortifications, the enthusiasm of our Volunteers, the quantum of Lord Herbert’s graceful oratory, all depend upon the conclusion at which we may arrive upon this point. In point of fact, with the exception of the agitation for secession upon the other side of the Atlantic—and possibly the Yelverton affair—the public action of this country, and of all other European countries, is paralysed until the Papal question is disposed of. It lies with the French Emperor to abandon the Pope to his fate—it lies with the French nation to decide what the action of their Emperor shall be.

Is Louis Napoleon yet strong enough to deal with the Priests who had so large a share in raising him to power? Undoubtedly he would do so if he could; nor are signs wanting to show that, in his opinion, the moment has arrived when he may throw off a tutelage which oppresses him and embarrasses his government, although, in the beginning, it contributed in no small degree to his exaltation to power. What test can we apply to measure the gross ignorance of a French peasant who is vegetating in some village in the Bocages of Brittany, or amidst the jagged hills of Auvergne? The French Emperor must receive reports from the Prefects, and sub-Prefects—from his mayors and village authorities upon such points. With regard to these, English ideas are without value. Louis Napoleon has proved to the world, upon more than one occasion, that he can measure this class of force with sufficient accuracy, and turn it to his own account. If, then, we find him abandoning the Pope’s cause, we may feel reasonably secure that the peasantry and peasant-priests of France do not altogether share I the sentiments of the Bishop of Poictiers. There is, however, another class of public opinion amongst our neighbours on the other side of the Channel of which we can form a juster estimate. It is the “opinion” of which the head-quarters would be found in the Faubourg St. Germain—amidst the elder representatives of the territorial class—in the chef-lieux of the old provinces, rather than of the new departments. It would express in a word the sum of the sentiments rather than the convictions of traditionary France—of that France which reads Voltaire en cachette, or not at all; and believes according to the belief of cathedral towns and Madame la Comtesse. This “opinion” has been a power indeed! It has governed Europe for many an age. Napoleon Bonaparte’s career was one long struggle against it, and he got the worst of it in the long run. “Cette conspiration sourde” of which he used to speak with true Corsican bitterness—that enemy which was guilty of no such overt act of treason as justified the employment of the gaoler and the firing party—was his true antagonist, and he knew it well. The imprisonment of the Pope of that day in a French prison was but an expedient to neutralise the force of this unseen antagonist. Could he have brought the spiritual into due subordination to the political and military chief—and he had remained that military chief, it might have been well. But time passed. The annoyances of peace were harder of endurance than the perils of war. The Great Soldier was in a hurry to get to Moscow; and so the raft, with the Pope on board, drifted back once more to its old haven in the Vatican.

In the recent discussions at Paris we have a kind of test which may help us to something like a correct impression of this “public opinion” of France. Louis Napoleon had judged that the moment had arrived when he could permit the opponents of his government to display themselves before the country in their true colours with the most perfect confidence, that the more vehement was their opposition the greater would be his gain. He has dared to do what his uncle never dared in the plenitude of his power—namely, summon the opponents of his dynasty to take part in the public discussion of his policy. During the First Empire, the Senate and the Corps Législatif were a mockery, because they had the name without the reality of authority. The corresponding bodies under the Second Empire are almost equally powerless, although they are invited to canvass and challenge the acts of the Emperor and his Ministers with all the freedom of an English Opposition. When we find Orleanists, Republicans, Legitimists chanting in concert the praises of the Pope, of the ex-King of the Two Sicilies, of the Emperor of Austria, of the ex-Duke of Modena, are we to infer that they represent the real feelings and opinions of the French nation stamped awhile under foot, and repressed by military violence? Or, would it be the better opinion—that Louis Napoleon is so very confident that these gentlemen do not represent the views of French society in the year 1861, that he is holding them up, or rather permitting them to hold themselves up as a spectacle to the country—being fully aware all the time of what the result of such an exposure must be?

It would be tedious to our readers, and unnecessary in the pages of this publication to make any more particular mention of the speeches which have been delivered in Paris for some time past. M. Pichou’s furious philippic of Thursday last was the culminating effort of this remarkable series of orations. What may be the effect of them in France it would be premature to say, but at least thus much is true, that the Opposition speakers have done more to reconcile opinion on our side of the Channel to the government of the Emperor, than he himself could have accomplished in ten years of cordial efforts to secure our good-will. If France looks upon his government as a bulwark against anarchy and revolution, we on our side may very frankly declare, that if Louis Napoleon stands between us and the violence of French politicians, who seem only to be unanimous in the point of detesting England and things English, we may be content to wish him many long years of life and prosperity. The French Chambers do not seem to be one step further forward in statesmanship and common-sense than they were in those days when they were about to rush into war with us about a trumpery squabble at Tahiti, which might have been settled in an hour before any court of justice in any country. The cry of philosophical and religious France is still “Hatred of England,” and for alliance with the military and spiritual despotisms which affect the world.

The Army Estimates, which were brought under the notice of the House of Commons Last Week by Mr. T. G. Baring, are in themselves a sufficient proof that the statesmen who are charged with the responsibilities of the Empire, do not think that the moment has arrived for relaxing their vigilance, or omitting any measure of precaution. Mr. Baring asked the other night for about 15,000,000l. of money, and the Navy Estimates may be calculated at about a corresponding sum. Thirty millions sterling a-year for our Military and Naval establishments, and this at a time when, with the insignificant exception of hostilities at the Antipodes with some of the native tribes of New Zealand, the Empire is at peace—surely the sum is enormous! Thirty millions the annual amount we expend in insurance for our ships, and houses, and homes! Still the opinion of the vast majority of the country is, that we have not a man too many under arms, and, as far as our vessels of war are concerned, that we are but making a rush to recover a position which we must maintain or run the risk of losing our position, as a nation, amongst the nations of the world. It is no wonder if the members of the Lower House, who are specially charged with the responsibilities of the purse, display a morbid desire to appoint Select Committee after Select Committee to inquire into the details of this appalling expenditure! Can we not arrive at an equal degree of security, but at a lesser cost? The mistake of the Financial Reformers, or, let us say, of the Peace Party, has been, that they have founded their crusade upon a misapprehension. It is not true that the subjects of the British Queen believe that the Millennium is yet here;—it is not true that they wish to denude themselves of the means of resistance to foreign aggression, or to give up their place at the council board of the world. It is true that they believe that all these important objects can be carried out at a less cost. He will be the true Financial Reformer who can best show us how to pare down a few millions from this sum total without impairing our means of defence or detracting from our national security.

The intelligence from the United States received towards the latter end of Last Week was not very satisfactory. Abraham Lincoln had arrived at Washington, and was about to enter upon his term of office. We must not attach too much importance to the formal expressions of his expectations that ere long the “misunderstanding” which was at present dividing the great North American Confederation into two camps might be removed. There seems little reason to doubt that the leaders of the Southern States are acting upon a settled plan, which has long been matured. It is not probable that they will yield, save to superior force; and the question is, whether the new President—the occasion arising—will be prepared to apply that force in the proper quarter? We are not yet rightly informed what the action of the Border States will be. Therein, if they take part with the President, lies the last hope of a peaceful compromise. Should they go the other way, hostilities seem well-nigh unavoidable. This is the sorriest spectacle which the Liberals of Europe have seen for many a long day. With all their faults of omission and commission, the States were still the only great community which gave the world a proof that human beings could live together in peace and prosperity without the repressive agencies of the old world to keep them in order. Alas! that so fair a prospect is dimmed and spoiled! This will be an eternal regret to every man now living on the earth’s surface who respects the dignity of human nature, and who esteems the freedom of the human spirit from spiritual and intellectual police as the greatest gain which successive generations have won in the course of four thousand years.

The death of H. R. H. the Duchess of Kent, on Saturday last, though an event of little political significance, has not failed to awaken in the national mind a general feeling of sympathy with the loss sustained by our Queen.