Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/Representative men: Political agitators - Rienzi, Cade, Lafayette, O'Connell, Mazzini, John Bright
rienzi: cade: lafayette: o’connell: mazzini: john bright.
The description of every political agitator, by friends and enemies, is the same from age to age, and in all countries. Partisans of course think him a born ruler, a patriot, and a hero: and the rest of society calls him a demagogue, and assumes him to be ignorant. “An ignorant demagogue,” is the intellectual hieroglyphic which stands for the political agitator from generation to generation. For any description so permanent there must be a reason; and to ascertain how much reason there is in this particular case, we have only to observe in what points eminent agitators have been all alike; and especially how far they have, each and all, succeeded or failed. When we have satisfied ourselves that single agitators invariably fail in their express object sooner or later, we shall see that there must be some justice in the imputation of ignorance. There must have been a screw loose somewhere; for in political action knowledge is power; and the leader who sinks in weakness has obviously been out in his calculations about other people or himself. The truth is, it is scarcely possible for any man who lives and moves among the people, occupied as they are with the business and pleasures of their lives, to know much of the facts and reasons of the few whose business and pleasure it is to transact public affairs. If those few are precluded from ever holding the point of view of the many, and are liable to grow narrow, and exclusive, and unfit at last for the work of ruling, yet more is every man of the many unable to enter into half the reasons the executive government may have for its views and actions. Thus it is that politicians in opposition seem under a doom to disappoint their supporters as soon as they are in power, or near enough to it to overlook the field in which the administration (whatever may be its form) has to act. Hence, also, the supreme value of representative institutions, which favour the freest attainable intercourse between the rulers and the ruled, and by which power is prevented remaining too long in the same hands. Under any other institutions or forms of society, “demagogues” must be more “ignorant” than in parliamentary states: but the description is not laid aside, nor seems likely to be laid aside, in the freest of constitutional countries.
The invariable failure affords another item of description. It is not understood by this that a single obnoxious law or method may not be got rid of by a particular agitator, and his special agitation; nor is it denied that a party of agitation may gain some one point for which the time is ripe. By the failure of demagogues is meant the constant fact that that sort of man always finds at last that his object is not so desirable, or so feasible, as he thought it was; or that he is unable to work it out when he seems in full possession of the opportunity.
This reminds us of another feature common to so nearly all political agitators, that it may be admitted into the constant description:—viz., their being paralysed when the moment arrives for which they seem to have been preparing from the beginning. Their followers wonder at this: and probably they themselves do: but there is nothing wonderful in it. They have been great, and even supreme, in one function: and that is a reason why they should not, rather than that they should, be supreme, or even great, in an opposite kind of function. Revolutionary heroes and sages have never been agitators; and agitators are about the last men likely to make effective revolutionary rulers. But the followers of a Tribune have formed their expectations on his opinions, his aims, and his promises; and when they see him struck helpless in the very moment of his grasping power, and turning irresolute as soon as he comes in full view of his object, they are first amazed, and then indignant. Hence the repute of political agitators as mere disturbers of society, and of their followers as a type of ingratitude.
I might go on suggesting other constant features of the order which never dies out. Every century has exhibited a political agitator in one country or another; and all are alike in these features, however they may otherwise vary, and whenever and wherever they may have lived.
Can Rienzi—the Prince of Demagogues—be classed among those whom men call ignorant? He was erudite: he was the friend of Petrarch: he had so studied the sculptures, and deciphered the inscriptions in Rome that he preached sermons from stones to the people: but a man who could do this might imagine the most absurd of politics for the men of his own day. Rienzi, however, had taken to heart the history of Rome in her greatest days; and he insisted that what had been possible once was practicable henceforth: and he succeeded, as far as he did succeed, by promising good laws, and by giving them when he had the power. Yet he failed when, according to his own calculations, he should have found himself supreme. He did not know the circumstances which rendered it impossible to reproduce a former social state. He did not know enough of the human mind, nor of human history, to be aware that sudden and arbitrary social changes are incompatible with the “justice and peace” which he dreamed of and promised: and he had not duly considered what he was to do with the class opposed to justice and peace, when once he had humbled them. Therefore was the career of Eienzi the melancholy spectacle which it is and will always be. We see him, first, happy at the school to which he was sent by his father the innkeeper and his mother the laundress. Then he grew up absorbed in his studies, dreaming of liberty, and pondering its forces and graces, and as glad at last, when his mind was full, to speak as others were to hear, of the glories of old Rome, and the aspirations of her statesmen and orators. He became famous; and every word of his splendid eloquence kindled fire among a people cruelly oppressed and insulted by an intolerable aristocracy. It might almost be set down among the constant features of the agitator’s case that he finds a set of insufferable “barons” to oppose. The Roman barons of Rienzi’s day were first his abhorrence; then his prey; then his embarrassment; and finally his destruction. We see him. in the depths of the summer night, in May, 1347, administering an oath of fidelity to a hundred followers on Mount Aventine, and instructing them to bring the people to him the next evening, to start the conflict with the nobles who had desolated their homes and ruined their fortunes. Then followed the trumpet blast in the morning, with the proclamation, and the toll of the great bell of the Capitol in the evening; and the quaking of the nobles, and the enthusiasm of the people, and Rienzi’s triumph. He had strength to make good many of his promises, and to call himself only Tribune when the people would have made him Emperor; but he had his hour of paralysis, according to the usual course. He could not make war, nor even order it, nor bear a brave man’s share in it. He could not see that his real dignity lay in preserving the manners and appearance of his former life; and he exceeded the hated nobles in extravagance of dress, and in luxury which soon passed into intemperance. The sun and stars in a great banner, the dove and olive branch were carried over his head; gold and silver were displayed and lavished with vulgar vanity; and the people saw in their own Tribune a far grosser example of effeminacy, self-seeking, cruelty to offenders, and overbearing insolence than in the barons whom he had spent his life in denouncing. Though he had at first done great things for them, these offences could no more be borne from him than from others; and in six months from that night-meeting on Mount Aventine, Rienzi was flying in disguise from Rome. He had caused himself to be crowned with seven crowns, and had declared the four quarters of the world to be his, as he waved his sword to the four points of the compass: and already he was an exile, excommunicated by the people as much as by the Pope. His friend Petrarch was disgusted with him; and he seemed to have lost everything he had lived for. In seven years he returned to meet his fate. As soon as he could make himself heard, he won all hearts—Petrarch’s among the rest. He was permitted by the Pope to return to Rome, under certain engagements which must have been a fatal clog upon his administration, if all had gone well. But he believed he had once again everything in his own hand. His reception was all he could desire: but it turned his head as before; and the wrath of the disappointed citizens was extreme. They besieged him in the Capitol, and his mood changed from a brief heroism to utter depression. It must have been a strange spectacle when the late ruler of Rome and the world (as Rome believed) stood half naked and dumb in the face of the multitude, on the platform from which he had pronounced his judgments,—unable to use, in the silence of the curious and pitying crowd, that splendid faculty of speech by which he had led them on to revolution. For a whole hour they waited in vain for a sound from his lips. Then, one at least would wait no longer. He was the representative of the many who were indignant at having been put off with theatrical shows when they had been promised a thorough social reform; and at witnessing a personal vanity beyond example in a leader whom they had worshipped as the embodiment of purity, devotedness, and discipline. This citizen, whoever he was, plunged his dagger into Rienzi’s breast. Others rushed upon the victim, and his dead body was drawn through the mud, and then cast into the flames. Though there was no hope of his ever answering to popular expectation, if he had lived to old age, such a close to a second probation of four months brought to men’s minds the wonderful reforms he had once achieved, as well as the heart-stirring promises he had made them: and they at length softened so far as to allow their descendants to hear of him as a patriot who delivered his country.
If Rienzi has been regarded as the very Prince of Political Agitators, from his qualifications and his command of success, Jack Cade—or John Mend-All as his army called him—has been despised as the very meanest of the order. The two lived within a hundred years of each other: there were circumstances of strong resemblance in their respective positions: and it is possible, that the distance between them, intellectually and politically, was not altogether what unthinking readers of Gibbon and Shakspere might assume.
There were “barons” in the latter case as in the former—insolent and grasping nobles who stood between the people and good government, and betrayed the honour of their country, and afflicted their humble neighbours by grievous oppression. John Cade, the Irishman, who believed himself to be one of the royal Mortimers, and saw that the imbecile king (Henry VI.) was mere sport for his barons, had as much reason for his political agitation as Rienzi or any other of the order could show; and there seems to be no evidence that he was particularly ignorant, or afraid that other men should be knowing, though it suited Shakspere’s purposes to show him up in a comic dress. He was living in the marked and trying period of transition from the feudal to the constitutional form of society; and, as usually happens in transition periods, the order which is passing away made itself more odious as its desperation increased. The nobles had lost for us our French provinces of which we were so proud, and which were of such value to us! So the people believed: so John Cade insisted: and his force marched from Kent upon London to know the reason why. The agitation was not new. Since the peace with France there had been popular discontent everywhere, expressed by risings as well as menaces. In Norfolk, piratical foreigners were perpetually landing, carrying off men from Cromer and Yarmouth, and demanding heavy ransom for them. In the “Paston Letters,” we find mention of the Flemings coming by hundreds into parishes near the coast, and of strangers playing their games on Caister sands as if they were at home. While such intrusions were galling the people, the agents of noblemen were teasing tenants and townsfolk with exactions and interference, and the nobles themselves were overbearing in the elections, trusting to the weakness of the King for impunity. We gain an interesting glimpse of the ways of the time when we read in the “Paston Letters” of the stir there was at Swaffham about three local magnates—the friends of the unpopular great men offering 2000l. (a vast sum then) for the favour of a still greater man, and their accusers planning that the Swaffham men shall take horse and meet his lordship with the bill of accusation, while the common people, and especially the women, shall crowd the streets, and, as instructed, cry out upon the accused as extortioners, and stop my lord’s way with petitions “that he will do sharp execution upon them.” “The mayor also, and all the aldermen,” were to be stirred “to cry on my lord that they may have justice of these men that be indicted, and that my lord will speak to the King thereof;” and that in every part of the town where my lord is likely to pass there should be “many portions of commoners” kept ready to din the names of the accused into my lord’s ears, and cry out for their punishment. Such were the times in which John Cade, for one, uplifted his voice and collected his neighbours for a march upon London, to see what could be done to restrain and punish the hated nobles for “the great dishonours and losses that be come to this full noble realm of England, by the false means of some persons that have taken on them over great authority in this realm.” “The loss of two so noble duchies as Normandy and Guienne, that be well worth a great realm, coming by successions of fathers and mothers to the Crown,” sat heavy on the heart of England; and those who had signed them away could hardly show their faces with safety at the time of Cade’s rising. Thus there were reasons for a great popular effort at a juncture when the people must assert their rights or lose all the political ground they had hitherto gained. As for the form in which Cade made his protest, it may be a proof of his ignorance of the resources of the two parties; but it should be remembered that the “English Chronicle” states that the retainers of some of the lords would not fight against those who laboured to amend the common weal. It should be remembered that, four months before Cade’s march to London, the detested Duke of Suffolk had petitioned the Lords of Parliament to allow him” to make his declaration of the great infamy and defamation which was laid upon him by many of the people of this land.” Cade’s rising was not the freak of a single man or a discontented neighbourhood, but an expression of the disaffection of a whole people, and of their claim for extended rights. When we take a look into the camp at Blackheath, however, we see reason to doubt whether the leader was worthy of his cause.
Sir John Fastolf sent one of his men (J. Payn) with two of his best horses to Cade’s camp, to learn what the “articles” of the insurgents were; what they came for, in fact. “The Captain of Kent” had him seized on his arrival, and questioned him. Payn protested that he came only for a gossip with his brothers-in-law and friends; but he was sworn to as a servant of Sir J. Fastolf. Cade had him exposed at the four corners of the camp, and proclaimed a traitor and spy. This was a matter of course: but the strain of denunciation of the man’s master as one who had weakened the garrisons of our lost French towns, and caused their lapse to France, and as having garrisoned his own house with foreigners to destroy the men of Kent, smacks of demagoguic oratory as strongly as his worst enemies could have desired. Payn was actually brought up to the block, when his head was saved by a threat from a powerful quarter that “a hundred or two” of Kentish heads should fall for this one. Cade did not forget the man; but when the rebels reached Southwark had Payn arrested again at the White Hart, and despoiled of his array—a velvet gown furred with fine beavers, armour covered with blue velvet and adorned with gilt nails, and a purse with line gold rings, besides some valuable bonds. Once more “he would have smitten off” Payn’s head; and when again threatened with the consequences, he watched his opportunity and thrust the man out into the fight on London Bridge, where he was wounded as intended. During the struggle this poor fellow was paraded four times through Kent and Sussex, to stimulate the malcontents: and when he arrived near his home his dwelling was pillaged, his wife being left half-clothed, and an attempt was made to hang her and five of her children. There is no occasion to suppose that Cade was cognisant of these last transactions: but the imputation of plundering his lodgings in Southwark on his own account has been charged upon him from that day to this.
Of such particular allegations we can never know whether they are true or not. We are more concerned with his course as an agitator; and in this we find the permanent characteristics of the career. Cade probably supposed himself aware of what he was about when he led his thousands of followers to Black heath, and encamped them there. He had fifteen articles written out fair, and was clear, and evidently eloquent on the grievances of the people. But he was foiled as soon as he met men in authority face to face. His force lay for several weeks at Blackheath, the city of London being favourable to the rising: but, with all these advantages. Cade did nothing effective, except defeating one detachment of the King’s soldiers, without result. When the gates were opened to him by friendly citizens, he rode into London, struck London stone with his sword, and called himself Lord of the city; he paraded his blue velvet gown, and his gilt helmet, and, worst taste of all, a pair of gilt spurs, as if he had been a knight. This is too like Rienzi: But Cade did not attempt Rienzi’s reforms. His demand to the Lord Mayor and justices was that Lord Say should be delivered up to him. Lord Say demanded to be tried by his peers: and Cade’s men seized him and beheaded him, “at the Standard, in Cheap,” without any trial at all. Murder and plunder were sufficient proof that Cade was not the man to lead a political reform; and the citizens turned him out. Then happened the battle on Loudon Bridge, followed by a truce, on a promise of a general pardon sent by the Archbishop of Canterbury. From this amnesty Cade was excepted; and he lied to hide himself in the Sussex woods. The Sheriff of Kent caught him there, and brought him to London in a cart,—dead on the way. The bill brought in to the King for the expenses of exposing the body in London-streets, fixing up his head on London Bridge, and forwarding the quarters to four provincial magistracies, reveals a weighty fact. The bill was a costly one; and the excuse for the high charges is the extreme difficulty of engaging anybody to take In disposing of the body. “Scarcely any persons durst or would, for doubt of their lives.” The memory of the Captain of Kent was held dear, it is evident. Yet, with all this support, sympathy, and wealth of means, he was imbecile when the moment for action arrived, and failed in his errand without any apparent reason for failure. His cause was good and sufficient; and he was backed by an army of citizens who believed it to be so.
There is probably no more complete an embodiment of the revolutionary spirit of any special period than we see in Lafayette, who considered himself, and has been generally accepted as, the representative of the era of 1789. Born noble, and early left an orphan and uncontrolled, he was not favourably placed in regard to training for coming events. His father had been killed at the battle of Minden before the child’s birth. He had little education, and never endeavoured to supply the defect. He married at sixteen, and at nineteen went to America to fight on the side of independence,—without more than a very crude notion of the principles involved in that, or any other political strife of his day. His early career exhibits that inability to brook restraint, and those unreasoning impulses on behalf of recalcitrants generally, which are in all ages confounded with the disinterestedness, benevolence, and generosity which often accompany them. Lafayette was as disinterested, generous, devoted, and sincere as any patriot ever was; but he was not an able, nor an enlightened man; and he therefore exhibited very conspicuously the constant features of the revolutionists’ career. When he organised the National Guard at Paris, and made a cockade for them of the royal lily white, joined with the colours of the commune, blue and red, he was as unaware as the humblest of the guard of the import of what he was doing in instituting the tricolor. From that time forward his life was not a career, as he had meant that it should be. It was a succession of scenes of vain protest against events which other men foresaw,—of gallant soldierly efforts to protect the Royal family amidst dangers which he had not power or skill to avert,—and of remonstrance or sympathy which were always too late for the occasion. He differed from most other political agitators in having a small following or none. But for his birth, and the early proof of civic virtue which it enabled him to afford, he would have presently disappeared from public notice. As it was, he was before men’s eyes, and conspicuous for failure to the end of his life. He suffered on all hands. The Court distrusted him, of course. The republican party despised him as the founder of a club for the formation of a constitutional monarchy on a popular basis. The Legislative Assembly turned Jacobin while he was making his appeals to it; and he found it necessary to leave Paris, where he was paraded and burnt in effigy as soon as his back was turned. When he attempted to retire to a neutral country, his military services on behalf of the revolutionary government rose up against him, and he was captured and imprisoned by the Austrians. He lay in prison at Olmütz for five years; and when released by the treaty of Campo-Formio, he found himself obliged to protest against the facts of the time, according to his natural tendency. His protests then, and during the whole period of the first empire, were in entire accordance with reason and integrity: and his revolutionary functions seemed to be over. The Restoration disappointed all the hopes and aspirations of his early life, and he at first retired to his country seat: but in IS 18 he appeared in the Chamber of Deputies, where he advanced claims on behalf of political liberty which were incessantly refused, till the revolution of 1830 brought the day for successful action at last. The event lay in his own hand. The old Bourbons were gone: the seat of government was vacant; and the nation expected him to propose its form of government. He called out the National Guards, and placed himself at their head, deciding, after much painful doubt, to employ them in suppressing the republican party, while he placed Louis Philippe on the throne, with the Charter in his hand. He presently repented of his course, and he is believed to have had, too late, dim glimpses of the future calamities of the country he might have launched in the only safe course. He lived less than four years from the date of that last of the failures of a long life; and the pathetic anecdote is preserved, to be reproduced hereafter in history that his last words on public affairs related to the engrossing subject of his disappointment in the King. To one leaning over him he is reported to have said, “He is a knave, and we are the victims of his knavery.” He turned his head on his pillow, and had done with the world’s politics. Such was the honest, high-hearted, but shallow-minded political revolutionist of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with his strong convictions, but conceptions dim and vague: his prevailing moods of lofty purpose, always giving way to irresolution, or perplexity, or mistake when the moment for action arrived. He had plenty of sincere homage, because he was unquestionably noble and pure in his patriotism: but he had no following, because he was no less indisputably weak in judgment, poor in knowledge, and therefore hazy in forecast.
In our century, we have seen a variety of political agitators corresponding with the transition character of the age. At this point, the broad figure, good-humoured, shrewd face, bright wig, orange pocket-handkerchief, and unlimited brogue of Daniel O’Connell will occur to us all.
O’Connell had as good a cause to agitate as Jack Cade or Rienzi. In his infancy, Roman Catholic parents in Ireland were not allowed to educate their children. The interdict was withdrawn in time to admit of his having better instructors than “the poor old hedge-schoolmaster” who taught Dan his letters: but there were plenty of grievances left to protest against: and Dan never became a cultivated man, qualified for political reasoning and judgment on a comprehensive scale. To the end of his life it was impossible for mere readers and observers to draw the line between his genuine ignorance and his false pretences; and it is probable that he could not have done it with any accuracy himself. Accustomed through life to wheedle audiences of all sorts, his habit of saying and pledging himself to whatever suited his purpose and his hearers became a second nature; and it might at any time have puzzled him more than any critic to make out how much of what he asserted as fact had been heard or read by him, and how much had been dreamed, or invented at the moment. This kind of false dealing with facts was paralleled by his dealing with feelings. He regarded himself as a providential pair of bellows, appointed to puff out gusts of emotion at any moment, in order to kindle and inflame the emotions of others: and this part he acted with wonderful persistence till the machine would work no longer. The function must have been irksome in the extreme,—at least for the last twenty years of his life; for he found, as soon as he was enabled to take a seat in parliament, that only in Ireland did he speak to a believing audience. English people liked to hear him for his fun and his genuine occasional eloquence: but no one of them ever thought of receiving what he said as true. His power in England was due to his power in Ireland, even before the spell of his agitation was broken in 1829.
O’Connell carried through the task which William Pitt and other statesmen had been unable to accomplish in nearly thirty years of suspended pledges. This was a great work: a proper title to historical fame, whatever might be the precise quality of the efforts and arts by which the aim was accomplished. He did not do it alone. He found parties already in antagonism about it. But he took up Ireland in his grasp, and flung it into the scale, to bear down royal prejudice and bad faith; and he succeeded. If he had never been heard of more, he would have taken a very high place in the order of political agitators: but he had eighteen years more to live; and he spent them in teaching the world how a restless spirit in the days of the House of Brunswick may be as mischievous as in the time of the Plantagenets. After the Emancipation Act of 1829, O’Connell’s agitation ceased to be, in his own consciousness, genuine; and all was in fact over with him. His position in regard to income was not a creditable one. It was not to be supposed that a man with a dozen children should surrender or neglect a lucrative practice at the bar in his devotion to politics; and it was perfectly right that those who desired him to devote himself to politics should take care of his income. But it was not done by rich men purchasing or conferring an annuity,—which might and should have been equal to the utmost amount that his profession could have been expected to yield him: it was done by begging all through Ireland every year, from the altar, and by the wayside, and in the inns, and at every cabin door. O’Connell kept his beagles, and supported his clan, and made all bright about him by means of the peasants’ Sunday coats, and the labourer’s second potato, and the widow’s hoarded sixpence, all levied by the priests. O’Connell never got over this. It was worse for him in England than the lies which he would have been wise to keep for Ireland, or the rank abuse and high-pressure sentiment which made his speeches unreadable in English newspapers. There was nothing real and feasible about his Repeal agitation; and if the Irish believed there was, so much the worse for him! He promised every man, woman, and child, what he or she most wished under the name of Repeal, as politic proselyters do under the name of the Kingdom of Heaven. Above all. Repeal meant every man’s ownership of his bit of land, release from standing debts, and the abolition of taxes. Repeal was “glory” and triumph, and vengeance and wealth, and nothing to do for everybody. The retribution of this characteristic was very terrible to the agitator himself. He had a sincere dread of war and actual rebellion: but what could he do with all the expectations he had excited,—expectations which he always knew could not be fulfilled, but which he trusted Providence or chance would divert. For some time he reached forward from one happy accident to another; and he could always cajole an Irish audience for the moment: but he could not long stand the strain. He broke down, in weakness of body and depression of mind,—with strong instincts of fear of death, but, on the other hand, with only too much cause to dread the next scenes of his life. While his millions of Irish believers were falling off into dubious speculation as to why he did not give them Repeal now that, by his own account, the time was in his own hand, he was carried abroad to sink and die. In the movement in which he joined others he succeeded: and the success was mainly due to him. In his own special agitation he showed the same want of qualification, the same incapacity in the hour of crisis, and the same ultimate failure which attends the talkers, in distinction from the achievers of the political destiny of nations. He was a man of genius (of the true Irish quality), kindly in all the relations of life, except the political, and sincere in his love of his country; but his unscrupulousness ruined all,—even robbing him of his fame,—so excessive while he lived. Two or three years after his death he was so nearly forgotten even at Cahirciveen that nobody would give a few shillings for his picture, or seemed to have a regret to spare for him. He had not given the promised Repeal; and the people saw that he must have known throughout that they never would get it.
In speaking of the political agitators of our century, it is impossible to omit all notice of Mazzini. The briefest mention will, however, be most acceptable to all who have ever vested any hopes in the man, or who bear good will to his country. He has lost as much by surviving the siege of Rome in 1849, as O’Connell did by continuing to agitate after the Catholics obtained emancipation. Of Mazzini’s patriotism there never was, up to that time, any more doubt than of his country’s bitter need of redemption: and we were ready to take his word that republicanism was the form of renovation which the freed people would desire. His outpourings of sounding and indefinite abstractions in his addresses and letters were not to English taste: and his method of insurrection jarred upon the judgment and conscience of Englishmen: but the most favourable construction was put upon his actions, in consideration of his aim, and his supposed knowledge of the conditions of the work he undertook. Events have proved his political quality with as fatal an effect as in O’Connell’s case. He has lived to be recognised as a new enemy of his country, more dangerous than any old one. Into the causes of his peculiarities, it is at once too soon and too late to inquire. If they had been understood earlier, much mischief might have been saved; and hereafter they will afford a curious study. At present, it is enough to perceive that he cannot see facts as they are,—cannot willingly see his country saved in any way but his own,—cannot abstain from agitating a people who need rest, and do not need his interference;—cannot, in short, acquiesce in the accomplishment by other means of a work to which he was inadequate. When everybody finds his lucubrations as unreadable as O’Connell’s Irish speeches, we are told that it is owing to the badness of the translation: but it is plain abroad as at home that while Mazzini believes himself to be a model of perspicuity and practicalness, he cannot meet other men’s intellects. He satisfies them of his sensibilities, and of his having notions of his own; but he cannot put anybody in possession of a clear thought. This is a sufficient disqualification for success in revolutionary action: but he has also misapprehended the conditions of his country’s case; and especially the opinions and will of the people. Thus, carefully educated as he was, he does not escape the “demagogue’s” attribute of “ignorance.” In some sense he maybe said to have succeeded; for he undoubtedly helped to keep alive the hope and courage of his countrymen in their worst adversity: but all else has been failure; and we have for some time seen in him the most dangerous obstruction in the path of free Italy. The people of Italy have a king whom they honour and love, and an administration which they trust. They do not want the interference of republican agitators, who do not honour their king, and will not leave it to the responsible parties to deal with the holders of Rome and Venice at the time and in the mode which they judge fit. The whole Italian nation, and every other, would have regarded Mazzini as crowned with immortal honour if he had accepted his destiny when the moment came, and either thrown himself heartily and entirely into the cause of constitutional monarchy, or withdrawn into silence and invisibility, resolved not to disturb where he could not co-operate. As it is, he has missed the greatness of either position, and has added one more to the long list of political agitators who have begun brilliantly, and ended in failure, with the loss even of the honest sympathy which the lovers of freedom are slow to withdraw from any confessor in the cause. As long as regard for Mazzini was compatible with sympathy with Italy, he met with every allowance. Now that he has himself put an end to that compatibility, there is no question about which interest must give way.
Our own popular political orator must have a glance in such a review;—our “tribune,” our “demagogue,” John Bright. The comparison afforded by the means of political agitation at an interval of four centuries is too instructive to be altogether neglected. There is no resemblance between John Bright and the Shaksperian portrait of Jack Cade; and possibly there was little more likeness in the actual men. If Cade had selfish reasons for his agitation, or if he was responsible for any plundering or violence, the two cannot be named together in regard to personal character. But Bright is in the same class with the Gracchi, Rienzi, Cade, Lafayette, and many more in respect of his views and temper about the “barons” of his day. His antagonism to the aristocracy of his country and his time is of the same quality as theirs, and not so much milder as the occasion is. This characteristic of his career is, no doubt, owing in great part to the circumstances of the country when he entered public life. He was first known as a member of the Anti-Corn Law League. He was young and ardent, sure of the soundness of his cause, and abundantly justified, as everybody sees now, in regarding the upholders of the corn laws as the exponents of class selfishness in opposition to the general good. While he had that good cause to fight, he did well on the whole. He was right in his aim, and sound in his arguments; and those who marked the growth of his oratorical power were authorised to expect a great elevation and progress of the liberal cause and its party, through him, in years to come. There was not, as yet, occasion to detect the imperfection of his political knowledge, or the lowness of his political morality, or the dulness of his political sensibility, which have since rendered his political career a hopeless failure.
He has rendered great services, which should be remembered the more carefully the more painfully he has disappointed expectation. His advocacy of free-trade in food was a greater boon than many men have the power of bestowing on their country. He presented a fine example of high courage in his opposition to the last war, however low might be the ground of his arguments. He has certainly roused our conservative fellow citizens, aristocratic or other, to a keener sense of official duty and popular right than they had before; and by intimidation, if by no higher appeal, he has brought them to the point of admitting the necessity of various extensions of liberty in the community. It is no small service to have administered such lively and protracted pleasure to multitudes as his oratory has conveyed, still rising in quality as it has been for a quarter of a century. His awakening influence over the intelligent working-classes of the country might be added, but that the benefit has been neutralised by the mischief wrought by his ignorance, his want of patriotism, and the lowness of moral views from which he never can escape. When he stood forward dauntlessly to denounce the war with Russia, he supposed he had said all in showing “the waste of blood and treasure;” being unaware that there was something in the case more precious to Englishmen than “blood and treasure.” When he advocates that extension of the suffrage to which he has brought any future government to pledge itself, he cannot rise above the consideration of the economy which an improved House of Commons will enforce, and the new distribution of the public burdens which it will effect: and his notions of the requisite changes show his ignorance of political philosophy and history, and his insensibility to the highest features of the polity under which he lives. The same disclosure is made by his long course of laudation of American institutions, the working of which he widely misrepresents, and probably misapprehends, as he misapprehends at home the constitution which he says he has never seen or handled, and cannot find. It is enough to say that, amidst his praise of the American republic, he had never a thought to spare on the depraving operation of slavery, nor a word of censure to throw at it till after the breaking out of the civil war: that he did not foresee the civil war, which the moral sense of any liberal politician must have given warning of; that he condescended to represent to English working-men that American taxation was light, by comparing with ours the taxes levied by the Federal Government only,—omitting the fact that the State imposts are far heavier than the Federal: and that his judgment and feelings about foreign politics are determined, not by the principles of political liberty, but the prospects of British commerce and other convenience. There is worse behind. His denunciations of one order of English society as against another, have grown fiercer in proportion to the restriction of the grounds of such blame. He has incurred the disgrace of “demagoguic ignorance,” and has lost the confidence of the most intelligent part of all classes by the eagerness with which he has wrought at the separation of classes by suspicion, jealousy, and hatred. The hatred he has brought upon himself is a misfortune to the liberal cause in England, as the present so-called “reactionary state of politics” plainly shows. On the other hand, he has had to endure a species of antagonism which no man’s temper can be expected to stand without a warp. When Lord Derby informed the House of Lords that, under no circumstances, would the Queen admit Mr. Bright to the Cabinet, he rendered himself answerable for the consequences of any increased exasperation on the part of the agitator. The effect on Mr. Bright is our concern here, and I need, therefore, say nothing about the unconstitutional spirit of such an avowal, nor of the national sense of insult under it. When Mr. Bright’s class-enmities are censured, it should be carefully considered how much of the mischief is attributable to his normal character of mind, and how much to the statesman who announced, and the authority which enabled him to announce, such a political proscription. Again, the absurd violence with which he has for some time been treated by several of our leading journals has prepared the people who still believe in John Bright (and they are a great multitude) to quarrel on his behalf. He was so much affected by the obloquy he incurred in opposing the war, coming upon the previous exhaustion from over-work, that he retired for a lengthened period, which we all hoped might expand and deepen his mind, and ennoble his future services. The hope was not fulfilled. His second career has been marked by an aggravation of the faults of the first. He has still great power for good or evil over multitudes whom he ought to have led forward in political knowledge, and to whom he could have secured some political privilege by this time, if he had been free from the constant features of the agitator, as distinguished from the statesman. He has not enlightened any class on constitutional questions: he has alarmed one by fierce and exaggerated threats and imputations: he has done his utmost to exasperate other classes by the vulgar methods of the demagogue: and in far greater proportion than he has succeeded in that work, he has alienated from himself the esteem and confidence of the middle class, with whom it rests to raise up and cast down the statesmen of our nation. Without rebellion and bloodshed, the career of the modern agitator follows the course of the ancient, up to the present hour.