Passages from the Life of a Philosopher/Chapter XXI


electioneering experience.

The late Lord Lyndhurst candidate for the University of Cambridge—The Philosopher refuses to vote for him—The reason why—Example of unrivalled virtue—In 1829 Mr. Cavendish was a Candidate for that University—The Author was Chairman of his London Committee—Motives for putting men on Committees—Of the pairing Sub-Committee—Motives for Voting—Means of influencing Voters—Voters brought from Berlin and from India—Elections after the Reform Bill, 1832—The Author again requested to be Chairman of Mr. Cavendish's Committee—Reserves three days in case of a Contest for Bridgenorth—It occurs, but is arranged—Bridgenorth being secure, the Author gets up a Contest for Shropshire—Patriotic Fund sends 500l. to assist the Contest—It lasts three days—Reflections on Squibs—Borough of Finsbury—Adventure in an Omnibus—A judicious Loan—Subsequent invitation to stand for Stroud—Declined—Reflections on improper influence on Voters.

When the late Lord Lyndhurst was a candidate for the representation of the University of Cambridge, I met Mr. ——, a Whig in politics, and a great friend of Dr. Wollaston. After the usual salutation, he said, "I hope you will go down to Cambridge and vote for our friend Copley." I made no answer, but, looking full in his face, waited for some explanation. "Oh," said Mr. ——, "I see what you mean. You think him a Tory; Copley still is what he always has been—a republican." I replied that I was equally unable to vote for him upon that ground, and wished my friend good morning.

A few evenings after I met the beautiful Lady Copley, who also canvassed me for my vote for her husband. I had the energy to resist even this temptation, which I should not have ventured to mention did not the poll-book enable me to refer to it as a witness of my unrivalled virtue.

Some years after, in 1829, a vacancy again arose in the representation of the University of Cambridge. Mr. Cavendish having recently waived the privilege of his rank, which entitled him, after a residence of two years, to take the degree of Master of Arts, had entered into competition with the whole of the young men of his own standing, and had obtained the distinguished position of second wrangler and senior Smith's prize man. Under such circumstances, it was quite natural that all those who felt it important that the accidental aristocracy of birth should be able to maintain its position by the higher claim of superior knowledge; as well as all those who took a just pride in their Alma Mater, should wish to send such a man as their representative to the House of Commons.

A very large meeting of the electors was held in London, over which the Earl of Euston presided. It was unanimously resolved to nominate Mr. Cavendish as a proper person to represent the University of Cambridge in the House of Commons. A committee was appointed to carry on the election, of which I was nominated chairman. Similar proceedings took place at Cambridge. The family of the young but distinguished candidate were not at first very willing to enter upon the contest. As it advanced, the committee-room became daily more and more frequented. Ultimately, in the midst of the London season, and during the sitting of the House of Commons, this single election excited an intense interest amongst men of all parties, whilst those who supported Mr. Cavendish upon higher grounds were not less active than the most energetic of his political supporters.

At all elections some few men, perhaps from four or five up to ten or twelve, do all the difficult and real work of the committee. The committee itself is, for several reasons, generally very numerous.

All who are supposed to have weight are, of course, put upon it.

Many who wish to appear to have weight get their names upon it.

Some get put upon it thinking to establish a political claim upon the party.

Others because they like to see their names in the newspapers.

Others again, who, if not on his committee, would vote against the candidate.

There are also idlers and busybodies, who go there to talk or to carry away something to talk about, which may give them importance in their own circle.

Young lawyers, of both departments of the profession, are very numerous, possessing acute perceptions of professional advantage.

A jester and a good story-teller are very useful; but a jolly and enterprising professor of rhodomontade is on some occasions invaluable—more especially if he is not an Irishman.

Occasionally a few simply honest men are found upon committees. These are useful as adjuncts to give a kind of high moral character to the cause; but the rest of the committee generally think them bores, and when they differ upon any point from the worldly members, it is invariably whispered that they are crotchety fellows.

When any peculiarly delicate question arises, it is sometimes important to eliminate one or more of them temporarily from the real committee of management. This is accomplished (as in graver matters) by sending him on an embassy, usually to one of the adepts, with a confidential mission on a subject represented to him as of great importance. The adept respectfully asks for his view of the subject, rather opposes it, but not too strongly; is at last convinced, and ultimately entirely adopts it. The adept then enters upon the honest simpleton's crotchet, trots it out in the most indulgent manner, and at length sends him back, having done the double service of withdrawing him from a consultation at which he might have impeded the good cause, and also of enabling him at any future time to declare truly, if necessary, that he never was present at any meeting at which even a questionable course had been proposed.

One of the most difficult as well as of the most important departments of some elections is the pairing sub-committee. When I had myself to arrange it, I generally picked out two of the cleverest and most quick-witted of the committee. I told them I had perfect confidence in their judgment and discretion, and therefore constituted them a sub-committee, with absolute power on all questions of pairing. I also entirely forbade any appeal to myself. I then advised them to have attached to them a couple of good and entertaining talkers, to hold in play the applicants while they retired to ascertain the policy of the proposed pair.

Upon one occasion, when both my persuasive gentlemen were absent, I was obliged to officiate myself. I soon discovered that the adverse vote was very lukewarm in his own cause, and was also very averse to the prospect of missing a great cricket-match if he went to the poll. Whilst my pairing committee were making the necessary inquiries, I was so fortunate as to secure the promise of his vote for my own candidate at the succeeding election. In the meantime the pairing committee had kindly taken measures to save him from missing his cricket-match without, however, wasting a pair.

Yet notwithstanding all my efforts to introduce primitive virtue into electioneering, I did not always succeed. About a dozen years had elapsed after one of the elections I had managed, when the subject was mentioned at a large dinner-table. A supporter of the adverse political party, referring to the contest, stated as a merit in his friends that they had succeeded in outwitting their opponents, for on one occasion they had got a man on their side who had unluckily just broken his arm, whom they succeeded in pairing off against a sound man of their adversaries. Remembering my able coadjutors in that contest, I had little doubt that a good explanation existed; so the next time I met one of them I mentioned the circumstance. He at once admitted the fact, and said, "We knew perfectly well that the man's arm was broken; but our man, whom we paired off against him, had no vote." He then added, "We were afraid to tell you of our success." To which I replied, "You acted with great discretion."

University elections are of quite a different class from all others. The nature of the influences to be brought to bear upon the voters is of a peculiar kind: the clerical element is large, and they are for the greater part expectant of something better hereafter.

The first thing to be done in any election contest is to get as exact a list as possible of the names and addresses of the voters. In a university contest the chairman should adopt certain letters or other signs to be used in his own private copy attached to the names of the clerical voters. These should indicate—

The books such voter may have written.

The nature of his preferment.

The source whence derived.

The nature of his expectations.

The source whence expected.

The age of the impediment.

The state of its health.

The chance of its promotion.

Possessed of a full knowledge of all these circumstances, a paragraph in a newspaper regretting the alarming state of health of some eminent divine will frequently decide the oscillation even of a cautious voter.

This dodge is the more easily practised because some eminent divines, on the approach of an university election, occasionally become ill, and even take to their bed, in order to avoid the bore of being canvassed, or of committing themselves until they see "how the land lies."

The motives which induce men to act upon election committees are various. The hope of advancement is a powerful motive. It was stated to me by some of my committee, that every really working member of the committee which a few years before had managed the election of Copley for the University of Cambridge had already been rewarded by place or advancement.

My two most active lieutenants in the two contests for Cambridge, to which I have referred, were not neglected. One of them shortly after became a Master in Chancery, and the other had a place in India, producing £10,000 a year.

The highest compliment, however, that party can pay to those who thus assist them is entirely to ignore their service, and pass them over on every occasion. This may be done with impunity to the very few who have such strong convictions that no amount of neglect or ill-usage can cause them to desert those principles of the soundness of which their reason is convinced. This course has also the great advantage of economizing patronage.

Always ascertain who are the personal enemies of the opposing candidate. If skilfully managed, you may safely depend upon their becoming the warmest friends of your own. Their enthusiasm can be easily stimulated: their zeal in the cause may shame some of your own lukewarm friends into greater earnestness. Men will always give themselves tenfold more trouble to crush a man obnoxious to their hatred than they will take to serve their most favoured ally.

When I have been chairman of an election committee I have found it advantageous to commence my duties early in the morning, and to remain until late at night. There is always something to be done for the advancement of the cause. In the first Cambridge election in which I took part I invariably remained at my post until midnight; and in the second, I was seldom absent at that hour.

One evening, being alone, I employed myself in looking through our lists to find the names of all voters at that period unaccounted for. The first name which attracted my attention was that of a liberal with whom I was personally unacquainted. The next day I set at work one of my investigating committee. In the course of the following day, he had traced out the voter, who at that time was at Berlin. As there was ample time for his return, a friend was employed to write to him, and he returned and voted for our candidate.

On another evening, the name of Minchin turned up on the list. I remembered the man, whom I had met very frequently at the rooms of one of my most intimate friends; but I had not seen him for nearly twenty years.

The next day, after many inquiries, I found that he had been lost sight of for a long time, and it was believed that he had gone out to India. I immediately sent a note to a friend of mine. Captain Robert Locke, who commanded an Indiaman, to beg of him to look in upon me at the committee-room. In two hours he called and informed me that Minchin was a barrister at Calcutta, and was about to return to England. On my expressing a wish for further particulars, he kindly went into the City to procure information, and on his return told me that Minchin was on his voyage home in the "Herefordshire," an excellent ship. It was due on a certain day, about a fortnight thence, and would in all probability not be three days behind its time.

In the evening, being again alone in the committee-room, I resumed the Minchin question, and found that he might possibly arrive on the second of the three days' polling. I therefore wrote the following letter:—

Dear Minchin,

If twenty years have not altered your political principles, we have now an opportunity of getting in a Liberal to represent our University.

The three days of polling are—–—–—–

If you arrive in time, pray come immediately to my committee-room in Cockspur Street.

Yours truly,

C. Babbage.

I addressed this letter to Minchin at Portsmouth, and making two copies of it, directed them to two other sea-ports. When I put these letters into the basket, I smiled at my own simplicity in speculating on the triple improbability—

1. That Minchin should ever get my letter.

2. That his ship, which was expected, should really arrive on the second or third of the three days of polling.

3. That a young lawyer should not have changed his political principles in twenty years.

However, I considered that the chance of this election lottery-ticket winning for us a vote, although very small, was at least worth the three sheets of letter-paper which it cost our candidate.

Amidst the bustle of the election this subject was entirely forgotten. The first day of polling arrived, and was concluded, and as usual I was sitting, at midnight, alone in the large committee-room, when the door opened, and there entered a man enveloped in a huge box-coat, who advanced towards me. He held out his hand, and grasping mine, said, "I have not altered my political principles." This was Minchin, to whom the pilot, cruizing about on the look-out for the "Herefordshire," had delivered a packet of letters.

The first letter Minchin opened was mine. He immediately went below, told his wife that he must get into the boat which had just put the pilot on board, and hasten to Cambridge, whilst she remained with the children to pursue their voyage to London. Minchin returned in the pilot-boat to Portsmouth, found a coach just ready to start, got up on the roof, borrowed a box-coat, and on arriving in London, drove directly to the committee-room. Finding that it would be most convenient to Minchin to start immediately for Cambridge, I sent off a note to the Temple for the most entertaining man[1] upon the committee; I introduced him to Minchin, and they posted down to Cambridge, and voted on the second day.

Greatly to the credit and to the advantage of the University, Mr. Cavendish was elected on this occasion.

In May, 1832, after the passing of the Reform Bill, there was a dissolution of Parliament. At the general election which ensued, Lord Palmerston and Mr. Cavendish, the two former members, again became candidates. Two of the most active members of Mr. Cavendish's former committee called upon me, one of whom began speaking in somewhat complimentary phrases of our young candidate. I was listening attentively to all that could be said in favour of the Cavendish family, when his companion, suddenly interrupting him, said, "No, that won't do for Babbage." He then continued, in terms which I have no wish to repeat, to speak of our candidate, and concluded by saying, that they expressed the opinion of all the working members of the former committee, and came by their desire to request me again to take the chair during the approaching contest; stating, also, that there was no other man under whom they would all willingly act. He then entreated me to be their chairman, not for the sake of the Cavendishes, but for the sake of the cause.

This appeal was irresistible. I immediately acceded to their request, but with one reservation, in case my brother-in-law's seat was contested, that I should have three days to help him at Bridgenorth.

Under such circumstances the contest commenced. I can truly add, that amongst the many elections in which I have taken an active working share, none was ever carried on with greater zeal, nor were greater efforts ever made to attain success.

I had good reason at its commencement to doubt the success of our candidate: not from any defect on his part, but entirely on political grounds. The same reasons induced me to suppose that Lord Palmerston's seat was equally in danger. Of course, a tone of perfect confidence was sustained, and, but for a very inopportune petition signed by a considerable number of members of the University, I believe that we might have managed, by a compromise with the other party, to have secured one seat for our own. As it was, however, both the Liberal candidates were defeated.

The contingency I had anticipated did occur. I was sent for, and went down by the mail to assist Mr. Wolryche Whitmore. On my arrival, I found that circumstances had entirely changed, and not only my brother-in-law, but also Mr. Foster, a large iron-master, was to be returned for Bridgenorth without a contest.

As soon as I was informed of this arrangement, I took immediate measures for rejoining my committee in Cockspur Street. On reaching Bridgenorth, it appeared that four hours would elapse before the mail to London could arrive. I fortunately found a great number of Mr. Foster's most influential supporters assembled at the hotel, comprising amongst them many of the largest iron-masters and manufacturers in the county. They were naturally elated at the success of their friend, which secured to their class a certain amount of influence in the House of Commons. In the course of conversation, mention was made of the utter neglect of the manufacturing interests of the district by their county members. I remarked, that it depended upon themselves to remedy this evil, and inquired whether they were seriously disposed to work. One of the party, who had greatly assisted me when I was managing another contest, and who had ridden over four counties in search of votes for us, appealed to my own experience of their energy. After some discussion, I suggested that they should start a rival candidate of their own for the county.

I then proposed to retire into another room and draw up an address to the freeholders, and also placards, to be stuck up in every town and village in the county. I desired them, in the mean time, to divide the county into districts, of such size that one of our party could in the course of a day go to every town and large village in his district, and arrange with one or more tradesmen in our interest to exhibit the address in their shop-windows. I also desired them to make an estimate of the number of large and small placards necessary for each town and village, in order that we might ascertain how many of each need be printed.

I returned with the addresses to the freeholders. In these the characters of their late members were lightly sketched, and the public were informed that a committee in the liberal interest was sitting in every town in the county, and that at the proper time the name of a fit candidate would be announced.

My friends cordially concurring in these sentiments, unanimously adopted the addresses, undertook to publish them in the newspapers, to arrange their distribution, and organize committees throughout the county. They were, of course, very anxious to know who was to be their candidate. I told them at once that it was not to be expected that they could succeed in their first attempt, but that such a course would assuredly secure for them in future much more attention to their interests from their county members. With respect to a candidate, if they could not themselves find one, these placards and advertisements would without doubt produce one.

I may here mention that a member of the Cambridge committee in Cockspur Street had taken rooms at the Crown and Anchor, and, in conjunction with many other Liberals, instituted the Patriotic Fund, for the purpose of collecting subscriptions for the support of liberal candidates at the first elections under the Reform Bill. A very large sum was soon subscribed.

In the broadsides and placards issued in Shropshire, I had taken care to allude to this fund in large capitals.

I now got into the mail for London, amidst the hearty congratulations of my Shropshire friends. During the few minutes' rest at Northampton, I had an opportunity of seeing a member of the Liberal committee and of informing him of our proceedings in Shropshire, and afterwards of conveying his report of the prospects of the contest in that town to our friends in London.

Two or three days after every town, and almost every village in Shropshire, was enlightened by my placards; and in the course of a few days more, three candidates were in the field.

On my return to London I communicated with the Patriotic Fund, who sent down 500l. to support the party in Shropshire. After a short contest the Liberal party was of course beaten; but the diversion produced the intended effect.

One portion of electioneering tactics is thought to consist in the manufacture of squibs. These should never give pain nor allude to any personal defect or inevitable evil. They ought either to produce a broad laugh or that involuntary smile which true wit usually provokes. They are productive of little effect except the amusement of the supporters engaged in carrying on the contest.

My own share in elections has generally been in more serious departments. I remember, however, a very harmless squib which I believed equally amused both parties, and which, I was subsequently informed, was concocted in Mr. Cavendish's committee-room.

High mathematical knowledge is by no means a very great qualification in a candidate for the House of Commons, nor is the absence of it any disparagement. In the contest to which I refer, the late Mr. Goulburn was opposed to Mr. Cavendish. The following paragraph appeared in the 'Morning Post:'—

"The Whigs lay great stress on the academical distinction attained by Mr. Cavendish. Mr. Goulburn, it is true, was not a candidate for university honours; but his scientific attainments are by no means insignificant. He has succeeded in the exact rectification of a circular arc; and he has likewise discovered the equation of the lunar caustic, a problem likely to prove of great value in nautical astronomy."

It appears that late one evening a cab drove up in hot haste to the office of the 'Morning Post,' delivered the copy as coming from Mr. Goulburn's committee, and at the same time ordered fifty extra copies of the 'Post' to be sent next morning to their committee-room.

During my own contest for the borough of Finsbury few incidents worth note occurred. One day, as I was returning in an omnibus from the City, an opportunity presented itself by which I acquired a few votes. A gentleman at the extreme end of the omnibus being about to leave it, asked the conductor to give him change for a sovereign. Those around expressed their opinion that he would acquire bad silver by the exchange. On hearing this remonstrance, I thought it a good opportunity to make a little political capital, which might perhaps be improved by a slight delay. So I did not volunteer my services until a neighbour of the capitalist who possessed the sovereign had offered him the loan of a sixpence. It was quite clear that the borrower would ask for the address of the lender, and tolerably certain that it would be in some distant locality. So, in fact, it turned out: Richmond being the abode of the benevolent one. Other liberal individuals offered their services, but they only possessed half-sovereigns and half-crowns.

In the mean time I had taken from my well-loaded breastpocket one of my own charming addresses to my highly-cultivated and independent constituents, and having also a bright sixpence in my hand, I immediately offered the latter as a loan, and the former as my address for repayment. I remarked at the same time that my committee-room on Holborn Hill, at which I was about to alight, would be open continually for the next five weeks. This offer was immediately accepted, and further extensive demands were instantly made upon my pocket for other copies of my address.

My immediate neighbour, having read its fascinating contents, applied to me for more copies, saying that he highly agreed with my sound and patriotic views, would at once promise me six votes, and added that he would also immediately commence a canvass in his own district. On arriving at my committee-room I had already acquired other supporters. Indeed, I am pretty sure I carried the whole of my fellow-passengers with me: for I left the omnibus amidst the hearty cheers of my newly-acquired friends.

About a year or two after this long-forgotten loan, I received a letter from a gentleman whose name I did not recognize as being one of my too numerous correspondents. It commenced thus:—"Sir, I am the gentleman to whom you lent sixpence in the omnibus." He then went on to state, in terms too flattering for me to repeat, that he had watched the Finsbury election with the greatest interest, and much deplored the taste of the electors in rejecting so, &c. &c., a candidate. My friend then informed me of an approaching vacancy in the borough of Stroud, in which town he resided. He proceeded to give me an outline of the state of opinion, and of the wants of the electors, and concluded by saying he was certain that my opinions would be very favourably received. He also assured me, if I decided on offering my services to the constituency, that he should have great pleasure in giving me every support in his power. In reply, I cordially thanked him for his generous offer, but declined the proposed honour. In fact, I was not peculiarly desirous of wasting my time for the benefit of my country. The constituency of Finsbury had already expressed their opinion that Mr. Wakley and Mr. Thomas Duncombe were fitter than myself to represent them in Parliament, and in that decision I most cordially concurred.

During some of the early contests for the borough of Marylebone, it too frequently occurred that ladies drove round to their various tradesmen to canvass for their votes, threatening, in case of refusal, to withdraw their custom. This unfeminine conduct occasionally drew upon them unpleasant though well-deserved rebukes.

In one of those contests I took a considerable interest in favour of a candidate whom I shall call Mr. A. Meeting a very respectable tradesman—a plumber and painter, whom I had employed in decorating my own house—I asked him how he intended to vote. He replied that he wished to vote for Mr. A., but that one of his customers had been to his shop and asked him to vote for Mr. Z., threatening, in case he declined, never to employ him again.

I inquired whether his customer's house was larger than mine, to which he replied that mine was twice the size of the other. I then asked whether his customer was a younger man than myself, to this he replied, "He is a much older man."

I then asked him what he would do if I adopted the same line of conduct, and insisted on his voting for my friend Mr. A. This query was unanswerable. Of course I did not attempt to make him violate his extorted promise.

Such conduct is disgraceful, and if of frequent occurrence would have a tendency to introduce the vote by ballot; a mode of voting for representatives which, in my opinion, nothing short of the strongest necessity could justify.

The election for Finsbury gave occasion to the following jeu d'esprit, which, as a specimen of the electioneering squibs of the day, I give in extenso:

  1. My friend, John Elliott Drinkwater, afterwards Bethune.

This work was published before January 1, 1925, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.