The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift/Volume 3/The Examiner, Number 17
THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 30, 1710.
WHEN I first undertook this paper, I was resolved to concern myself only with things, and not with persons. Whether I have kept or broken this resolution, I cannot recollect; and I will not be at the pains to examine, but leave the matter to those little antagonists who may want a topick for criticism. Thus much I have discovered, that it is in writing, as in building; where, after all our schemes and calculations, we are mightily deceived in our accounts, and often forced to make use of any materials we can find, that the work may be kept a going. Besides, to speak my opinion, the things I have occasion to mention are so closely linked to persons, that nothing but time (the father of oblivion) can separate them. Let me put a parallel case: suppose I should complain, that last week my coach was within an inch of overturning in a smooth even way, and drawn by very gentle horses; to be sure, all my friends would immediately lay the fault upon John, because they knew he then presided in my coach-box. Again, suppose I should discover some uneasiness to find myself, I knew not how, over head and ears in debt, although I were sure my tenants paid their rents very well, and that I never spent half my income; they would certainly advise me to turn off Mr. Oldfox my receiver, and take another. If, as a justice of peace, I should tell a friend, that my warrants and mittimuses were never drawn up as I would have them; that I had the misfortune to send an honest man to gaol, and dismiss a knave; he would bid me no longer trust Charles and Harry, my two clerks, whom he knew to be ignorant, wilful, assuming, and ill-inclined fellows. If I should add, that my tenants made me very uneasy with their squabbles and broils among themselves; he would counsel me to cashier Will. Bigamy, the seneschal of my manor. And lastly, if my neighbour and I happened to have a misunderstanding about the delivery of a message, what could I do less than strip and discard the blundering or malicious rascal, who carried it?
It is the same thing in the conduct of publick affairs, where they have been managed with rashness or willfulness, corruption, ignorance, or injustice. Barely to relate the facts, at least while they are fresh in memory, will as much reflect upon the persons concerned, as if we had told their names at length.
I have therefore since thought of another expedient, frequently practised with great safety and success by satirical writers; which is, that of looking into history for some character bearing a resemblance to the person we would describe; and with the absolute power of altering, adding, or suppressing what circumstances we please, I conceive we must have very bad luck, or very little skill, to fail. However, some days ago in a coffee-house looking into one of the politick weekly papers, I found the writer had fallen into this scheme; and I happened to light on that part, where he was describing a person, who, from small beginnings, grew (as I remember) to be constable of France, and had a very haughty imperious wife. I took the author as a friend to our faction; for so, with great propriety of speech, they call the queen and ministry, almost the whole clergy, and nine parts in ten of the kingdom; and I said to a gentleman near me, that although I knew well enough what persons the author meant, yet there were several particulars in the husband's character, which I could not reconcile; for that of the lady, it was just and adequate enough. But it seems I mistook the whole matter, and applied all I had read to a couple of persons, who were not at that time in the writer's thoughts.
Now, to avoid such a misfortune as this, I have been for some time consulting Livy and Tacitus, to find out a character of a princeps senatus, a prætor urbanus, a quæstor ærarius, a Cæsari ab epistolis, and a proconsul: but among the worst of them, I cannot discover one, from whom to draw a parallel without doing injury to a Roman memory: so that I am compelled to have recourse to Tully. But, this author relating facts only as an orator, I thought it would be best to observe his method, and make an extract from six harangues of his against Verres, only still preserving the form of an oration. I remember a younger brother of mine, who deceased about two months ago, presented the world with a speech of Alcibiades against an Athenian brewer. Now I am told for certain, that in those days there was no ale in Athens; therefore that speech, or at least a great part of it, must needs be spurious. The difference between my brother and me is this; he makes Alcibiades say a great deal more than he really did, and I make Cicero say a great deal less. This Verres had been the Roman governor of Sicily for three years; and, on his return from his government, the Sicilians entreated Cicero to impeach him in the senate; which he accordingly did in several orations, whence I have faithfully translated and abstracted that which follows:
"A pernicious opinion has for some time prevailed, not only at Rome, but among our neighbouring nations, that a man who has money enough, although he be ever so guilty, cannot be condemned in this place. But, however industriously this opinion be spread to cast an odium on the senate, we have brought before your lordships Caius Verres, a person, for his life and actions, already condemned by all men; but, as he hopes and gives out, by the influence of his wealth to be here absolved: in condemning this man, you have an opportunity of belying that general scandal, of redeeming the credit lost by former judgments, and recovering the love of the Roman people, as well as of our neighbours. I have brought here a man before you, my lords, who is a robber of the public treasure, an overturner of law and justice, and the disgrace as well as destruction of the Sicilian province; of whom if you shall determine with equity and due severity, your authority will remain entire, and upon such an establishment as it ought to be: but, if his great riches will be able to force their way through that religious reverence and truth, which become so awful an assembly; I shall however obtain thus much, that the defect will be laid where it ought; and that it shall not be objected, that the criminal was not produced, or that there wanted an orator to accuse him. This man, my lords, has publickly said, that those ought to be afraid of accusations, who have only robbed enough for their own support and maintenance; but that he has plundered sufficient to bribe numbers; and that nothing is so high or so holy, which money cannot corrupt. Take that support from him, and he can have no other left: for what eloquence will be able to defend a man, whose life has been tainted with so many scandalous vices, and who has been so long condemned by the universal opinion of the world? To pass over the foul stains and ignominy of his youth, his corrupt management in all employments he has born, his treachery and irreligion, his injustice and oppression: he has left of late such monuments of his villainies in Sicily, made such havock and confusion there, during his government, that the province cannot by any means be restored to its former state, and hardly recover itself at all, under many years, and by a long succession of good governors. While this man governed in that island, the Sicilians had neither the benefit of our laws, nor their own, nor even of common right. In Sicily, no man now possesses more than what the governor's lust and avarice have overlooked, or what he was forced to neglect, out of mere weariness and satiety of oppression. Every thing, where he presided, was determined by his arbitrary will; and the best subjects he treated as enemies. To recount his abominable debaucheries, would offend any modest year, since so many could not preserve their daughters and wives from his lust. I believe there is no man, who ever heard his name, that cannot relate his enormities. We bring before you in judgment, my lords, a publick robber, an adulterer, a defiler of altars, an enemy of religion, and of all that is sacred. In Sicily he sold all employments of judicature, magistracy, and trust, places in the council, and the priesthood itself, to the highest bidder; and has plundered that island of forty millions of sesterces. And here I cannot but observe to your lordships, in what manner Verres passed the day; the morning was spent in taking bribes and selling employments; the rest of it, in drunkenness and lust. His discourse at table was scandalously unbecoming the dignity of his station; noise, brutality, and obsceneness. One particular I cannot omit; that in the high character of governor of Sicily, upon a solemn day, a day set apart for publick prayer for the safety of the commonwealth, he stole at evening in a chair to a married woman of infamous character, against all decency and prudence, as well as against all laws both human and divine. Didst thou think, O Verres! the government of Sicily was given thee with so large a commission, only, by the power of that, to break all the bars of law, modesty, and duty; to suppose all men's fortunes thine, and leave no house free from thy rapine and lust?" &c.
This extract, to deal ingenuously, has cost me more pains than I think it is worth; having only served to convince me, that modern corruptions are not to be parallelled by ancient examples, without having recourse to poetry or fable. For instance, I never read in story of a law enacted to take away the force of all laws whatsoever; by which a man may safely commit upon the last of June, what he would infallibly be hanged for, if he committed it on the first of July; by which the greatest criminals may escape, provided they continue long enough in power to antiquate their crimes, and by stifling them a while can deceive the legislature into an amnesty, of which the enactors do not at that time foresee the consequence. A cautious merchant will be apt to suspect, when he finds a man who has the repute of a cunning dealer, and with whom he has old accounts, urging for a general release. When I reflect on this proceeding, I am not surprised that those, who contrived a parliamentary sponge, for their crimes, are now afraid of a new revolution sponge, for their money: and if it were possible to contrive a sponge, that could only affect those who had need of the other, perhaps it would not be ill employed.