To claim an exemption for frailties and irregularities on the score of genius, while there are such names as Milton and Newton on record, were to be blind to the example which these and other great men have left, of the grandest intellectual powers combined with the most virtuous lives. But, for the bias given early to the mind by education and circumstances, even the least charitable may be inclined to make large allowances. We have seen how idly the young days of Sheridan were wasted—how soon he was left, (in the words of the Prophet,) "to dwell carelessly ," and with what an undisciplined temperament he was thrown upon the world, to meet at every step that never-failing spring of temptation, which, like the fatal fountain in the Garden of Armida, sparkles up for ever in the pathway of such a man:—
"Un fonte sorge in lei, che vaghe e monde Ha l'acque si, che i riguardanti asseta, Ma dentro ai freddi suoi cristalli asconde Di tosco estran malvagita secreta."
Even marriage, which is among the sedatives of other men's lives, but formed a part of the romance of his. The very attractions of his wife increased his danger, by doubling, as it were the power of the world over him, and leading him astray by her light as well as by his own. Had his talents, even then, been subjected to the manege of a profession, there was still a chance that business, and the round of regularity which it requires, might have infused some spirit of order into his life. But the Stage—his glory and his ruin—opened upon him; and the property of which it made him master was exactly of that treacherous kind which not only deceives a man himself, but enables him to deceive others, and thus combined all that a person of his carelessness and ambition had most to dread. An uncertain income, which, by eluding calculation, gives an excuse for improvidence, [Footnote: How feelingly aware he was of this great source of all his misfortunes appears from a passage in the able speech which he delivered before the Chancellor, as Counsel in his own case, in the year 1799 or 1800:—
"It is a great disadvantage, relatively speaking, to any man, and especially to a very careless, and a very sanguine man, to have possessed an uncertain and fluctuating income. That disadvantage is greatly increased, if the person so circumstanced has conceived himself to be in some degree entitled to presume that, by the exertion of his own talents, he may at pleasure increase that income—thereby becoming induced to make promises to himself which he may afterwards fail to fulfil.
"Occasional excess and frequent unpunctuality will be the natural consequences of such a situation. But, my Lord, to exceed an ascertained and limited income, I hold to be a very different matter. In that situation I have placed myself, (not since the present unexpected contention arose, for since then I would have adopted no arrangements,) but months since, by my Deed of Trust to Mr. Adam, and in that situation I shall remain until every debt on earth, in which the Theatre or I am concerned, shall be fully and fairly discharged. Till then I will live on what remains to me—preserving that spirit of undaunted independence, which, both as a public and a private man, I trust, I have hitherto maintained."] and, still more fatal, a facility of raising money, by which the lesson, that the pressure of distress brings with it, is evaded till it comes too late to be of use—such was the dangerous power put into his hands, in his six-and-twentieth year, and amidst the intoxication of as deep and quick draughts of fame as ever young author quaffed. Scarcely had the zest of this excitement begun to wear off, when he was suddenly transported into another sphere, where successes still more flattering to his vanity awaited him. Without any increase of means, he became the companion and friend of the first Nobles and Princes, and paid the usual tax of such unequal friendships, by, in the end, losing them and ruining himself. The vicissitudes of a political life, and those deceitful vistas into office that were for ever opening on his party, made his hopes as fluctuating and uncertain as his means, and encouraged the same delusive calculations on both. He seemed, at every new turn of affairs, to be on the point of redeeming himself; and the confidence of others in his resources was no less fatal to him than his own, as it but increased the facilities of ruin that surrounded him.
Such a career as this—so shaped towards wrong, so inevitably devious—it is impossible to regard otherwise than with the most charitable allowances. It was one long paroxysm of excitement—no pause for thought—no inducements to prudence—the attractions all drawing the wrong way, and a Voice, like that which Bossuet describes, crying inexorably from behind him "On, on!" [Footnote: "La loi est prononcee; il faut avancer toujours. Je voudrois retourner sur mes pas; 'Marche, Marche!' Un poids invincible nous entraine; il faut sans cesse avancer vers le precipice. On se console pourtant, parce que de tems en tems on rencontre des objets qui nous divertissent, des eaux courantes, des fleurs qui passent. On voudroit arreter; 'Marche, Marche!'"—Sermon sur la Resurrection.] Instead of wondering at the wreck that followed all this, our only surprise should be, that so much remained uninjured through the trial,—that his natural good feelings should have struggled to the last with his habits, and his sense of all that was right in conduct so long survived his ability to practise it.
Numerous, however, as were the causes that concurred to disorganize his moral character, in his pecuniary embarrassment lay the source of those blemishes, that discredited him most in the eyes of the world. He might have indulged his vanity and his passions, like others, with but little loss of reputation, if the consequence of these indulgences had not been obtruded upon observation in the forbidding form of debts and distresses. So much did his friend Richardson, who thoroughly knew him, consider his whole character to have been influenced by the straitened circumstances in which he was placed, that he used often to say, "If an enchanter could, by the touch of his wand, endow Sheridan suddenly with fortune, he would instantly transform him into a most honorable and moral man." As some corroboration of this opinion, I must say that, in the course of the inquiries which my task of biographer imposed upon me, I have found all who were ever engaged in pecuniary dealings with him, not excepting those who suffered most severely by his irregularities, (among which class I may cite the respected name of Mr. Hammersley,) unanimous in expressing their conviction that he always meant fairly and honorably; and that to the inevitable pressure of circumstances alone, any failure that occurred in his engagements was to be imputed.
There cannot, indeed, be a stronger exemplification of the truth, that a want of regularity [Footnote: His improvidence in every thing connected with money was most remarkable. He would frequently be obliged to stop on his journies, for want of the means of getting on, and to remain living expensively at an inn, till a remittance could reach him. His letters to the treasurer of the theatre on these occasions were generally headed with the words "Money-bound." A friend of his told me, that one morning, while waiting for him in his study, he cast his eyes over the heap of unopened letters that lay upon the table, and, seeing one or two with coronets on the seals, said to Mr. Westley, the treasurer, who was present, "I see we are all treated alike." Mr. Westley then informed him that he had once found, on looking over this table, a letter which he had himself sent, a few weeks before, to Mr. Sheridan, enclosing a ten-pound note, to release him from some inn, but which Sheridan, having raised the supplies in some other way, had never thought of opening. The prudent treasurer took away the letter, and reserved the enclosure for some future exigence.
Among instances of his inattention to letters, the following is mentioned. Going one day to the banking-house, where he was accustomed to receive his salary, as Receiver of Cornwall, and where they sometimes accommodated him with small sums before the regular time of payment, he asked, with all due humility, whether they could oblige him with the loan of twenty pounds. "Certainly, Sir," said the clerk,—"would you like any more—fifty, or a hundred?" Sheridan, all smiles and gratitude, answered that a hundred pounds would be of the greatest convenience to him. "Perhaps you would like to take two hundred, or three?" said the clerk. At every increase of the sum, the surprise of the borrower increased. "Have not you then received our letter?" said the clerk;—on which it turned out that, in consequence of the falling in of some fine, a sum of twelve hundred pounds had been lately placed to the credit of the Receiver-General, and that, from not having opened the letter written to apprise him, he had been left in ignorance of his good luck.] becomes, itself, a vice, from the manifold evils to which it leads, than the whole history of Mr. Sheridan's pecuniary transactions. So far from never paying his debts, as is often asserted of him, he was, in fact, always paying;—but in such a careless and indiscriminate manner, and with so little justice to himself or others, as often to leave the respectable creditor to suffer for his patience, while the fraudulent dun was paid two or three times over. Never examining accounts nor referring to receipts, he seemed as if, (in imitation of his own Charles, preferring generosity to justice,) he wished to make paying as like as possible to giving. Interest, too, with its usual, silent accumulation, swelled every debt; and I have found several instances among his accounts where the interest upon a small sum had been suffered to increase till it outgrew the principal;—"minima pars ipsa puella sui."
Notwithstanding all this, however, his debts were by no means so considerable as has been supposed. In the year 1808, he empowered Sir R. Berkely, Mr. Peter Moore, and Mr. Frederick Homan, by power of attorney, to examine into his pecuniary affairs and take measures for the discharge of all claims upon him. These gentlemen, on examination, found that his bona fide debts were about ten thousand pounds, while his apparent debts amounted to five or six times as much. Whether from conscientiousness or from pride, however, he would not suffer any of the claims to be contested, but said that the demands were all fair, and must be paid just as they were stated;—though it was well known that many of them had been satisfied more than once. These gentlemen, accordingly, declined to proceed any further with their commission.
On the same false feeling he acted in 1813-14, when the balance due on the sale of his theatrical property was paid him, in a certain number of Shares. When applied to by any creditor, he would give him one of these Shares, and allowing his claim entirely on his own showing, leave him to pay himself out of it, and refund the balance. Thus irregular at all times, even when most wishing to be right, he deprived honesty itself of its merit and advantages; and, where he happened to be just, left it doubtful, (as Locke says of those religious people, who believe right by chance, without examination,) "whether even the luckiness of the accident excused the irregularity of the proceeding." [Footnote: Chapter on Reason]
The consequence, however, of this continual paying was that the number of his creditors gradually diminished, and that ultimately the amount of his debts was, taking all circumstances into account, by no means considerable. Two years after his death it appeared by a list made up by his Solicitor from claims sent in to him, in consequence of an advertisement in the newspapers, that the bona fide debts amounted to about five thousand five hundred pounds.
If, therefore, we consider his pecuniary irregularities in reference to the injury that they inflicted upon others, the quantum of evil for which he is responsible becomes, after all, not so great. There are many persons in the enjoyment of fair characters in the world, who would be happy to have no deeper encroachment upon the property of others to answer for; and who may well wonder by what unlucky management Sheridan could contrive to found so extensive a reputation for bad pay upon so small an amount of debt.
Let it never, too, be forgotten, in estimating this part of his character, that had he been less consistent and disinterested in his public conduct, he might have commanded the means of being independent and respectable in private. He might have died a rich apostate, instead of closing a life of patriotism in beggary. He might, (to use a fine expression of his own,) have 'hid his head in a coronet,' instead of earning for it but the barren wreath of public gratitude. While, therefore, we admire the great sacrifice that he made, let us be tolerant to the errors and imprudences which it entailed upon him; and, recollecting how vain it is to look for any thing unalloyed in this world, rest satisfied with the Martyr, without requiring, also, the Saint.