Victorian Worthies - Sixteen Biographies
by George Henry Blore
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Transcriber's note:

The reader will encounter the use of ā as an attempt to preserve the author's use of a lower case "a" with macron and ī as lower case "i" with macron.


Sixteen Biographies



Assistant Master at Winchester College

'We have undertaken to discourse here for a little on Great Men, their manner of appearance in our world's business, how they shaped themselves in the world's history, what ideas men formed of them, what work they did;—on Heroes, namely, and on their reception and performance.'—CARLYLE.

Humphrey Milford Oxford University Press London Edinburgh Glasgow New York Toronto Melbourne Cape Town Bombay Calcutta 1920 Printed in England at the Oxford University Press




Some excuse seems to be needed for venturing at this time to publish biographical sketches of the men of the Victorian era. Several have been written by men, like Lord Morley and Lord Bryce, having first-hand knowledge of their subjects, others by the best critics of the next generation, such as Mr. Chesterton and Mr. Clutton-Brock. With their critical ability I am not able to compete; but they often postulate a knowledge of facts which the average reader has forgotten or has never known. Having written these sketches primarily for boys at school I am not ashamed to state well-known facts, nor have I wished to avoid the obvious.

Nor do these sketches aim at obtaining a sensation by the shattering of idols. I have been content to accept the verdicts passed by their contemporaries on these great servants of the public, verdicts which, in general, seem likely to stand the test of time. Boys will come soon enough on books where criticism has fuller play, and revise the judgements of the past. Such a revision is salutary, when it is not unfair or bitter in tone.

At a time when the subject called 'civics' is being more widely introduced into schools, it seems useful to present the facts of individual lives, instances chosen from different professions, as a supplement to the study of principles and institutions. There is a spirit of public service which is best interpreted through concrete examples. If teachers will, from their own knowledge, fill in these outlines and give life to these portraits, the younger generation may find it not uninteresting to 'praise famous men and our fathers that begat us'.

It seems hardly necessary in a book of this kind to give an imposing list of authorities consulted. In some cases I should find it difficult to trace the essay or memoir from which a statement is drawn; but in the main I have depended on the standard Lives of the various men portrayed, from Froude's Carlyle and Forster's Dickens to Mackail's Morris and Michell's Rhodes. And, needless to say, I have found the Dictionary of National Biography most valuable. If boys were not frightened from the shelves by its bulk, it would render my work superfluous; but, though I often recommend it to them, I find few signs that they consult it as often as they should. It may seem that no due proportion has been observed in the length of the different sketches; but it must be remembered that, while short Lives of Napier and Lawrence have been written by well-known authors, it is more difficult for a boy to satisfy his curiosity about Lister, Patteson, or Green; and of Morier no complete life has yet been published.

I am indebted to Mr. Emery Walker for assistance in the selection of the portraits.

Three of my friends have been kind enough to read parts of the book and to give me advice: the Rev. A. T. P. Williams and Mr. C. E. Robinson, my colleagues here, and Mr. Nowell Smith, Head Master of Sherborne. I owe much also to the good judgement of Mr. Milford's reader. If I venture to thank them for their help, they are in no way responsible for my mistakes. Writing in the intervals of school-mastering I have no doubt been guilty of many, and I shall be grateful if any reader will take the trouble to inform me of those which he detects.



April 1920.


Thomas Carlyle From the painting by G. F. WATTS in the National Portrait Gallery.

Sir Robert Peel From the painting by J. LINNELL in the National Portrait Gallery.

Sir Charles Napier From the drawing by EDWIN WILLIAMS in the National Portrait Gallery.

Lord Shaftesbury From the painting by G. F. WATTS in the National Portrait Gallery.

Lord Lawrence From the painting by G. F. WATTS in the National Portrait Gallery.

John Bright From the painting by W. W. OULESS in the National Portrait Gallery.

Charles Dickens From the painting by DANIEL MACLISE in the National Portrait Gallery.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson From the painting by G. F. WATTS in the National Portrait Gallery.

Charles Kingsley From a drawing by W. S. HUNT in the National Portrait Gallery.

George Frederick Watts From a painting by himself in the National Portrait Gallery.

John Coleridge Patteson From a drawing by WILLIAM RICHMOND. (By kind permission of Messrs. Macmillan & Co., Ltd.)

Sir Robert Morier From a drawing by WILLIAM RICHMOND. (By kind permission of Mr. Edward Arnold.)

Lord Lister From a photograph by MESSRS. BARRAUD.

William Morris From the painting by G. F. WATTS in the National Portrait Gallery.

John Richard Green From a drawing by FREDERICK SANDYS. (By kind permission of Messrs. Macmillan & Co., Ltd.)

Cecil Rhodes From the painting by G. F. WATTS in the National Portrait Gallery.



We like to fancy, when critics are not at our elbow, that each Age in our history has a character and a physiognomy of its own. The sixteenth century speaks to us of change and adventure in every form, of ships and statecraft, of discovery and desecration, of masterful sovereigns and unscrupulous ministers. We evoke the memory of Henry VIII and Elizabeth, of Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell, of Drake and Raleigh, while the gentler virtues of Thomas More and Philip Sidney seem but rare flowers by the wayside.

The glory of the seventeenth century shines out amid the clash of arms, in battles fought for noble principles, in the lives and deaths of Falkland and Hampden, of Blake, Montrose, and Cromwell. If its nobility is dimmed as we pass from the world of Shakespeare and Milton to that of Dryden and Defoe, yet there is sufficient unity in its central theme to justify the enthusiasm of those who praise it as the heroic age of English history.

Less justice, perhaps, is done when we characterize the eighteenth century as that of elegance and wit; when, heedless of the great names of Chatham, Wolfe, and Clive, we fill the forefront of our picture with clubs and coffee-houses, with the graces of Chesterfield and Horace Walpole, the beauties of Gainsborough and Romney, or the masterpieces of Sheraton and Adam. But each generalization, as we make it, seems more imperfect and unfair; and partly because Carlyle abused it so unmercifully, this century has in the last fifty years received ample justice from many of our ablest writers.

Difficult indeed then it must seem to give adequate expression to the life of a century like the nineteenth, so swift, so restless, so many-sided, so full of familiar personages, and of conflicts which have hardly yet receded to a distance where the historian can judge them aright. The rich luxuriance of movements and of individual characters chokes our path; it is a labyrinth in which one may well lose one's way and fail to see the wood for the trees.

The scientist would be protesting (all this time) that this is a very superficial aspect of the matter. He would recast our framework for us and teach us to follow out the course of our history through the development of mathematics, physics, and biology, to pass from Newton to Harvey, and from Watt to Darwin, and in the relation of these sciences to one another to find the clue to man's steady progress.

The tale thus told is indeed wonderful to read and worthy of the telling; but, to appreciate it fully, it needs a wider and deeper knowledge than many possess. And it tends to leave out one side of our human nature. There are many whose sympathies will always be drawn rather to the influence of man upon man than to the extension of man's power over nature, to the development of character rather than of knowledge. To-day literature must approach science, her all-powerful sister, with humility, and crave indulgence for those who still wish to follow in the track where Plutarch led the way, to read of human infirmity as well as of human power, not to scorn anecdotes or even comparisons which illustrate the qualities by which service can be rendered to the State.

To return to the nineteenth century, some would find a guiding thread in the progress of the Utilitarian School, which based its teaching on the idea of pursuing the greatest happiness of the greatest number, the school which produced philosophers like Bentham and J. S. Mill, and politicians like Cobden and Morley. It was congenial to the English mind to follow a line which seemed to lead with certainty to practical results; and the industrial revolutions caused men at this time to look, perhaps too much, to the material conditions of well-being. Along with the discoveries that revolutionized industry, the eighteenth century had bequeathed something more precious than material wealth. John Wesley, the strongest personal influence of its latter half, had stirred the spirit of conscious philanthropy and the desire to apply Christian principles to the service of all mankind. Howard, Wilberforce, and others directed this spirit into definite channels, and many of their followers tinged with a warm religious glow the principles which, even in agnostics like Mill, lent consistent nobility to a life of service. The efforts which these men made, alone or banded into societies, to enlarge the liberties of Englishmen and to distribute more fairly the good things of life among them, were productive of much benefit to the age.

Under such leadership indeed as that of Bentham and Wilberforce, the Victorian Age might have been expected to follow a steady course of beneficence which would have drawn all the nobler spirits of the new generation into its main current. Clear, logical, and persuasive, the Utilitarians seemed likely to command success in Parliament, in the pulpit, and in the press. But the criterion of happiness, however widely diffused (and that it had not gone far in 1837 Disraeli's Sybil will attest), was not enough to satisfy the ardent idealism that blazed in the breasts of men stirred by revolutions and the new birth of Christian zeal. In contrast to the ordered pursuit of reform, the spirit of which the Utilitarians hoped to embody in societies and Acts of Parliament, were the rebellious impulses of men filled with a prophetic spirit, walking in obedience to an inward voice, eager to cry aloud their message to a generation wrapped in prosperity and self-contentment. They formed no single school and followed no single line. In a few cases we may observe the relation of master and pupil, as between Carlyle and Ruskin; in more we can see a small band of friends like the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the leaders of the Oxford Movement, or the scientific circle of Darwin and Hooker, working in fellowship for a common end. But individuality is their note. They sprang often from surroundings most alien to their genius; they wandered far from the courses which their birth seemed to prescribe; the spirit caught them and they went forth to the fray.

The time in which they grew up was calculated to mould characters of strength. Self-control and self-denial had been needed in the protracted wars with France. Self-reliance had been learnt in the hard school of adversity. Imagination was quickened by the heroism of the struggle which had ended in the final victory of our arms. And to the generations born in the early days of the nineteenth century lay open fields wider than were offered to human activity in any other age of the world's history. Now at last the full fruits of sixteenth-century discovery were to be reaped. It was possible for Gordon, by the personal ascendancy which he owed to his single-minded faith, to create legends and to work miracles in Asia and in Africa; for Richard Burton to gain an intimate knowledge of Islam in its holiest shrines; for Livingstone, Hannington, and other martyrs to the Faith to breathe their last in the tropics; for Franklin, dying, as Scott died nearly seventy years later, in the cause of Science, to hallow the polar regions for the Anglo-Saxon race. Darkest Africa was to remain impenetrable yet awhile. Only towards the end of the century, when Stanley's work was finished, could Rhodes and Kitchener conspire to clasp hands across its deserts and its swamps: but on the other side of the globe a new island-empire had been already created by the energy of Wakefield, and developed by the wisdom of Parkes and Grey. In distant lands, on stricken fields less famous but no less perilous, Wellington's men were applying the lessons which they had learnt in the Peninsula. On distant seas Nelson's ships were carrying explorers equipped for the more peaceful task of scientific observation. In this century the highest mountains, the deepest seas, the widest stretches of desert were to reveal their secrets to the adventurers who held the whole world for their playground or field of conquest.

And not only in the great expansion of empire abroad but in the growth of knowledge at home and the application of it to civil life, there was a field to employ all the vigour of a race capable of rising to its opportunities. There is no need to remind this generation of such names as Stephenson and Herschel, Darwin and Huxley, Faraday and Kelvin; they are in no danger of being forgotten to-day. The men of letters take relatively a less conspicuous place in the evolution of the Age; but the force which they put into their writings, the wealth of their material, the variety of their lives, and the contrasts of their work, endow the annals of the nineteenth century with an absorbing interest. While Tennyson for the most part stayed in his English homes, singing the beauties of his native land, Browning was a sojourner in Italian palaces and villas, studying men of many races and many times, exploring the subtleties of the human heart. The pen of Dickens portrayed all classes of society except, perhaps, that which Thackeray made his peculiar field. The historians, too, furnish singular contrasts: the vehement pugnacity of Freeman is a foil to the serene studiousness of Acton; the erratic career of Froude to the concentration of Stubbs. The influence exercised on their contemporaries by recluses such as Newman or Darwin may be compared with the more worldly activities of Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce. Often we see equally diverse elements in following the course of a single life. In Matthew Arnold we wonder at the poet of 'The Strayed Reveller' coexisting with the zealous inspector of schools; in William Morris we find it hard to reconcile the creative craftsman with the fervent apostle of social discontent. Perhaps the most notable case of this diversity is the long pilgrimage of Gladstone which led him from the camp of the 'stern, unbending Tories' to the leadership of Radicals and Home Rulers. There is an interest in tracing through these metamorphoses the essential unity of a man's character. On the other hand, one cannot but admire the steadfastness with which Darwin and Lister, Tennyson and Watts, pursued the even tenor of their way.

Again we may notice the strange irony of fortune which drew Carlyle from his native moorlands to spend fifty years in a London suburb, while his disciple Ruskin, born and bred in London, and finding fit audience in the universities of the South, closed his long life in seclusion amid the Cumbrian fells. So two statesmen, who were at one time very closely allied, present a similarly striking contrast in the manner of their lives. Till the age of forty Joseph Chamberlain limited himself to municipal work in Birmingham, and yet he rose in later life to imperial views wider than any statesman's of his day. Charles Dilke, on the other hand, could be an expert on 'Greater Britain' at thirty and yet devote his old age to elaborating the details of Local Government and framing programmes of social reform for the working classes of our towns. Accidents these may be, but they lend to Victorian biography the charm of a fanciful arabesque or mosaic of varied pattern and hue.

Eccentrics, too, there were in fact among the literary men of the day, even as there are in the fiction of Dickens, of Peacock, of George Meredith. There was Borrow, who, as an old man, was tramping solitarily in the fields of Norfolk, as earlier he wandered alone in wild Wales or wilder Spain. There was FitzGerald, who remained all his life constant to one corner of East Anglia, and who yet, by the precious thread of his correspondence, maintained contact with the great world of Victorian letters to which he belonged.

Some wandered as far afield as Asia or the South Seas; some buried themselves in the secluded courts of Oxford and Cambridge and became mythical figures in academic lore. Not many were to be found within hail of London or Edinburgh in these forceful days. Brougham, the most omniscient of reviewers, with the most ill-balanced of minds, belongs more properly to the preceding age, though he lived to 1868; and it is from this age that the novelists probably drew their eccentric types. But between eccentricity and vigorous originality who shall draw the dividing line?

Men like these it is hard to label and to classify. Their individuality is so patent that any general statement is at once open to attack. The most that we can do is to indicate one or two points in which the true Victorians had a certain resemblance to one another, and were unlike their successors of our own day. They were more evidently in earnest, less conscious of themselves, more indifferent to ridicule, more absorbed in their work. To many of them full work and the cares of office seemed a necessity of life. It was a typical Victorian who, after sixteen years of public service, writing a family letter, says, 'I feel that the interest of business and the excitement of responsibility are indispensable to me, and I believe that I am never happier than when I have more to think of and to do than I can manage in a given period'. Idleness and insouciance had few temptations for them, cynicism was abhorrent to them. Even Thackeray was perpetually 'caught out' when he assumed the cynic's pose. Charlotte Bronte, most loyal of his admirers and critics, speaks of the 'deep feelings for his kind' which he cherished in his large heart, and again of the 'sentiment, jealously hidden but genuine, which extracts the venom from that formidable Thackeray'. Large-hearted and generous to one another, they were ready to face adventure, eager to fight for an ideal, however impracticable it seemed. This was as true of Tennyson, Browning, Matthew Arnold, and all the genus irritabile vatum, as of the politicians and the men of action. They made many mistakes; they were combative, often difficult to deal with. Some of them were deficient in judgement, others in the saving gift of humour; but they were rarely petty or ungenerous, or failed from faint-heartedness or indecision. Vehemence and impatience can do harm to the best causes, and the lives of men like the Napiers and the Lawrences, like Thomas Arnold and Charles Kingsley, like John Bright and Robert Lowe, are marred by conflicts which might have been avoided by more studied gentleness or more philosophic calm. But the time seemed short in which they could redress the evils which offended them. They saw around them a world which seemed to be lapped in comfort or swathed in the dead wrappings of the past, and would not listen to reasoned appeals; and it would be futile to deny that, by lifting their voices to a pitch which offends fastidious critics, Carlyle and Ruskin did sometimes obtain a hearing and kindle a passion which Matthew Arnold could never stir by his scholarly exhortations to 'sweetness and light'.

But it would be a mistake to infer from such clamour and contention that the Victorians did not enjoy their fair share of happiness in this world. The opposite would be nearer the truth: happiness was given to them in good, even in overflowing measure. Any one familiar with Trevelyan's biography of Macaulay will remember with what fullness and intensity he enjoyed his life; and the same fact is noted by Dr. Mozley in his Essay on that most representative Victorian, Thomas Arnold. The lives of Delane, the famous editor of The Times, of the statesman Palmerston, of the painter Millais, and of many other men in many professions, might be quoted to support this view. In some cases this was due to their strong family affections, in others to their genius for friendship. A good conscience, a good temper, a good digestion, are all factors of importance. But perhaps the best insurance against moodiness and melancholy was that strenuous activity which made them forget themselves, that energetic will-power which was the driving force in so many movements of the day.

How many of the changes of last century were due to general tendencies, how far the single will of this man or that has seriously affected its history, it is impossible to estimate. To many it seems that the role of the individual is played out. The spirit of the coming era is that of organized fellowship and associated effort. The State is to prescribe for all, and the units are, somehow, to be marshalled into their places by a higher collective will. Under the shadow of socialism the more ambitious may be tempted to quit the field of public service at home and to look to enterprises abroad—to resign poor England to a mechanical bureaucracy, a soulless uniformity where one man is as good as another. But it is difficult to believe that society can dispense with leaders, or afford to forget the lessons which may be learnt from the study of such noble lives. The Victorians had a robuster faith. Their faith and their achievements may help to banish such doubts to-day. As one of the few survivors of that Victorian era has lately said: 'Only those whose minds are numbed by the suspicion that all times are tolerably alike, and men and women much of a muchness, will deny that it was a generation of intrepid efforts forward.' Some fell in mid-combat: some survived to witness the eventual victory of their cause. For all might be claimed the funeral honours which Browning claimed for his Grammarian. They aimed high; they 'threw themselves on God': the mountain-tops are their appropriate resting-place.



1795. Born at Ecclefechan, Dumfriesshire, December 4. 1809. Enters Edinburgh University. 1814-18. Schoolmaster at Annan and Kirkcaldy. Friendship with Edward Irving. 1819-21. Reading law and literature at Edinburgh and Mainhill. 1821. First meeting with Jane Welsh at Haddington. 1822-3. Tutorship in Buller family. 1824-5. German literature, Goethe, Life of Schiller. 1826. October 17, marriage; residence at Comely Bank, Edinburgh. 1827. Jeffrey's friendship; articles for Edinburgh Review. 1828-34. Craigenputtock, with intervals in London and Edinburgh; poverty; solitude; profound study; Sartor Resartus written; reading for French Revolution. 1834. Cheyne Row, Chelsea, permanent home. 1834. Begins to read for, 1841 to write, Cromwell. 1834-6. French Revolution written; finished January 12, 1837. 1837-40. Four courses of lectures in London. (German literature, Heroes.) 1844. Changes plan of, 1845 finishes writing, Cromwell. 1846-51. Studies Ireland and modern questions; Latter-Day Pamphlets, 1849. 1851. Choice of Frederick the Great of Prussia for next subject. 1857. Two vols. printed; 1865, rest finished and published. 1865. Lord Rector of Edinburgh University. 1866. Death of Mrs. Carlyle, April 21. 1867-9. Prepares Memorials of his wife; friendship with Froude. 1870. Loses the use of his right hand. 1874. Refuses offer of Baronetcy or G.C.B. 1881. Death at Chelsea, February 5; burial at Ecclefechan.



North-west of Carlisle (from which town the Carlyle family in all probability first took their name), a little way along the border, the river Annan comes down its green valley from the lowland hills to lose itself in the wide sands of the Solway Firth. At the foot of these hills is the village of Ecclefechan, some eight miles inland. Here in the wide irregular street, down the side of which flows a little beck, stands the grey cottage, built by the stonemason James Carlyle, where he lived with his second wife, Margaret Aitken; and here on December 4, 1795, the eldest of nine children, their son Thomas was born. There is little to redeem the place from insignificance; the houses are mostly mean, the position of the village is tame and commonplace. But if a visitor will mount the hills that lie to the north, turn southward and look over the wide expanse of land and water to the Cumbrian mountains, then, should he be fortunate enough to see the landscape in stormy and unsettled weather, he may realize why the land was so dear to its most famous son that he could return to it from year to year throughout his life and could there at all times soothe his most unquiet moods. Through all his years in London he remained a lowland Scot and was most at home in Annandale. With this district his fame is still bound up, as that of Walter Scott with the Tweed, or that of Wordsworth with the Lakes.

In this humble household Thomas Carlyle first learnt what is meant by work, by truthfulness, and by reverence, lessons which he never forgot. He learnt to revere authority, to revere worth, and to revere something yet higher and more mysterious—the Unseen. In Sartor Resartus he describes how his hero was impressed by his parents' observance of religious duties. 'The highest whom I knew on earth I here saw bowed down with awe unspeakable before a Higher in Heaven; such things especially in infancy, reach inwards to the very core of your being.' His father was a man of unusual force of character and gifted with a wonderful power of speech, flashing out in picturesque metaphor, in biting satire, in humorous comment upon life. He had, too, the Scotch genius for valuing education; and it was he who decided that Tom, whose character he had observed, should have every chance that schooling could give him. His mother was a most affectionate, single-hearted, and religious woman; labouring for her family, content with her lot, her trust for her son unfailing, her only fear for him lest in his new learning he might fall away from the old Biblical faith which she held so firmly herself.

Reading with his father or mother, lending a hand at housework when needed, nourishing himself on the simple oatmeal and milk which throughout life remained his favourite food, submitting himself instinctively to the stern discipline of the home, he passed, happily on the whole, through his childhood and soon outstripped his comrades in the village school. His success there led to his going in his tenth year to the grammar school at Annan; and before he reached his fourteenth year he trudged off on foot to Edinburgh to begin his studies at the university.

Instead of young men caught up by express trains and deposited, by the aid of cabmen and porters, in a few hours in the sheltered courts of Oxford and Cambridge, we must imagine a party of boys, of fourteen or fifteen years old, trudging on foot twenty miles a day for five days across bleak country, sleeping at rough inns, and on their arrival searching for an attic in some bleak tenement in a noisy street. Here they were to live almost entirely on the baskets of home produce sent through the carriers at intervals by their thrifty parents. It was and is a Spartan discipline, and it turns out men who have shown their grit and independence in all lands where the British flag is flown.

The earliest successes which Carlyle won, both at Annan and at Edinburgh, were in mathematics. His classical studies received little help from his professors, and his literary gifts were developed mostly by his own reading, and stimulated from time to time by talks with fellow students. Perhaps it was for his ultimate good that he was not brought under influences which might have guided him into more methodical courses and tamed his rugged originality. The universities cannot often be proved to have fostered kindly their poets and original men of letters; at least we may say that Edinburgh was a more kindly Alma Mater to Carlyle than Oxford and Cambridge proved to Shelley and Byron. His native genius, and the qualities which he inherited from his parents, were not starved in alien soil, but put out vigorous growth. From such letters to his friends as have survived, we can see what a power Carlyle had already developed of forcibly expressing his ideas and establishing an influence over others.

He left the university at the age of nineteen, and the next twelve years of his life were of a most unsettled character. He made nearly as many false starts in life as Goldsmith or Coleridge, though he redeemed them nobly by his persistence in after years. In 1814 his family still regarded the ministry as his vocation, and Carlyle was himself quite undecided about it. To promote this idea the profession of schoolmaster was taken up for the time. He continued in it for more than six years, first at Annan and then at Kirkcaldy; but he was soon finding it uncongenial and rebelling against it. A few years later he tried reading law with no greater contentment; and in order to support himself he was reduced to teaching private pupils. The chief friend of this period was Edward Irving, the gifted preacher who afterwards, in London, came to tragic shipwreck. He was a native of Annan, five years older than Carlyle, and he had spent some time in preaching and preparing for the ministry. He was one of the few people who profoundly influenced Carlyle's life. At Kirkcaldy he was his constant companion, shared his tastes, lent him books, and kindled his powers of insight and judgement in many a country walk. Carlyle has left us records of this time in his Reminiscences, how he read the twelve volumes of Irving's Gibbon in twelve days, how he tramped through the Trossachs on foot, how in summer twilights he paced the long stretches of sand at Irving's side.

It was Irving who in 1822 commended him to the Buller family, with whom he continued as tutor for two years. Charles Buller, the eldest son, was a boy of rare gifts and promise, worthy of such a teacher; and but for his untimely death in 1848 he might have won a foremost place in politics. The family proved valuable friends to Carlyle in after-life, besides enabling him at this time to live in comfort, with leisure for his own studies and some spare money to help his family. But for this aid, his brother Alexander would have fared ill with the farming, and John could never have afforded the training for the medical profession.

Again, it was Irving who first took him to Haddington in 1821 and introduced him to Jane Baillie Welsh, his future wife. Irving's sincerity and sympathy, his earnest enthusiasm joined with the power of genuine laughter (always to Carlyle a mark of a true rich nature), made him through all these years a thoroughly congenial companion. He really understood Carlyle as few outside his family did, and he never grew impatient at Carlyle's difficulty in settling to a profession. 'Your mind,' he wrote, 'unfortunately for its present peace, has taken in so wide a range of study as to be almost incapable of professional trammels; and it has nourished so uncommon and so unyielding a character, as first unfits you for, and then disgusts you with, any accommodations which for so cultivated and so fertile a mind would easily procure favour and patronage.' Well might Carlyle in later days find a hero in tough old Samuel Johnson, whose sufferings were due to similar causes. The other source which kept the fire in him aglow through these difficult years was the confidence and affection of his whole family, and the welcome which he always found at home. Disappointed though they were at his failure, as yet, to settle to a profession and to earn a steady income, for all that 'Tom' was to be a great man; and when he could find time to spend some months at Mainhill, or later at Scotsbrig,[1] a room could always be found for him, hours of peace and solitude could be enjoyed, the most wholesome food, and the most cordial affection, were there rendered as loyal ungrudging tribute. But new ties were soon to be knit and a new chapter to be opened in his life.

[Note 1: Farms near Ecclefechan to which his parents moved in 1814 and 1826.]

John Welsh of Haddington, who died before Carlyle met his future wife, was a surgeon and a man of remarkable gifts; and his daughter could trace her descent to such famous Scotsmen as Wallace and John Knox. Her own mental powers were great, and her vivacity and charming manners caused her to shine in society wherever she was. She had an unquestioned supremacy among the ladies of Haddington and many had been the suitors for her hand. When Irving had given her lessons there, love had sprung up between tutor and pupil, but this budding romance ended tragically in 1822. Before meeting her he had been engaged to another lady; and when a new appointment gave him a sure income, he was held to his bond and was forced to crush down his passion and to take farewell of Miss Welsh. At what date Carlyle conceived the hope of making her his wife it is difficult to say. Her beauty and wit seem to have done their work quickly in his case; but she was not one to give her affections readily, for all the intellectual sympathy which united them. In 1823 she was contemplating marriage, but had made no promise; in 1824 she had accepted the idea of marrying him, but in 1825 she still scouted the conditions in which he proposed to live. His position was precarious, his projects visionary, and his immediate desire was to settle on a lonely farm, where he could devote himself to study, if she would do the household drudgery. Because his mother whom he loved and honoured was content to lead this life, he seemed to think that his wife could do the same; but her nature and her rearing were not those of the Carlyles and their Annandale neighbours. It involved a complete renunciation of the comforts of life and the social position which she enjoyed; and much though she admired his talents and enjoyed his company, she was not in that passion of love which could lift her to such heights of self-sacrifice.

By this time we can begin to discern in his letters the outline of his character—his passionate absorption in study, his moodiness, his fits of despondency, his intense irritability; his incapacity to master his own tongue and temper. In happy moments he shows great tenderness of feeling for those whom he loves or pities; but this alternates with inconsiderate clamour and loud complaints deafening the ears of all about him, provoked often by slight and even imaginary grievances. It is the artistic nature run riot, and that in one who preached silence and stoicism as the chief virtues—an inconsistency which has amused and disgusted generations of readers. It was impossible for him to do his work with the regular method, the equable temper, of a Southey or a Scott. In dealing with history he must image the past to himself most vividly before he could expound his subject; and that effort and strain cost him sleepless nights and days of concentrated thought. Nor was he an easier companion when his work was finished and he could take his ease. Then life seemed empty and profitless; and in its emptiness his voice echoed all the louder. The ill was within him, and outward circumstances were powerless to affect his nature.

At this time he was chiefly occupied in reading German literature and spreading the knowledge of it among his countrymen. After Coleridge he was the first of our literary men to appreciate the poets and mystics of Germany, and he did more even than Coleridge to make Englishmen familiar with them. He acquired at this time a knowledge of French and Italian literature too; but the philosophy of Kant and the writings of Goethe and Schiller roused him to greater enthusiasm. From Kant he learnt that the guiding principle of conduct was not happiness, but the 'categorical imperative' of duty; from Goethe he drew such hopefulness as gleams occasionally through his despondent utterances on the progress of the human race. He translated Goethe's novel, Wilhelm Meister, in 1823, and followed it up with the Life of Schiller. There was no considerable sale for either of these books till his lectures in London and his established fame roused a demand for all he had written. In these days he was practising for the profession of a man of letters, and was largely influenced by personal ambition and the desire to earn an income which would make him independent; he was not yet fired with a mission, or kindled to white heat.

His long courtship was rewarded in October 1826. When the marriage took place the bride was twenty-five years old and the bridegroom thirty. Men of letters have not the reputation of making ideal husbands, and the qualities to which this is due were possessed by Carlyle in exaggerated measure. It was a perilous enterprise for any one to live with him, most of all for such a woman, delicately bred, nervous, and highly strung. She was aware of this, and was prepared for a large measure of self-denial; but she could not have foreseen how severe she would find the trial. The morbid sensitiveness of Carlyle to his own pains and troubles, so often imaginary, joined with his inconsiderate blindness to his wife's real sufferings, led to many heart-burnings. If she contributed to them, in some degree, by her wilfulness, jealous temper, and sharpness of tongue, ill-health and solitude may well excuse her.

His own confessions, made after her death, are coloured by sorrow and deep affection: no doubt he paints his own conduct in hues darker than the truth demands. Shallow critics have sneered at the picture of the philosopher whose life was so much at variance with his creed, and too much has, perhaps, been written about the subject. If reference must be made to such a well-worn tale, it is best to let Carlyle's own account stand as he wished it to stand. His moral worth has been vindicated in a hundred ways, not least by his humility and honesty about himself, and can bear the test of time.

For the first two years of married life Carlyle's scheme of living on a farm was kept at bay by his wife, and their home was at Edinburgh. Carlyle refers to this as the happiest period of his life, though he did not refrain from loud laments upon occasions. The good genius of the household was Jeffrey, the famous editor of the Edinburgh Review, who was distantly related to Mrs. Carlyle. He made friends with the newly-married pair, opened a path for them into the society of the capital, and enabled Carlyle to spread the knowledge of German authors in the Review and to make his bow before a wider public. The prospects of the little household seemed brighter, but, by generously making over all her money to her mother, his wife had crippled its resources; and Carlyle was of so difficult a humour that neither Jeffrey nor any one else could guide his steps for long. Living was precarious; society made demands even on a modest household, and in 1828 he at length had his way and persuaded his wife to remove to Craigenputtock. It was in the loneliness of the moors that Carlyle was to come to his full stature and to develop his astonishing genius.

Craigenputtock was a farm belonging to his wife's family, lying seventy feet above the sea, sixteen miles from Dumfries, among desolate moors and bogs, and fully six miles from the nearest village. 'The house is gaunt and hungry-looking. It stands with the scanty fields attached as an island in a sea of morass. The landscape is unredeemed either by grace or grandeur, mere undulating hills of grass and heather with peat bogs in the hollows between them.' So Froude describes the home where the Carlyles were to spend six years, the wife in domestic labours, in solitude, in growing ill-health, the husband in omnivorous reading, in digesting the knowledge that he gathered, in transmuting it and marking it with the peculiar stamp of his genius. There was no true companionship over the work. As the moorland gave the fresh air and stillness required, so the wife might nourish the physical frame with wholesome digestible food and save him from external cares; the rest must be done by lonely communing with himself. He needed no Fleet Street taverns or literary salons to encourage him. Goethe, with whom he exchanged letters and compliments at times, said with rare insight that he 'had in himself an originating principle of conviction, out of which he could develop the force that lay in him unassisted by other men'.

Few were the interruptions from without. His fame was not yet established. In any case pilgrims would have to undertake a very rough journey, and the fashion of such pilgrimages had hardly begun. But in 1833 from distant America came one disciple, afterwards to be known as the famous author Ralph Waldo Emerson; and he has left us in his English Traits a vivid record of his impression of two or three famous men of letters whom he saw. He describes Carlyle as 'tall and gaunt, with a cliff-like brow, self-possessed, and holding his extraordinary powers of conversation in easy command; clinging to his northern accent with evident relish; full of lively anecdote, and with a streaming humour, which floated everything he looked upon'.[2]

[Note 2: Emerson, English Traits, 'World's Classics' edition, p. 8.]

Much of his time was given to reading about the French Revolution, which was to be the subject of his greatest literary triumph. But the characteristic work of this period is Sartor Resartus ('The tailor patched anew'), in which Carlyle, under a thin German disguise, reveals himself to the world, with his views on the customs and ways of society and his contempt for all the pretensions and absurdities which they involved. In many places it is extravagant and fantastic, as when 'the most remarkable incident in modern history' proves to be George Fox the Quaker making a suit of leather to render himself independent of tailors; in others it rises to the highest pitch of poetry, as in the sympathetic lament over the hardships of manual labour. 'Venerable to me is the hard Hand; crooked, coarse; wherein notwithstanding lies a cunning virtue, indefeasibly royal, as of the Sceptre of this Planet. Venerable, too, is the rugged face, all weather-tanned, besoiled, with its rude intelligence; for it is the face of a Man living manlike. O, but the more venerable for thy rudeness, and even because we must pity as well as love thee! Hardly-entreated Brother! For us was thy back so bent, for us were thy straight limbs and fingers so deformed; thou wert our Conscript on whom the lot fell, and fighting our battles wert so marred.' It is through such passages that Carlyle has won his way to the hearts of many who care little for history, or for German literature.

The book evidently contains much that is autobiographical, and helps us to understand Carlyle's childhood and youth; but it is so mixed up with fantasy and humour that it is difficult to separate fiction from fact. Its chief aim seems to be the overthrow of cant, the ridiculing of empty conventions, and the preaching of sincerity and independence. But not yet was Carlyle's generation prepared to listen to such sermons. Jeffrey was bewildered by the tone and offended at the style; publisher after publisher refused it; and when at length it was launched upon the world piecemeal in Fraser's Magazine, the reading public either ignored it or abused it in the roundest terms. During all this time Carlyle was anxiously looking for some surer means of livelihood, and had not yet decided that literature was to be his profession. He had hopes at different times of professorships in Edinburgh and St. Andrews, and of the editorship of various reviews; but these all came to nothing. For some posts he was not suited; for others his application could find no support. He even thought of going to America, where Emerson and other admirers would have welcomed him. But the disappointments in Scotland decided him to make one more effort in London before accepting defeat, and in 1834 he found a house at Chelsea and prepared to quit his hermitage among the moors.

Cheyne Row, Chelsea, was to be his new home, a quiet street running northward from the riverside in a quarter of London not then invaded by industrialism. The house, No. 24, with its little garden, has been made into a Carlyle museum, and may still be seen on the east side of the street facing a few survivors of the sturdy old pollarded lime-trees standing there 'like giants in Tawtie wigs'. His bust, by Boehm, is in the garden on the Embankment not a hundred yards away. With this district are connected other names famous in literature and art, but its presiding genius is the 'Sage of Chelsea', who spent the last forty-seven years of his life in it; and there, in a double-walled room, in spite of trivial disturbances from without, in spite of far more serious fits of dejection and discontent within, he composed his three greatest historical books. At the outset his prospects were not bright, and at the end of 1834 he confessed 'it is now twenty-three months since I earned a penny by the craft of literature'. There was need of much faith; and it was fortunate for him that he had at his side one who believed in his genius and who was well qualified to judge. He must have been thinking of this when he wrote of Mahomet in Heroes and of the prophet's gratitude to his first wife Kadijah: 'She believed in me when none else would believe. In the whole world I had but one friend and she was that!' In the same place he quoted the German writer Novalis: 'It is certain my conviction gains infinitely, the moment another soul will believe in it.'

So fortified, he worked through the days of poverty and gloom, with groans and outbursts of fury, kindling to white heat as he imaged to himself the men and events of the French Revolution, and throwing them on to paper in lurid pictures of flame. One terrible misadventure chilled his spirit in 1835, when the manuscript of the first volume was lent to J. S. Mill, and was accidentally burnt; but, after a short fit of despair, he set manfully to work to repair the loss, and the new version was finished in January, 1837. This book marked an epoch in the writing of history. Hitherto few had realized what potent force there was in the original documents lying stored in libraries and record offices. They were 'live shells' buried in the dust of a neglected magazine; and in the hands of Carlyle they came to life again and worked havoc among the traditional judgements of history. This book was also the turning point in his career. Dickens, Thackeray, and others hailed it with enthusiasm; gradually it made its way with the public at large; and as in the following years Carlyle, prompted by some friends, gave successful courses of lectures,[3] his position among men of letters became assured, and he had no more need to worry over money. Living in London he became known to a wider circle, and his marvellous powers of conversation brought visitors and invitations in larger measure than he desired. The new friends whom he valued most were Mr. and Lady Harriet Baring,[4] and he was often their guest in London, in Surrey, in Scotland, and later at The Grange in Hampshire. But he remained faithful to his older and more humble friends, while he also made himself accessible to young men of letters who seemed anxious to learn, and who did not offend one or other of his many prejudices. Such were Sterling, Ruskin, Tennyson, and James Anthony Froude.

[Note 3: The most famous course, on Hero-Worship, was delivered in May, 1840.]

[Note 4: Afterwards Lord and Lady Ashburton.]

Despite these successes Carlyle's letters at this time are full of the usual discontents. London life and society stimulated him for the time, but he paid dearly for it. Late dinners and prolonged bouts of talk, in which he put forth all his powers, were followed by dyspepsia and lassitude next day; and the neighbours, who kept dogs or cocks which were accused of disturbing his slumbers, were the mark for many plaints and lamentations. He could not in any circumstances be entirely happy. Work was so exciting with the imagination on fire, that it kept him awake at night; idleness was still more fatal in its effects. And so, after a few years of relative calm, in 1839 we find his active brain struggling to create a true picture of Oliver Cromwell and to expound the meaning of the Great Civil War.

It was to be no easy task. For nearly five years he was to wrestle with the subject, trying in vain to give it adequate shape and form, and then to scrap the labours of years and to start again on a new plan; but in the end he was to win another signal victory. While the French Revolution may be the higher artistic triumph, Cromwell is more important for one who wishes to understand the life-work of Carlyle and all for which he stood. The emptiness of political theories and institutions, the enduring value of character, are lessons which no one has preached more forcibly. In his opinion the success of the English revolution, the blow to tyranny and misgovernment in Church and State, was not due to eloquent members of the Long Parliament, but to plain God-fearing men, who, if they quoted scripture, did so not from hypocrisy but because it was the language in which they habitually thought. Nor could they build up a new England till they had found a leader. It was the ages which had faith to recognize their worthiest man and to accept his guidance which had achieved great things in the world, not those which prated of democracy and progress. To make his countrymen, in this age of fluent political talk, see the true moral quality of the men of the seventeenth century—this it was which occupied seven years of Carlyle's life and filled his thoughts. It was indeed a labour of Hercules. Much of the material was lost beyond repair, much buried in voluminous folios and State papers, much obscured by the cant and prejudice of eighteenth-century authors. To recall the past, Carlyle needed such help as geography would give him, and he spent many days in visiting Dunbar, Worcester, and other sites. To Naseby he went in 1842, in company with Dr. Arnold, and 'plucked two gowans and a cowslip from the burial heaps of the slain'. A more important task was to recover authentic utterances of Cromwell and his fellow workers, and to put these in the place of the second-hand judgements of political partisans; and this involved laborious researches in libraries. Above all, he had to interpret these records in a new spirit, exercising true insight and sympathy, to put life into the dry bones and to present his readers with the living image of a man. He combined in unique fashion the laborious research of a student with the moral fervour of a prophet.

Despite the strain of these labours Carlyle showed few signs of his fifty years. The family were of tough stock; and the years which he had spent in moorland air had increased the capital of health on which he could draw. The flight of time was chiefly marked by his growing antipathy to the political movements of the day, and by a growing despondency about the future. People might buy his books; but he looked in vain for evidence that they paid heed to the lessons which he preached. The year of revolutions, 1848, followed by the setting up of the French Empire and the collapse of the Roman Republic, produced nothing but disappointment, and he became louder and more bitter in his judgements on democracy. 1849 saw the birth of the Latter-Day Pamphlets in which he outraged Mill and the Radicals by his scornful words about Negro Emancipation, and by the savage delight with which he shattered their idols. He loved to expose what seemed to him the sophistries involved in the conventional praise of liberty. Of old the mediaeval serf or the negro slave had some one who was responsible for him, some one interested in his physical well-being. The new conditions too often meant nothing but liberty to starve, liberty to be idle, liberty to slip back into the worst indulgences, while those who might have governed stood by regardless and lent no help. Such from an extreme point of view appeared the policy of laisser-faire; and he was neither moderate nor impartial in stating his case. 'An idle white gentleman is not pleasant to me;... but what say you to an idle black gentleman, with his rum bottle in his hand,... no breeches on his body, pumpkin at discretion, and the fruitfullest region of the earth going back to jungle round him?' In a similar vein he dealt with stump oratory, prison reform, and other subjects, tilting in reckless fashion at the shields of the reforming Radicals of the day; nor was he less outspoken when he met in person the champions of these views. A letter to his wife in 1847 tells of a visit to the Brights at Rochdale; how 'John and I discorded in our views not a little', and how 'I shook peaceable Brightdom as with a passing earthquake'. From books he could learn: to human teachers he proved refractory. Had he been more willing to listen to others, his judgements on contemporary events might have been more valuable. All his life he was, as George Meredith says, 'Titanic rather than Olympian, a heaver of rocks, not a shaper'; and this fever of denunciation grew with advancing years. But with these spurts of volcanic energy alternate moods of the deepest depression. His journal for 1850 says, 'This seems really the Nadir of my fortunes; and in hope, desire, or outlook, so far as common mortals reckon such, I never was more bankrupt. Lonely, shut up within my contemptible and yet not deliberately ignoble self, perhaps there never was, in modern literary or other history, a more solitary soul, capable of any friendship or honest relation to others.' By this time he was feeling the need of another task, and in 1851 he chose Frederick the Great of Prussia for the subject of his next book.

To this generation apology seems to be needed for an English author who lavishes so much admiration on Prussian men and institutions. But Carlyle, whose chief heroes had been men of intense religious convictions, like Luther, Knox, and Cromwell, could find no hero after his heart in English history subsequent to the Civil War. Eloquent Pitts and Burkes, jobbing Walpoles and Pelhams, were to him types of politicians who had brought England to her present plight. German literature had always kept its influence over him and had directed his attention to German history; Frederick, without religion as he was, seemed at any rate sincere, recognized facts, and showed practical capacity for ruling (essential elements in the Carlylean hero), and the subject would be new to his readers. The labour involved was stupendous; it was to fill his life and the lives of his helpers for thirteen years. Of these helpers the chief credit is due to Joseph Neuberg, who piloted him over German railways, libraries, and battle-fields in the search for picturesque detail, and to Henry Larkin, who toiled in London to trace references in scores of authors, and who finally crowned the work by laborious indexing, which made Carlyle's labyrinth accessible to his readers. There were masses of material hidden away and unsifted; and, as in the case of Cromwell, only a man of original genius could penetrate this inert mass with shafts of light and make the past live again. The task grew as he continued his researches. He groped his way back to the beginning of the Hohenzollerns, and sketched the portraits of the old Electors in a style unequalled for vividness and humour. He drew a full-length portrait of Frederick William, most famous of drill-sergeants, and he studied the campaigns of his son with a thoroughness which has been a model to soldiers and civilians ever since. We have the record of two tours which he made in Germany to view the scene of operations;[5] and it is amazing how exact a picture he could bring away from a short visit to each separate battle-field. His diligence, accuracy, and wide grasp of the subject satisfied the severest judges; and the book won him a success as complete and enduring in Germany as in England and America.

[Note 5: Froude, Carlyle, Life in London, vol. ii, pp. 100 and 217.]

When this was finished, Carlyle was on the verge of seventy and his work was done; though the evening of his life was long, his strength was exhausted. His wife lived just long enough to see the seal set upon his fame, and to hear of his election to be Lord Rector of Edinburgh University. But in April 1866, while he was in Scotland for his installation, which she was too weak to attend, he heard the news of her sudden death from heart failure in London; and after this he was a broken man. By reading her journal he learnt, too late, how much his own inconsiderate temper had added to her trials, and his remorse was bitter and lasting. He shut himself off from all his friends except Froude, who was to be his literary executor, and gave himself to collecting and annotating the memorials which she had left. Each letter is followed by some words of tender recollection or some cry of self-reproach. He has erected to her the most singular of literary monuments, morbid perhaps, but inspired by a feeling which was in his case natural and sincere.

About 1870 he began to lose the use of his right hand and he found it impossible to compose by dictation. Of the last years of his life there is little to narrate. The offer of a baronetcy or the G.C.B. from Mr. Disraeli in 1874 pleased him for the moment, but he resolutely refused external honours. He took daily walks with Froude, daily drives when he became too weak to go on foot. Towards the end the Bible and Shakespeare were his most habitual reading. He had long ceased to be a member of any church, but his belief in God and in God's working in history was the very foundation of his being, and the lessons of the Bible were to him inexhaustible and ever new. Death came to him peacefully in February, 1881; and as he had expressed a definite wish, he was buried at Ecclefechan, though a public funeral in the Abbey was offered and its acceptance would have met with the approval of his countrymen.

The very wealth of records makes it difficult to judge his character fairly. Few men have so laid bare the thoughts and feelings of their hearts. It is easy to blame the unmanly laments which he utters over his health, his solitude, and his sufferings, real or imaginary; few imaginative writers have the every-day virtues. His egotism, too, is difficult to defend. If, as he himself admits, he invariably took an undue share of talk, often in fact monopolizing it, wherever he was, we must remember that the brilliance of his gifts was admitted by all; less pardonable is his habit of disparaging other men, and especially other men of letters. His pen-pictures of Mill, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and others, are wonderfully vivid but too often sour in flavour; his sketch of Charles Lamb is an outrage on that generous and kindly soul. Too often he was unconscious of the pain given by such random words. When he was brought to book, he was honourable enough to recant. Fearing on one occasion to have offended even the serene loyalty of Emerson, he cries out protestingly, 'Has not the man Emerson, from old years, been a Human Friend to me? Can I ever forget, or think otherwise than lovingly of the man Emerson?'

But whatever offence Carlyle committed with his ungovernable tongue or pen, he had rare virtues in conduct. His generosity was as unassuming as it was persistent; and it began at home. Long before he was free from anxieties about money for himself, he was helping two of his brothers to make a career, one in agriculture, and the other in medicine. In his latter days he regularly gave away large sums in such a way that no one knew the source from which they came. His letters show a deep tenderness of affection for his mother, his wife, and others of the family; and the humble Annandale home was always in his thoughts. His charity embraced even those whose claim on him was but indirect. When his wife was dead, he could remember to celebrate her birthday by sending a present to her old nurse. He was scrupulous in money-dealing and frugal in all matters of personal comfort; in his innermost thoughts he was always pure-hearted and sincere; for nothing on earth would he traffic in his independence or in adherence to the truth.

His style has not largely influenced other historians; and this is as well, since imitations of it easily fall into mere obscurity and extravagance. But his historical method has been of great value, the patient study of original authorities, the copious references quoted, the careful indexing, all being proof how anxious he was that the subject should be presented clearly and veraciously, rather than that the books should shine as literary performances. How far the principles which he valued and taught have spread it is difficult to say. Party politicians still appeal to the sacred name of liberty without inquiring what true liberty means; publicists still speak as if the material gains of modern life, cheap food and machine-made products, meant nothing but advance in the history of the human race; but there are others who look to the spiritual factors and wish to enlarge the bounds of political economy.

The writings of Carlyle, and of Ruskin, on whom fell the prophet's mantle, certainly made their influence felt in later books devoted to that once 'dismal' science. Few can be quite indifferent to the man or to his message. Those who demand moderation, clearness, and Attic simplicity, will be repelled by his extravagances or by his mysticism. Others will be attracted by his glowing imagination and by his fiery eloquence, and will reserve for him a foremost place in their affections. These will echo the words which Emerson was heard to say on his death-bed, when his eyes fell on a portrait of the familiar rugged features, 'That is the man, my man'.



1788. Born near Bury, Lancashire, July 5. 1801-4. Harrow School. 1805. Christ Church, Oxford. 1809. M.P. for Cashel, Ireland. 1811. Under-Secretary for the Colonies. 1812-18. Chief Secretary for Ireland. 1817. M.P. for Oxford University. 1819. President of Bullion Committee. 1820. Marriage to Julia, daughter of General Sir John Floyd. 1822-7. Home Secretary in Lord Liverpool's Government. 1827. Canning's short ministry and death. 1828-30. Home Secretary and leader in Commons under the Duke of Wellington. 1829. Catholic Emancipation carried. 1832. Lord Grey's Reform Bill carried. 1834-5. Prime Minister; Tamworth manifesto. 1839. 'Bedchamber Plot': Peel fails to form ministry. 1841-6. Prime Minister a second time. 1844. Peel's Bank Act. 1846. Corn Laws repealed. Peel, defeated on Irish Coercion Bill, resigns. 1850. Accident, June 29, and death, July 2.



In the years that lay between the Treaty of Utrecht and the close of the Napoleonic wars British politics were largely dominated by Walpole and the two Pitts: their great figures only stand out in stronger relief because their place was filled for a time by such weak ministers as Newcastle and Bute, as Grafton and North. In the nineteenth century there were many gifted statesmen who held the position of first minister of the Crown. Disraeli and Palmerston by shrewdness and force of character, Canning and Derby by brilliant oratorical gifts, Russell and Aberdeen by earnest devotion to public service, were all commanding figures in their day, whose claims to the chieftainship of a party and of a government were generally admitted. Gladstone, the most versatile genius of them all, had abilities second to none; but his place in history will for long be a subject of acute controversy. He stands too close to our own time to be fairly judged. Of the others no one had the same combination of gifts as Sir Robert Peel, no one had in the same measure that particular knowledge, judgement, and ability which characterize the statesman. His career was the most fruitful, his work the most enduring: he has left his mark in English history to a degree which no one of his rivals can equal.

The Peel family can be traced back to the misty days of Danish inroads. Its original home in England is disputed between Yorkshire and Lancashire; but as early as the days of Elizabeth the branch from which our statesman was descended is certainly to be found at Blackburn, and its members lived for generations as sturdy yeomen of that district. The first of them known to strike out an independent line was his grandfather, Robert Peel, who with his brother-in-law, Mr. Haworth, started the first firm for calico-printing in Lancashire about the year 1760, ceasing the practice of sending the material to be printed in France. This grandfather was a type of the men who were making the new England, leading the way in the creation of industries that were to transform the North and Midlands. The business prospered and he moved from Blackburn to Burton-on-Trent, where he built three new mills. His third son, named Robert, was also gifted with resource. Beginning as a member of the family firm, he soon came to be its chief director, and added another branch at Tamworth, where later he built the house of Drayton Manor, the family seat in the nineteenth century. He was a Tory and a staunch follower of the younger Pitt, who rewarded his services with a baronetcy in 1800. He too was a typical man of his age and class, an age of material progress and expansion, a class full of self-confidence and animated by a spirit of stubborn resistance to so-called un-English ideas. His eldest son, the third Robert and the second baronet, is our subject. It is impossible to grasp the springs of his conduct unless we know what traditions he inherited from his forbears.

Peel's education was begun at home with a specific purpose. Though his father had every reason to be satisfied with his own success, for his son he cherished a yet higher ambition and one which he did not conceal. He said openly that he intended him to be Prime Minister of his country. The knowledge of this provoked many jests among the boy's friends and caused him no slight embarrassment. It conspired with the shyness and reserve, which were innate in him, to win him from the outset a reputation for pride and aloofness. If he had not been forced to mix with those of his own age, and if he had not resolutely set himself to overcome this feeling, he might have grown into a student and a recluse. Both at school and college he did 'attend to his book': at Harrow he roused the greatest hopes. His brilliant schoolfellow, Lord Byron, while claiming to excel him in general information and history, admits that Peel was greatly his superior as a scholar. The working of their minds, now and afterwards, was curiously different. Bagehot[6] illustrates the contrast by a striking metaphor: Byron's mind, he says, worked by momentary eruptions of volcanic force from within and then relapsed into inactivity. Peel on the other hand steadily accumulated knowledge and opinions, his mind receiving impressions from outward experience like the alluvial soil deposited by a river in its course. But this is to anticipate. At Oxford Peel was the first man to win a 'Double First' (i.e. a first class both in classics and mathematics), in which distinction Gladstone alone, among our Prime Ministers, equalled him. But he also found time during the term to indulge in cricket, in rowing, and in riding, while in the vacation he developed a more marked taste for shooting, and thus freed himself from the charge of being a mere bookworm. He was good-looking, rather a dandy in his dress, stiff in his manner, regular in his habits, conforming to the Oxford standards of excellence and as yet showing few signs of independence of character.

[Note 6: Walter Bagehot, Biographical Studies, p. 17 (Longmans, 1907).]

Peel went into Parliament early, after the fashion of the day. He was twenty-one when, in 1809, a seat was offered him at Cashel in Ireland. The system of 'rotten boroughs' had many faults—our text-books of history do not spare it—but it may claim to have offered an easy way into Parliament for some men of brilliant talents. Peel's family connexions and his own training marked out the path for him. It was difficult for the young Oxford prizeman not to follow Lord Chancellor Eldon, that stout survival of the high old Tories: it was impossible for his father's son not to sit behind the successors of Pitt. We shall see how far his own reasoning powers and clear vision led him from this path; but the early influences were never quite effaced. His first patron was Lord Liverpool, to whom he became private secretary in the following year. This nobleman, described by Disraeli in a famous passage as an 'arch-mediocrity' was Prime Minister for fifteen years. He owed his long tenure of office largely to the tolerance with which he allowed his abler lieutenants to usurp his power: perhaps he owed it still more to the victories which Wellington was then winning abroad and which secured the confidence of the country; but at least he seems to have been a good judge of men. In 1811 he promoted Peel to be Under-Secretary for the Colonies, and in 1812 to be Chief Secretary for Ireland. His abilities must have made a great impression to win him such promotion: he must have had plenty of self-confidence to undertake such duties, for he was only twenty-four years old. We are accustomed to-day to under-secretaries of forty or forty-five; but we must remember that the younger Pitt led the House of Commons at twenty-four and was Prime Minister at twenty-five.

At Dublin Castle Peel was not expected to deal with the great political questions which convulsed Parliament at different periods of the century. He had to administer the law. It was routine work of a tedious and difficult kind; it involved the close study of facts—not in order to make a showy speech or to win a case for the moment, but in order to frame practical measures which would stand the test of time. Peel eschewed the usual recreations of Dublin society, and flung himself into his work whole-heartedly. In Roman history we see how Caesar was trained in the details of administration as quaestor, aedile, praetor, consul, while Pompeius passed in a lordly progress from one high command to another; how Caesar voluntarily exiled himself from Rome for ten years to conquer and develop Gaul, while Cicero bewailed himself over a few months' absence from the Forum. Of these three famous men only one proved himself able to guide the ship of state in stormy waters. Analogy must not be too closely pressed; but we see that, while Canning for all his ability established no durable influence, and his oratory burnt itself out after a brief blaze, while Wellington's fame paled year after year from his inability to control the course of civil strife, Peel's light burnt brighter every decade, as he rose from office to office and faced one difficult situation after another with coolness and success. He stayed at his post in Dublin for six years: he worked at the details of his office—education, agriculture, and police—and brought in many practical reforms. His beneficial activity is still better seen in the years 1821 to 1827 when he was Home Secretary. To-day he is chiefly remembered as the eponymous hero of our police; but in many other ways his tenure of the latter office is a landmark in departmental work. It may be that he originated little himself: that Romilly was the pioneer in the humanizing of law, that Horner taught him the doctrines of sound finance, that Huskisson led the way in freeing trade from the shackles with which it had been bound. But Peel in all these cases lent generous support and made their cause his own. He had a cool head and a warm heart, a knowledge of Parliament and an influence in Parliament already unrivalled. He saw what could be done, and how it could be done, and so he was able to push through successfully the reforms which his colleagues initiated. The value of his work in this sphere has never been seriously contested.

The point on which Peel's enemies fastened in judging his career was the number of times that he changed his convictions, abandoned his party, and carried through a measure which he himself had formerly opposed. To understand his claim to be called a great statesman it is particularly necessary to study these changes.

The first instance was the Reform of the Currency. Early in the French wars the London banks had been in difficulties. The Government was forced to borrow large sums from the Bank of England in order to give subsidies to our allies, and was unable to pay its debts. The Bank could not at the same time meet the demands of the Government and the claims of its private customers. Since a panic might at any moment cause an unprecedented run on its reserves, Pitt suspended cash payments till six months after the conclusion of peace. The Bank was thus allowed to circulate notes without being obliged to pay full cash value for them immediately on demand, and the purchasing power of these notes tended to vary far more than that of a metal currency. Also foreigners refused to accept a pound note in the place of a pound sterling; foreign payments had to be made in specie, and the gold was rapidly drained abroad. When the war was over, Horner and other economists began to draw attention to the bad effect of this on foreign trade and to the varying price of commodities at home, due to the want of a fixed currency. As Pitt had allowed the system of inconvertible paper, the Tories generally applauded and were ready to perpetuate it. The elder Sir Robert Peel had been always a firm supporter of these views and his son began by accepting them. He continued to acquiesce in them till his attention was definitely turned to the subject. In 1819 he was asked to be a member of a committee of very eminent men, including Canning and Mackintosh, which was to investigate the question, and he was elected chairman of it. But, though his verdict was taken for granted by his party, his mind was so constituted that he could not shut it against evidence. He listened to arguments, and judged them fairly; and, being by nature unable to palter with the truth, once he was convinced of it, he threw in all his weight with the reformers and reported in favour of a return to cash payments. History has vindicated his judgement, and he himself crowned his financial work by the famous Bank Act of 1844, passed when he was Prime Minister.

The second question on which Peel's conduct surprised his colleagues was that of Catholic Emancipation. Since 1793 Roman Catholic electors had the parliamentary vote; but, since no Roman Catholic could sit in Parliament, they had hitherto been content to cast their votes for the more tolerant of the Protestant candidates. Pitt had failed to induce George III to grant the Catholics civil equality, and George IV, despite his liberal professions, took up the same attitude as his father on succeeding to the throne. But the majority of the Whigs, and some even of the Tories, such as Castlereagh and Canning, were prepared to make concessions; and since 1820 the Irish agitation led by O'Connell had been gaining in strength. Peel had several reasons for being on the other side. His early training by his father, his friendship with Eldon and Wellington, his attachment to the Established Church, all had influence upon him. He saw clearly that Disestablishment would follow closely in Ireland on the granting of the Catholic demands; and since 1817, when he became Member for Oxford University, he felt bound to resist this. In taking this line he was no better and no worse than any other Tory member of the day; and in later times many politicians have allowed their traditions and prejudices to blind them to the existence of an Irish problem.

For all that, Peel ought earlier to have recognized the facts, to have looked ahead and formed a policy. As Chief Secretary for Ireland he had unrivalled opportunities for studying the whole question; but he did not let it penetrate beneath the surface of his mind. He had continued to bring up the same arguments on the few occasions when he spoke at Westminster, and had buried himself in administrative work. He seems to have hoped that he could evade it. If the Whigs got a majority and introduced an Emancipation Bill, he would have satisfied his constituents by formally opposing the measure and would not have gone beyond this. As he saw it gradually coming, he satisfied his own conscience by retiring from Lord Liverpool's Government and by refusing to join Canning, when he became Prime Minister in 1827. As a private member he would only be responsible for his own vote, and would not feel that he was settling the question for others. But Canning died after holding office only a month, and a Government was formed by Wellington in which Peel returned to office as Home Secretary and became leader of the House of Commons. Now he had to pay the penalty for his lack of foresight, and to deal with the tide of feeling which had been rising for some years on both sides of the Irish Channel. At least he could see facts which were before his eyes.

In 1828, before he had been twelve months in office, his decision was aided by a definite event. A by-election had to be fought in Clare, Mr. Fitzgerald seeking re-election on joining the Government. Against him came forward no less a person than Daniel O'Connell himself, the most eloquent and most popular of the Catholic leaders; and, although under the existing laws his candidature was void, he received an overwhelming majority. The bewilderment of the Tories was ludicrous. Fitzgerald himself wrote, 'The proceedings of yesterday were those of madmen; but the country is mad.' Peel took a careful view of the situation and decided on his course. He certainly laid himself open to the charge of giving way before a breach of the law, and the charge was pressed by the angry Tories. But his judgement was clearly based on a complete survey of all the facts. A single event was the candle which lit up the scene, but by the light of it he surveyed the whole room. He still held to his view about the dangers of Disestablishment ahead, but he maintained that a crisis had arisen involving graver dangers at the moment, and that the statesman must choose the lesser of two evils. There is no doubt that the situation was critical. The Duke of Wellington and Lord Anglesey (a Waterloo veteran, who was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland) both had fears of mutiny in the army; and civil war was to be expected, if O'Connell was not admitted to the House of Commons. Peel's personal consistency was one matter; the public welfare was another and a weightier. His first idea was to retire from office and to lend unofficial support to a measure which he could not advocate in principle. But the only hope of breaking down the old Tory opposition lay in the influence of the Tory ministers; no Whig Government could prevail in the temper of that time; and Wellington appealed in the strongest terms to Peel to remain in office and to lead the House. Peel yielded from motives of public policy and made himself responsible for a measure of Catholic Emancipation, which he had been pledged to resist.

It was a surrender—an undisguised surrender—and Peel did not, as on the Bullion Committee, profess to have changed his mind. But it was an honest surrender carried out in the light of day; and, before Parliament met, Peel announced his decision to resign his seat at Oxford and to give his constituents the chance of expressing their opinion of his conduct. The verdict was not long in doubt: the University, which in 1865 rejected another of its brilliant sons, gave a majority of one hundred and forty-six against him, and his political connexion with Oxford was severed. The verdict of posterity has been more liberal. The chief fault laid to Peel's charge is that he should for so many years have ignored all signs of the danger which was approaching, and not have made up his mind in time. He could see the crisis clearly, when it came, and could put the national interest above everything else: he could not look far enough ahead.

It was a similar want of foresight that led to the fall of the Tory Government in 1830. The Reform movement, so long delayed by the great wars, had been gathering force again. Events in France, where Charles X was driven from the throne and Louis Philippe proclaimed as Citizen-king, gave it additional impetus. The famous lawyer Brougham was thundering against the Government in Parliament, while throughout the country the platforms from which Radical orators declaimed were surrounded by eager throngs. The history of the movement cannot be told here. Its chief actors were the Whigs, who on Wellington's resignation formed a Government under Earl Grey at the end of 1830. Peel was fighting a losing fight and he did not show his usual judgement or cool temper. He opposed the Reform Bill to the last: he was haranguing violently against it when Black Rod arrived to summon the Commons to the presence of the King. William IV came down in person, at the instance of the Whig ministers, to dissolve Parliament and so to stay all proceedings by which, in the as yet unreformed Parliament, the Bill might have been defeated. In the General Election of 1831 the Whigs carried all before them, and in July, when Lord Grey carried the second reading, he could command a majority of 136. Even then it took three months of stubborn fighting to vanquish the Tory opposition in the House of Commons. When the Peers rejected the Bill, the question was raised whether a Tory Government could be formed; but Peel, however he might dislike the Bill, could recognize facts, and his refusal to co-operate in defying public opinion was decisive. Lord Grey returned to office fortified by the King's promise to make any number of new peers, if required; and the influence of Wellington was effective in dissuading the Upper House from further futile resistance. Again Peel had shown his good sense in accepting the situation. So far as he was concerned, there was no talk of repeal. He explicitly said that he regarded the question as 'finally and irrevocably disposed of', and he set to work to adapt his policy to the new situation.

It might well seem a desperate one for the Tories. Here were three hundred new members, most of whom had just received their seats from the Whigs against the direct opposition of their rivals. Gratitude and self-interest impelled them to support the Whig party; and its leaders, who had for nearly fifty years been out in the cold shade of opposition, might count on a long spell of power, especially as the Canningites, stronger in talents than in numbers, joined them at this juncture. Brougham had gone to the House of Lords, but three future Prime Ministers—Stanley (afterwards Lord Derby), Lord John Russell, and Palmerston—were in the House of Commons serving under Lord Althorp, who, though gifted with no oratorical talent, by his good sense and still more by his high character, commanded general respect. On the other side there was only one figure of the first rank, and that was Peel. Till 1832 he had not grown to his full stature: the Reformed Parliament gave him his chance and drew forth all his powers. It represented a new force in politics. No longer were the members sent to Westminster by a few great land-holders, by the small market towns, and by the agricultural labourers. The great industrial districts, Lancashire, Yorkshire, and the Midlands, were there in the persons of well-to-do citizens, experienced in business and serious in temper; and Peel, who was himself sprung from a notable family of this kind, was eminently the man to lead these classes and to win their confidence. It was also a gain to him to stand alone. His judgement was ripened, his confidence firm; and he could dominate his party, while the able and ambitious leaders on the other side too often clashed with one another. Above all, in the years 1832 to 1834, he showed that he had patience. Instead of snatching at occasions to ally himself with O'Connell, who was in opposition to every Government, and to embarrass the Whigs in a factious party-spirit, he showed a marked respect for principle. He supported or opposed the Whig bills purely on their merits, and gradually trained his party to be ready for the inevitable reaction when it should come.

By 1834 the tendencies to disruption in the victorious party were clearly showing themselves. First Stanley, on grounds of policy, and then Lord Grey, for personal reasons never quite cleared up, resigned office. Soon after, Lord Althorp left the House of Commons on succeeding to his father's earldom, and a little later Melbourne, the new Premier, was unexpectedly dismissed by the King. At the time Peel, expecting no immediate crisis, was abroad, in Rome; and we have interesting details of his slow journey home to meet the urgent call of Wellington, who was carrying on the administration provisionally. The changes of the last few years were shown by the fact that the Tories felt bound to choose their Premier from the Lower House. It was Wellington who recommended Peel for the place which, under the old conditions, he might have been expected to take himself. On his return, Peel accepted the task of forming a ministry, and, conscious of the numerical weakness of his own party, he made overtures to some of the Whigs. But Stanley and Graham[7] refused to join him, and he had to fall back on the Tories of Wellington's last Government. Before going to the country he laid down his principles in the famous Tamworth Manifesto.[8] This manifesto is important for its acceptance of the changes permanently made by the Reform Bill, and for the clear exposition of his attitude towards the important Church questions which were imminent. It is an excellent document for any one to study who wishes to understand the evolution of the old Tories into the modern Conservative party.

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