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THE CHARACTER OF SIR ROBERT PEEL.*
Most people have looked over old letters; they have been struck with the change of life, with the doubt on things now certain, the belief in things now incredible, the oblivion of what now seems most important, the strained attention to departed detail, which characterize the moldering leaves. Something like this is the feeling with which we read Sir Robert Peel's Memoirs. Who now doubts on the Catholic Question ? it is no longer a “question.” A younger generation has come into vigorous, perhaps into insolent life, who regard the doubts that were formerly entertained as absurd, pernicious, delusive. To revive the controversy was an error: the accusations which are brought against a public man in his own age are rarely those echoed in after times; posterity sees less or sees more. A few points stand forth in distinct rigidity; there is no idea of the countless accumulation, the collision of action, the web of human feeling, with which in the day of their life they were encompassed. Time changes much: the points of controversy seem clear, the assumed premises uncertain; the difficulty is to comprehend “the difficulty.” Sir Robert Peel will have to answer to posterity, not
* Memoirs, by the Right Hon. Sir Robert Peel, Bart., M. P., etc. Published by the Trustees of his Papers, Lord Mahon (now Earl Stanhope) and the Right Hon. Edward Cardwell, M. P. Part i., the Roman Catholic Question, 1828-9. VOL. III.-1
for having passed Catholic emancipation when he did, but for having opposed it before; not for having been precipitate, but for having been slow ; not for having taken “insufficient securities” for the Irish Protestant Church, but for having endeavored to take security for an institution too unjust to be secured by laws or lawgivers.
This memoir has, however, a deeper aim: its end is rather personal than national; it is designed to show not that Sir Robert did what was externally expedient, - this was probably too plain, - but that he himself really believed what he did to be right. The scene is laid not in Ireland, not in the county of Clare, not amid the gross triumphs of O'Connell or the outrageous bogs of Tipperary, but in the Home Office, among files of papers, among the most correctly docketed memoranda, beside the minute which shows that Justice A should be dismissed, that Malefactor ( ought not to be reprieved.
It is labeled “My Conscience,” and is designed to show that “my conscience” was sincere.
Seriously, and apart from jesting, this is no light matter. Not only does the great space which Sir Robert Peel occupied during many years in the history of the country entitle his character to the anxious attention of historical critics, but the very nature of that character itself—its traits, its deficiencies, its merits are so congenial to the tendencies of our time and government, that to be unjust to him is to be unjust to all probable statesmen. We design to show concisely how this is.
A constitutional statesman is in general a man of common opinions and uncommon abilities. The reason is obvious. When we speak of a free government, we mean a government in which the sovereign power is divided, in which a single decision is not absolute, where argument has an office. The essence of the gouvernement des avocats, as the Emperor Nicholas called it, is, that you must persuade so many persons. The appeal is not to the solitary decision of a single statesman, — not to Richelieu or Nesselrode alone in his closet, — but to the jangled mass of men, with a thousand pursuits, a thousand interests, a thousand various habits. Public opinion, as it is said, rules; and public opinion is the opinion of the average man. Fox used to say of Burke, “Burke is a wise man, but he is wise too soon.”* The average man will not bear this: he is a cool, common person, with a considerate air, with figures in his mind, with his own business to attend to, with a set of ordinary opinions arising from and suited to ordinary life. He can't bear novelty or originalities; he says, “Sir, I never heard such a thing before in my life,” and he thinks this a reductio ad absurdum. You may see his taste by the reading of which he approves. Is there a more splendid monument of talent and industry than the Times ? No wonder that the average man that any one – believes in it. As Carlyle observes :-“Let the highest intellect, able to write epics, try to write such a leader for the morning newspapers: it cannot do it; the highest intellect will fail.”+ But did you ever see anything there you had never seen before ? Out of the million articles that everybody has read, can any one person trace a single marked idea to a single article? Where are the deep theories and the wise axioms and the everlasting sentiments which the writers of the most influential publication in the world have been the first to communicate to an ignorant species? Such writers are far too shrewd. The two million or whatever number of copies it may be they publish, are not purchased because the buyers wish to know new truth. The purchaser desires an article which he can appreciate at sight; which he can lay down and say, “An excellent article, very excellentexactly my own sentiments.” * Original theories give trouble; besides, a grave man on the Coal Exchange does not desire to be an apostle of novelties among the contemporaneous dealers in fuel, — he wants to be provided with remarks he can make on the topics of the day which will not be known not to be his, that are not too profound, which he can fancy the paper only reminded him of. And just in the same way, precisely as the most popular political paper is not that which is abstractedly the best or most instructive, but that which most exactly takes up the minds of men where it finds them, catches the floating sentiment of society, puts it in such a form as society can fancy would convince another society which did not believe; so the most influential of constitutional statesmen is the one who most felicitously expresses the creed of the moment, who administers it, who embodies it in laws and institutions, who gives it the highest life it is capable of, who induces the average man to think, “I could not have done it any better if I had had time myself."
*“Burke is right after all [about the French Revolution]; but Burke is often right - only he is right too soon” (Bell's “Life of Canning," Chap. viii.).
+ “Life of Sterling," Part ii., Chap. xii., - a very rough quotation.
It might be said that this is only one of the results of that tyranny of commonplace which seems to accompany civilization. You may talk of the tyranny of Nero and Tiberius; but the real tyranny is the tyranny of your next-door neighbor. What law is so cruel as the law of doing what he does ? What yoke is so galling as the necessity of being like him ? What espionage of despotism comes to your door so effectually as the eye of the man who lives at your door? Public opinion is a permeating influence, and it exacts obedience to itself; it requires us to think other men's thoughts, to speak other men’s words, to follow other men's habits. Of course, if we do not, no formal ban issues; no corporeal pain, no coarse penalty of a barbarous society is inflicted on the offender: but we are called “eccentric”; there is a gentle murmur of “most unfortunate ideas,"
* See Vol. ii., page 425, of this edition.