2842. Robert Southey to John Rickman, [14 September 1816]

2842. Robert Southey to John Rickman, [14 September 1816] ⁠* 

My dear R.

It would be inconvenient to me to leave home, & very reluctant should I be to do it, yet it is most likely that you will see me erelong; – for I suppose Lord L.s desire of seeing me will be repeated. [1]  I have stated the danger broadly, & as broadly affirmed that unless the licentiousness of the press be checked, nothing (in my opinion as far as my judgement can foresee) can preserve us from revolution, – & that in its most fearful shape. There are ten pages in the 16th number of the Q Review, [2]  which might have alarmed the Government at that time, & perhaps might have done so if they had leisure to think of any thing besides the war. I must say the same things again in a different form, – & go thro the whole causes which are hurrying us on to anarchy. [3]  You must aid me with hints & corrections, – you know I am ever willing to learn, & upon many points properly distrustful of myself. But when I have the facts & the knowledge no man knows better how to bring them to bear.

As to Owen he is far gone in metaphysics, – but neither rogue, nor madman. We must see Lanark before we can fairly appreciate what he has done. [4]  In his views of society he is an enthusiast, & most imprudently blurts them out when they can answer no possible purpose but that of raising an outcry against him, & injuring him in every way. I myself have a much stronger inclination to believe him right in the opinion that to <a> community of lands we must come at last, than I should chuse to avow, – but in my view of things it can be only be arrived as the result of the greatest possible improvements in society; [5]  – it is a little in favour of this system that it is the point upon which most Utopia-framers have agreed; – & that it does not necessarily debilitate the character is proved by Sparta, the men of which were not men-children, but men indeed. [6]  Let us leave this for the m where it ought to be left – among good hopes & harmless speculations.

Manufactures are overdone if a greater quantity of goods are produced than can be consumed, – in other words if the dem supply exceeds the demand. This error I grant corrects itself, – but in the mean time it produces the evil under which we are now suffering, – when every nation manufactures for itself all that it is capable of manufacturing no danger of this kind will exist. But it is obvious that as we improve in machinery – (observe – I fully admit that it is an improvement, – the greatest of all improvements in society to make brute matter do the work of intellect,) – fewer hands are required, & that the market being already stocked, every improvement which facilitates the production of goods lessens the employment for workmen. Over such things Government can have no controul, – but (as at Lanark) the condition of the workmen may be bettered, & when men are contented, they are good subjects. Men like Hazlitt with an abstract love of doing evil quoad [7] evil, are monsters. You will not rank me among the Bel Basil Montagues [8]  & Mock Humanity mongers but the in my judgement the best way to make men good subjects is to to keep the poor in obedience is to better their condition. We will talk over our heresies – perfectly sure of agreeing upon what ought not to be tolerated, – & the nonsense which is talked about toleration.

God bless you



* MS: Huntington Library, RS 293. ALS; 2p.
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), III, pp. 44–46.
Dating note: Dating from Warter and content. BACK

[1] Bedford had communicated to Southey the ministerial proposal that he should edit a pro-government journal. BACK

[2] Southey’s ‘Inquiry into the Poor Laws’, Quarterly Review, 8 (December 1812), 319–56, especially 340–351 on the dangers of revolution and the radical press. BACK

[3] Southey considered, but did not write, a book on the ‘State of the Nation’. BACK

[4] Robert Owen (1771–1858; DNB), manager and owner of the mills and model community at New Lanark in Scotland 1799–1825. Southey paid a brief visit to New Lanark on 28 September 1819, whilst returning from his tour of Scotland; see Journal of a Tour in Scotland in 1819, ed. Charles Harold Herford (London, 1929), pp. 259–266. BACK

[5] Owen discussed his plans with Southey when he visited him in August 1816 and then embodied them in his Report to the Committee of the Association for the Relief of the Manufacturing and Labouring Poor (1817). BACK

[6] The Ancient Greek State of Sparta was noted for its martial achievements. The land of Sparta was supposed to have been divided into equally-sized farms at the foundation of the State, but in practice there were considerable disparities of wealth amongst citizens. BACK

[7] ‘with respect to’. BACK

[8] Montagu was known for his support for good causes, including abolishing the death penalty. He was one of the founders of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1824. BACK