2867. Robert Southey to John Rickman, 26 November 1816

2867. Robert Southey to John Rickman, 26 November 1816 ⁠* 

My dear R.

Under two covers lest they <it> should prove too heavy for one I inclose a communication for Dr Stoddart, for his new adventure, in which I wish him success, – good proof of which <this> it is that I have spared him this precious time. It will take me yet another weeks half work to finish for him. I have long had an inkling for the subject, – which is a life of John Wesley. [1]  This done – forthwith to the Opus. [2]  It is clearly better that I should write ex proprio motu, [3]  than any under any understanding with men in office, which would unavoidably in some degree shackle me. And whether they like it or not, the freedom of one part will give ten fold effect to the other.

About the poor I am very anxious to be informed thoroughly, – & very sensible how deficient I am in the right sort of knowledge upon this subject, – that is as to how the great evil is to be remedied, – that of the poor rates. My present views can reach no further than to the slow alterations & preventatives of good instruction in youth, & encouragement to frugality & industry afterwards by means of hope. Concerning immediate alleviation I entirely agree with you in the great advantage of undertaking great public works, – & stated it strongly some years ago in the first paper upon the Poor, which is in some respects better than the last, – & which if it had wrought duly upon the men in power would have prevented all danger now. [4]  The Anarchists felt its force, & for that reason have been spitting their venom <at me> ever since, – I know this to be the case with Hunt & the Examiner, – as for his worthy coadjutor Sir Tarquin of the Round Table, he has a reason which is proverbially valid for wishing to cut my throat. [5] 

My scheme is something of this kind, [6]  – but tho I am always long even to dilatoriness in planning whatever I write, the plan is always very much altered in the course of execution. 1st. State in which the war has left us – political & moral. 2. necessity of that war, & Buonaparte [7]  drawn to the life as the Perfect Emperor of the English friends of freedom. 3 Sketch of <the history of> anarchical opinions in this country from Charles 1st time [8] , – Wilkes [9]  & Junius [10]  the root in modern times, – (here M. Simond agrees with me, who by the by married Wilkes’s niece, [11] ) the first fruit was the American war, – the French Revolution the second; – this leads xx to 4. a view of the united reformers, i.e. the enemies of Government under their several classes, their mode of operations (here the press) – their various plans of reform, & the sure consequences of each. I have old papers of yours which were of excellent use in the Register, [12]  & will come into use again, – heavy artillery for the grand battery.

All this will be well liked, & if I looked for favour it would be prudent to stop here, but it is not for any such motive that I put myself in the front of the battle. And here I wish to begin upon an exposure of the evils which exist in our state of society, & which it is the duty & interest of Government as far as possible to mitigate & remove. Some things should be got rid of as matters of scandal. To destroy influence in elections would be neither wise if it were possible, nor possible if it were wise; – but it is not fit that indi men should sell these seats in parliament, <(i.e. borough-mongers) x have no obligation to the voters who take their price per man as at Ilchester [13]  to wit)> tho very fit that they should be bought. I would have these boroughs bought openly, like commissions in the army, & the money appli go to form a fund for public works either national or provincial. A scandal is got rid of, & a good produced, & the species of property which would be touched by it, is one which ought not to have existed, as having always been contrary to positive law. [14]  – I think too that the few great sinecures which still exist should be given up (Lord Cambden for instance has had his quite long enough [15] ) & applied during the lives of the present incumbents to some purpose of public splendour, – that they may give them up with a grace. I would also give members to the great towns which have none, by such a xxx xx x xxxx by restricting the voters by such qualifications as should as far as may be disqualify the mere mob. – I would lay no stress on these things, farther than as depriving the anarchists of the only topics which give a shadow of reason plausibility to their harangues.

The great evil is the state of the poor, which with our press & our means of communication & the perfect knowledge which the lowest journeymen possess of the act of combining & raising money (I might add of insurrectionary tactics) constantly exposes us to the horror of a Bellum Servile, [16]  & sooner or later (if not remedied) must end in one. For there is a state of knowledge & feeling (call it half knowledge if you will) in which the sort of poverty that exists among us will be no more to be borne than slavery would be at this time in any part of civilized Europe.

There are also great evils in the xxxx delays of law, which are surely capable of remedy (tho from Sir Samuel Romilly [17]  Good Lord deliver us) – & in the expence of criminal law: here in this place we have striking proof how it operates in ensuring impunity for men who notorious villains

A greater still is the condition of women: – here we are upon your old ground, – & passing from morals to religion I think I could show how a great comprehension is practicable, – that is how the Church might employ those who will else be enlisted against her. And if there be a mode by which the cause of tithes could be placed upon such a footing, or so commuted, [18]  as to get rid of that perpetual cause of litigation, – you are of all men most likely to point it out.

One topic more, which is not introduced here in its proper place may conclude this long outline. All professions, trades & means of getting a livelihood among us are overstocked. We must create another layer of customers at home by bettering the condition of the lower classes, & giving them more wants with more means of gratifying them. We must extend establishments instead of diminishing them, – more clergyman, more colleges – more Courts of Law, & lastly we must colonize upon the true principles of colonization, – & cultivate every cultivable acre at home.

Here is work enough cut out; – & tho many of these topics cannot possibly be expected to produce any effect at present, yet an impression will be made – & ultimately something may spring from them. I am much liked in one wide circle, & am heartily abominated in another, – & what between praise on one side & abuse on the other the book will be sent abroad with a whirlwind.

And now after making up my dispatches I shall have a good half hour for Brazil. [19]  So God bless you – Remember us to Mrs R.

Yrs most truly


Keswick. 26 Nov. 1816


* Endorsement: 26 Novr. 1816
MS: Huntington Library, RS 297. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), IV, pp. 218–221 [in part; misdated 20 November 1816]. BACK

[1] In 1817 a new journal was launched, published by Longmans and edited by John Stoddart (1773–1856; DNB), who had in 1816 been dismissed from the editorship of the Times for the intemperate Toryism of his articles. It was entitled The Correspondent; Consisting of Letters, Moral, Political, and Literary, between Eminent Writers in France and England; and designed by presenting to each Nation a Faithful Picture of the Other, to Enlighten both to their True Interests, promote a Mutual Good Understanding between them, and render Peace the Source of a Common Prosperity. Southey contributed a sketch of the life of John Wesley (1703–1791; DNB) to the first two numbers (1 (1817), 26–48; and 2 (1817), 157–176). However, the Correspondent lasted only one further number. Stoddart became the editor of a new ministry-supported paper, The New Times (1817–1828). BACK

[2] Southey’s intention resulted in the articles ‘Parliamentary Reform’, Quarterly Review, 16 (October 1816), 225–278, and ‘Rise and Progress of Popular Disaffection’, Quarterly Review, 16 (January 1817), 511–552, rather than the book on the ‘State of the Nation’ that he was planning. BACK

[3] ’Of my own accord’. BACK

[4] Southey’s first article on the poor was his ‘Inquiry into the Poor Laws’, Quarterly Review, 8 (December 1812), 319–56; the more recent article was ‘On the Poor’, Quarterly Review, 15 (April 1816), 187–235. In his first article Southey had written ‘No time, therefore, can be so proper for national works, for making new naval stations and improving the old, for cutting roads, draining fens, and recovering tracts of country by embankments from the sea’ (352). BACK

[5] The proverb runs ‘Save a thief from the gallows, and he’ll be the first shall cut your throat’. Southey and Coleridge considered themselves betrayed by William Hazlitt, having hosted him at Greta Hall in 1803 and assisted him in escaping from the anger of the townsfolk after he caused a furore in a Keswick inn by spanking a local woman when she laughed at his advances. In the Arthurian legends, Sir Tarquin was a treacherous knight who fought against his former friends. BACK

[6] Here Southey outlines his plan for his unwritten book on ‘The State of the Nation’. BACK

[7] Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821), Emperor of the French 1804–1814, 1815. BACK

[8] Charles I (1600–1649; King of England 1625–1649; DNB). BACK

[9] John Wilkes (1727–1797; DNB): radical journalist, politician and pornographer, whose exclusion from his seat in parliament had led to a political crisis and much radical agitation in 1768–1771. Southey would attack Wilkes in ‘Rise and Progress of Popular Disaffection’, Quarterly Review, 16 (January 1817), 511–552 (530–531). BACK

[10] The pseudonym of the author of a series of letters to the Public Advertiser, 1769–1772, defending liberty and attacking government corruption. Also attacked in the ‘Rise and Progress of Popular Disaffection’, Quarterly Review, 16 (January 1817), 511–552 (530–531). BACK

[11] Louis Simond (1767–1831), Journal of a Tour and Residence in Great Britain, During the Years 1810 and 1811 (1815). Southey reviewed this work in Quarterly Review, 15 (July 1816), 537–74. Simond had married Wilkes’s niece, Frances (dates unknown). BACK

[12] The Edinburgh Annual Register, for 1808–1811 (1810–1813), for which Southey wrote the historical sections. BACK

[13] At Ilchester all resident householders could vote, but there were very few of them, as the town had shrunk considerably since the Middle Ages. Elections were notoriously corrupt and led to numerous petitions and inquiries. The price of a vote at this time was apparently £30. BACK

[14] Laws duly made by Parliament. BACK

[15] John Jeffreys Pratt, 1st Marquess Camden (1759–1840; DNB), long-serving politician and Teller of the Receipt of the Exchequer 1780–1834. This office involved no duties but was alleged to produce a profit of £20,000–£30,000 per annum during the wars against France. Camden agreed to give up one third of these profits in 1812. BACK

[16] A war of the poor against the rich. BACK

[17] Sir Samuel Romilly (1757–1818; DNB), legal reformer, Whig Solicitor-General 1806–1807 and MP for Horsham 1807–1808, Wareham 1808–1812, Arundel 1812–1818 and Westminster 1818. BACK

[18] Tithes were the system whereby one tenth of the annual profits from various occupations, but mainly agriculture, were paid to the upkeep of the Church of England. Many tithes had passed to lay owners, though, and the system was fantastically complex and litigious. Commutation would involve turning tithes into cash payments. BACK

[19] Southey’s History of Brazil (1810–1819). BACK

People mentioned

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Keswick (mentioned 1 time)