Article 20

ART. XX. Short Remarks on the State of Parties at the close of the Year 1809. 8vo. pp. 30. Hatchard. 1809.

[pp. 454-460] [original article in PDF format]

  1. THIS little jeu d'esprit has, as we understand, had a very extensive circulation: but we entertain some doubt whether, among the multitudes who have read it, there are many who have detected its true character and object.

  2. The last instance, so far as we recollect, of a successful deception of this kind in political literature was the famous ironical defence of Lord Shelburne's administration, which, under the title, we believe, of 'A Gleam of Comfort,' was bought up with avidity by his lordship's friends and admirers.

  3. The little work before us, though not under so fascinating a title, appears to us to be written in a similar vein of irony, and may possibly have had a similar success in deluding many friends of the present administration. We do not know whether we are more prudish than others in matters of political morality, but we cannot help wishing to discountenance a species of imposture, which appears to us an illicit mode of warfare, something analogous to carrying false colours, and which, as such, ought to be discouraged by all, of whatever political party or persuasion, who wish for a fair and serious discussion on points which we have all a deep interest in understanding.

  4. To put arguments in the mouth of a political adversary, for the sake of afterwards answering and refuting them—to impute to him errors of reasoning deducible from his conduct, for the sake of afterwards exposing the absurdity of that reasoning, and condemning the conduct founded upon it—are artifices of eloquence fair in themselves, and sanctioned by the practice of the ablest controversial writers; but to assume the very garb and speak in the person of your adversary, and in that disguise to profess on his behalf sentiments probably as foreign to his feelings as they are certainly inconsistent with his character and prejudicial to his interests, is [454] unfair and uncandid, not to that adversary alone, but to all those who may be misled by the delusion.

  5. The result of fair controversy is, that the mass of persons who, though taking a deep interest in politics, have not the habit nor the opportunity of canvassing very complicated questions, and forming opinions for themselves, are furnished with the best and most substantial arguments in support of the cause to which they are attached; and for this purpose it has not been unusual, either at the formation of a new administration, or on the eve of the opening of a session of parliament, in important times, for each party to put forth some accredited pamphlet, as a text-book, from whence their partisans may collect the principles of the conduct intended to be pursued, and the course of the arguments by which it is to be justified. But the consequences of an attempt like the present, of the issuing a pretended manifesto in a borrowed character, are to perplex and mislead the understandings of well-meaning and well-affected persons, to lead the closest adherents of a government unconsciously to disparage its principles, its credit, its cause, and thereby to render the very partialities of friendship subservient to the views and interests of political hostility.

  6. It is thus with the pamphlet before us—as, strictly speaking, it contains no argument—it would have been on the part of a professed adversary perfectly innoxious. But its malignancy consists in this, that it contains statements of principles, and representations of things, which would have done no harm (as they would have obtained no belief) if openly imputed as charges; but which, when received as professions and admissions, are calculated to produce infinite mischief. We confess our own suspicions were excited by the very first paragraph:—

    'The Marquis of Wellesley having, as is generally understood, expressed a cordial acquiescence in the principles upon which the present administration was formed; and having also signified a perfect readiness to take upon himself the duties of one of its most important departments; it may be fairly said that the ministry is completed, &c.'—p. 5.

    When we considered the degree of expectation with which the country looks to the noble marquis, whose accession to the government must have been considered by the ministers as the greatest possible acquisition of strength, it seemed unaccountable, on the supposition of the pamphlet being written with a sincere view of upholding the administration, that the author should be content to say nothing more of Lord Wellesley, than that by his acceptance of a department, that department was filled, and 'the ministry completed,' without one word on the subject of the superior ability with which he might be expected to discharge the duties of his [455] office, and of the benefits which the councils of his country might derive from his presence in the cabinet:—

    'Imperial Caesar, dead, and turned to clay,
    Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.'

    But that this mere stopping of the gap in an administration should be the only function assigned to such a man, in a work professing to exhibit a view of the pretensions of the present administration to the confidence of the nation, was, of itself, sufficient to make the sincerity of the author's intentions very questionable.

  7. But fresh proofs crowd upon us as we proceed. The author thus states the object of his pamphlet:—

    'The principal view with which I offer the following remarks to the public, is, to see how the different political parties, whether generally in the habit of opposing, or generally in the habit of supporting, the Pittite connexion, bear upon the vital point in difference, the essence of every question which will be put from the chair in either house, in the next session of parliament; viz. whether Mr. Perceval or Lord Grenville is to be the king's prime minister. It strikes me that many persons are not sufficiently aware that this is the real end to which all political discussions at the present period lead.'

    Here are, as our readers will observe, flagrant marks of imposture. It has always been usual for the party out of power to impute to the minister of the day, that the essential object of his parliamentary system, 'the real end' of all his policy, was to maintain himself in power. This is the cant of every opposition. It is an accusation always exaggerated, generally unjust; but as an accusation it is not new. It would, however, be new as an admission and as a defence—it would be new to hear a minister avow and proclaim, that 'every question to be put from the chair in either house, in the next session of parliament,' that is to say, every measure which the government have it in contemplation to originate, that 'all political discussions at the present period,' comprehending, of course, negotiations, expeditions, financial arrangements, and the great questions of peace and war, are in fact to be directed to the sole object of keeping him in power. Such an avowal, we are confident, would never be made by the present government, especially at a moment when a jealousy and suspicion of all public men has been so industriously excited, and when a cry has been raised against them as having no object in view but success in the struggle for power. This single position, therefore, was sufficient to create in our minds a belief that the author of this pamphlet was any other than, as he pretends to be, a friend of the present government; and that he assumed that character for the express purpose of vilifying those whom he affects to defend. [456]

  8. Again, in page 16, we find it stated, that

    'It may be open to doubt whether the plan of the expedition to Walcheren were well laid or no; but had the event of a decision of that doubt in the negative unquestionably led to the establishment of Lord Grenville in power; it would not have been wise for those who deprecate such an establishment to urge the question, even as against the Duke of Portland: how much more unwise then is it for them to ground on such a question, any inclination to withdraw (even for a time) from the support of another minister, who shares nothing more important with that noble duke than his resistance of the violence which Lord Grenville would offer to the king and the constitution, and whose promise of future deserving is not at all darkened by the ill success of the expedition to Walcheren.

    'It may again be open to doubt, whether the execution of that expedition were able or no: but if any censure of the conduct of those who commanded, should by implication contribute to the dissolution of the present cabinet, and the introduction of Lord Grenville to power, it surely would not be wise to press a point which is connected with a misfortune merely temporary, so as to affect the essential welfare of Great Britain, and inflict a vital wound on the constitution.'

    Does not the cloven foot of an enemy appear in this pretended deprecation? Is it credible that any government would seriously set about conciliating the good opinion of the country by endeavouring at the present moment to persuade them that an investigation of the late disastrous expedition was inconsistent with their continuance in power, and that therefore the country ought to be satisfied without it? When it is recollected (as stated in page 15) that 'some of the members' of the present cabinet (that is to say, all but three) 'and particularly Mr. Perceval, were members of the late cabinet,' it is probable that an advocate of the ministry would contend that 'the plan of the expedition to Walcheren' was 'well laid,' that 'the execution of that expedition' was 'able,' and that therefore no inquiry into them was necessary. Or, on the other hand, he might argue, that although there had been 'doubts,' as to 'the execution of the expedition,' those doubts having led to inquiry and examination on the part of government, ministers would be prepared to state the result of that examination, and that therefore the interference of parliament would be unnecessary. But to acknowledge the existence of the doubts, to give no opinion as to their validity, to hold out no intimation that they have been inquired into, or are to be inquired into, by the executive government, and simply to contend that they must not be examined into for fear of disturbing the present ministers in power, is a mode of argument which no minister would countenance, which no friend to ministers would hazard, and which can only proceed from an enemy in disguise. [457]

  9. Next to the great object of discrediting an administration with the country at large, a political adversary would naturally be desirous of diminishing their parliamentary force, and driving their followers from their standard. Now, no happier artifice could be devised for this purpose, than that to which our author has recourse. To have asserted, in his own avowed character, that 'the number of persons who talk of objecting to certain parts of the late ministers' (who, with few exceptions, are also the present ministers) conduct is by no means trifling' (p. 13)—and to have prophesied, in his own character, that the 'driving Mr. Perceval from the helm by a majority of the house of commons' would be the result of those persons 'adding their weight to opposition' (p. 15)—would have done but little towards creating despondency, and consequent desertion, among the partisans of administration; but the same assertions and prophecies, if really believed to come from a professed advocate, would be of fearful omen.

    'I am one of those (says our author, p. 23) who do not wish to withhold from all these descriptions of politicians (meaning all those whom he has described as likely to co-operate with the opposition) full credit for acting conscientiously: I only lament that they are all blind to the necessary result of their adhering (in any numbers) to the lines of conduct which they have severally chalked out for themselves. One would fancy that they had no notion of the control which parliament exercises over a ministry, and how much the stability of a ministry may depend upon the event of a division. I am far from going so much the other way as to suppose, contrary to repeated examples, that a minister's being in a minority and quitting his place are synonimous; or that it is in any case proper for him to sacrifice his sense of duty so totally to the opinion of others, as to give way in that manner: but I do think, and upon grounds deducible from the acknowledged frailty of human nature, that one majority on the part of opposition often harbingers another, and that the measures of any administration must be subject to much embarrassment when their support in parliament is so precarious as to leave them often on the losing side of a question.'

    This passage does not yield to any of the former in the malignity of its intention, but that intention is less artfully concealed, the humour is far too broad, and the mask of friendship more than once on the point of falling off. It is here intimated in pretty distinct terms that ministers expect to be in a minority; it is suggested as a consolation that one minority does not turn a minister out, but this consolation is speedily done away, by a deduction from the 'frailty of human nature,' and by the suggestion that majorities on the part of opposition have the property of 'harbingering' each other. And the whole concludes with an admission, not easy to be disputed, that however satisfactory a respectable minority may occasionally be, as an instrument for carrying on the public business [458] in parliament, yet that a too frequent recurrence of such minorities tends to embarrass 'the measures of any administration.' With all this is mixed up a great deal of interesting and recondite truth, with respect to parliamentary controul and ministerial stability, forming altogether a compendium of all the possible motives by which a good judge of 'the frailty of human nature' might expect to dishearten zealous and to repel interested followers.

  10. After this specimen we apprehend there will remain no doubt on the minds of any of our readers as to the real character of the author of this pamphlet, or as to the object which he had in view.

  11. But even if the false assumption by a political enemy of the character of a partisan of administration were in itself pardonable, we should conceive the degrading that character by such language as that in which this pamphlet is written, to be a refinement of malice which no political hostility can justify. When the author gravely informs his readers that 'his principal view' is 'to see,' when he describes 'different political parties' as 'bearing on a vital point in difference'; when, rejecting as too metaphorical the figure of 'carrying an outwork of the King's prerogative,' he professes 'to speak without a metaphor' of 'effectuating a direct invasion of it'; when he describes 'the two component parts of the old opposition' as 'playing each other's GAME,' and 'thus like wild beasts worrying each other as soon as ever the game is killed'; when he assures us with respect to the same parties that 'their very undermining each other is perfectly reconcilable to their coincidence in the main point'; when he talks of 'an aggregate body made up of two parties'; when he denies the propriety of 'laying ground for breaches' in one place, and in another of 'cancelling breaches that have occurred'; and above all, when he protests against 'inflicting a vital wound (what sort of a wound is that? can he mean mortal?) on the constitution';——it is impossible to suppose that the innovations and eccentricities of style of which these are a few only of the most obvious specimens, can have proceeded from the mere carelessness of a zealous advocate, or that they can have been scattered with so unsparing a hand, except for the purpose of casting a ridicule upon the character which he maliciously assumes, of the literary champion of the administration.

  12. He was well aware that though the manner in which any case is stated, has, in strictness and in justice, nothing to do with the real intrinsic merits of the case itself; though the adscititious aids and ornaments of style are often calculated to dissipate and distract the attention rather than to concentrate it; yet that there is, in this nation at the present day, a fastidious nicety of taste, which is too easily disgusted, and that nothing so much prejudices a cause, as the throwing a ridicule upon its advocate. [459]

  13. Our principal reason for dwelling so long on this fanciful but insidious production, has been, that though really calculated to discredit and endanger the present administration, it does contain a number of topics which have been inadvertently urged by many of their sincere though ill-advised friends. From them it has borrowed the assertion, that the constitution, which we believe to be tolerably well established, can only be upheld by supporting 'the gentleman to whom the prominent situation of prime-minister is intrusted;' that if he were not what he is, the executive power would be unable to take care of itself; and that the universal love and veneration of all classes of men would be insufficient to protect our sovereign against the predominant influence of one ambitious peer. Like them it insists that, were the present minister displaced, there would be no other alternative than between the adoption of that noble lord and total anarchy; that the late chaos having ceased, and the great departments of the state whose dubious revolutions were, a few weeks since, so alarming, having ultimately been attracted into their natural direction, they must remain, now and for ever, attached to their present centres of gravity; and that no future change can take place without universal ruin. Like them it forbids inquiry into the causes of these events; and like them it enjoins the total oblivion of the late expedition, of the hopes which it disappointed, and of those which it realized and again surrendered. It is only with respect to the motive which the author assigns for this oblivion that he is perfectly new. He tells us that our rational ground of confidence in the future exertions of the new minister must be laid, not on the experience of his conduct since his accession to the cabinet, but on the anterior experience of 'those parts of his prior conduct which are to be attributed solely to himself.' This can mean nothing else but his professional exertions; an allusion maliciously calculated rather to destroy than to create the confidence which the author professes to found upon it.

  14. We shall be happy if our examination of this work, and our exposure of the author's meaning and motives, shall prevent his malice, against whomever directed, from obtaining any extensive success.

  15. We conclude as we began, with protesting against an artifice calculated to destroy all confidence and good faith in political controversy. Let each party tell its own tale. Let each be fairly heard through its own avowed advocates. But let not the judgments of the unsuspecting followers of an administration be entrapped, and their confidence abused, by the suggestions of an enemy in the clothing of a friend, avowing, as if on behalf of the administration, maxims of government, such as have never been acted upon since the institution of parliaments, and proclaiming that avowal in such language as has never been current since the institution of grammar. [460]