Page images
PDF
EPUB

SIR JAMES MACKINTOSH. (JULY, 1835.)

History of the Revolution in England, in 1688. Comprising a View of

the Reign of James the Second, from his Accession to the Enterprise of the Prince of Orange, by the late Right Honourable Sir JAMES MACKINTOSH ; and completed to the Settlement of the Crown, by the

l Editor. To which is prefixed, a Notice of the Life, Writings, and Speeches of Sir James Mackintosh. 4to. London: 1834.*

[ocr errors]

name.

It is with unfeigned diffidence that we venture to give our opinion of the last work of Sir James Mackintosh. We have in vain tried to perform what ought to be to a critic an easy and habitual act. We have in vain tried to separate the book from the writer, and to judge of it as if it bore some unknown

But it is to no purpose. All the lines of that venerable countenance are before us. All the little peculiar cadences of that voice from which scholars and statesmen loved to receive the lessons of a serene and benevolent wisdom are in our ears. We will attempt to preserve strict impartiality. But we are not ashamed to own that we approach this relic of a virtuous and most accomplished man with feelings of respect and gratitude which may possibly pervert our judgment.

It is hardly possible to avoid instituting a comparison between this work and another celebrated Fragment. Our readers will easily guess that we allude to Mr. Fox's History of James the Second. The two books relate to the same

$

* In this review, as it originally The editor is now dead; and, while stood, the editor of the History of the living, declared that he had been misunRevolution was attacked with an aspe- derstood, and that he had written in no rity which neither literary defects nor spirit of enmity to Sir James Mackinspeculative differences can justify, and tush, for whom he professed the highest which ought to be reserved for offences respect. against the laws of morality and honour. Many passages have therefore been The reviewer was not actuated by any softened, and some wholly omitted. The feeling of personal malevolence: for severe censure passed on the literary when he wrote this paper in a distant execution of the Memoir and the Concountry, he did not know, or even guess, tinuation could not be retracted without whom he was assailing. His only mo- a violation of truth. But whatever could tive was regard for the memory of an be construed into an imputation on the eminent man whom he loved and hon- moral character of the editor has been oured, and who appeared to him to have carefully expunged. been unworthily treated.

h Í

C

subject. Both were posthumously published. Neither had received the last corrections. The authors belonged to the same political party, and held the same opinions concerning the merits and defects of the English constitution, and concerning most of the prominent characters and events in English history. Both had thought much on the principles of government; yet they were not mere speculators. Both had ransacked the archives of rival kingdoms, and pored on folios which had mouldered for ages in deserted libraries; yet they were not mere antiquaries. They had one eminent qualification for writing history: they had spoken history, acted history, lived history. The turns of political fortune, the ebb and flow of popular feeling, the hidden mechanism by which parties are moved, all these things were the subjects of their constant thought and of their most familiar conversation. Gibbon has remarked that he owed part of his success as a historian to the observations which he had made as an officer in the militia and as a member of the House of Commons. The remark is most just. We have not the smallest doubt that his campaign, though he never saw an enemy, and his parliamentary attendance, though he never made a speech, were of far more use to him than years of retirement and study would have been. If the time that he spent on parade and at mess in Hampshire, or on the Treasury bench and at Brookes's during the storms which overthrew Lord North and Lord Shelburne, had been passed in the Bodleian Library, he might have avoided some inaccuracies; he might have enriched his notes with a greater number of references; but he would never have produced so lively a picture of the court, the camp, and the senate-house. In this respect Mr. Fox and Sir James Mackintosh had great advantages over almost every English historian who has written since the time of Burnet. ord Lyttelton had indeed the same advantages; but he was incapable of using them. Pedantry was so deeply fixed in his nature that the hustings, the Treasury, the Exchequer, the House of Commons, the House of Lords, left him the same dreaming schoolboy that they found him.

When we compare the two interesting works of which we have been speaking, we have little difficulty in giving the preference to that of Sir James Mackintosh. Indeed the superiority of Mr. Fox to Sir James as an orator is hardly more clear than the superiority of Sir James to Mr. Fox as a historian. Mr. Fox with a pen in his hand, and Sir James on his

[ocr errors]

legs in the House of Commons, were, we think, each out of his proper element. They were men, it is true, of far too much judgment and ability to fail scandalously in any undertaking to which they brought the whole power of their minds. The History of James the Second will always keep its place in our libraries as a valuable book; and Sir James Mackintosh succeeded in winning and maintaining a high place among the parliamentary speakers of his time. Yet we could never read a page of Mr. Fox's writing, we could never listen for quarter of an hour to the speaking of Sir James, without feeling that there was a constant effort, a tug up a hill. Nature, or habit which had become nature, asserted its rights. Mr. Fox wrote debates. Sir James Mackintosh spoke essays.

As far as mere diction was concerned, indeed, Mr. Fox did his best to avoid those faults which the habit of public speaking is likely to generate. He was so nervously apprehensive of sliding into some colloquial incorrectness, of debasing his style by a mixture of parliamentary slang, that he ran into the opposite error, and purified his vocabulary with a scrupulosity unknown to any purist.“ Ciceronem Allobroga dixit." He would not allow Addison, Bolingbroke, or Middleton to be a sufficient authority for an expression. He declared that he would use no word which was not to be found in Dryden. In any other person we should have called this solicitude mere foppery; and, in spite of all our admiration for Mr. Fox, we cannot but think that his extreme attention to the petty niceties of language was hardly worthy of so manly and so capacious an understanding. There were purists of this kind at Rome; and their fastidiousness was censured by Horace, with that perfect good sense and good taste which characterize all his writings. There were purists of this kind at the time of the revival of letters; and the two greatest scholars of that time raised their voices, the one from within, the other from without the Alps, against a scrupulosity so unreasonable. “Carent,” said Politian, “ quæ scribunt isti viribus et vita, carent actu, carent effectu, carent indole. ..... Nisi liber ille præsto sit ex quo quid excerpant, colligere tria verba non possunt.

Horum semper igitur oratio tremula, vacillans, infirma.

Quæso ne ista superstitione te alliges. . . Ut bene currere non potest qui pedem ponere studet in alienis tantum vestigiis, ita nec bene scribere qui tanquam de præscripto non audet egredi.”-“Posthac,” exclaims Erasmus, “non licebit episcopos appellare patres reverendos, nec in calce literarum scribere annum a Christo nato, quod id

nusquam faciat Cicero. Quid autem ineptius quam, toto seculo novato, religione, imperiis, magistratibus, locorum vocabulis, ædificiis, cultu, moribus, non aliter audere loqui quam locutus est Cicero? Si revivisceret ipse Cicero, rideret hoc

? Ciceronianorum genus.”

While Mr. Fox winnowed and sifted his phraseology with a care which seems hardly consistent with the simplicity and elevation of his mind, and of which the effect really was to debase and enfeeble his style, he was little on his guard against those more serious improprieties of manner into which a great orator who undertakes to write history is in danger of falling. There is about the whole book a vehement, contentious, replying manner. Almost every argument is put in the form of an interrogation, an ejaculation, or a sarcasm. The writer seems to be addressing himself to some imaginary audience, to be tearing in pieces a defence of the Stuarts which has just been pronounced by an imaginary Tory. Take, for example, his answer to Hume's remarks on the execution of Sydney; and substitute “the honourable gentleman” or “the noble Lord” for the name of Hume. The whole passage sounds like a powerful reply, thundered at three in the morning from the Opposition Bench. While we read it, we can

, almost fancy that we see and hear the great English debater, such as he has been described to us by the few who can still remember the Westminster scrutiny and the Oczakow Negotiations, in the full paroxysm of inspiration, foaming, screaming, choked by the rushing multitude of his words.

It is true that the passage to which we have referred, and several other passages which we could point out, are admirable, when considered merely as exhibitions of mental power. We at once recognise in them that consummate master of the whole art of intellectual gladiatorship, whose speeches, imperfectly as they have been transmitted to us, should be studied day and night by every man who wishes to learn the science of logical defence. We find in several parts of the History of James the Second fine specimens of that which we conceive to have been the great characteristic of Demosthenes among the Greeks, and of Fox among the orators of England, reason penetrated, and, if we may venture on the expression, made red hot by passion. But this is not the kind of excellence proper to history; and it is hardly too much to say that whatever is strikingly good in Mr. Fox's Fragment is out of place.

With Sir James Mackintosh the case was reversed. His proper place was his library, a circle of men of letters, or a chair of moral and political philosophy. He distinguished himself highly in Parliament. But nevertheless Parliament was not exactly the sphere for him. The effect of his most successful speeches was small when compared with the quantity of ability and learning which was expended on them. We could easily name men who, not possessing a tenth part of his intellectual powers, hardly ever addressed the House of Commons without producing a greater impression than was produced by his most splendid and elaborate orations. His luminous and philosophical disquisition on the Reform Bill was spoken to empty benches. Those, indeed, who had the wit to keep their seats, picked up hints which, skilfully used, made the fortune of more than one speech.

“ But it was caviare to the general.” And even those who listened to Sir James with pleasure and admiration could not but acknowledge that he rather lectured than debated. An artist who should waste on a panorama, on a scene, or on a transparency, the exquisite finishing which we admire in some of the small Dutch interiors, would not squander his powers more than this eminent man too often did. His audience resembled the boy in the Heart of Mid-Lothian, who pushes away the lady's guineas with contempt, and insists on having the white money. They preferred the silver with which they were familiar, and which they were constantly passing about from hand to hand, to the gold which they had never before seen, and with the value of which they were unacquainted.

It is much to be regretted, we think, that Sir James Mackintosh did not wholly devote his later years to philosophy and literature. His talents were not those which enable a speaker to produce with rapidity a series of striking but transitory impressions, and to excite the minds of five hundred gentlemen at midnight, without saying any thing that any one of them will be able to remember in the morning. His arguments were of a very different texture from those which are produced in Parliament at a moment's notice, which puzzle a plain man who, if he had them before him in writing, would soon detect their fallacy, and which the great debater who employs them forgets within half an hour, and never thinks of again. Whatever was valuable in the compositions of Sir James Mackintosh was the ripe fruit of study and of meditation. It was the same with his conversation. In his most familiar talk there was no wildness, no inconsistency, no amusing nonsense, no exaggeration for the sake of momentary effect. His mind was a vast magazine, admirably arranged. Every

« PreviousContinue »