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[Frederick Denison Maurice]
Sketches of Contemporary Authors. Mr. Brougham.
The Athenaeum  Vol. 1  No. 11  (29 February 1828)  161-63.
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Literary and Critical Journal.

No. 11. LONDON, FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 29, 1828. Price 7d.


No. VII.—Mr. Brougham.

This gentleman is, beyond any question, the most distinguished person in the House of Commons. He stands with this importance before the public eye, having all his life been a working barrister, never having been in office, and in spite of some natural disadvantages. It is worth while to consider by what qualities, and in what circumstances, he has attained his present eminence, and in what particulars it consists.

The ordinary subject of marvel with reference to Mr. Brougham, is the variety of his powers and attainments: and he is undoubtedly entitled to be considered as an orator, a lawyer, a statesman, an economist, and a person of scientific information. The mind which has thrown itself actively into these various lines of exertion, and has earned a just reputation in most of them, though it need not be a mind of the highest character, must obviously he one of no very common stature. And in truth Mr. Brougham is distinguished by several very remarkable qualifications. His class of power is neither that distinguished by reason, nor by imagination. His great peculiarity is energetic feeling. But as his mind is far more discursive than creative, his feelings habitually display themselves in a dress of logic. He is therefore especially fitted to excel as an orator; and unquestionably the most extraordinary efforts of his talents are rhetorical. He is deficient in no one of the abilities necessary to eloquence, and possesses many of them in the highest perfection. He has of wit abundance, of fancy enough, both ingenuity and vigour of argumentation, and a quickness and strength of sarcasm, overpowering and tremendous. His greatest defect is merely of style. It is extremely difficult in the present age to select a phraseology for oratory; as the rich and masculine language of our earlier literature has fallen into neglect, and would scarcely be intelligible, and the meagre poverty of our customary diction is utterly insufficient to large purposes or powerful effects. Mr. Brougham has attempted to remedy this difficulty, partly by drawing the materials of his style from the great authors of the seventeenth century, but chiefly by recurring to Greek and Roman writers, from whom he has derived no scanty variety of phrase; sinewy, indeed, and impressive, but scarcely harmonizing very well with the other elements of his language, or sounding very native to English ears, It is an error, however, into which he has been driven in company with many of the greatest orators of our country. Chatham imitated, and sometimes plundered, Barrow: Burke collected and heaped up his brilliance from almost every accessible store-house; from elder poetry, and modern science, from the libraries of Academe, and the workshops of Sheffield; and Grattan, whose style belongs more peculiarly to his age, was obliged to enrich the barrenness of the eighteenth century, with exuberant metaphor, and to point its feebleness with redundant antithesis.

There is even a more striking singularity in Mr. Brougham’s eloquence than the words he employs-sentences, namely, into which he casts them. They are distinguished by a rugged and broken involution, a careless complication of clauses, which separates them from the periods of every one else we remember. He seems so full of his subject, that when he has got hold of the framework of a sentence, rather than waste time in making another to contain a new portion of meaning, he goes on filling and piling up the first with argument on argument, and image on image, till he makes the whole a mass, resembling a heap of stones and lava from a volcano, half-fused into unity, rough, enormous, and burning. He never throws out a detached proposition, or includes in a simple definite form of words one step of a deduction; but every thought, however narrow in itself, carries with it so much largeness of feeling, that it is always accompanied by references to the whole matter, which went before or is to follow, either indicated by some historic vividness or prophetic splendour of epithet, embraced in some master principle, or insinuated more strongly than by open declaration, in some biting or blasting sarcasm. He coils his interminable sentences around the point at issue, and binds it to his purpose with a thousand chain-like involutions, drawn out, twisted, and tied together. He does not, like Grattan, overthrow his antagonist at a single spring, and then employ himself in mangling the carcase; but he winds his serpent folds round, and round, and round, and combines and interlaces them with each other, crushing a limb with every knot, till by one irresistible compression, he forces out the life of his victim. His speeches have no glittering polish, no airy pleasantness,—little of gorgeous exhibition or ostentatious subtlety. His playfulness is the sport of a mail-clad soldier, and his toys, like those of the Spartan, are weapons of conflict and death. His hand seems little accustomed to the graceful sweep of display, but it is practised to strike right forward at his antagonist; and like that of the old Roman, or of Goëthe’s Champion, it is rather a hand of iron than of flesh and blood.

His illustrations are commonly more homely than fanciful. He comes before his audience not from fairy-land, but from the judgment-hall, the manufactory, the hospital, and the farmyard. He does not seduce us to his object through an enchanted garden; but he drags us along, with irresistible power, through the streets and the chambers we have been accustomed to traverse or inhabit. The bulk of his speeches consists of impassioned ratiocination; but the parts intended especially for display are either fearfully sarcastic,—and this is their most usual character,—or filled with a grave and lofty declamation, concise, simple, and of an earnest majesty. He attends little to melody of style, but much to emphasis; and, therefore, it is that, with all its incorrectness and irregularity, there have been few orators whose productions are less fatiguing either to hear or read; and a speech of Mr. Brougham’s appears to its infinitely more effective in all the careless energy with which it is delivered, than if it had been refined and elaborated into a more minute elegance. His want of smoothness and glitter takes nothing from the substantial power of his eloquence, and his scorn of the gayer and more graceful appliances, so dear to Isocrates and Cicero, reminds us of that Lacedemonian Isadas, who, without waving crest, or sparkling shield, conquered by overpowering courage, and the staked vigour of his arm.

Such appears to us, in few words, the characteristics of Mr. Brougham’s eloquence. It has qualities which entitle it as completely as any modern oratory to high and permanent estimation. But rhetoric, in its own nature, must be calculated for immediate, not for future results. All the immense differences between its laws and those of written composition, while they are guides to present success, are bars against prospective reputation. If a speech has all the peculiarities of a good essay, it is a bad speech. If it is essentially oratorical, it is a bad essay; and when it is judged of as an essay, will be found wanting.

Mr. Brougham’s eloquence will leave a trail of glory behind it; but by far the greater portion of his future fame, will depend upon the purposes for which he has employed it, and the permanent traces which it leaves behind, in the good it has achieved and instituted. And brilliant as is the name he has won by his oratory, there are still nobler titles to honour in many of the objects to which he has dedicated his powers. It is the great misfortune of his life that he has been uniformly a partizan. It is at intervals, and, as it were, episodically, that he has laboured in other public paths, but it has been the business of his existence to support a political sect, and a sect the more contemptible, because, chiefly distinguished, not by an adherence to any peculiar set of opinions, but as supported by some great aristocratic families, and clinging to a few obsolete and senseless watchwords. By lending to a faction his powerful name and extraordinary talents, together with all the well-merited influence of his genuine public services, he has done far more than any one living to strengthen and animate the spirit of party—the spirit which makes men anxious for names and not for things, for men and not for truths, for accidents and not for principles, for pretences and not for realities. He has been fighting, not in a great cause, but for a loud war-cry. He has subjected himself to that degrading and enfeebling system, which teaches us, instead of casting away every restriction and so to run freely, and run all in search of truth, to tie ourselves together like a gang of galley-slaves and make the very bonds that unite us with each other but chains that proclaim and compel our servitude. And not only has he done much to strengthen the principle of party, but he has exhibited in his own person a striking instance of its evils. For who, in referring to the history of the last twenty years, and comparing what has been done by Mr. Brougham with the vast questions that have been disputed during his life, can doubt that, but for the party by which he has so long been displayed in triumph, a manacled captive, he would have accomplished immensely more of good than almost any other man has had in our day the opportunity of achieving. But this is a painful matter, and one from which, at least for the present, we will turn away.

The salient points of his history are, with hardly an exception, pleasant to think upon. The Queen’s trial scarcely involved any of the great political principles at stake among mankind. But it was certainly satisfactory to see Mr. Brougham’s abilities employed in defence of a woman who, whether guilty or innocent, was certainly far the least guilty of the two parties in the cause, and who yet would have relieved the greater offender from a restraint, by suffering punishment for her own inferior, and at all events retaliatory
criminality. There was during, and immediately after, this singular proceeding, a general feeling of something approaching to disappointment at the oratory on both sides. Mr. Brougham’s speeches were incomparably the ablest which the occasion drew forth. But the excess of the public interest, and the greatness of the opportunity, overpowered even Mr. Brougham’s abilities; and acute and splendid as was much of his eloquence, it was, and must have been, inferior to an expectation which knew no indifference and paused not at any limits. Assembled Greece, which crowded around the bema of
Demosthenes at the contest for the crown, must probably have been disappointed, even by that magnificent oration, which still remains to feed our delight, and command our astonishment. Let any one now read over the speeches at the Queen’s trial, now when it is scarcely remembered as a distant occurrence, and its unhappy object is in the coffin,—and there is much of eloquence produced by Mr. Brougham, which will bear comparison with almost any we remember. On some occasions, too, where nothing is to be found recorded that would excite admiration, there was that of inspiration in the look and tone, which gave an amazing power to the simplest expressions—such, for instance, was the case with that sentence, in reply to an application for delay, when bursting from a quiet that looked almost concentrated into marble, he flung his hands above him, as if they had been spreading pinions, and exclaimed, ‘Now, my Lords! are you a Court of Justice?’

His conduct with regard to the Roman Catholic Question has been unvarying and admirable; and his great and undeniable popularity is a perfectly decisive refutation of the statement that Emancipation, and all its supporters, are regarded with horror by the middle classes of England. It is scarcely a thing to be dwelt upon to Mr. Brougham’s praise, that he is an enemy to civil inequalities on account of religion, for it may be taken for granted of every one not a clergyman, who is at all superior in social wisdom to the mass of mankind. Yet, though we do not mention it to his praise, it is agreeable to contemplate another addition to the throng of illustrious names which may be inscribed upon the banners of Emancipation. Grattan, Burke, Fox, Plunkett, Canning, and, we are delighted to be able to add, Chalmers, are men with whom even Mr. Brougham need not be ashamed to ally himself. The way in which he has always defended this good cause, is an admirable contrast to the ruffian and ignorant violence with which it has sometimes been advocated in Ireland.

His opposition to the Orders in Council, with regard to American commerce, is another of the bright honours of Mr. Brougham’s career. He displayed on this subject several of the highest qualities of eloquence, and his speeches may be thought of with the more satisfaction, because the talents they exhibited were put forth in opposition to a stupid and mischievous monopoly. We regret that as much cannot be said for all his conduct with regard to internal as to external policy. The way in which he has treated the question of Reform in Parliament, will be chronicled against his name for ever. It is peculiarly unwise in Mr. Brougham, according to mere selfish calculation, that he does not rely more upon the people, and less upon the aristocracy; for he is one of the few public men we have, who would be perfectly sure of enthusiastic support from the great mass of the nation. His popularity must be felt as a perpetual thorn by the powers to whom he belongs, and whom he has served so constantly; but there is not a plebeian, the humblest and the most wretched, who has ever heard his name, that would not receive Mr. Brougham as the friend of the poor, and the patron of the oppressed; and this not only because he has frequently stood forward for beneficent objects, but because there is in all he does an air of sincerity and kindness, a reality of sympathy, which is rare among public men, and especially among leaders of parties. The disposition to concern himself heartily for the good of the people, has been especially displayed in his proposals for reform in the laws. In that long oration which has so lately been delivered, though there is by no means sufficient suggestion of remedies, and the evil is not sought for nearly deep enough; yet the wish to examine and to amend is so clearly displayed, and the general abstinence of a great rhetorician from any needless rhetorical display, is so marked and praiseworthy, that it deserves to be estimated as one of the most valuable speeches ever spoken in the House of Commons. The infinitely greater extendedness of plan than ever was proposed by Mr. Peel, makes it a farce to consider that person’s proceedings as army thing more than a useful appendage to Mr. Brougham’s, and to those disgracefully frustrated attempts of Sir Samuel Romilly, and Sir James Mackintosh. The conclusion of the speech in question may be pointed out as a particularly impressive example of eloquence, and one in which the moral sublime of the sentiment was carried as far as would be tolerated in one of the least mural and least sublime assemblies in the world—the English House of Commons.

The wonderful energy of his mind has also shown itself in a very, amiable and beneficent light with regard to West India slavery. That disgraceful plague-spot in our empire is preserved from every purifying touch by a barrier of interested power which it is dangerous and almost hopeless to assail. The plain proposition, that nothing can give one man a complete and indefeasible right over the will of another, is met by such a complex hostility of ancient prejudice and desperate self-interest, that the man, who offers to profane the worship of the monstrous idol set up by these debasers of humanity, deserves to be protected and encouraged by the applause of all good men. The wretched beings of a different colour from us, who are employed at the other side of the Atlantic in ministering to our luxuries, have so few outward bonds of communion with ourselves, that it is not wonderful the many who have no interest in ameliorating their condition should forget their sufferings, or that the few who have an interest in preventing improvement, should continue to tyrannise. But honour and praise be to those who use the talents God has given them in working charity to his creatures. And in other times, when schools and churches shall crown the mountains of Jamaica, and the cottage of the negro peasant shall be sacred from the brutality of white men, when the scourge shall no longer sound among the Antilles, nor the image of God be trampled by the slave-driver into the likeness of the beasts that perish, the name of Henry Brougham will not be omitted in the thanksgivings of a redeemed people.

Nor unworthy of being mentioned together with these things, are the exertions of Mr. Brougham for education. First came the plan for a national system of instruction; then the Mechanics’ Institutes; then the London University; then the Society for Useful Knowledge. We differ on many points from Mr. Brougham as to the best mode of education; but who can want esteem, we had almost said affection, for the man who, under a constant violence of opposition, has attempted all this, and realized so much of it. Mr. Brougham, by these various endeavours, has sought to clear away the clouds and thick darkness which have so long rested ohm the land; and to make knowledge an inheritance, common as the air, to all, instead of its being a precious influence confined to the selected few. Happy, indeed, would he the oppressors of mankind if they could monopolize mental acquirements, like food, or privileges, or titles, and leave the mass of men as stupid as they are unprotected, and as narrowed in thought as they are restricted in action. But the mind, thank God! is free and open, even though the hands be chained; and while the evils o our social system have degraded the great mass of the people of this country, it has been Mr. Brougham’s desire to elevate their intellects from the dust, and to nourish them into strength by instruction. The Mechanics’ Institutes, and the Society for Useful Knowledge, are admirable instruments of so excellent a design. But we fear that, at least, the latter plan has not been so well executed as we could have wished. The London University attempts another kind of good, and must apparently succeed in accomplishing it. The first idea of this institution was suggested and repeatedly urged by Mr. Campbell; but without the influence and power of Mr. Brougham’s assistance, it could not probably have been carried into effect. In supporting such a project he has done a good to his country, which even England could hardly repay. One of the worst and most permanent evils of our condition is the aristocratic and ecclesiastical monopoly of opinion. The only recognised and fashionable means of instruction among us are in the hands of those who have an interest in teaching aristocracy rather than politics, and a creed rather than a religion. This tendency runs through the whole mind of the country, and it must be opposed indirectly by the London University. Many errors will, in all probability, be taught there, though not so many as in institutions which are, at least to a certain extent, found to stand still while the world is moving forward. And this is, in truth, the great point, that there shall be nothing to shackle, nothing to detain; that if we do not draw on the age, we may, at least, not hold it back; that if we are not masters, we may, at all events, be servants to time. It is well to embody knowledge in institutions; but it is well also to remember, that an improving and expanding soul must be united for ever to a body which cannot improve or grow; and that if the immaterial portion of man were eternal, it would become a dungeon to the perfected spirit. Death is provided as a remedy for man; but, alas! there is none for the British Constitution or the University of Cambridge.

The kind of education which Mr. Brougham seems fond of, is one which goes very much to spread an acquaintance with the exact sciences. The knowledge of the exterior world appears to be in his opinion the most proper object of pursuit, and as far as can be judged from his writings, he would give the mind very little assistance in developing itself, except by putting into it as much as possible of positive instruction from without. If he could, he would make all men natural philosophers. He would give them the habit of measuring the universe with a rule, and weighing it in a balance. And herein is the fault of his plan of education, that it would imprison the infinite in finite, and subordinate conscience to sense. He derives, as it would seem, the idea of a God from without, and deduces the invisible from the visible; forgetting that it is not through the lower we can know the higher; but that to the higher power the lower existence is manifest. He has not proposed any plan for cultivating more wisely and carefully the better feelings of mankind; but seems to imagine that universal justice may be obtained by chemical analysis, and that benevolence will be the product of a quadratic equation. We regret that his own tastes and habits have led him into so grievous an error; and wide as is the good which must result from merely turning general attention to education, he would have achieved incomparably more of benefit, if he had put forth all the resources and engines of his powerful mind to sweep away the great and desperate delusion that acquaintance with the outward world can satisfy the cravings of the inner man. But in spite of all which has been left undone by Mr. Brougham, the day must come when mankind will act upon the knowledge that happiness is a feeling, and not an opinion, and virtue a state of the heart, and not of the intellect—a time when it will be the object of our schools and pulpits, our literature and social system, to make men gentle, humble,
brave, beneficent and self-denying, and to actuate them by no motives but love to God and man; subduing inquiries, arts, and inventions to be the instruments, not the standards, of good, and seeing more of precious influence in one kindly feeling, one generous sacrifice, than in all the rivalries of colleges, the shadowy limbos of libraries and museums, the quarrels of theologians about ‘the letter that killeth,’ and the contempt of worldly men for ‘the spirit that giveth life.’

The errors of Mr. Brougham’s system of education, connect themselves closely with the general character of his mind. The domain of his affections is the outward; the study of his life has been the positive. His days have been divided between the researches of science, and the contentions of law and government. There is nothing about him of those tendencies to penetrate above that which is accidental and transitory into the region of the necessary and the eternal. His thoughts are not meditative or reflective; but active and practical. He sees what is around him, and impresses himself upon it. But he never attempts to withdraw from the turbulent and eager present, into those regions of purer and more abstract feeling to which the best and wisest natures habitually journey. And it is on this account that, as a mere momentary agent, he is so infinitely less useful than he would otherwise have shown himself. Be it his praise that though, among perfectly unworldly men, he would scarcely find a place, and though, among philosophers, he would be held as one who had constantly mistaken the types and shadows of truth for truth itself; yet rank him either among lawyers or statesmen, and he stands forth from the crowd with a loftiness of stature and brightness of glory, which in our day and land have belonged to none beside.