Historical and Political Essays
by William Edward Hartpole Lecky
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- Transcriber's Note: Inconsistent hyphenation and spelling in the original document have been preserved. Obvious typographical errors have been corrected in this text. For a complete list, please see the end of this document. -




Longmans, Green, and Co. 39 Paternoster Row, London New York, Bombay, and Calcutta 1908 All rights reserved

















The Essays 'Thoughts on History,' 'Formative Influences,' 'Madame de Stael,' 'Israel among the Nations,' 'Old-age Pensions,' appeared originally in the American Review, the Forum—the first under the title of 'The Art of Writing History'; 'Ireland in the Light of History,' in the North American Review. Those on Sir Robert Peel, Mr. Henry Reeve, and Dean Milman were written for the Edinburgh Review. The Essay on 'Queen Victoria as a Moral Force' appeared first in the Pall Mall Magazine; 'Carlyle's Message to His Age' in the Contemporary Review. 'The Political Value of History' was a presidential address delivered before the Birmingham and Midland Institute; 'The Empire,' an inaugural address delivered at the Imperial Institute; and the 'Memoir of the Fifteenth Earl of Derby' was originally prefixed to the volumes of his speeches and addresses.



I do not propose in this paper to enter into any general inquiry about the best method of writing history. Such inquiries appear to me to be of no real value, for there are many different kinds of history which should be written in many different ways. A diplomatic, a military, or a parliamentary history, dealing with a short period or a particular episode, must evidently be treated in a very different spirit from an extended history where the object of the historian should be to describe the various aspects of the national life, and to trace through long periods of time the ultimate causes of national progress and decay. The history of religion, of art, of literature, of social and industrial development, of scientific progress, have all their different methods. A writer who treats of some great revolution that has transformed human affairs should deal largely in retrospect, for the most important part of his task is to explain the long course of events that prepared and produced the catastrophe; while a writer who treats of more normal times will do well to plunge rapidly into his theme.

Historians, too, differ widely in their special talents, and these talents are never altogether combined. The power of vividly realising and portraying men, or societies or modes of thought that have long since passed away; the power of arranging and combining great multitudes of various facts; the power of judging with discrimination, accuracy, and impartiality conflicting arguments or evidence; the power of tracing through the long course of events the true chain of cause and effect, selecting the facts that are most valuable and significant and explaining the relation between general causes and particular effects, are all very different and belong to different types of mind. It is idle to expect a writer with the gifts of a Clarendon, a Kinglake, or a Froude to write history in the spirit of a Hallam or a Grote. Writers who are eminently distinguished for wide, patient, and accurate research have sometimes little power either of describing or interpreting the facts which they collect. All that can be said with any profit is that each writer will do best if he follows the natural bent of his genius, and that he should select those kinds or periods of history in which his special gifts have most scope and the qualities in which he is deficient are least needed.

It is the fashion of a modern school of historical writers to deplore what they call the intrusion of literature into history. History, in their judgment, should be treated as science and not as literature, and the kind of intellect they most value is not unlike that of a skilful and well-trained attorney. To collect documents with industry; to compare, classify, interpret and estimate them is the main work of the historian. It is no doubt true that there are some fields of history where the primary facts are so little known, so much contested or so largely derived from recondite manuscript sources, that a faithful historian will be obliged in justice to his readers to sacrifice both proportion and artistic charm to the supreme importance of analysing evidence, reproducing documents and accumulating proofs; but in general the depreciation of the literary element in history seems to me essentially wrong. It is only necessary to recall the names of Herodotus and Thucydides, of Livy and Tacitus, of Gibbon and Macaulay, and of the long line of great masters of style who have related the annals of France. It may, indeed, be confidently asserted that there is no subject in which rarer literary qualities are more demanded than in the higher forms of history. The art of portraying characters; of describing events; of compressing, arranging, and selecting great masses of heterogeneous facts, of conducting many different chains of narrative without confusion or obscurity; of preserving in a vast and complicated subject the true proportion and relief, will tax the highest literary skill, and no one who does not possess some, at least, of these gifts in an unusual measure is likely to attain a permanent place among the great masters of history. It is a misfortune when some stirring and momentous period falls into the hands of the mere compiler, for he occupies the ground and a really great writer will hesitate to appropriate and plagiarise the materials his predecessor has collected. There are books of great research and erudition which one would have wished to have been all re-written by some writer of real genius who could have given order, meaning and vividness to a mere chaos of accurate and laboriously sifted learning. The great prominence which it is now the fashion to ascribe to the study of diplomatic documents, is very apt to destroy the true value and perspective of history. It is always the temptation of those who are dealing with manuscript materials to overrate the small personal details which they bring to light, and to give them much more than their due space in their narrative. This tendency the new school powerfully encourages. It is quite right that the treasure-houses of diplomatic correspondence which have of late years been thrown open should be explored and sifted, but history written chiefly from these materials, though it has its own importance, is not likely to be distinguished either by artistic form or by philosophical value. Those who are immersed in these studies are very apt to overrate their importance and the part which diplomacy and statesmanship have borne in the great movement of human affairs.

A true and comprehensive history should be the life of a nation. It should describe it in its larger and more various aspects. It should be a study of causes and effects, of distant as well as proximate causes, and of the large, slow and permanent evolution of things. It should include, as Buckle and Macaulay saw, the social, the industrial, the intellectual life of the nation as well as mere political changes, and it should be pre-eminently marked by a true perspective dealing with subjects at a length proportioned to their real importance. All this requires a powerful and original intellect quite different from that of a mere compiler. It requires too, in a high degree, the kind of imagination which enables a man to reproduce not only the acts but the feelings, the ideals, the modes of thought and life of a distant past, and pierce through the actions and professions of men to their real characters. Insight into character is one of the first requisites of a historian. It is therefore, much to be desired that he should possess a wide knowledge of the world, the knowledge of different types of character, foreign as well as English, which travel and society and practical experience of business can give, and it will also be of no small advantage to him if he has passed through more than one intellectual or religious phase, widening the area of his appreciation and realisations. He should also have enough of the dramatic element to enable him to throw himself into ways of reasoning or feeling very different from his own. One of the most valuable of all forms of historical imagination is that which enables a writer to place himself in the point of view of the best men on different sides, and to bring out the full sense of opposing arguments. All these gifts or qualities are never in a high degree united, but they are all essential to a great historian, and a true school of history should widen instead of narrowing our conception of it.

The supreme virtue of the historian is truthfulness, and it may be violated in many different degrees. The worst form is when a writer deliberately falsifies facts or deliberately excludes from his picture qualifying circumstances. But there are other and much more subtle ways in which party spirit continually and often quite unconsciously distorts history. All history is necessarily a selection of facts, and a writer who is animated by a strong sympathy with one side of a question or a strong desire to prove some special point will be much tempted in his selection to give an undue prominence to those that support his view, or, even where neither facts nor arguments are suppressed, to give a party character to his work by an unfair distribution of lights and shades. The strong and vivid epithets are chiefly reserved for the good or bad deeds on one side, the vague, general and comparatively colourless epithets for the corresponding deeds on the other side; and in this way very similar facts are brought before the reader with such different degrees of illumination and relief that they make a wholly different impression on his mind. In the history of Macaulay this defect may, I think, be especially traced. The characteristic defect of that great and in most respects admirable writer, both as historian and artist, was the singular absence of graduation in his mind. The neutral tints which are essential to the accurate shading of character seemed almost wanting, and a love of strong contrasted lights and shades, coupled with his supreme command of powerful epithets, continually misled him. But no attentive reader can fail to observe how unequally those epithets are distributed and how clearly this inequality discloses the strong bias under which he wrote.

The truth of an historical picture lies mainly in its judicious and accurate shading, and it is this art which the historian should especially cultivate. He will scarcely do so with success unless it becomes to him not merely a matter of duty, but also a pleasure and a pride. The kind of interest which he takes in his narrative should be much less that of a politician and an advocate than of a painter, who, now darkening and now lightening the picture, seeks by many delicate touches to catch with exact fidelity the tone and hue of the object he represents.

The degree of certainty that it is possible to attain in history varies greatly in different departments. The growth of institutions and laws, military events, changes in manners and in creeds, can be described with much confidence, and although it is more difficult to depict the inner moral life of nations, the influences that form their characters and prepare them for greatness or decay, yet when the materials for our induction are sufficiently large this field of history may be studied with great profit. Diplomatic history and the more secret springs of political history can only be fully disclosed when the archives relating to them have been explored and when the confidential correspondence of the chief actors in them has been published. The biographical element in history is always the most uncertain. Even among contemporaries the judgment of character and motives depends largely on indications so slight and subtle that they rarely pass into books and are only fully felt by direct personal contact, and the smallest knowledge of life shows how quickly anecdotes and sayings are distorted, coloured, and misplaced when they pass from lip to lip. Most of the 'good sayings' of history are invention, and most of them have been attributed to different persons. A history which is plainly written under the influence of party bias has the value of an advocate's speech giving one side of the question. When our only materials for the knowledge of a period are derived from such histories, the saying of Voltaire should be remembered—that we can confidently believe only the evil which a party writer tells of his own side and the good which he recognises in his opponents. In judging the historian we must consider his nearness to the events he relates, his probable means of information and the internal evidence in his narrative of accuracy, honesty, and judgment, and we must also consider the standard of proof and the methods of historical writing prevailing in his time. A modern writer who placed in the mouths of his personages speeches which he himself invented would be justly discredited, but in antiquity it was a recognised custom for a historian to embody in fictitious speeches the reflections suggested by his narrative and the motives which he believed to have actuated his heroes.

Different ages differ enormously in the severity of proof which they exact, in the degree of accuracy which they attain. The credibility of a statement also depends not only on the amount of its evidence, but also on its own inherent probability. Everyone will feel that an amount of testimony that would be quite sufficient to persuade him that a butcher's boy had been seen driving along a highway is wholly different from that which would be required to persuade him that a ghost had been met there. The same rule applies to the history of the past, and it is complicated by the great difference in different ages of the measure of probability, or, in other words, by the strong predisposition in certain stages of knowledge to accept statements or explanations of facts which in later stages we know to be incredible or in a high degree improbable. Few subjects in history are more difficult than the laws of evidence in dealing with the supernatural and the extent to which the authority of historians in relating credible and probable facts is invalidated by the presence of a mythical element in their narratives.

Connected with this subject is also the question how far it is possible by merely internal evidence to decompose an ancient document, resolving it into its separate elements, distinguishing its different dates and its different degrees of credibility. The reader is no doubt aware with what a rare skill this method of inquiry has been pursued in the present century, chiefly by great German and Dutch scholars, in dealing with the early Jewish writings. At the same time, without disputing the value of their work or the importance of many of the results at which they have arrived, I may be pardoned for expressing my belief that this kind of investigation is often pursued with an exaggerated confidence. Plausible conjecture is too frequently mistaken for positive proof. Undue significance is attached to what may be mere casual coincidences, and a minuteness of accuracy is professed in discriminating between the different elements in a narrative which cannot be attained by mere internal evidence. In all writings, but especially in the writings of an age when criticism was unknown, there will be repetitions, contradictions, inconsistencies and diversities of style which do not necessarily indicate different authorship or dates.

I have spoken of the uncertainty of the biographical element in history. It must, however, be said that when a historian is dealing with men who have played a very prominent part on the stage of life, the general acceptance of his judgment is a strong corroboration of its truth. It may be added that the later judgment of men is not unfrequently more true than the contemporary judgment. The wisdom of a teaching or of a policy is shown by its results, and these results are in most cases very gradually disclosed. Great men are like great mountains which are surrounded by lower peaks that often obscure their grandeur and seem to a near observer to equal or even to overtop them. It is only when seen from far off that their true dimensions are fully realised and they soar to heaven above all rivals. In the page of history men are judged mainly by the net result of their lives, by the broad lines of their characters and achievements. Many injudicious words, many minor weaknesses of conduct, are forgotten. Faults of manner, deficiencies of tact, awkwardnesses of appearance, which tell so largely upon the judgments of contemporaries, are no longer seen. The conversational nimbleness and versatility of intellect, the charm or assurance or magnetism of manner, the weight of social position, all of which tend to secure to an inferior man a pre-eminence in the circle in which he moves, are equally evanescent, and the shy, rugged, and tactless recluse often emerges on the strength of his genuine and abiding performances to a position in the eyes of the world which he never attained during his lifetime.

That fine saying of Cardan, 'Tempus mea possessio, tempus ager meus,' might be the motto of the historian. Time is the field which he cultivates, and a true sense of space and distance should be one of the chief characteristics of his work. Few things are more difficult to attain than a just perspective in history. The most dramatic incidents are not the most important, and in weighing the joys and sorrows of the past our measures of judgment are almost hopelessly false. The most humane man cannot emancipate himself from the law of his nature, according to which he is more affected by some tragic circumstance which has taken place in his own house or in his own street than by a catastrophe which has carried anguish and desolation over enormous areas in a distant continent. In history, too, there are vast tracts which are almost necessarily unrealised. We judge a period mainly by its great men, by its brilliant or salient incidents, by the fortunes of a small class; and the great mass of obscure, suffering, inarticulate humanity, whose happiness is often so profoundly affected by political and military events, almost escapes our notice. It should be the object of history to bring before us past events in their true proportion and significance, and one of the greatest improvements in modern history is the increased attention which is paid to the social, industrial, and moral history of the poor. The paucity of our information and the difficulty of realising the conditions of obscure multitudes will always make this branch of history very imperfect, but it is one of the most essential to the just judgment of the past.

Another task which lies before the historian is that of distinguishing proximate from ultimate causes. Our first natural impulse is to attribute a great change to the men who effected it and to the period in which it took place, and to neglect or underrate the long train of causes which had been, often through many generations, preparing its advent. A faithful historian must especially guard against this error. He must study the slow process of growth as well as the moment of efflorescence, the long progress of decay as well as the final catastrophe. He will probably find that the part played by statesmen and legislatures is less than he had imagined, and that the causes of the movements he relates must be sought over a wider area and through a longer period.

Moral, intellectual, or economical movements very slightly connected with political life are often those which have most largely contributed to the good or evil fortunes of a nation; and even in the sphere of politics it is not the events which attract the most vivid contemporary interest that have the most enduring influence. Few things contribute so much to the formation of the social type as the laws regulating the succession of property and especially the agglomeration or division of landed property. The growth of militarism in a nation, besides its direct and obvious consequences, forms a type of character which will sooner or later show itself in almost every department of legislation, and the tendency of politics to enlarge or narrow the sphere of individual liberty or of government control, will affect most deeply the habits of the people. Laws regulating private enterprises, substituting State control or initiative for individual action, encouraging or discouraging thrift, and above all interfering with free contracts, have much more than an immediate influence, for they become the prolific parents of many further extensions. In the words of an excellent observer, it will be found 'that our legislative interference is but the first link of a long chain of repetitions, every subsequent interference being naturally produced by the effects of the preceding.' It is by studying such tendencies through long periods of time that their good or evil influences may be best discovered, and this should be one of the great tasks of the historian.

But, however large a part may be given to the impersonal influences in history, he will still be largely concerned with the record of individual achievements, and the great men of the past will form the most conspicuous landmarks of his narrative. I have often thought, however, that nations are judged too much by the great men they have produced and not sufficiently by the way in which they have discriminated among them and appreciated them. Genius is like the wind that bloweth where it listeth, and it often appears in strangely uncongenial quarters. The true nobility of a nation is shown by the men they choose, by the men they follow, by the men they admire, by the ideals of character and conduct they place before them. Tried by such tests, there is often much that is profoundly saddening in the history of countries that have been far from poor in the number of their great men.

In the judgment of historical characters there are two cautions on which it may not be useless to dwell. There is a large class of public men who show little capacity in dealing with or directing the present conditions of their time, but who see clearly the bourne to which existing forces or tendencies are moving and who, judged by their distant forecasts, will appear much wiser than their contemporaries. It is the natural bias of the historian to place them perhaps higher than they deserve. This power of just speculative foresight is no very rare gift, and in public affairs it is often as much a hindrance as a help. Forms of government and other great religious or political institutions, like the products of nature, have their times of immaturity, of growth, of ripeness and of decay, and it by no means follows because they at last become indefensible, that they have not during many generations discharged useful functions and that those who first assailed and condemned them are deserving of praise. Not unfrequently, indeed, a public man must take his choice whether by fully identifying himself with the existing conditions around him and employing them to the best advantages he will lead a useful and practical life, or whether as an advanced thinker he will associate himself with the cause that is one day to conquer, place himself in the van of progress and at the sacrifice of much present influence deserve the credit of foresight.

Historians will probably always judge men and policies by their net results, by their final consequences, and this judgment is on the whole the most sure that we can attain. It is not, however, altogether infallible. Apart from the question of the moral character of the methods employed which a good historian should never omit from his consideration, success is not always a decisive proof of sagacity. Chance and the unexpected play a great part in human affairs, and a judgment founded on a perfectly just estimate of probabilities will often prove wrong. The result which was the least probable will come true, some wholly unforeseen and unforeseeable occurrence will scatter dangers that were very real and give a new complexion to events. The rise of some pre-eminently great or of some pre-eminently mischievous personage among the guiding influences of a nation will derange the most sagacious calculations, and the reckless gambler or the obtuse obstructionist may prove more right than the most cautious, the most skilful, the most farseeing statesman.

A fatal and very common error is that of judging the actions of the past by the moral standard of our own age. This is especially the error of novices in history and of those who without any wide and general culture devote themselves exclusively to a single period. While the primary and essential elements of right and wrong remain unchanged, nothing is more certain than that the standard or ideal of duty is continually altering. A very humane man in another age may have done things which would now be regarded as atrociously barbarous. A very virtuous man may have done things which would now indicate extreme profligacy. We seldom indeed make sufficient allowance for the degree in which the judgments and dispositions of even the best man are coloured by the moral tone of the time or society in which they live. And what is true of individuals is equally true of nations. In order to judge equitably the legislation of any people, we must always consider corresponding contemporary legislations and ideas. When this is neglected our judgments of the past become wholly false. How often, for example, has such a subject as the history of the penal laws against Irish Catholics been treated without the smallest reference to the contemporary laws against Protestants that existed in every Catholic nation and the contemporary laws against Catholics that existed in almost every Protestant country in Europe. How often have the English commercial restrictions on the American colonies been treated as if they were instances of extreme and exceptional tyranny, while a more extended knowledge would show that they were simply the expression of ideas of commercial policy and about the relation of dependencies to the mother-country which then almost universally prevailed.

It is not merely the moral standard that changes. A corresponding change takes place in the moral type, or, in other words, in the class of virtues which is especially cultivated and especially valued. To know an age aright we should above all things seek to understand its ideal, the direction in which the stream of its self-sacrifice and moral energy naturally flowed. Few things in history are more interesting and more valuable than a study of the causes that produced and modified these successive ideals. Thus in the moral type of pagan antiquity the civic virtues occupied incomparably the foremost place. The idea of a supremely good man was essentially that of a man of action, of a man whose whole life was devoted to the service of his country. The life and death of Cato were for generations the favourite model. He was deemed, in the words of an old Latin historian, to be of all men the one 'most like to virtue.' This pattern retained its force till the softening influence of the Greek spirit, permeating Roman life, made the stoical ideal seem too hard and unsympathising; till the corruption and despotism of the Empire had withdrawn the best men from political life and attached a certain taint or stigma to public employment; till new religions arose in the East, bringing with them new ideals to govern the world. Gradually we may trace the contemplative virtues rising to the foremost place until, about the fifth century, the ideal had totally changed. The heroic type was replaced by the saintly type. The supremely good man was now the ascetic. The first condition of sanctity was a complete abandonment of secular duties and cares and a complete subjugation of the body. A vast literature of legends arose reflecting and glorifying the prevailing ideal and holding up the hermit life as the supreme pattern of perfection, and this literature occupies a place in mediaevalism very similar to that held by the 'Lives' of Plutarch in antiquity.

Ancient art was essentially the glorification of the body, a representation of the full strength and beauty of developed manhood. The saint of the mediaeval mosaic represents the body in its extreme maceration and humiliation. The rhetorician, Dio Chrysostom, in a somewhat whimsical passage, which was suggested by a remark of Plato, found a special moral significance in the fact that Homer, though he places his heroes on the the banks of what he calls 'the fishy Hellespont,' never makes them eat fish, but always flesh and the flesh of oxen, for this, as he says, is 'strength-producing food' and is therefore suited for the formation of heroes and the proper diet for men of virtue. Compare this judgment with the protracted, and indeed incredible, fasts which the monkish writers delighted in attributing to the saints of the desert, and we have a vivid picture of the change that had passed over the ideal.

But as time moved on the ascetic ideal gradually declined and was replaced by the very different ideal of chivalry. It consisted chiefly of three new elements. The first element was a spirit of gallantry which gave women a wholly new place in the imaginations of men. It was in part a reaction against the extreme austerity of the saints, and this reaction was much intensified after the cessation of the panic which had risen at the close of the tenth century about the approaching end of the world. It was in part produced by the softer and more epicurean civilisation which grew up in the country bordering on the Pyrenees. It was especially represented in the romances and poems of the Troubadours, and the new tendency even received some assistance from the Church when the Council of Clermont, which originated the Crusades, imposed on the knight the religious obligation of defending all widows and orphans.

The second element was an increased reverence for secular rank, which grew out of the feudal system, when a great hereditary aristocracy arose and all European society was moulded into a compact hierarchy, of which the serf was the basis and the emperor the apex. The principle of subordination and obedience ran through the whole edifice, and a respect for rank was universally diffused. Men came to associate their ideal of greatness with regal or noble authority, and they were therefore prepared to idealise any great sovereign who might arise. Such a sovereign appeared in Charlemagne, who exercised upon Christendom a fascination not less powerful than that which Alexander had once exercised upon Greece, and he accordingly soon became the centre of a whole literature of romance.

The third element was the fusion of religious enthusiasm with the military spirit. Christianity in its first phases was utterly opposed to the military spirit; but this opposition was naturally mitigated when the Church triumphed under Constantine and became associated with governments and armies. The hostility was still further qualified when many tribes of warlike barbarians embraced the faith, and the military obligation which was an essential element of feudalism acted in the same direction. But, above all, the rise and conquests of Mohammedanism awoke the military energies of Christendom and determined the direction it should take. In the Crusades the two great streams of military enthusiasm and of religious enthusiasm met, and the result was the formation of a new ideal which for a long period mainly governed the imagination of Christendom.

It for a time absorbed, eclipsed, and transformed all purely national ideals. No poet was ever more intensely English in his character and sympathies than Chaucer, and he wrote when the dazzling glories of Crecy and Poitiers were still very recent. Yet it is not on these fields, but in the long wars with the Moslems, that his pattern knight had won his renown. The military expeditions of Charlemagne were directed almost exclusively against the Saxons and against Slavonic tribes. With the Spanish Mohammedans he came but very slightly in contact. He made in person but one expedition against them, and that expedition was both insignificant and unsuccessful. But in the Karlovingian romances, which were written when the crusading enthusiasm was at its height, the figure of the great emperor underwent a strange and most significant transformation. The German wars were scarcely noticed. Charlemagne is surrounded with the special glory that ought to have belonged to Charles Martel. He is represented as having passed his entire life in a victorious struggle with the Mohammedans of Europe, and is even gravely credited with a triumphant expedition to Jerusalem. The three romances of the Crusades which are believed to be the oldest were all written by monks, and they all make Charlemagne their hero. Even geography was transformed by the new enthusiasm, and old maps sometimes represent Jerusalem as the centre of the world.

In few periods has there been so great a difference between the ideals created by the popular imagination and the realities that are recognised by history. Few wars have been accompanied by more cruelty, more outrage, and more licentiousness than the Crusades or have brought a blacker cloud of disasters in their train. Yet the idea that inspired them was a lofty one, and they were so speedily transfigured by the imaginations of men that in combination with the other influences I have mentioned they created an ideal which is one of the most beautiful in the history of the world. We may trace it clearly in the romances of Arthur and Charlemagne and of the "Cid;" in the "Red-Cross Knight" of Tasso and Spenser; in the old ballads which paint so vividly the hero of chivalry, ever ready to draw his sword for his faith and his lady-love and in the cause of the feeble and the oppressed. The glorification of military courage and self-sacrifice which had been so prominent in antiquity was again in the ascendant, but it was combined with a new kind of honour and with a new vein of courtesy, modesty, and gentleness. When we apply the epithet 'chivalrous' to a modern gentleman, this is no unmeaning term. There is even now an element in that character which may be distinctly traced to the ideal of chivalry which the Crusades made dominant in Europe.

I do not propose to follow the history of other ideals that have in turn prevailed. What I have written will, I trust, be sufficient to illustrate a kind of history which appears to me to possess much interest and value. It will show, too, that a faithful historian is very largely concerned with the fictions as well as with the facts of the past. Legends which have no firm historical basis are often of the highest historical value as reflecting the moral sentiments of their time. Nor do they merely reflect them. In some periods they contribute perhaps more than any other influence to mould and colour them and to give them an enduring strength. The facts of history have been largely governed by its fictions. Great events often acquire their full power over the human mind only when they have passed through the transfiguring medium of the imagination, and men as they were supposed to be have even sometimes exercised a wider influence than men as they actually were. Ideals ultimately rule the world, and each before it loses its ascendancy bequeaths some moral truth as an abiding legacy to the human race.


When, shortly after I had accepted the honourable task which I am endeavouring to fulfil to-night, I received from your Secretary a report of the annual proceedings of the Birmingham and Midland Institute,—when I observed the immense range and variety of subjects included within your programme, illustrating so strikingly the intense intellectual activity of this great town,—my first feeling was one of some bewilderment and dismay. What, I asked myself, could I say that would be of much real value, addressing an unknown audience, and relating to fields of knowledge so vast, so multifarious, and in many of their parts so far beyond the range of my own studies? On reflection, however, it appeared to me that in this, as in most other cases, the proverb was a wise one which bids the cobbler stick to his last, and that a writer who, during many years of his life, has been engaged in the study of English history could hardly do better than devote the time at his disposal to-night to a few reflections on the political value of history, and on the branches and methods of historical study that are most fitted to form a sound political judgment.

Is history a study of real use in practical, and especially in political, life? The question, as you know, has been by no means always answered in the same way. In its earlier stages history was regarded chiefly as a form of poetry recording the more dramatic actions of kings, warriors, and statesmen. Homer and the early ballads are indeed the first historians of their countries, and long after Homer one of the most illustrious of the critics of antiquity described history as merely 'poetry free from the incumbrance of verse.' The portraits that adorned it gave some insight into human character; it breathed noble sentiments, rewarded and stimulated noble actions, and kindled by its strong appeals to the imagination high patriotic feeling; but its end was rather to paint than to guide, to consecrate a noble past than to furnish a key for the future; and the artist in selecting his facts looked mainly for those which could throw the richest colour upon his canvas. Most experience was in his eyes (to adopt an image of Coleridge) like the stern light of a ship, which illuminates only the path we have already traversed; and a large proportion of the subjects which are most significant as illustrating the true welfare and development of nations were deliberately rejected as below the dignity of history. The old conception of history can hardly be better illustrated than in the words of Savage Landor. 'Show me,' he makes one of his heroes say, 'how great projects were executed, great advantages gained, and great calamities averted. Show me the generals and the statesmen who stood foremost, that I may bend to them in reverence.... Let the books of the Treasury lie closed as religiously as the Sibyl's. Leave weights and measures in the market-place; Commerce in the harbour; the Arts in the light they love; Philosophy in the shade. Place History on her rightful throne, and at the sides of her Eloquence and War.'[1]

It was chiefly in the eighteenth century that a very different conception of history grew up. Historians then came to believe that their task was not so much to paint a picture as to solve a problem; to explain or illustrate the successive phases of national growth, prosperity, and adversity. The history of morals, of industry, of intellect, and of art; the changes that take place in manners or beliefs; the dominant ideas that prevailed in successive periods; the rise, fall, and modification of political constitutions; in a word, all the conditions of national well-being became the subjects of their works. They sought rather to write a history of peoples than a history of kings. They looked specially in history for the chain of causes and effects. They undertook to study in the past the physiology of nations, and hoped by applying the experimental method on a large scale to deduce some lessons of real value about the conditions on which the well-being of society mainly depends.

How far have they succeeded in their attempt, and furnished us with a real compass for political guidance? Let me in the first place frankly express my own belief that to many readers of history the study is not only useless, but even positively misleading. An unintelligent, a superficial, a pedantic or an inaccurate use of history is the source of very many errors in practical judgment. Human affairs are so infinitely complex that it is vain to expect that they will ever exactly reproduce themselves, or that any study of the past can enable us to predict the future with the minuteness and the completeness that can be attained in the exact sciences. Nor will any wise man judge the merits of existing institutions solely on historic grounds. Do not persuade yourself that any institution, however great may be its antiquity, however transcendent may have been its uses in a remote past, can permanently justify its existence, unless it can be shown to exercise a really beneficial influence over our own society and our own age. It is equally true that no institution which is exercising such a beneficial influence should be condemned, because it can be shown from history that under other conditions and in other times its influence was rather for evil than for good.

These propositions may seem like truisms; yet how often do we hear a kind of reasoning that is inconsistent with them! How often, for example, in the discussions on the Continent on the advantages and disadvantages of monastic institutions has the chief stress of the argument been laid upon the great benefits which those institutions produced in ages that were utterly different from our own,—in the dark period of the barbarian invasions, when they were the only refuges of a pacific civilisation, the only libraries, the only schools, the only centres of art, the only refuge for gentle and intellectual natures; the chief barrier against violence and rapine; the chief promoters of agriculture and industry! How often in discussions on the merits and demerits of an Established Church in England have we heard arguments drawn from the hostility which the Church of England showed towards English liberty in the time of the Stuarts; although it is abundantly evident that the dangers of a royal despotism, which were then so serious, have utterly disappeared, and that the political action of the Church of England at that period was mainly governed by a doctrine of the Divine right of kings, and of the duty of passive obedience, which is now as dead as the old belief that the king's touch could cure scrofula! How often have the champions of modern democracy appealed in support of their views to the glories of the democracies of ancient Greece, without ever reminding their hearers that these small municipal republics rested on the basis of slavery, and that the bulk of those who would exercise the chief controlling influence over affairs in a pure democracy of the modern type were absolutely excluded from political power! How often in discussions about the advantages and disadvantages of Home Rule in Ireland do we find arguments drawn from the merits or demerits of the Irish Parliament of the eighteenth century, with a complete forgetfulness of the fact that this Parliament consisted exclusively of a Protestant gentry; that it represented in the highest degree the property of the country, and the classes who are most closely attached to English rule; that it was constituted in such a manner that the English Government could exercise a complete control over its deliberations, and that for good or for ill it was utterly unlike any body that could now be constituted in Ireland!

Or again, to turn to another field: it is quite certain that every age has special dangers to guard against, and that as time moves on these dangers not only change, but are sometimes even reversed. There have been periods in English history when the great dangers to be encountered sprang from the excessive and encroaching power of a monarchy or of an aristocracy. The battle to be then fought was for the free exercise of religious worship and expression of religious opinion, for a free parliament, for a free press, for a free platform, for an independent jury-box. All the best patriotism, all the most heroic self-sacrifice of the nation, was thrown into defence of these causes; and the wisest statesmen of the time made it the main object of their legislation to protect and consolidate them.

These things are now as valuable as they ever were, but no reasonable man will maintain that they are in the smallest danger. The battles of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries have been definitely won. A kind of language which at one period of English history implied the noblest heroism is now the idlest and cheapest of clap-trap. The sycophant and the self-seeker bow before quite other idols than of old. The dangers of the time come from other quarters; other tendencies prevail, other tasks remain to be accomplished; and a public man who in framing his course followed blindly in the steps of the heroes or reformers of the past would be like a mariner who set his sails to the winds of yesterday.

It is difficult, I think, to doubt that the judgments of all of us are more or less affected by causes of this kind. It is, I imagine, true of the great majority of educated men that their first political impression or bias is formed much less by the events of their own time than by childish recollections of the more dramatic conflicts of the past. We are Cavaliers or Roundheads before we are Conservatives or Liberals; and although we gradually learn to realise how profoundly the condition of affairs and the balance of forces have altered, yet no wise man can doubt the power which the first bias of the imagination exercises in very many cases through a whole life. Language which grew out of bygone conflicts continues to be used long after those conflicts and their causes have ended; but that which was once a very genuine voice comes at last to be little more than an insincere echo.

The best corrective for this kind of evil is a really intelligent study of history. One of the first tasks that every sincere student should set before himself is to endeavour to understand what is the dominant idea or characteristic of the period with which he is occupied; what forces chiefly ruled it, what forces were then rising into a dangerous ascendancy, and what forces were on the decline; what illusions, what exaggerations, what false hopes and unworthy influences chiefly prevailed. It is only when studied in this spirit that the true significance of history is disclosed, and the same method which furnishes a key to the past forms also an admirable discipline for the judgment of the present. He who has learnt to understand the true character and tendencies of many succeeding ages is not likely to go very far wrong in estimating his own.

Another branch of history which I would especially commend to the attention of all political students is the history of Institutions. In the constantly fluctuating conditions of human life no institution ever remained for a long period unaltered. Sometimes with changed beliefs and changed conditions institutions lose all their original utility. They become simply useless, obstructive, and corrupt; and though by mere passive resistance they may continue to exist long after they have ceased to serve any good purpose, they will at last be undermined by their own abuses. Other institutions, on the other hand, show the true characteristic of vitality—the power of adapting themselves to changed conditions and new utilities. Few things in history are more interesting and more instructive than a careful study of these transformations. Sometimes the original objects almost wholly disappear, and utilities which were either never contemplated by the founders or were only regarded as of purely secondary importance take the first place on the scene. The old plan and symmetry almost disappear as the institution is modified now in this direction and now in that to meet some pressing want. The first architects, if they could rise from the dead, would scarcely recognise their creation—would perhaps look on it with horror. The indirect advantages of an institution are sometimes greater than its direct ones; and institutions are often more valuable on account of the evils they avert than on account of the positive advantages they produce. Not unfrequently in their later and transformed condition they exercise wider and greater influence than when they were originally established; for the strength derived from the long traditions of the past and from the habits that are formed around anything that is deeply rooted in the national life gives them a vastly increased importance.

There is probably no better test of the political genius of a nation than the power which it possesses of adapting old institutions to new wants; and it is, I think, in this skill and in this disposition that the political pre-eminence of the English people has been most conspicuously shown. It is difficult to overrate its importance. It is the institutions of a country that chiefly maintain the sense of its organic unity, its essential connection with its past. By their continuous existence they bind together as by a living chain the past with the present, the living with the dead.

Few greater calamities can befall a nation than to cut herself off, as France did in her great Revolution, from all vital connection with her own past. This is one of the chief lessons you will learn from Burke—the greatest and truest of all our political teachers. Bacon expressed in an admirable sentence the best spirit of English politics when he urged that 'men in their innovations should follow the example of Time itself, which indeed innovated greatly, but quietly, and by degrees scarcely to be perceived.'

There is a third department of history which appears to me especially valuable to political students. It is the history of those vast Revolutions for good or for ill which seem to have transformed the characters or permanently changed the fortunes of nations, either by a sudden and violent shock or by the slow process of gradual renovation. You will find on this subject, in our country, two great and opposite exaggerations. There is a school of writers, of which Buckle is an admirable representative, who are so struck by the long chain of causes, extending over many centuries, that preceded and prepared Revolutions, that they teach a kind of historic fatalism, reducing almost to nothing the action of Individualities; and there is another school, which is specially represented by Carlyle, who reduce all history into biographies, into the action of a few great men upon their kind.

The one class of writers will tell you with great truth that the Roman Republic was not destroyed by Caesar, but by the long train of influences that made the career of Caesar a possibility. They will show how influences working through many generations had sapped the foundations of the Republic—how the beliefs and habits on which it once rested had passed away—how its institutions no longer corresponded with the prevailing wants and ideas—how a form of government which had proved excellently adapted for a restricted dominion failed when the Roman eagles flew triumphantly over the whole civilised world, and how in this manner the strongest tendencies of the time were preparing the downfall of the Republic, and the establishment of a great empire upon its ruins. They will show how the intellectual influences of the Renaissance, the invention of printing, and a crowd of other causes, many of them at first sight very remote from theological controversies, had in the sixteenth century so shaken the power of the Roman Catholic Church, that the way was prepared for the Reformation, and it became possible for Luther and Calvin to succeed, where Wyckliffe and Huss had failed. They will show how profoundly our theological beliefs are affected by our general conception of the system of the universe, and how inevitably, as Science changes the latter, the former will undergo a corresponding process of modification. Creeds that are no longer in harmony with the general spirit of the time may long continue, but a new spirit will be breathed into the old forms. Those portions which are most discordant with our fresh knowledge will be neglected or attenuated. Although they may not be openly discarded, they will cease to be realised or vitally operative.

In the sphere of politics a similar law prevails, and the fate of nations largely depends upon forces quite different from those on which the mere political historian concentrates his attention. The growth of military or industrial habits; the elevation or depression of different classes; the changes that take place in the distribution of wealth; inventions or discoveries that alter the course or character of industry or commerce, or reverse the relative advantages of different nations in the competitions of life; the increase and, still more, the diffusion of knowledge; the many influences that affect convictions, habits and ideals, that raise, or lower, or modify the moral tone and type—all these things concur in shaping the destinies of nations. Legislation is only really successful when it is in harmony with the general spirit of the age. Laws and statesmen for the most part indicate and ratify, but do not create. They are like the hands of the watch, which move obedient to the hidden machinery behind.

In all this kind of speculation there is, I believe, great truth, and it opens out fields of inquiry that are of the utmost interest and importance. I have, however, long thought that it has been pushed by some modern writers to extravagant exaggeration. As you well know, there is another aspect of history, which, long before Carlyle, was enforced by some of the ablest and most independent intellects of Christendom. Pascal tells us that if Cleopatra's nose had been shorter, the whole face of the world might have been changed, and Voltaire is never tired of dwelling on the small springs on which the greatest events of history turn. Frederick the Great, who was probably the keenest practical intellect of his age, constantly insisted on the same view. In the vast field of politics, he maintained, casual events which no human sagacity can predict play by far the largest part. We are in most cases groping our way blindly in the dark. Occasionally, when favourable circumstances occur, there is a gleam of light of which the skilful avail themselves. All the rest is uncertainty. The world is mainly governed by a multitude of secondary, obscure, or impenetrable causes. It is a game of chance in which the most skilful may lose like the most ignorant. 'The older one becomes the more clearly one sees that King Hazard fashions three-fourths of the events in this miserable world.'

My own view of this question is that though there are certain streams of tendency, though there is a certain steady and orderly evolution that it is impossible in the long run to resist, yet individual action and even mere accident have borne a very great part in modifying the direction of history. It is with History as with the general laws of Nature. We can none of us escape the all-pervading force of gravitation, or the influence of the climate under which we live, or the succession of the seasons, or the laws of growth and of decay; yet man is not a mere passive weed drifting helplessly upon the sea of life, and human wisdom and human folly can do and have done much to modify the conditions of his being.

It is quite true that religions depend largely for their continued vitality upon the knowledge and intellectual atmosphere of their time; but there are periods when the human mind is in such a state of pliancy that a small pressure can give it a bent which will last for generations. If Mohammed had been killed in one of the first skirmishes of his career, I know no reason for believing that a great monotheistic religion would have arisen in Arabia, capable of moulding for more than twelve hundred years not only the beliefs, laws, and governments, but also the inmost moral and mental character of a vast section of the human race. Gibbon was probably right in his conjecture that if Charles Martel had been defeated at the famous battle near Tours, the creed of Islam would have overspread a great part of what is now Christian Europe, and in that case it might have ruled over it for centuries. No one can follow the history of the conversion of the barbarians to Christianity without perceiving how often a religion has been imposed in the first instance by the mere will of the ruler, which gradually took such root that it became far too strong for any political power to destroy. Persecution cannot annihilate a creed which is firmly established, or maintain a creed which has been thoroughly undermined, but there are intermediate stages in which its influence on national beliefs has been enormously great. Even at the Reformation, though more general causes were of capital importance, political events had a very large part in defining the frontier line between the rival creeds, and the divisions so created have for the most part endured.

In secular politics numerous instances of the same kind will occur to every thoughtful reader of history. If, as might easily have happened, Hannibal after the battle of Cannae had taken and burned Rome, and transferred the supremacy of the world to a maritime commercial State upon the Mediterranean; if, instead of the Regency, Louis XV. and Louis XVI., France had passed during the eighteenth century under sovereigns of the stamp of the elder branch of the House of Orange or of Henry IV., or of the Great Elector, or of Frederick the Great; if, at the French Revolution, the supreme military genius had been connected with the character of Washington rather than with the character of Napoleon—who can doubt that the course of European history would have been vastly changed? The causes that made constitutional liberty succeed in England, while it failed in other countries where its prospects seemed once at least as promising, are many and complex; but no careful student of English history will doubt the prominence among them of the accidental fact that James II., by embracing Catholicism, had thrown the Church feeling at a very critical moment into opposition to the monarchical feeling, and that in the last days of Anne, when the question of the succession was trembling most doubtfully in the balance, his son refused to conform to the Anglican creed.

Laws are no doubt in a great degree inoperative when they do not spring from and represent the opinion of the nation, but they have in their turn a great power of consolidating, deepening, and directing opinion. When some important progress has been attained, and with the support of public opinion has been embodied in a law, that law will do much to prevent the natural reflux of the wave. It becomes a kind of moral landmark, a powerful educating influence, and by giving what had been achieved the sanction of legality, it contributes largely to its permanence. Roman law undoubtedly played a great part in European history long after all the conditions in which it was first enacted had passed away, and the legislator who can determine in any country the system of national education, or the succession of property, will do much to influence the opinions and social types of many succeeding generations.

The point, however, on which I would here especially insist is that there has scarcely been a great revolution in the world which might not at some stage of its progress have been either averted, or materially modified, or at least greatly postponed, by wise statesmanship and timely compromise. Take, for example, the American Revolution, which destroyed the political unity of the English race. You will often hear this event treated as if it were simply due to the wanton tyranny of an English Government, which desired to reduce its colonies to servitude by taxing them without their consent. But if you will look closely into the history of that time—and there is no history which is more instructive—you will find that this is a gross misrepresentation. What happened was essentially this. England, under the guidance of the elder Pitt, had been waging a great and most successful war, which left her with an enormously extended Empire, but also with an addition of more than seventy millions to her National Debt. That debt was now nearly one hundred and forty millions, and England was reeling under the taxation it required. The war had been waged largely in America, and its most brilliant result was the conquest of Canada, by which the old American colonies had benefited more than any other part of the Empire, for the expulsion of the French from North America put an end to the one great danger which hung over them. It was, however, extremely probable that if France ever regained her strength, one of her first objects would be to recover her dominion in America.

Under these circumstances the English Government concluded that it was impossible that England alone, overburdened as she was by taxation, could undertake the military defence of her greatly extended Empire. Their object, therefore, was to create subsidiary armies for its defence. Ireland already raised by the vote of the Irish Parliament, and out of exclusively Irish resources, an army consisting of from twelve to fifteen thousand men, most of whom were available for the general purposes of the Empire. In India, under a despotic system, a separate army was maintained for the protection of India. It was the strong belief of the English Government that a third army should be maintained in America for the defence of the American colonies and of the neighbouring islands, and that it was just and reasonable that America should bear some part of the expense of her own defence. She was charged with no part of the interest of the National Debt; she paid nothing towards the cost of the navy which protected her coast; she was the most lightly taxed and the most prosperous portion of the Empire; she was the part which had benefited most by the late war, and she was the part which was most likely to be menaced if the war was renewed. Under these circumstances Grenville determined that a small army of ten thousand men should be kept in America, under the distinct promise that it was never to serve beyond that country and the West Indian Isles, and he asked America to contribute 100,000l. a year, or about a third part of its expense.

But here the difficulty arose. The Irish army was maintained by the vote of the Irish Parliament; but there was no single parliament representing the American colonies, and it soon became evident that it was impossible to induce thirteen State legislatures to agree upon any scheme for supporting an army in America. Under these circumstances Grenville in an ill-omened moment resolved to revive a dormant power which existed in the Constitution, and levy this new war-tax by Imperial taxation. He at the same time guaranteed the colonists that the proceeds of this tax should be expended solely in America; he intimated to them in the clearest way that if they would meet his wishes by themselves providing the necessary sum, he would be abundantly satisfied, and he delayed the enforcement of the measure for a year in order to give them ample time for doing so.

Such and so small was the original cause of difference between England and her colonies. Who can fail to see that it was a difference abundantly susceptible of compromise, and that a wise and moderate statesmanship might easily have averted the catastrophe? There are few sadder and few more instructive pages in history than those which show how mistake after mistake was committed, till the rift which was once so small widened and deepened; till the two sections of the English race were thrown into an irreconcilable antagonism, and the fair vision of an United Empire in the East and in the West came for ever to an end.

Or glance for a moment at the French Revolution. It is a favourite task of historians to trace through the preceding generations the long train of causes that made the transformation of French institutions absolutely inevitable; but it is not so often remembered that when the States-General met in 1789 by far the larger part of the benefits of the Revolution could have been attained without difficulty, without convulsion, and by general consent. The nobles and clergy had pledged themselves to surrender their feudal privileges and their privileges in taxation; a reforming king was on the throne, and a reforming minister was at his side. If the spirit of moderation had then prevailed, the inevitable transformation might probably have been made without the effusion of a drop of blood. Jefferson was at this time the Minister of the United States in Paris. As an old republican he knew well the conditions of free governments, and among the politicians of his own country he represented the democratic section. I know few words in history more pathetic than those in which he described the situation. 'I was much acquainted,' he writes, 'with the leading patriots of the Assembly. Being from a country which had successfully passed through a similar reformation, they were disposed to my acquaintance, and had some confidence in me. I urged most strenuously an immediate compromise to secure what the Government were now ready to yield.... It was well understood that the King would grant at this time (1) freedom of the person by Habeas Corpus; (2) freedom of conscience; (3) freedom of the press; (4) trial by jury; (5) a representative legislature; (6) annual meetings; (7) the origination of laws; (8) the exclusive right of taxation and appropriation; and (9) the responsibility of Ministers; and with the exercise of these powers they could obtain in future whatever might be further necessary to improve and preserve their constitution. They thought otherwise,' continued Jefferson; 'and events have proved their lamentable error; for after thirty years of war, foreign and domestic, the loss of millions of lives, the prostration of private happiness, and the foreign subjugation of their own country for a time, they have obtained no more, nor even that securely.'[2]

Let me, in concluding these observations, sum up in a few words some other advantages which you may derive from history. It is, I think, one of the best schools for that kind of reasoning which is most useful in practical life. It teaches men to weigh conflicting probabilities, to estimate degrees of evidence, to form a sound judgment of the value of authorities. Reasoning is taught by actual practice much more than by any a priori methods. Many good judges—and I own I am inclined to agree with them—doubt much whether a study of formal logic ever yet made a good reasoner. Mathematics are no doubt invaluable in this respect, but they only deal with demonstrations; and it has often been observed how many excellent mathematicians are somewhat peculiarly destitute of the power of measuring degrees of probability. But history is largely concerned with the kind of probabilities on which the conduct of life mainly depends. There is one hint about historical reasoning which I think may not be unworthy of your notice. When studying some great historical controversy, place yourselves by an effort of the imagination alternately on each side of the battle; try to realise as fully as you can the point of view of the best men on either side, and then draw up upon paper the arguments of each in the strongest form you can give them. You will find that few practices do more to elucidate the past, or form a better mental discipline.

History, again, greatly expands our horizon and enlarges our experience by bringing us in direct contact with men of many times and countries. It gives young men something of the experience of old men, and untravelled men something of the experience of travelled ones. A great source of error in our judgment of men is that we do not make sufficient allowance for the difference of types. The essentials of right and wrong no doubt continue the same, but if you look carefully into history you will find that the special stress which is attached to particular virtues is constantly changing. Sometimes it is the civic virtues, sometimes the religious virtues, sometimes the industrial virtues, sometimes the love of truth, sometimes the more amiable dispositions, that are most valued, and occupy the foremost place in the moral type. The men of each age must be judged by the ideal of their own age and country, and not by the ideal of ours. Men look at life in very different aspects, and they differ greatly in their ways of reasoning, in the qualities they admire, in the aims which they chiefly prize. In few things do they differ more than in their capacity for self-government; in the kinds of liberty they especially value; in their love or dislike of government guidance or control.

The power of realising and understanding types of character very different from our own is not, I think, an English quality, and a great many of our mistakes in governing other nations come from this deficiency. Some thirty or forty years ago especially it was the custom of English statesmen to write and speak as if the salvation of every nation depended mainly upon its adoption of a miniature copy of the British Constitution. Now, if there is a lesson which history teaches clearly, it is that the same institutions are not fitted for all nations, and that what in one nation may prove perfectly successful, will in another be supremely disastrous. The habits and traditions of a nation; the peculiar bent of its character and intellect; the degree in which self-control, respect for law, the spirit of compromise, and disinterested public spirit are diffused through the people; the relations of classes, and the divisions of property, are all considerations of capital importance. It is a great error, both in history and in practical politics, to attach too much value to a political machine. The essential consideration is by what men and in what spirit that machine is likely to be worked. Few Constitutions contain more theoretical anomalies, and even absurdities, than that under which England has attained to such an unexampled height of political prosperity; while a servile imitation of some of the most skilfully-devised Constitutions in Europe has not saved some of the South American States from long courses of anarchy, bankruptcy, and revolution.

These are some of the political lessons that may be drawn from history. Permit me, in conclusion, to say that its most precious lessons are moral ones. It expands the range of our vision, and teaches us in judging the true interests of nations to look beyond the immediate future. Few good judges will deny that this habit is now much wanted. The immensely increased prominence in political life of ephemeral influences, and especially of the influence of a daily press; the immense multiplication of elections, which intensifies party conflicts, all tend to concentrate our thoughts more and more upon an immediate issue. They narrow the range of our vision, and make us somewhat insensible to distant consequences and remote contingencies. It is not easy, in the heat and passion of modern political life, to look beyond a parliament or an election, beyond the interest of a party or the triumph of an hour. Yet nothing is more certain than that the ultimate, distant, and perhaps indirect consequences of political measures are often far more important than their immediate fruits, and that in the prosperity of nations a large amount of continuity in politics and the gradual formation of political habits are of transcendent importance. History is never more valuable than when it enables us, standing as on a height, to look beyond the smoke and turmoil of our petty quarrels, and to detect in the slow developments of the past the great permanent forces that are steadily bearing nations onwards to improvement or decay.

The strongest of these forces are the moral ones. Mistakes in statesmanship, military triumphs or disasters, no doubt affect materially the prosperity of nations, but their permanent political well-being is essentially the outcome of their moral state. Its foundation is laid in pure domestic life, in commercial integrity, in a high standard of moral worth and of public spirit; in simple habits, in courage, uprightness, and self-sacrifice, in a certain soundness and moderation of judgment, which springs quite as much from character as from intellect. If you would form a wise judgment of the future of a nation, observe carefully whether these qualities are increasing or decaying. Observe especially what qualities count for most in public life. Is character becoming of greater or less importance? Are the men who obtain the highest posts in the nation men of whom in private life and irrespective of party competent judges speak with genuine respect? Are they men of sincere convictions, sound judgment, consistent lives, indisputable integrity, or are they men who have won their positions by the arts of a demagogue or an intriguer; men of nimble tongues and not earnest beliefs—skilful, above all things, in spreading their sails to each passing breeze of popularity? Such considerations as these are apt to be forgotten in the fierce excitement of a party contest; but if history has any meaning, it is such considerations that affect most vitally the permanent well-being of communities, and it is by observing this moral current that you can best cast the horoscope of a nation.


[1] Pericles and Aspasia.

[2] Jefferson's Memoirs, i. 80.


I have been asked on the present occasion to deliver a short address which might serve as an introduction to the course of lectures and conferences on the history and resources of the different portions of the Empire which are to take place in the Imperial Institute. In attempting to discharge this task my first reflection is one which the very existence of the Institute can hardly fail to suggest to anyone with any knowledge of recent history. It is the great revolution of opinion which has taken place in England within the last few years about the real value to her both of her colonies and of her Indian Empire. Not many years ago it was a popular doctrine among a large and important class of politicians that these vast dominions were not merely useless but detrimental to the mother-country, and that it should be the end of a wise policy to prepare and facilitate their disruption. Bentham, in a pamphlet called 'Emancipate your Colonies,' advocated a speedy and complete separation. James Mill, who held a high place among these politicians, wrote an article on Colonies for the 'Encyclopaedia Britannica' which clearly expresses their view. Colonies, he contended, are very little calculated to yield any advantage whatever to the countries that hold them, and their chief influence is to produce and prolong bad government. Why, then, he asks, do European nations maintain them? The answer is very characteristic, both of the man and of his school. Something, he charitably admits, is due to mere ignorance, to mistaken views of utility; but the main cause is of another kind. He quotes the saying of Sancho Panza, who desired to possess an island in order that he might sell its inhabitants as slaves, and put the money in his pocket; and he maintains that the chief cause of our Colonial Empire is the selfish interest of the governing few who valued colonies because they gave them places and enabled them to multiply wars. In more moderate and decorous language, Goldwin Smith wrote a book, the object of which was to show how desirable it was that this Empire should be gradually but steadily reduced to the sweet simplicity of two islands. Similar views prevailed very generally in the Manchester school. Cobden frequently expressed them. The question of the colonies, he maintained, was mainly a question of pounds, shillings, and pence; he proved, as he imagined, by many figures that they were a very bad bargain; and he expressed his confident hope that one of the results of free trade would be 'gradually and imperceptibly to loosen the bands which unite our colonies to us.' About our Indian Empire he entertained much stronger opinions. He described it as a calamity and a curse to the people of England. He looked on it, in his own words, 'with an eye of despair,' and declared that it was destroying and demoralising the national character. It was the belief of his school of politicians that all the nations of the world would speedily follow the example of England and adopt a policy of perfect free trade; that when all men were able to sell their industries with equal facility in all countries, it would become a matter of little consequence to them under what flag they lived, and that this complete commercial assimilation would soon be followed by a general movement for disarming, which would put an end to all fear of future war.

Many politicians who certainly cannot be classified with the Manchester school held views tending in some degree in the same direction. Even Sir Cornewall Lewis in his treatise on the 'Government of Dependencies,' which was published in 1841, summed up the advantages and disadvantages of a great empire in a manner that gives the impression that in his own judgment the disadvantages on the whole predominated. In the Autobiography of that great writer and excellent public servant Sir Henry Taylor, who for many years exercised much influence in the Colonial Office, we have a curious picture of the opinions which were held on this subject about thirty years ago, both by Sir Henry Taylor himself and by Sir Frederick Rogers, who was at this time permanent Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies. They both agreed that all our North American colonies were a kind of damnosa hereditas, and that it was in a high degree desirable that they should be amicably separated from Great Britain. Sir Henry Taylor wrote his views on the subject with great frankness to the Duke of Newcastle, who was then Secretary of State. 'When your Grace and the Prince of Wales,' he said, 'were employing yourselves so successfully in conciliating the colonists, I thought that you were drawing closer ties which might better be slackened, if there were any chance of their slipping away altogether. I think that a policy which has regard to a not very far off future should prepare facilities and propensities for separation.... In my estimation the worst consequence of the late dispute with the United States has been that of involving this country and its North American provinces in closer relations and a common cause.'[3] 'I have always believed,' wrote Sir Frederick Rogers in 1885—'and the belief has so confirmed and consolidated itself, that I can hardly realise the possibility of anyone seriously thinking the contrary—that the destiny of our colonies is independence; and that in this point of view the function of the Colonial Office is to secure that our connection while it lasts shall be as profitable to both parties, and our separation when it comes as amicable as possible.'

I do not believe that opinions of this kind, though they were held by a large and powerful section of English politicians, ever penetrated very deeply into the English nation. One of the causes of Mr. Cobden's 'despair' was his conviction that the English people would never be persuaded to surrender India except at the close of a disastrous and exhausting war, and in his day the policy of national surrender was certainly not that of the statesmen who led either party in Parliament. No one would attribute it to Mr. Disraeli, in whose long political life the note of Imperialism was perhaps that which sounded with the clearest ring, and it was quite as repugnant to Lord Palmerston and Lord John Russell. In an admirable speech which was delivered in the beginning of 1850, Lord John Russell disclaimed all sympathy with it, and I can well remember the indignation with which in his latter days he was accustomed to speak of the views on the subject which were then frequently expressed. 'When I was young,' he once said to me, 'it was thought the mark of a wise statesman that he had turned a small kingdom into a great empire. In my old age it appears to be thought the object of a statesman to turn a great empire into a small kingdom.'

I do not think that anyone who has watched the current of English opinion will doubt that the views of the Manchester school on this subject have within the last few years steadily lost ground, and that a far warmer and, in my opinion, nobler and more healthy feeling towards India and the colonies has grown up. The change may be attributed to many causes. In the first place, what Carlyle called 'The Calico Millennium' has not arrived. The nations have not adopted free trade, but nearly all of them, including unfortunately many of our own colonies, have raised tariff walls against our trade. The Reign of Peace has not come. National antipathies and jealousies play about as great a part in human affairs as they ever did, and there are certainly not less than three and a half millions, there are probably nearly four millions, of men under arms in what are called the peace establishments of Europe. It is beginning to be clearly seen that, with our vast, redundant, ever-growing population, with our enormous manufactures, and our utterly insufficient supply of home-grown food, it is a matter of life and death to the nation, and especially to its working classes, that there should be secure and extending fields open to our goods, and in the present condition of the world we must mainly look for these fields within our own Empire. The gigantic dimensions that Indian trade has assumed within the last few years, and the extraordinary commercial development of some other parts of our Empire, have pointed the moral, and it has been made still more apparent by the eagerness with which other Powers, and especially Germany, have flung themselves into the path of colonisation. In an age, too, when all the paths of professional and industrial life in our country are crowded to excess, the competitive system has combined with our new acquisitions of territory to throw open noble fields of employment, enterprise and ambition to poor and struggling talent, and India is proving a school of inestimable value for maintaining some of the best and most masculine qualities of our race. It is the great seed-plot of our military strength; and the problems of Indian administration are peculiarly fitted to form men of a kind that is much needed among us—men of strong purpose and firm will, and high ruling and organising powers, men accustomed to deal with facts rather than with words, and to estimate measures by their intrinsic value, and not merely by their party advantages, men skilful in judging human character under its many types and aspects and disguises.

If again we turn to our great self-governing colonies, we have learnt to feel how valuable it is, in an age in which international jealousies are so rife, that there should be vast and rapidly growing portions of the globe that are not only at peace with us, but at one with us; how unspeakably important it is to the future of the world that the English race, through the ages that are to come, should cling as closely as possible together. As a distinguished statesman who lately represented the United States in England[4] has admirably said, 'If it is not always true that trade follows flag, it is at least true that "heart follows flag,"' and the feeling that our fellow-subjects in distant parts of the Empire bear to us is very different from the feeling even of the most friendly foreign nation. Our great colonies have readily undertaken the responsibility of providing for their own defence by land, and even in some degree by sea. If the protection of their coasts in time of war might become a great strain upon our navy, this disadvantage is largely balanced by the importance of distant maritime possessions to every nation that desires to maintain an efficient fleet; by the immense advantage to a great commercial Power of secure harbours and coaling stations scattered over the world. It is not difficult to conceive circumstances in which the destruction of some of our main industries, occurring, perhaps, in the midst of a great war, might make it utterly impossible for our present population to live upon British soil, and when the possession of vast territories under the British flag, and in the hands of the British race, might become a matter of transcendent importance. Think for a moment of the colossal, and indeed appalling, proportions which our great towns are assuming! Think of all the vice and ignorance and disease, of all the sordid abject misery, of all the lawless passions that are festering within them! And then consider how precarious are many of the conditions of our industrial prosperity, how grave and how numerous are the dangers that threaten it both from within and from without. Who can reflect seriously on these things without feeling that the day may come—perhaps at no distant date—when the question of emigration may overshadow all others? To many of us, indeed, it seems one of the greatest errors of modern English statesmanship that when the great exodus from Ireland took place after the famine, Government took no step to aid it, or to direct it to quarters where it would have been of real benefit to the Empire. Many good judges think that the advantages of such interference in allaying bitter feelings, softening a disastrous crisis, and permanently strengthening the Empire, might have been well purchased even if they cost as much as England has sometimes lost by one comparatively insignificant war or by one disastrous strike. In dealing with this question of emigration in the future, colonial assistance may be of supreme importance. And those who have understood the significance of that memorable incident in our recent history—the despatch of Australian troops to fight our battles in the Soudan—may perceive that there is at least a possibility of a still closer and more beneficent union between England and her colonies—a union that would vastly increase the strength of both, and by doing so become a great guarantee of peace in the world.

It would be a calumny to suppose that the change of feeling I have described was solely due to a calculation of interests. Patriotism cannot be reduced to a mere question of money, and a nation which has grown tired of the responsibilities of empire, and careless of the acquisitions of its past and of its greatness in the future, would indeed have entered into a period of inevitable decadence. Happily we have not yet come to this. I believe the overwhelming majority of the people of these islands are convinced that an England reduced to the limits which the Manchester school would assign to it would be an England shorn of the chief elements of its dignity in the world, and that no greater disgrace could befall them than to have sacrificed through indifference, or negligence, or faint-heartedness, an Empire which has been built up by so much genius and so much heroism in the past. Railways and telegraphs and newspapers have brought us into closer touch with our distant possessions, have enabled us to realise more vividly both their character and their greatness, and have thus extended the horizon of our sympathies and interests. The figures of illustrious colonial statesmen are becoming familiar to us. Men formed in Indian and colonial spheres are becoming more numerous and prominent in our own public life. The presence in England of a High Commissioner from Canada, and of Agents-General from our other colonies, constitutes a real though informal colonial representation, and on more than one recent occasion our foreign policy has been swayed by colonial pressure. These young democracies, with their vast undeveloped resources, their unwearied energies, their great social and industrial problems, are beginning to loom largely in the imaginations of Europe. They feel, we believe, a just pride in being members of a great and ancient Empire, and heirs to the glories of its past. We, in our turn, feel a no less just pride in our union with those coming nations which are still lit with the hues of sunrise and rich in the promise of the future.

It has been suggested to me that I should on the present occasion say something about the methods by which this great Empire was built up, but it is obvious that in a short address like the present it is only possible to touch on so large a subject in the most cursory manner. Much is due to our insular position and our command of the sea, which gave Englishmen, in the competition of nations, a peculiar power both of conquering and holding distant dependencies. Being precluded, perhaps quite as much by their position as by their desire, from throwing themselves, like most continental nations, into a long course of European aggression, they have largely employed their redundant energies in exploring, conquering, civilising, and governing distant and half-savage lands. They have found, like all other nations, that an Empire planted amid the shifting sands of half-civilised and anarchical races is compelled for its own security, and as a mere matter of police, to extend its borders. The chapter of accidents—which has played a larger part in most human affairs than many very philosophical enquirers are inclined to admit—has counted for something. But, in addition to these things, there are certain general characteristics of English policy which have contributed very largely to the success of the Empire.

It has been the habit of most nations to regulate colonial governments in all their details according to the best metropolitan ideas, and to surround them with a network of restrictions. England has in general pursued a different course. Partly on system, but partly also, I think, from neglect, she has always allowed an unusual latitude to local knowledge and to local wishes. She has endeavoured to secure, wherever her power extends, life and property, and contract and personal freedom, and, in these latter days, religious liberty; but for the rest she has meddled very little; she has allowed her settlements to develop much as they please, and has given, in practice if not in theory, the fullest powers to her governors. It is astonishing, in the history of the British Empire, how large a part of its greatness is due to the independent action of individual adventurers, or groups of emigrants, or commercial companies, almost wholly unassisted and uncontrolled by the Government at home. An Empire formed by such methods is not likely to exhibit much symmetry and unity of plan, but it is certain to be pervaded in an unusual degree, in all its parts, by a spirit of enterprise and self-reliance; it will probably be peculiarly fertile in men not only of energy but of resource, capable of dealing with strange conditions and unforeseen exigencies. England in the past periods of her history has, on the whole, been singularly successful in adapting her different administrations to widely different national circumstances and characters, and governments of the most various types have arisen under her rule. Nothing in the history of the world is more wonderful than that under the flag of these two little islands there should have grown up the greatest and most beneficent despotism in the world, comprising nearly two hundred and thirty millions of inhabitants under direct British rule, and more than fifty millions under British protectorates; while at the same time British colonies and settlements that are scattered throughout the globe number not less than fifty-six distinct subordinate governments.

This system would have been less successful if it had not been for two important facts. The original stuff of which our Colonial Empire was formed was singularly good. Some of the most important of our colonies were founded in the days of religious war, and the early settlers consisted largely of religious refugees—a class who are usually superior to the average of men in intellectual and industrial qualities, and are nearly always greatly superior to them in strength of conviction, and in those high moral qualities which play so great a part in the well-being of nations. Besides this, in those distant days, the difficulties of emigration were so great that they were rarely voluntarily encountered except by men of much more than average courage, enterprise and resource. These early adventurers were certainly often of no saintly type, but they were largely endowed with the robuster qualities that are most needed for grappling with new circumstances and carving out the empires of the future.

The second fact is the high standard of patriotism and honour which we may, I think, truly say has nearly always prevailed among English public servants. It is not an easy thing to secure honest and faithful administration in remote countries, far from the supervision and practical control of the central government. I think we may boast with truth that England has attained this end, not indeed perfectly, but at least to a greater degree than most other nations. The history of Indian and colonial governors has never been written as a whole, but it is well worthy of study. In the appointment of these men party has always counted for something, and family has counted for something; but they have never been the only considerations, and, on the whole, I believe it will be found, if we consider the three elements of character, capacity and experience, that our Indian and colonial governors represent a higher level of ruling qualities than has been attained by any line of hereditary sovereigns, or by any line of elected presidents. In the period of the foundation of our Indian Empire much was done that was violent and rapacious, but the best modern research seems to show that the picture which a few years ago was generally accepted had been greatly overcharged. The history of Warren Hastings and his companions has been recently studied with great knowledge and ability, and with the result that the more serious opinions on the subject have been considerably modified. Much exaggeration undoubtedly grew up in the last century, partly through ignorance of Oriental affairs, and partly also through the eloquence of Burke. There is no figure in English political history for which I at least entertain a greater reverence than Edmund Burke. I believe him to have been a man of transparent honesty, as well as of transcendent genius; but his politics were too apt to be steeped in passion, and he was often carried away by the irresistible force of his own imagination and feelings. Misrepresentations were greatly consolidated by the Indian History of James Mill, which was for a long time the main, and indeed almost the only, source from which Englishmen obtained their knowledge of Indian history. It was written, as might be expected, with the strongest bias of hostility to the English in India, yet I suspect that many superficial readers imagined that a history which was so unquestionably dull must be at least impartial and philosophical. Unfortunately, Macaulay relied greatly on it, and, without having made any serious independent studies on the subject, he invested some of its misrepresentations with all the splendour of his eloquence. I believe all competent authorities are now agreed that his essay on Warren Hastings, though it is one of the most brilliant of his writings, is also one of the most seriously misleading.

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