The English Utilitarians, Volume I.
by Leslie Stephen
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This book is a sequel to my History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century. The title which I then ventured to use was more comprehensive than the work itself deserved: I felt my inability to write a continuation which should at all correspond to a similar title for the nineteenth century. I thought, however, that by writing an account of the compact and energetic school of English Utilitarians I could throw some light both upon them and their contemporaries. I had the advantage for this purpose of having been myself a disciple of the school during its last period. Many accidents have delayed my completion of the task; and delayed also its publication after it was written. Two books have been published since that time, which partly cover the same ground; and I must be content with referring my readers to them for further information. They are The English Radicals, by Mr. C. B. Roylance Kent; and English Political Philosophy from Hobbes to Maine, by Professor Graham.





I. The British Constitution 12

II. The Ruling Class 18

III. Legislation and Administration 22

IV. The Army and Navy 30

V. The Church 35

VI. The Universities 43

VII. Theory 51



I. The Manufacturers 57

II. The Agriculturists 69



I. Pauperism 87

II. The Police 99

III. Education 108

IV. The Slave-Trade 113

V. The French Revolution 121

VI. Individualism 130



I. John Horne Tooke 137

II. Dugald Stewart 142



I. Early Life 169

II. First Writings 175

III. The Panopticon 193

IV. Utilitarian Propaganda 206

V. Codification 222



I. First Principles 235

II. Springs of Action 249

III. The Sanctions 255

IV. Criminal Law 263

V. English Law 271

VI. Radicalism 282

VII. Individualism 307



The English Utilitarians of whom I am about to give some account were a group of men who for three generations had a conspicuous influence upon English thought and political action. Jeremy Bentham, James Mill, and John Stuart Mill were successively their leaders; and I shall speak of each in turn. It may be well to premise a brief indication of the method which I have adopted. I have devoted a much greater proportion of my work to biography and to consideration of political and social conditions than would be appropriate to the history of a philosophy. The reasons for such a course are very obvious in this case, inasmuch as the Utilitarian doctrines were worked out with a constant reference to practical applications. I think, indeed, that such a reference is often equally present, though not equally conspicuous, in other philosophical schools. But in any case I wish to show how I conceive the relation of my scheme to the scheme more generally adopted by historians of abstract speculation.

I am primarily concerned with the history of a school or sect, not with the history of the arguments by which it justifies itself in the court of pure reason. I must therefore consider the creed as it was actually embodied in the dominant beliefs of the adherents of the school, not as it was expounded in lecture-rooms or treatises on first principles. I deal not with philosophers meditating upon Being and not-Being, but with men actively engaged in framing political platforms and carrying on popular agitations. The great majority even of intelligent partisans are either indifferent to the philosophic creed of their leaders or take it for granted. Its postulates are more or less implied in the doctrines which guide them in practice, but are not explicitly stated or deliberately reasoned out. Not the less the doctrines of a sect, political or religious, may be dependent upon theories which for the greater number remain latent or are recognised only in their concrete application. Contemporary members of any society, however widely they differ as to results, are employed upon the same problems and, to some extent, use the same methods and make the same assumptions in attempting solutions. There is a certain unity even in the general thought of any given period. Contradictory views imply some common ground. But within this wider unity we find a variety of sects, each of which may be considered as more or less representing a particular method of treating the general problem: and therefore principles which, whether clearly recognised or not, are virtually implied in their party creed and give a certain unity to their teaching.

One obvious principle of unity, or tacit bond of sympathy which holds a sect together depends upon the intellectual idiosyncrasy of the individuals. Coleridge was aiming at an important truth when he said that every man was born an Aristotelian or a Platonist.[1] Nominalists and realists, intuitionists and empiricists, idealists and materialists, represent different forms of a fundamental antithesis which appears to run through all philosophy. Each thinker is apt to take the postulates congenial to his own mind as the plain dictates of reason. Controversies between such opposites appear to be hopeless. They have been aptly compared by Dr. Venn to the erection of a snow-bank to dam a river. The snow melts and swells the torrent which it was intended to arrest. Each side reads admitted truths into its own dialect, and infers that its own dialect affords the only valid expression. To regard such antitheses as final and insoluble would be to admit complete scepticism. What is true for one man would not therefore be true—or at least its truth would not be demonstrable—to another. We must trust that reconciliation is achievable by showing that the difference is really less vital and corresponds to a difference of methods or of the spheres within which each mode of thought may be valid. To obtain the point of view from which such a conciliation is possible should be, I hold, one main end of modern philosophising.

The effect of this profound intellectual difference is complicated by other obvious influences. There is, in the first place, the difference of intellectual horizon. Each man has a world of his own and sees a different set of facts. Whether his horizon is that which is visible from his parish steeple or from St. Peter's at Rome, it is still strictly limited: and the outside universe, known vaguely and indirectly, does not affect him like the facts actually present to his perception. The most candid thinkers will come to different conclusions when they are really provided with different sets of fact. In political and social problems every man's opinions are moulded by his social station. The artisan's view of the capitalist, and the capitalist's view of the artisan, are both imperfect, because each has a first-hand knowledge of his own class alone: and, however anxious to be fair, each will take a very different view of the working of political institutions. An apparent concord often covers the widest divergence under the veil of a common formula, because each man has his private mode of interpreting general phrases in terms of concrete fact.

This, of course, implies the further difference arising from the passions which, however illogically, go so far to determine opinions. Here we have the most general source of difficulty in considering the actual history of a creed. We cannot limit ourselves to the purely logical factor. All thought has to start from postulates. Men have to act before they think: before, at any rate, reasoning becomes distinct from imagining or guessing. To explain in early periods is to fancy and to take a fancy for a perception. The world of the primitive man is constructed not only from vague conjectures and hasty analogies but from his hopes and fears, and bears the impress of his emotional nature. When progress takes place some of his beliefs are confirmed, some disappear, and others are transformed: and the whole history of thought is a history of this gradual process of verification. We begin, it is said, by assuming: we proceed by verifying, and we only end by demonstrating. The process is comparatively simple in that part of knowledge which ultimately corresponds to the physical sciences. There must be a certain harmony between beliefs and realities in regard to knowledge of ordinary matters of fact, if only because such harmony is essential to the life of the race. Even an ape must distinguish poisonous from wholesome food. Beliefs as to physical facts require to be made articulate and distinct; but we have only to recognise as logical principles the laws of nature which we have unconsciously obeyed and illustrated—to formulate dynamics long after we have applied the science in throwing stones or using bows and arrows. But what corresponds to this in the case of the moral and religious beliefs? What is the process of verification? Men practically are satisfied with their creed so long as they are satisfied with the corresponding social order. The test of truth so suggested is obviously inadequate: for all great religions, however contradictory to each other, have been able to satisfy it for long periods. Particular doctrines might be tested by experiment. The efficacy of witchcraft might be investigated like the efficacy of vaccination. But faith can always make as many miracles as it wants: and errors which originate in the fancy cannot be at once extirpated by the reason. Their form may be changed but not their substance. To remove them requires not disproof of this or that fact, but an intellectual discipline which is rare even among the educated classes. A religious creed survives, as poetry or art survives,—not so long as it contains apparently true statements of fact but—so long as it is congenial to the whole social state. A philosophy indeed is a poetry stated in terms of logic. Considering the natural conservatism of mankind, the difficulty is to account for progress, not for the persistence of error. When the existing order ceases to be satisfactory; when conquest or commerce has welded nations together and brought conflicting creeds into cohesion; when industrial development has modified the old class relations; or when the governing classes have ceased to discharge their functions, new principles are demanded and new prophets arise. The philosopher may then become the mouthpiece of the new order, and innocently take himself to be its originator. His doctrines were fruitless so long as the soil was not prepared for the seed. A premature discovery if not stamped out by fire and sword is stifled by indifference. If Francis Bacon succeeded where Roger Bacon failed, the difference was due to the social conditions, not to the men. The cause of the great religious as well as of the great political revolutions must be sought mainly in the social history. New creeds spread when they satisfy the instincts or the passions roused to activity by other causes. The system has to be so far true as to be credible at the time; but its vitality depends upon its congeniality as a whole to the aspirations of the mass of mankind.

The purely intellectual movement no doubt represents the decisive factor. The love of truth in the abstract is probably the weakest of human passions; but truth when attained ultimately gives the fulcrum for a reconstruction of the world. When a solid core of ascertained and verifiable truth has once been formed and applied to practical results it becomes the fixed pivot upon which all beliefs must ultimately turn. The influence, however, is often obscure and still indirect. The more cultivated recognise the necessity of bringing their whole doctrine into conformity with the definitely organised and established system; and, at the present day, even the uneducated begin to have an inkling of possible results. Yet the desire for logical consistency is not one which presses forcibly upon the less cultivated intellects. They do not feel the necessity of unifying knowledge or bringing their various opinions into consistency and into harmony with facts. There are easy methods of avoiding any troublesome conflict of belief. The philosopher is ready to show them the way. He, like other people, has to start from postulates, and to see how they will work. When he meets with a difficulty it is perfectly legitimate that he should try how far the old formula can be applied to cover the new applications. He may be led to a process of 'rationalising' or 'spiritualising' which is dangerous to intellectual honesty. The vagueness of the general conceptions with which he is concerned facilitates the adaptation; and his words slide into new meanings by imperceptible gradations. His error is in taking a legitimate tentative process for a conclusive test; and inferring that opinions are confirmed because a non-natural interpretation can be forced upon them. This, however, is only the vicious application of the normal process through which new ideas are diffused or slowly infiltrate the old systems till the necessity of a thoroughgoing reconstruction forces itself upon our attention. Nor can it be denied that an opposite fallacy is equally possible, especially in times of revolutionary passion. The apparent irreconcilability of some new doctrine with the old may lead to the summary rejection of the implicit truth, together with the error involved in its imperfect recognition. Hence arises the necessity for faking into account not only a man's intellectual idiosyncrasies and the special intellectual horizon, but all the prepossessions due to his personal character, his social environment, and his consequent sympathies and antipathies. The philosopher has his passions like other men. He does not really live in the thin air of abstract speculation. On the contrary, he starts generally, and surely is right in starting, with keen interest in the great religious, ethical, and social problems of the time. He wishes—honestly and eagerly—to try them by the severest tests, and to hold fast only what is clearly valid. The desire to apply his principles in fact justifies his pursuit, and redeems him from the charge that he is delighting in barren intellectual subtleties. But to an outsider his procedure may appear in a different light. His real problem comes to be: how the conclusions which are agreeable to his emotions can be connected with the postulates which are congenial to his intellect? He may be absolutely honest and quite unconscious that his conclusions were prearranged by his sympathies. No philosophic creed of any importance has ever been constructed, we may well believe, without such sincerity and without such plausibility as results from its correspondence to at least some aspects of the truth. But the result is sufficiently shown by the perplexed controversies which arise. Men agree in their conclusions, though starting from opposite premises; or from the same premises reach the most diverging conclusions. The same code of practical morality, it is often said, is accepted by thinkers who deny each other's first principles; dogmatism often appears to its opponents to be thoroughgoing scepticism in disguise, and men establish victoriously results which turn out in the end to be really a stronghold for their antagonists.

Hence there is a distinction between such a history of a sect as I contemplate and a history of scientific inquiry or of pure philosophy. A history of mathematical or physical science would differ from a direct exposition of the science, but only in so far as it would state truths in the order of discovery, not in the order most convenient for displaying them as a system. It would show what were the processes by which they were originally found out, and how they have been afterwards annexed or absorbed in some wider generalisation. These facts might be stated without any reference to the history of the discoverers or of the society to which they belonged. They would indeed suggest very interesting topics to the general historian or 'sociologist.' He might be led to inquire under what conditions men came to inquire scientifically at all; why they ceased for centuries to care for science; why they took up special departments of investigation; and what was the effect of scientific discoveries upon social relations in general. But the two inquiries would be distinct for obvious reasons. If men study mathematics they can only come to one conclusion. They will find out the same propositions of geometry if they only think clearly enough and long enough, as certainly as Columbus would discover America if he only sailed far enough. America was there, and so in a sense are the propositions. We may therefore in this case entirely separate the two questions: what leads men to think? and what conclusions will they reach? The reasons which guided the first discoverers are just as valid now, though they can be more systematically stated. But in the 'moral sciences' this distinction is not equally possible. The intellectual and the social evolution are closely and intricately connected, and each reacts upon the other. In the last resort no doubt a definitive system of belief once elaborated would repose upon universally valid truths and determine, instead of being determined by, the corresponding social order. But in the concrete evolution which, we may hope, is approximating towards this result, the creeds current among mankind have been determined by the social conditions as well as helped to determine them. To give an account of that process it is necessary to specify the various circumstances which may lead to the survival of error, and to the partial views of truth taken by men of different idiosyncrasies working upon different data and moved by different passions and prepossessions. A history written upon these terms would show primarily what, as a fact, were the dominant beliefs during a given period, and state which survived, which disappeared, and which were transformed or engrafted upon other systems of thought. This would of course raise the question of the truth or falsehood of the doctrines as well as of their vitality: for the truth is at least one essential condition of permanent vitality. The difference would be that the problem would be approached from a different side. We should ask first what beliefs have flourished, and afterwards ask why they flourished, and how far their vitality was due to their partial or complete truth. To write such a history would perhaps require an impartiality which few people possess and which I do not venture to claim. I have my own opinions for which other people may account by prejudice, assumption, or downright incapacity. I am quite aware that I shall be implicitly criticising myself in criticising others. All that I can profess is that by taking the questions in this order, I shall hope to fix attention upon one set of considerations which are apt, as I fancy, to be unduly neglected. The result of reading some histories is to raise the question: how people on the other side came to be such unmitigated fools? Why were they imposed upon by such obvious fallacies? That may be answered by considering more fully the conditions under which the opinions were actually adopted, and one result may be to show that those opinions had a considerable element of truth, and were held by men who were the very opposite of fools. At any rate I shall do what I can to write an account of this phase of thought, so as to bring out what were its real tenets; to what intellectual type they were naturally congenial; what were the limitations of view which affected the Utilitarians' conception of the problems to be solved; and what were the passions and prepossessions due to the contemporary state of society and to their own class position, which to some degree unconsciously dictated their conclusions. So far as I can do this satisfactorily, I hope that I may throw some light upon the intrinsic value of the creed, and the place which it should occupy in a definitive system.


[1] Table-Talk, 3 July 1830.




The English Utilitarians represent one outcome of the speculations current in England during the later part of the eighteenth century. For the reasons just assigned I shall begin by briefly recalling some of the social conditions which set the problems for the coming generation and determined the mode of answering them. I must put the main facts in evidence, though they are even painfully familiar. The most obvious starting-point is given by the political situation. The supremacy of parliament had been definitively established by the revolution of 1688, and had been followed by the elaboration of the system of party government. The centre of gravity of the political world lay in the House of Commons. No minister could hold power unless he could command a majority in this house. Jealousy of the royal power, however, was still a ruling passion. The party line between Whig and Tory turned ostensibly upon this issue. The essential Whig doctrine is indicated by Dunning's famous resolution (6 April 1780) that 'the power of the crown had increased, was increasing, and ought to be diminished.' The resolution was in one sense an anachronism. As in many other cases, politicians seem to be elaborately slaying the slain and guarding against the attacks of extinct monsters. There was scarcely more probability under George III. than there is under Victoria that the king would try to raise taxes without consent of parliament. George III., however, desired to be more than a contrivance for fixing the great seal to official documents. He had good reason for thinking that the weakness of the executive was an evil. The king could gain power not by attacking the authority of parliament but by gaining influence within its walls. He might form a party of 'king's friends' able to hold the balance between the connections formed by the great families and so break up the system of party government. Burke's great speech (11 Feb. 1780) upon introducing his plan 'for the better security of the independence of parliament and the economical reformation of the civil and other establishments' explains the secret and reveals the state of things which for the next half century was to supply one main theme for the eloquence of reformers. The king had at his disposal a vast amount of patronage. There were relics of ancient institutions: the principality of Wales, the duchies of Lancaster and Cornwall, and the earldom of Chester; each with its revenue and establishment of superfluous officials. The royal household was a complex 'body corporate' founded in the old days of 'purveyance.' There was the mysterious 'Board of Green Cloth' formed by the great officers and supposed to have judicial as well as administrative functions. Cumbrous mediaeval machinery thus remained which had been formed in the time when the distinction between a public trust and private property was not definitely drawn or which had been allowed to remain for the sake of patronage, when its functions had been transferred to officials of more modern type. Reform was foiled, as Burke put it, because the turnspit in the king's kitchen was a member of parliament. Such sinecures and the pensions on the civil list or the Irish establishment provided the funds by which the king could build up a personal influence, which was yet occult, irresponsible, and corrupt. The measure passed by Burke in 1782[2] made a beginning in the removal of such abuses.

Meanwhile the Whigs were conveniently blind to another side of the question. If the king could buy, it was because there were plenty of people both able and willing to sell. Bubb Dodington, a typical example of the old system, had five or six seats at his disposal: subject only to the necessity of throwing a few pounds to the 'venal wretches' who went through the form of voting, and by dealing in what he calls this 'merchantable ware' he managed by lifelong efforts to wriggle into a peerage. The Dodingtons, that is, sold because they bought. The 'venal wretches' were the lucky franchise-holders in rotten boroughs. The 'Friends of the People'[3] in 1793 made the often-repeated statement that 154 individuals returned 307 members, that is, a majority of the house. In Cornwall, again, 21 boroughs with 453 electors controlled by about 15 individuals returned 42 members,[4] or, with the two county members, only one member less than Scotland; and the Scottish members were elected by close corporations in boroughs and by the great families in counties. No wonder if the House of Commons seemed at times to be little more than an exchange for the traffic between the proprietors of votes and the proprietors of offices and pensions.

The demand for the reforms advocated by Burke and Dunning was due to the catastrophe of the American War. The scandal caused by the famous coalition of 1783 showed that a diminution of the royal influence might only make room for selfish bargains among the proprietors of parliamentary influence. The demand for reform was taken up by Pitt. His plan was significant. He proposed to disfranchise a few rotten boroughs; but to soften this measure he afterwards suggested that a million should be set aside to buy such boroughs as should voluntarily apply for disfranchisement. The seats obtained were to be mainly added to county representation; but the franchise was to be extended so as to add about 99,000 voters in boroughs, and additional seats were to be given to London and Westminster and to Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, and Sheffield. The Yorkshire reformers, who led the movement, were satisfied with this modest scheme. The borough proprietors were obviously too strong to be directly attacked, though they might be induced to sell some of their power.

Here was a mass of anomalies, sufficient to supply topics of denunciation for two generations of reformers, and, in time, to excite fears of violent revolution. Without undertaking the easy task of denouncing exploded systems, we may ask what state of mind they implied. Our ancestors were perfectly convinced that their political system was of almost unrivalled excellence: they held that they were freemen entitled to look down upon foreigners as the slaves of despots. Nor can we say that their satisfaction was without solid grounds. The boasting about English freedom implied some misunderstanding. But it was at least the boast of a vigorous race. Not only were there individuals capable of patriotism and public spirit, but the body politic was capable of continuous energy. During the eighteenth century the British empire spread round the world. Under Chatham it had been finally decided that the English race should be the dominant element in the new world; if the political connection had been severed by the bungling of his successors, the unbroken spirit of the nation had still been shown in the struggle against France, Spain, and the revolted colonies; and whatever may be thought of the motives which produced the great revolutionary wars, no one can deny the qualities of indomitable self-reliance and high courage to the men who led the country through the twenty years of struggle against France, and for a time against France with the continent at its feet. If moralists or political theorists find much to condemn in the ends to which British policy was directed, they must admit that the qualities displayed were not such as can belong to a simply corrupt and mean-spirited government.

One obvious remark is that, on the whole, the system was a very good one—as systems go. It allowed free play to the effective political forces. Down to the revolutionary period, the nation as a whole was contented with its institutions. The political machinery provided a sufficient channel for the really efficient force of public opinion. There was as yet no large class which at once had political aspirations and was unable to gain a hearing. England was still in the main an agricultural country: and the agricultural labourer was fairly prosperous till the end of the century, while his ignorance and isolation made him indifferent to politics. There might be a bad squire or parson, as there might be a bad season; but squire and parson were as much parts of the natural order of things as the weather. The farmer or yeoman was not much less stolid; and his politics meant at most a choice between allegiance to one or other of the county families. If in the towns which were rapidly developing there was growing up a discontented population, its discontent was not yet directed into political channels. An extended franchise meant a larger expenditure on beer, not the readier acceptance of popular aspirations. To possess a vote was to have a claim to an occasional bonus rather than a right to influence legislation. Practically, therefore, parliament might be taken to represent what might be called 'public opinion,' for anything that deserved to be called public opinion was limited to the opinions of the gentry and the more intelligent part of the middle classes. There was no want of complaints of corruption, proposals to exclude placemen from parliament and the like; and in the days of Wilkes, Chatham, and Junius, when the first symptoms of democratic activity began to affect the political movement, the discontent made itself audible and alarming. But a main characteristic of the English reformers was the constant appeal to precedent, even in their most excited moods. They do not mention the rights of man; they invoke the 'revolution principles' of 1688; they insist upon the 'Bill of Rights' or Magna Charta. When keenly roused they recall the fate of Charles I.; and their favourite toast is the cause for which Hampden died on the field and Sidney on the scaffold. They believe in the jury as the 'palladium of our liberties'; and are convinced that the British Constitution represents an unsurpassable though unfortunately an ideal order of things, which must have existed at some indefinite period. Chatham in one of his most famous speeches, appeals, for example, to the 'iron barons' who resisted King John, and contrasts them with the silken courtiers which now compete for place and pensions. The political reformers of the time, like religious reformers in most times, conceive of themselves only as demanding the restoration of the system to its original purity, not as demanding its abrogation. In other words, they propose to remedy abuses but do not as yet even contemplate a really revolutionary change. Wilkes was not a 'Wilkite,' nor was any of his party, if Wilkite meant anything like Jacobin.


[2] 22 George III. c. 82.

[3] Parl. Hist. xxx. 787.

[4] State Trials, xxiv. 382.


Thus, however anomalous the constitution of parliament, there was no thought of any far-reaching revolution. The great mass of the population was too ignorant, too scattered and too poor to have any real political opinions. So long as certain prejudices were not aroused, it was content to leave the management of the state to the dominant class, which alone was intelligent enough to take an interest in public affairs and strong enough to make its interest felt. This class consisted in the first place of the great landed interest. When Lord North opposed Pitt's reform in 1785 he said[5] that the Constitution was 'the work of infinite wisdom ... the most beautiful fabric that had ever existed since the beginning of time.' He added that 'the bulk and weight' of the house ought to be in 'the hands of the country-gentlemen, the best and most respectable objects of the confidence of the people,' The speech, though intended to please an audience of country-gentlemen, represented a genuine belief.[6] The country-gentlemen formed the class to which not only the constitutional laws but the prevailing sentiment of the country gave the lead in politics as in the whole social system. Even reformers proposed to improve the House of Commons chiefly by increasing the number of county-members, and a county-member was almost necessarily a country-gentleman of an exalted kind. Although the country-gentleman was very far from having all things his own way, his ideals and prejudices were in a great degree the mould to which the other politically important class conformed. There was indeed a growing jealousy between the landholders and the 'monied-men.' Bolingbroke had expressed this distrust at an earlier part of the century. But the true representative of the period was his successful rival, Walpole, a thorough country-gentleman who had learned to understand the mysteries of finance and acquired the confidence of the city. The great merchants of London and the rising manufacturers in the country were rapidly growing in wealth and influence. The monied-men represented the most active, energetic, and growing part of the body politic. Their interests determined the direction of the national policy. The great wars of the century were undertaken in the interests of British trade. The extension of the empire in India was carried on through a great commercial company. The growth of commerce supported the sea-power which was the main factor in the development of the empire. The new industrial organisation which was arising was in later years to represent a class distinctly opposed to the old aristocratic order. At present it was in a comparatively subordinate position. The squire was interested in the land and the church; the merchant thought more of commerce and was apt to be a dissenter. But the merchant, in spite of some little jealousies, admitted the claims of the country-gentleman to be his social superior and political leader. His highest ambition was to be himself admitted to the class or to secure the admission of his family. As he became rich he bought a solid mansion at Clapham or Wimbledon, and, if he made a fortune, might become lord of manors in the country. He could not as yet aspire to become himself a peer, but he might be the ancestor of peers. The son of Josiah Child, the great merchant of the seventeenth century, became Earl Tylney, and built at Wanstead one of the noblest mansions in England. His contemporary Sir Francis Child, Lord Mayor, and a founder of the Bank of England, built Osterley House, and was ancestor of the earls of Jersey and Westmoreland. The daughter of Sir John Barnard, the typical merchant of Walpole's time, married the second Lord Palmerston. Beckford, the famous Lord Mayor of Chatham's day, was father of the author of Vathek, who married an earl's daughter and became the father of a duchess. The Barings, descendants of a German pastor, settled in England early in the century and became country-gentlemen, baronets, and peers. Cobbett, who saw them rise, reviled the stockjobbers who were buying out the old families. But the process had begun long before his days, and meant that the heads of the new industrial system were being absorbed into the class of territorial magnates. That class represented the framework upon which both political and social power was moulded.

This implies an essential characteristic of the time. A familiar topic of the admirers of the British Constitution was the absence of the sharp lines of demarcation between classes and of the exclusive aristocratic privileges which, in France, provoked the revolution. In England the ruling class was not a 'survival': it had not retained privileges without discharging corresponding functions. The essence of 'self-government,' says its most learned commentator,[7] is the organic connection 'between State and society.' On the Continent, that is, powers were intrusted to a centralised administrative and judicial hierarchy, which in England were left to the class independently strong by its social position. The landholder was powerful as a product of the whole system of industrial and agricultural development; and he was bound in return to perform arduous and complicated duties. How far he performed them well is another question. At least, he did whatever was done in the way of governing, and therefore did not sink into a mere excrescence or superfluity. I must try to point out certain results which had a material effect upon English opinion in general and, in particular, upon the Utilitarians.


[5] Parl. Hist. xxv. 472.

[6] The country-gentlemen, said Wilberforce in 1800, are the 'very nerves and ligatures of the body politic.'—Correspondence, i. 219.

[7] Gneist's Self-Government (3rd edition, 1871), p. 879.


The country-gentlemen formed the bulk of the law-making body, and the laws gave the first point of assault of the Utilitarian movement. One explanation is suggested by a phrase attributed to Sir Josiah Child.[8] The laws, he said, were a heap of nonsense, compiled by a few ignorant country-gentlemen, who hardly knew how to make good laws for the government of their own families, much less for the regulation of companies and foreign commerce. He meant that the parliamentary legislation of the century was the work of amateurs, not of specialists; of an assembly of men more interested in immediate questions of policy or personal intrigue than in general principles, and not of such a centralised body as would set a value upon symmetry and scientific precision. The country-gentleman had strong prejudices and enough common sense to recognise his own ignorance. The product of a traditional order, he clung to traditions, and regarded the old maxims as sacred because no obvious reason could be assigned for them. He was suspicious of abstract theories, and it did not even occur to him that any such process as codification or radical alteration of the laws was conceivable. For the law itself he had the profound veneration which is expressed by Blackstone. It represented the 'wisdom of our ancestors'; the system of first principles, on which the whole order of things reposed, and which must be regarded as an embodiment of right reason. The common law was a tradition, not made by express legislation, but somehow existing apart from any definite embodiment, and revealed to certain learned hierophants. Any changes, required by the growth of new social conditions, had to be made under pretence of applying the old rules supposed to be already in existence. Thus grew up the system of 'judge-made law,' which was to become a special object of the denunciations of Bentham. Child had noticed the incompetence of the country-gentlemen to understand the regulation of commercial affairs. The gap was being filled up, without express legislation, by judicial interpretations of Mansfield and his fellows. This, indeed, marks a characteristic of the whole system. 'Our constitution,' says Professor Dicey,[9] 'is a judge-made constitution, and it bears on its face all the features, good and bad, of judge-made law.' The law of landed property, meanwhile, was of vital and immediate interest to the country-gentleman. But, feeling his own incompetence, he had called in the aid of the expert. The law had been developed in mediaeval times, and bore in all its details the marks of the long series of struggles between king and nobles and parliaments. One result had been the elaborate series of legal fictions worked out in the conflict between private interests and public policy, by which lawyers had been able to adapt the rules fitted for an ancient state of society to another in which the very fundamental conceptions were altered. A mysterious system had thus grown up, which deterred any but the most resolute students. Of Fearne's essay upon 'Contingent remainders'(published in 1772) it was said that no work 'in any branch of science could afford a more beautiful instance of analysis.' Fearne had shown the acuteness of 'a Newton or a Pascal.' Other critics dispute this proposition; but in any case the law was so perplexing that it could only be fully understood by one who united antiquarian knowledge to the subtlety of a great logician. The 'vast and intricate machine,' as Blackstone calls it, 'of a voluminous family settlement' required for its explanation the dialectical skill of an accomplished schoolman. The poor country-gentleman could not understand the terms on which he held his own estate without calling in an expert equal to such a task. The man who has acquired skill so essential to his employer's interests is not likely to undervalue it or to be over anxious to simplify the labyrinth in which he shone as a competent guide.

The lawyers who played so important a part by their familiarity with the mysteries of commercial law and landed property, naturally enjoyed the respect of their clients, and were rewarded by adoption into the class. The English barrister aspired to success by himself taking part in politics and legislation. The only path to the highest positions really open to a man of ability, not connected by blood with the great families, was the path which led to the woolsack or to the judge's bench. A great merchant might be the father or father-in-law of peers; a successful soldier or sailor might himself become a peer, but generally he began life as a member of the ruling classes, and his promotion was affected by parliamentary influence. But a successful lawyer might fight his way from a humble position to the House of Lords. Thurlow, son of a country-gentleman; Dunning, son of a country attorney; Ellenborough, son of a bishop and descendant of a long line of North-country 'statesmen'; Kenyon, son of a farmer; Eldon, son of a Newcastle coal merchant, represent the average career of a successful barrister. Some of them rose to be men of political importance, and Thurlow and Eldon had the advantage of keeping George III's conscience—an unruly faculty which had an unfortunately strong influence upon affairs. The leaders of the legal profession, therefore, and those who hoped to be leaders, shared the prejudices, took a part in the struggles, and were rewarded by the honours of the dominant class.

The criminal law became a main topic of reformers. There, as elsewhere, we have a striking example of traditional modes of thought surviving with singular persistence. The rough classification of crimes into felony and misdemeanour, and the strange technical rules about 'benefit of clergy' dating back to the struggles of Henry II. and Becket, remained like ultimate categories of thought. When the growth of social conditions led to new temptations or the appearance of a new criminal class, and particular varieties of crime became conspicuous, the only remedy was to declare that some offence should be 'felony without benefit of clergy,' and therefore punishable by death. By unsystematic and spasmodic legislation the criminal law became so savage as to shock every man of common humanity. It was tempered by the growth of technical rules, which gave many chances of escape to the criminal; and by practical revolt against its excesses, which led to the remission of the great majority of capital sentences.[10] The legislators were clumsy, not intentionally cruel; and the laws, though sanguinary in reality, were more sanguinary in theory than in practice. Nothing, on the other hand, is more conspicuous than the spirit of fair play to the criminal, which struck foreign observers.[11] It was deeply rooted in the whole system. The English judge was not an official agent of an inquisitorial system, but an impartial arbitrator between the prisoner and the prosecutor. In political cases especially a marked change was brought about by the revolution of 1688. If our ancestors talked some nonsense about trial by jury, the system certainly insured that the persons accused of libel or sedition should have a fair trial, and very often something more. Judges of the Jeffreys type had become inconceivable, though impartiality might disappear in cases where the prejudices of juries were actively aroused. Englishmen might fairly boast of their immunity from the arbitrary methods of continental rulers; and their unhesitating confidence in the fairness of the system became so ingrained as to be taken as a matter of course, and scarcely received due credit from later critics of the system.

The country-gentleman, again, was not only the legislator but a most important figure in the judicial and administrative system. As justice of the peace, he was the representative of law and order to his country neighbours. The preface of 1785 to the fifteenth edition of Burn's Justice of the Peace, published originally in 1755, mentions that in the interval between these dates, some three hundred statutes had been passed affecting the duties of justices, while half as many had been repealed or modified. The justice was of course, as a rule, a superficial lawyer, and had to be prompted by his clerk, the two representing on a small scale the general relation between the lawyers and the ruling class. Burn tells the justice for his comfort that the judges will take a lenient view of any errors into which his ignorance may have led him. The discharge of such duties by an independent gentleman was thought to be so desirable and so creditable to him that his want of efficiency must be regarded with consideration. Nor, though the justices have been a favourite butt for satirists, does it appear that the system worked badly. When it became necessary to appoint paid magistrates in London, and the pay, according to the prevalent system, was provided by fees, the new officials became known as 'trading justices,' and their salaries, as Fielding tells us, were some of the 'dirtiest money upon earth.' The justices might perhaps be hard upon a poacher (as, indeed, the game laws became one of the great scandals of the system), or liable to be misled by a shrewd attorney; but they were on the whole regarded as the natural and creditable representatives of legal authority in the country.

The justices, again, discharged functions which would elsewhere belong to an administrative hierarchy, Gneist observes that the power of the justices of the peace represents the centre of gravity of the whole administrative system.[12] Their duties had become so multifarious and perplexed that Burn could only arrange them under alphabetical heads. Gneist works out a systematic account, filling many pages of elaborate detail, and showing how large a part they played in the whole social structure. An intense jealousy of central power was one correlative characteristic. Blackstone remarks in his more liberal humour that the number of new offices held at pleasure had greatly extended the influence of the crown. This refers to the custom-house officers, excise officers, stamp distributors and postmasters. But if the tax-gatherer represented the state, he represented also part of the patronage at the disposal of politicians. A voter was often in search of the place of a 'tidewaiter'; and, as we know, the greatest poet of the day could only be rewarded by making him an exciseman. Any extension of a system which multiplied public offices was regarded with suspicion. Walpole, the strongest minister of the century, had been forced to an ignominious retreat when he proposed to extend the excise. The cry arose that he meant to enslave the country and extend the influence of the crown over all the corporations in England. The country-gentleman had little reason to fear that government would diminish his importance by tampering with his functions. The justices of the peace were called upon to take a great and increasing share in the administration of the poor-law. They were concerned in all manner of financial details; they regulated such police as existed; they looked after the old laws by which the trades were still restricted; and, in theory at least, could fix the rate of wages. Parliament did not override, but only gave the necessary sanction to their activity. If we looked through the journals of the House of Commons during the American War, for example, we should get the impression that the whole business of the legislature was to arrange administrative details. If a waste was to be enclosed, a canal or a highroad to be constructed, there was no public department to be consulted. The gentry of the neighbourhood joined to obtain a private act of parliament which gave the necessary powers to the persons interested. No general enclosure act could be passed, though often suggested. It would imply a central commission, which would only, as was suggested, give rise to jobbery and take power out of the natural hands. Parliament was omnipotent; it could regulate the affairs of the empire or of a parish; alter the most essential laws or act as a court of justice; settle the crown or arrange for a divorce or for the alteration of a private estate. But it objected to delegate authority even to a subordinate body, which might tend to become independent. Thus, if it was the central power and source of all legal authority, it might also be regarded as a kind of federal league, representing the wills of a number of partially independent persons. The gentry could meet there and obtain the sanction of their allies for any measure required in their own little sphere of influence. But they had an instinctive aversion to the formation of any organised body representing the state. The neighbourhood which wanted a road got powers to make it, and would concur in giving powers to others. But if the state were to be intrusted to make roads, ministers would have more places to give, and roads might be made which they did not want. The English roads had long been infamous, but neither was money wasted, as in France, on roads where there was no traffic.[13] Thus we have the combination of an absolute centralisation of legislative power with an utter absence of administrative centralisation. The units meeting in parliament formed a supreme assembly; but they did not sink their own individuality. They only met to distribute the various functions among themselves.

The English parish with its squire, its parson, its lawyer and its labouring population was a miniature of the British Constitution in general. The squire's eldest son could succeed to his position; a second son might become a general or an admiral; a third would take the family living; a fourth, perhaps, seek his fortune at the bar. This implies a conception of other political conditions which curiously illustrate some contemporary conceptions.


[8] See Dictionary of National Biography.

[9] The Law of the Constitution, p. 209.

[10] See Sir J. F. Stephen's History of the Criminal Law (1883), i. 470. He quotes Blackstone's famous statement that there were 160 felonies without benefit of clergy, and shows that this gives a very uncertain measure of the severity of the law. A single act making larceny in general punishable by death would be more severe than fifty separate acts, making fifty different varieties of larceny punishable by death. He adds, however, that the scheme of punishment was 'severe to the highest degree, and destitute of every sort of principle or system.' The number of executions in the early part of this century varied apparently from a fifth to a ninth of the capital sentences passed. See Table in Porter's Progress of the Nation (1851), p. 635.

[11] See the references to Cottu's report of 1822 in Stephen's History, i. 429, 439, 451. Cottu's book was translated by Blanco White.

[12] Gneist's Self-Government (1871), p. 194. It is characteristic that J. S. Mill, in his Representative Government, remarks that the 'Quarter Sessions' are formed in the 'most anomalous' way; that they represent the old feudal principle, and are at variance with the fundamental principles of representative government (Rep. Gov. (1867), p. 113). The mainspring of the old system had become a simple anomaly to the new radicalism.

[13] See Arthur Young, passim. There was, however, an improvement even in the first half of the century. See Cunningham's Growth of English Industry, etc. (Modern Times), p. 378.


We are often amused by the persistency of the cry against a 'standing army' in England. It did not fairly die out until the revolutionary wars. Blackstone regards it as a singularly fortunate circumstance 'that any branch of the legislature might annually put an end to the legal existence of the army by refusing to concur in the continuance' of the mutiny act. A standing army was obviously necessary; but by making believe very hard, we could shut our eyes to the facts, and pretend that it was a merely temporary arrangement.[14] The doctrine had once had a very intelligible meaning. If James II. had possessed a disciplined army of the continental pattern, with Marlborough at its head, Marlborough would hardly have been converted by the prince of Orange. But loyal as the gentry had been at the restoration, they had taken very good care that the Stuarts should not have in their hand such a weapon as had been possessed by Cromwell. When the Puritan army was disbanded, they had proceeded to regulate the militia. The officers were appointed by the lords-lieutenants of counties, and had to possess a property qualification; the men raised by ballot in their own districts; and their numbers and length of training regulated by Act of Parliament. The old 'train-bands' were suppressed, except in the city of London, and thus the recognised military force of the country was a body essentially dependent upon the country gentry. The militia was regarded with favour as the 'old constitutional force' which could not be used to threaten our liberties. It was remodelled during the Seven Years' War and embodied during that and all our later wars. It was, however, ineffective by its very nature. An aristocracy which chose to carry on wars must have a professional army in fact, however careful it might be to pretend that it was a provision for a passing necessity. The pretence had serious consequences. Since the army was not to have interests separate from the people, there was no reason for building barracks. The men might be billeted on publicans, or placed under canvas, while they were wanted. When the great war came upon us, large sums had to be spent to make up for the previous neglect. Fox, on 22nd February 1793, protested during a lively debate upon this subject that sound constitutional principles condemned barracks, because to mix the army with the people was the 'best security against the danger of a standing army.'[15]

In fact a large part of the army was a mere temporary force. In 1762, towards the end of the Seven Years' War, we had about 100,000 men in pay; and after the peace, the force was reduced to under 20,000. Similar changes took place in every war. The ruling class took advantage of the position. An army might be hired from Germany for the occasion. New regiments were generally raised by some great man who gave commissions to his own relations and dependants. When the Pretender was in Scotland, for example, fifteen regiments were raised by patriotic nobles, who gave the commissions, and stipulated that although they were to be employed only in suppressing the rising, the officers should have permanent rank.[16] So, as was shown in Mrs. Clarke's case, a patent for raising a regiment might be a source of profit to the undertaker, who again might get it by bribing the mistress of a royal duke. The officers had, according to the generally prevalent system, a modified property in their commissions; and the system of sale was not abolished till our own days. We may therefore say that the ruling class, on the one hand, objected to a standing army, and, on the other, since such an army was a necessity, farmed it from the country and were admitted to have a certain degree of private property in the concern. The prejudice against any permanent establishment made it necessary to fill the ranks on occasion by all manner of questionable expedients. Bounties were offered to attract the vagrants who hung loose upon society. Smugglers, poachers, and the like were allowed to choose between military service and transportation. The general effect was to provide an army of blackguards commanded by gentlemen. The army no doubt had its merits as well as its defects. The continental armies which it met were collected by equally demoralising methods until the French revolution led to a systematic conscription. The bad side is suggested by Napier's famous phrase, the 'cold shade of our aristocracy'; while Napier gives facts enough to prove both the brutality too often shown by the private soldier and the dogged courage which is taken to be characteristic even of the English blackguard. By others,—by such men as the duke of Wellington and Lord Palmerston, for example, types of the true aristocrat—the system was defended[17] as bringing men of good family into the army and so providing it, as the duke thought, with the best set of officers in Europe. No doubt they and the royal dukes who commanded them were apt to be grossly ignorant of their business; but it may be admitted by a historian that they often showed the qualities of which Wellington was himself a type. The English officer was a gentleman before he was a soldier, and considered the military virtues to be a part of his natural endowment. But it was undoubtedly a part of his traditional code of honour to do his duty manfully and to do it rather as a manifestation of his own spirit than from any desire for rewards or decorations. The same quality is represented more strikingly by the navy. The English admiral represents the most attractive and stirring type of heroism in our history. Nelson and the 'band of brothers' who served with him, the simple and high-minded sailors who summed up the whole duty of man in doing their best to crush the enemies of their country, are among the finest examples of single-souled devotion to the calls of patriotism. The navy, indeed, had its ugly side no less than the army. There was corruption at Greenwich[18] and in the dockyards, and parliamentary intrigue was a road to professional success. Voltaire notes the queer contrast between the English boast of personal liberty and the practice of filling up the crews by pressgangs. The discipline was often barbarous, and the wrongs of the common sailor found sufficient expression in the mutiny at the Nore. A grievance, however, which pressed upon a single class was maintained from the necessity of the case and the inertness of the administrative system. The navy did not excite the same jealousy as the army; and the officers were more professionally skilful than their brethren. The national qualities come out, often in their highest form, in the race of great seamen upon whom the security of the island power essentially depended.


[14] See Military Forces of the Crown, by Charles M. Clode (1869), for a full account of the facts.

[15] Parl. Hist. xxx. 490. Clode states (i. 222) that L9,000,000 was spent upon barracks by 1804, and, it seems, without proper authority.

[16] Debate in Parl. Hist. xiii. 1382, etc., and see Walpole's Correspondence, i. 400, for some characteristic comments.

[17] Clode, ii. 86.

[18] See the famous case in 1778 in which Erskine made his first appearance, in State Trials, xxi. Lord St. Vincent's struggle against the corruption of his time is described by Prof. Laughton in the Dictionary of National Biography, (s.v. Sir John Jervis). In 1801 half a million a year was stolen, besides all the waste due to corruption and general muddling.


I turn, however, to the profession which was more directly connected with the intellectual development of the country. The nature of the church establishment gives the most obvious illustration of the connection between the intellectual position on the one hand and the social and political order on the other, though I do not presume to decide how far either should be regarded as effect and the other as cause.

What is the church of England? Some people apparently believe that it is a body possessing and transmitting certain supernatural powers. This view was in abeyance for the time for excellent reasons, and, true or false, is no answer to the constitutional question. It does not enable us to define what was the actual body with which lawyers and politicians have to deal. The best answer to such questions in ordinary case would be given by describing the organisation of the body concerned. We could then say what is the authority which speaks in its name; and what is the legislature which makes its laws, alters its arrangements, and defines the terms of membership. The supreme legislature of the church of England might appear to be parliament. It is the Act of Uniformity which defines the profession of belief exacted from the clergy; and no alteration could be made in regard to the rights and duties of the clergy except by parliamentary authority. The church might therefore be regarded as simply the religious department of the state. Since 1688, however, the theory and the practice of toleration had introduced difficulties. Nonconformity was not by itself punishable though it exposed a man to certain disqualifications. The state, therefore, recognised that many of its members might legally belong to other churches, although it had, as Warburton argued, formed an 'alliance' with the dominant church. The spirit of toleration was spreading throughout the century. The old penal laws, due to the struggles of the seventeenth century, were becoming obsolete in practice and were gradually being repealed. The Gordon riots of 1780 showed that a fanatical spirit might still be aroused in a mob which wanted an excuse for plunder; but the laws were not explicitly defended by reasonable persons and were being gradually removed by legislation towards the end of the century. Although, therefore, parliament was kept free from papists, it could hardly regard church and state as identical, or consider itself as entitled to act as the representative body of the church. No other body, indeed, could change the laws of the church; but parliament recognised its own incompetence to deal with them. Towards the end of the century, various attempts were made to relax the terms of subscription. It was proposed, for example, to substitute a profession of belief in the Bible for a subscription to the Thirty-Nine Articles. But the House of Commons sensibly refused to expose itself by venturing upon any theological innovations. A body more ludicrously incompetent could hardly have been invented.

Hence we must say that the church had either no supreme body which could speak in its name and modify its creed, its ritual, its discipline, or the details of its organisation; or else, that the only body which had in theory a right to interfere was doomed, by sufficient considerations, to absolute inaction. The church, from a secular point of view, was not so much a department of the state as an aggregate of offices, the functions of which were prescribed by unalterable tradition. It consisted of a number of bishops, deans and chapters, rectors, vicars, curates, and so forth, many of whom had certain proprietary rights in their position, and who were bound by law to discharge certain functions. But the church, considered as a whole, could hardly be called an organism at all, or, if an organism, it was an organism with its central organ in a permanent state of paralysis. The church, again, in this state was essentially dependent upon the ruling classes. A glance at the position of the clergy shows their professional position. At their head were the bishops, some of them enjoying princely revenues, while others were so poor as to require that their incomes should be eked out by deaneries or livings held in commendam. The great sees, such as Canterbury, Durham, Ely, and Winchester, were valued at between, L20,000 and L30,000 a year; while the smaller, Llandaff, Bangor, Bristol, and Gloucester, were worth less than L2000. The bishops had patronage which enabled them to provide for relatives or for deserving clergymen. The average incomes of the parochial clergy, meanwhile, were small. In 1809 they were calculated to be worth L255, while nearly four thousand livings were worth under L150; and there were four or five thousand curates with very small pay. The profession, therefore, offered a great many blanks with a few enormous prizes. How were those prizes generally obtained? When the reformers published the Black Book in 1820, they gave a list of the bishops holding sees in the last year of George III.; and, as most of these gentlemen were on their promotion at the end of the previous century. I give the list in a note.[19]

There were twenty-seven bishoprics including Sodor and Man. Of these eleven were held by members of noble families; fourteen were held by men who had been tutors in, or in other ways personally connected with the royal family or the families of ministers and great men; and of the remaining two, one rested his claim upon political writing in defence of Pitt, while the other seems to have had the support of a great city company. The system of translation enabled the government to keep a hand upon the bishops. Their elevation to the more valuable places or leave to hold subsidiary preferments depended upon their votes in the House of Lords. So far, then, as secular motives operated, the tendency of the system was clear. If Providence had assigned to you a duke for a father or an uncle, preferment would fall to you as of right. A man of rank who takes orders should be rewarded for his condescension. If that qualification be not secured, you should aim at being tutor in a great family, accompany a lad on the grand tour, or write some pamphlet on a great man's behalf. Paley gained credit for independence at Cambridge, and spoke with contempt of the practice of 'rooting,' the cant phrase for patronage hunting. The text which he facetiously suggested for a sermon when Pitt visited Cambridge, 'There is a young man here who has six loaves and two fishes, but what are they among so many?' hit off the spirit in which a minister was regarded at the universities. The memoirs of Bishop Watson illustrate the same sentiment. He lived in his pleasant country house at Windermere, never visiting his diocese, and according to De Quincey, talking Socinianism at his table. He felt himself to be a deeply injured man, because ministers had never found an opportunity for translating him to a richer diocese, although he had written against Paine and Gibbon. If they would not reward their friends, he argued, why should he take up their cause by defending Christianity?

The bishops were eminently respectable. They did not lead immoral lives, and if they gave a large share of preferment to their families, that at least was a domestic virtue. Some of them, Bishop Barrington of Durham, for example, took a lead in philanthropic movements; and, if considered simply as prosperous country-gentlemen, little fault could be found with them. While, however, every commonplace motive pointed so directly towards a career of subserviency to the ruling class among the laity, it could not be expected that they should take a lofty view of their profession. The Anglican clergy were not like the Irish priesthood, in close sympathy with the peasantry, or like the Scottish ministers, the organs of strong convictions spreading through the great mass of the middle and lower classes. A man of energy, who took his faith seriously, was, like the Evangelical clergy, out of the road to preferment, or, like Wesley, might find no room within the church at all. His colleagues called him an 'enthusiast,' and disliked him as a busybody if not a fanatic. They were by birth and adoption themselves members of the ruling class; many of them were the younger sons of squires, and held their livings in virtue of their birth. Advowsons are the last offices to retain a proprietary character. The church of that day owed such a representative as Horne Tooke to the system which enabled his father to provide for him by buying a living. From the highest to the lowest ranks of clergy, the church was as Matthew Arnold could still call it, an 'appendage of the barbarians.' The clergy, that is, as a whole, were an integral but a subsidiary part of the aristocracy or the great landed interest. Their admirers urged that the system planted a cultivated gentleman in every parish in the country. Their opponents replied, like John Sterling, that he was a 'black dragoon with horse meat and man's meat'—part of the garrison distributed through the country to support the cause of property and order. In any case the instinctive prepossessions, the tastes and favourite pursuits of the profession were essentially those of the class with which it was so intimately connected. Arthur Young,[20] speaking of the French clergy, observes that at least they are not poachers and foxhunters, who divide their time between hunting, drinking, and preaching. You do not in France find such advertisements as he had heard of in England, 'Wanted a curacy in a good sporting country, where the duty is light and the neighbourhood convivial.' The proper exercise for a country clergyman, he rather quaintly observes, is agriculture. The ideal parson, that is, should be a squire in canonical dress. The clergy of the eighteenth century probably varied between the extremes represented by Trulliber and the Vicar of Wakefield. Many of them were excellent people, with a mild taste for literature, contributing to the Gentleman's Magazine, investigating the antiquities of their county, occasionally confuting a deist, exerting a sound judgment in cultivating their glebes or improving the breed of cattle, and respected both by squire and farmers. The 'Squarson,' in Sydney Smith's facetious phrase, was the ideal clergyman. The purely sacerdotal qualities, good or bad, were at a minimum. Crabbe, himself a type of the class, has left admirable portraits of his fellows. Profound veneration for his noble patrons and hearty dislike for intrusive dissenters were combined in his own case with a pure domestic life, a keen insight into the uglier realities of country life and a good sound working morality. Miss Austen, who said that she could have been Crabbe's wife, has given more delicate pictures of the clergyman as he appeared at the tea-tables of the time. He varies according to her from the squire's excellent younger brother, who is simply a squire in a white neck-cloth, to the silly but still respectable sycophant, who firmly believes his lady patroness to be a kind of local deity. Many of the real memoirs of the day give pleasant examples of the quiet and amiable lives of the less ambitious clergy. There is the charming Gilbert White (1720-1793) placidly studying the ways of tortoises, and unconsciously composing a book which breathes an undying charm from its atmosphere of peaceful repose; William Gilpin (1724-1804) founding and endowing parish schools, teaching the catechism, and describing his vacation tours in narratives which helped to spread a love of natural scenery; and Thomas Gisborne (1758-1846), squire and clergyman, a famous preacher among the evangelicals and a poet after the fashion of Cowper, who loved his native Needwood Forest as White loved Selborne and Gilpin loved the woods of Boldre; and Cowper himself (1731-1800) who, though not a clergyman, lived in a clerical atmosphere, and whose gentle and playful enjoyment of quiet country life relieves the painfully deep pathos of his disordered imagination; and the excellent W. L. Bowles (1762-1850), whose sonnets first woke Coleridge's imagination, who spent eighty-eight years in an amiable and blameless life, and was country-gentleman, magistrate, antiquary, clergyman, and poet.[21] Such names are enough to recall a type which has not quite vanished, and which has gathered a new charm in more stirring and fretful times. These most excellent people, however, were not likely to be prominent in movements destined to break up the placid environment of their lives nor, in truth, to be sources of any great intellectual stir.


[19] The list, checked from other sources of information, is as follows:—Manners Sutton, archbishop of Canterbury, was grandson of the third duke of Rutland; Edward Vernon, archbishop of York, was son of the first Lord Vernon and cousin of the third Lord Harcourt, whose estates he inherited; Shute Barrington, bishop of Durham, was son of the first and brother of the second Viscount Barrington; Brownlow North, bishop of Winchester, was uncle to the earl of Guildford; James Cornwallis, bishop of Lichfield, was uncle to the second marquis, whose peerage he inherited; George Pelham, bishop of Exeter, was brother of the earl of Chichester; Henry Bathurst, bishop of Norwich, was nephew of the first earl; George Henry Law, bishop of Chester, was brother of the first Lord Ellenborough; Edward Legge, bishop of Oxford, was son of the second earl of Dartmouth; Henry Ryder, bishop of Gloucester, was brother to the earl of Harrowby; George Murray, bishop of Sodor and Man, was nephew-in-law to the duke of Athol and brother-in-law to the earl of Kinnoul. Of the fourteen tutors, etc., mentioned above, William Howley, bishop of London, had been tutor to the prince of Orange at Oxford; George Pretyman Tomline, bishop of Lincoln, had been Pitt's tutor at Cambridge; Richard Beadon, bishop of Bath and Wells, had been tutor to the duke of Gloucester at Cambridge; Folliott Cornewall, bishop of Worcester, had been made chaplain to the House of Commons by the influence of his cousin, the Speaker; John Buckner, bishop of Chichester, had been tutor to the duke of Richmond; Henry William Majendie, bishop of Bangor, was the son of Queen Charlotte's English master, and had been tutor to William IV.; George Isaac Huntingford, bishop of Hereford, had been tutor to Addington, prime minister; Thomas Burgess, bishop of St. David's, was a personal friend of Addington; John Fisher, bishop of Salisbury, had been tutor to the duke of Kent; John Luxmoore, bishop of St. Asaph, had been tutor to the duke of Buccleugh; Samuel Goodenough, bishop of Carlisle, had been tutor to the sons of the third duke of Portland and was connected with Addington; William Lort Mansel, bishop of Bristol, had been tutor to Perceval at Cambridge, and owed to Perceval the mastership of Trinity; Walter King, bishop of Rochester, had been secretary to the duke of Portland; and Bowyer Edward Sparke, bishop of Ely, had been tutor to the duke of Rutland. The two remaining bishops were Herbert Marsh, bishop of Peterborough, who had established a claim by defending Pitt's financial measures in an important pamphlet; and William Van Mildert, bishop of Llandaff, who had been chaplain to the Grocers' Company and became known as a preacher in London.

[20] Travels in France (1892), p. 327.

[21] See A Country Clergyman of the Eighteenth Century (Thomas Twining), 1882, for a pleasant picture of the class.


The effect of these conditions is perhaps best marked in the state of the universities. Universities have at different periods been great centres of intellectual life. The English universities of the eighteenth century are generally noted only as embodiments of sloth and prejudice. The judgments of Wesley and Gibbon and Adam Smith and Bentham coincide in regard to Oxford; and Johnson's love of his university is an equivocal testimony to its intellectual merits. We generally think of it as of a sleepy hollow, in which portly fellows of colleges, like the convivial Warton, imbibed port wine and sneered at Methodists, though few indeed rivalled Warton's services to literature. The universities in fact had become, as they long continued to be, high schools chiefly for the use of the clergy, and if they still aimed at some wider intellectual training, were sinking to be institutions where the pupils of the public schools might, if they pleased, put a little extra polish upon their classical and mathematical knowledge. The colleges preserved their mediaeval constitution; and no serious changes of their statutes were made until the middle of the present century. The clergy had an almost exclusive part in the management, and dissenters were excluded even from entering Oxford as students.[22] But the clergyman did not as a rule devote himself to a life of study. He could not marry as a fellow, but he made no vows of celibacy. The college, therefore, was merely a stepping-stone on the way to the usual course of preferment. A fellow looked forwards to settling in a college living, or if he had the luck to act as tutor to a nobleman, he might soar to a deanery or a bishopric. The fellows who stayed in their colleges were probably those who had least ambition, or who had a taste for an easy bachelor's life. The universities, therefore, did not form bodies of learned men interested in intellectual pursuits; but at most, helped such men in their start upon a more prosperous career. The studies flagged in sympathy. Gray's letters sufficiently reveal the dulness which was felt by a man of cultivation confined within the narrow society of college dons of the day. The scholastic philosophy which had once found enthusiastic cultivators in the great universities had more or less held its own through the seventeenth century, though repudiated by all the rising thinkers. Since the days of Locke and Berkeley, it had fallen utterly out of credit. The bright common sense of the polished society of the day looked upon the old doctrine with a contempt, which, if not justified by familiarity, was an implicit judgment of the tree by its fruits. Nobody could suppose the divines of the day to be the depositaries of an esoteric wisdom which the vulgar were not worthy to criticise. They were themselves chiefly anxious to prove that their sacred mysteries were really not at all mysterious, but merely one way of expressing plain common sense. At Oxford, indeed, the lads were still crammed with Aldrich, and learned the technical terms of a philosophy which had ceased to have any real life in it. At Cambridge, ardent young radicals spoke with contempt of this 'horrid jargon—fit only to be chattered by monkies in a wilderness.'[23] Even at Cambridge, they still had disputations on the old form, but they argued theses from Locke's essay, and thought that their mathematical studies were a check upon metaphysical 'jargon.' It is indeed characteristic of the respect for tradition that at Cambridge even mathematics long suffered from a mistaken patriotism which resented any improvement upon the methods of Newton. There were some signs of reviving activity. The fellowships were being distributed with less regard to private interest. The mathematical tripos founded at Cambridge in the middle of the century became the prototype of all competitive examinations; and half a century later Oxford followed the precedent by the Examination Statute of 1800. A certain number of professorships of such modern studies as anatomy, history, botany, and geology were founded during the eighteenth century, and show a certain sense of a need of broader views. The lectures upon which Blackstone founded his commentaries were the product of the foundation of the Vinerian professorship in 1751; and the most recent of the Cambridge colleges, Downing College, shows by its constitution that a professoriate was now considered to be desirable. Cambridge in the last years of the century might have had a body of very eminent professors. Watson, second wrangler of 1759, had delivered lectures upon chemistry, of which it was said by Davy that hardly any conceivable change in the science could make them obsolete.[24] Paley, senior wrangler in 1763, was an almost unrivalled master of lucid exposition, and one of his works is still a textbook at Cambridge. Isaac Milner, senior wrangler in 1774, afterwards held the professorships of mathematics and natural philosophy, and was famous as a sort of ecclesiastical Dr. Johnson. Gilbert Wakefield, second wrangler in 1776, published an edition of Lucretius, and was a man of great ability and energy. Herbert Marsh, second wrangler in 1779, was divinity professor from 1807, and was the first English writer to introduce some knowledge of the early stages of German criticism. Porson, the greatest Greek scholar of his time, became professor in 1790; Malthus, ninth wrangler in 1788, who was to make a permanent mark upon political economy, became fellow of Jesus College in 1793. Waring, senior wrangler in 1757, Vince, senior wrangler in 1775, and Wollaston, senior wrangler in 1783, were also professors and mathematicians of reputation. Towards the end of the century ten professors were lecturing.[25] A large number were not lecturing, though Milner was good enough to be 'accessible to students.' Paley and Watson had been led off into the path of ecclesiastical preferment. Marsh too became a bishop in 1816. There was no place for such talents as those of Malthus, who ultimately became professor at Haileybury. Wakefield had the misfortune of not being able to cover his heterodoxy with the conventional formula. Porson suffered from the same cause, and from less respectable weaknesses; but it seems that the university had no demand for services of the great scholar, and he did nothing for his L40 a year. Milner was occupied in managing the university in the interests of Pitt and Protestantism, and in waging war against Jacobins and intruders. There was no lack of ability; but there was no inducement to any intellectual activity for its own sake; and there were abundant temptations for any man of energy to diverge to the career which offered more intelligible rewards.

The universities in fact supplied the demand which was actually operative. They provided the average clergyman with a degree; they expected the son of the country-gentleman or successful lawyer to acquire the traditional culture of his class, and to spend three or four years pleasantly, or even, if he chose, industriously. But there was no such thing as a learned society, interested in the cultivation of knowledge for its own sake, and applauding the devotion of life to its extension or discussion. The men of the time who contributed to the progress of science owed little or nothing to the universities, and were rather volunteers from without, impelled by their own idiosyncrasies. Among the scientific leaders, for example, Joseph Black (1728-1799) was a Scottish professor; Priestley (1733-1804) a dissenting minister; Cavendish (1731-1810) an aristocratic recluse, who, though he studied at Cambridge, never graduated; Watt (1736-1819) a practical mechanician; and Dalton (1766-1844) a Quaker schoolmaster. John Hunter (1728-1793) was one of the energetic Scots who forced their way to fame without help from English universities. The cultivation of the natural sciences was only beginning to take root; and the soil, which it found congenial, was not that of the great learned institutions, which held to their old traditional studies.

I may, then, sum up the result in a few words. The church had once claimed to be an entirely independent body, possessing a supernatural authority, with an organisation sanctioned by supernatural powers, and entitled to lay down the doctrines which gave the final theory of life. Theology was the queen of the sciences and theologians the interpreters of the first principles of all knowledge and conduct. The church of England, on the other hand, at our period had entirely ceased to be independent: it was bound hand and foot by acts of parliament: there was no ecclesiastical organ capable of speaking in its name, altering its laws or defining its tenets: it was an aggregate of offices the appointment to which was in the hands either of the political ministers or of the lay members of the ruling class. It was in reality simply a part of the ruling class told off to perform divine services: to maintain order and respectability and the traditional morality. It had no distinctive philosophy or theology, for the articles of belief represented simply a compromise; an attempt to retain as much of the old as was practicable and yet to admit as much of the new as was made desirable by political considerations. It was the boast of its more liberal members that they were not tied down to any definite dogmatic system; but could have a free hand so long as they did not wantonly come into conflict with some of the legal formulae laid down in a previous generation. The actual teaching showed the effects of the system. It had been easy to introduce a considerable leaven of the rationalism which suited the lay mind; to explain away the mysterious doctrines upon which an independent church had insisted as manifestations of its spiritual privileges, but which were regarded with indifference or contempt by the educated laity now become independent. The priest had been disarmed and had to suit his teaching to the taste of his patrons and congregations. The divines of the eighteenth century had, as they boasted, confuted the deists; but it was mainly by showing that they could be deists in all but the name. The dissenters, less hampered by legal formulae, had drifted towards Unitarianism. The position of such divines as Paley, Watson, and Hey was not so much that the Unitarians were wrong, as that the mysterious doctrines were mere sets of words, over which it was superfluous to quarrel. The doctrine was essentially traditional; for it was impossible to represent the doctrines of the church of England as deductions from any abstract philosophy. But the traditions were not regarded as having any mysterious authority. Abstract philosophy might lead to deism or infidelity. Paley and his like rejected such philosophy in the spirit of Locke or even Hume. But it was always possible to treat a tradition like any other statement of fact. It could be proved by appropriate evidence. The truth of Christianity was therefore merely a question of facts like the truth of any other passages of history. It was easy enough to make out a case for the Christian miracles, and then the mysteries, after it had been sufficiently explained that they really meant next to nothing, could be rested upon the authority of the miracles. In other words, the accepted doctrines, like the whole constitution of the church, could be so modified as to suit the prejudices and modes of thought of the laity. The church, it may be said, was thoroughly secularised. The priest was no longer a wielder of threats and an interpreter of oracles, but an entirely respectable gentleman, who fully sympathised with the prejudices of his patron and practically admitted that he had very little to reveal, beyond explaining that his dogmas were perfectly harmless and eminently convenient. He preached, however, a sound common sense morality, and was not divided from his neighbours by setting up the claims characteristic of a sacerdotal caste. Whether he has become on the whole better or worse by subsequent changes is a question not to be asked here; but perhaps not quite so easily answered as is sometimes supposed.

The condition of the English church and universities may be contrasted with that of their Scottish rivals. The Scottish church and universities had no great prizes to offer and no elaborate hierarchy. But the church was a national institution in a sense different from the English. The General Assembly was a powerful body, not overshadowed by a great political rival. To rise to be a minister was the great ambition of poor sons of farmers and tradesmen. They had to study at the universities in the intervals, perhaps, of agricultural labour; and if the learning was slight and the scholarship below the English standard, the young aspirant had at least to learn to preach and to acquire such philosophy as would enable him to argue upon grace and freewill with some hard-headed Davie Deans. It was doubtless owing in part to these conditions that the Scottish universities produced many distinguished teachers throughout the century. Professors had to teach something which might at least pass for philosophy, though they were more or less restrained by the necessity of respecting orthodox prejudices. At the end of the century, the only schools of philosophy in the island were to be found in Scotland, where Reid (1710-1796) and Adam Smith (1723-1790) had found intelligent disciples, and where Dugald Stewart, of whom I shall speak presently, had become the recognised philosophical authority.


[22] At Cambridge subscription was abolished for undergraduates in 1775; and bachelors of arts had only to declare themselves 'bona-fide members of the church of England.'

[23] Gilbert Wakefield's Memoirs, ii. 149.

[24] De Quincey, Works (1863), ii. 106.

[25] Wordsworth's University Life, etc. (1874), 83-87.


What theory corresponds to this practical order? It implies, in the first place, a constant reference to tradition. The system has grown up without any reference to abstract principles or symmetrical plan. The legal order supposes a traditional common law, as the ecclesiastical order a traditional creed, and the organisation is explicable only by historical causes. The system represents a series of compromises, not the elaboration of a theory. If the squire undertook by way of supererogation to justify his position he appealed to tradition and experience. He invoked the 'wisdom of our ancestors,' the system of 'checks and balances' which made our Constitution an unrivalled mixture of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy deserving the 'dread and envy of the world.' The prescription for compounding that mixture could obviously be learned by nothing but experiment. Traditional means empirical. By instinct, rather than conscious reasoning, Englishmen had felt their way to establishing the 'palladia of our liberties': trial by jury, the 'Habeas Corpus' Act, and the substitution of a militia for a standing army. The institutions were cherished because they had been developed by long struggles and were often cherished when their real justification had disappeared. The Constitution had not been 'made' but had 'grown'; or, in other words, the one rule had been the rule of thumb. That is an excellent rule in its way, and very superior to an abstract rule which neglects or overrides experience. The 'logic of facts,' moreover, may be trusted to produce a certain harmony: and general principles, though not consciously invoked, tacitly govern the development of institutions worked out under uniform conditions. The simple reluctance to pay money without getting money's worth might generate the important principle that representation should go with taxation, without embodying any theory of a 'social contract' such as was offered by an afterthought to give a philosophical sanction. Englishmen, it is said, had bought their liberties step by step, because at each step they were in a position to bargain with their rulers. What they had bought they were determined to keep and considered to be their inalienable property. One result is conspicuous. In England the ruling classes did not so much consider their privileges to be something granted by the state, as the power of the state to be something derived from their concessions. Though the lord-lieutenant and the justices of the peace were nominated by the crown, their authority came in fact as an almost spontaneous consequence of their birthright or their acquired position in the country. They shone by their own light and were really the ultimate sources of authority. Seats in parliament, preferments in the church, commissions in the army belonged to them like their estates; and they seemed to be qualified by nature, rather than by appointment, to act in judicial and administrative capacities. The system of 'self-government' embodies this view. The functions of government were assigned to men already powerful by their social position. The absence of the centralised hierarchy of officials gave to Englishmen the sense of personal liberty which compelled the admiration of Voltaire and his countrymen in the eighteenth century. In England were no lettres de cachet, and no Bastille. A man could say what he thought and act without fear of arbitrary rule. There was no such system as that which, in France, puts the agents of the central power above the ordinary law of the land. This implies what has been called the 'rule of the law' in England. 'With us every official from the prime minister down to a constable or a collector of taxes' (as Professor Dicey explains the principle) 'is under the same responsibility for every act done without legal justification as any other citizen.'[26] The early centralisation of the English monarchy had made the law supreme, and instead of generating a new structure had combined and regulated the existing social forces. The sovereign power was thus farmed to the aristocracy instead of forming an organ of its own. Instead of resigning power they were forced to exercise it on condition of thorough responsibility to the central judiciary. Their privileges were not destroyed but were combined with the discharge of corresponding duties. Whatever their shortcomings, they were preserved from the decay which is the inevitable consequence of a divorce of duties from privileges.

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