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Would I had perish’d in that happier hour
Here, again, the last four lines have been unduly expanded ; but the passage, as a whole, is rendered with remarkable force and fidelity. It is, of course, impossible in a few extracts to give an idea of a poem ; but it is equally impossible, in a concise memoir, to afford space for a more detailed description. The reader who wishes to test Lord John's capacity as dramatist and translator must turn from this passage to Lord John's own writings. But Lord John was not merely a poet, he was also an historian. Before closing this chapter it is necessary to allude briefly to his qualities in this respect. The four works, composed before 1832, on which Lord John Russell's claim to rank as an historian must rest, are: (1) the ‘History of the English Constitution;' (2) the ‘Life of William, Lord Russell ; (3) the “Memoirs of the Affairs of Europe, with its supplement the ‘Essay on the Causes of the French Revolution;' and (4) the ‘Historical Discourse on the Establishment of the Turks in Europe.' The best known of these works is the ‘Essay on the English Government and Constitution.’ It has gone through many editions; it has been translated into a foreign language; and, after a lapse of nearly seventy years, is still occasionally read and sold. Few books, even among those which succeed, can claim equal vitality. Lord John, in his original edition, avowed that the book was a fragment.
It was my object [so he wrote in the preface] to illustrate, by an analysis of the history of the governments of modern Europe, from the commencement of the fifteenth century, two very plain but somewhat neglected truths. The first is, that the monarchies of the Continent of Europe have been, generally speaking, so ill-adapted to make their subjects virtuous and happy that they require, or required, complete regeneration. The second is that the government of England ought not to be included in this class: that it is calculated to produce liberty, worth, and content among the people, whilst its abuses easily admit of reforms consistent with its spirit, capable of being effected without injury or danger, and mainly contributing to its preservatlon.
Lord John went on to say that the latter part of the work was the only part that he had finished. But, before the second edition was called for, he seems to have seen that the work, which he had regarded as a fragment, was, or was capable of being made, a complete whole. He consequently omitted his preface, greatly expanded the concluding portions of his book, and added a dedication to Lord Grey. The book, in the shape which it thus assumed, became much less the book of a constitutional historian than of a constitutional statesman. Instead of being an analysis of the principles of the constitution, it was an inquiry into the manner in which the abuses which had crept into it could be amended. It was a political confession of faith; made, as it turned out, by the man who, beyond all others, was to shape the creed of the Whig party. As such, it was not merely a constitutional disquisition on the history of the past; it had an important bearing on the history of the future; and the work derives its chief importance, not from what the author was, but from what the author became. Most good judges assert that the book was the ablest of its author's numerous productions. It is doubtful, however, whether the palm of merit ought not to be given to a longer work—the “Memoirs of the Affairs of Europe.' The little that is to be said on this book may be said in connection with the “Life of William, Lord Russell,’ with the ‘Discourse on the Turks, and with the ‘Essay on the French Revolution.’ Three of these four works are essentially historical in their character. The fourth professes to be a biography, but it really partakes much more of the nature of a history. ‘The Life of William, Lord Russell,’ might, indeed, be appropriately called ‘The History of the Reign of Charles II. with some remarks on the Trial of Lord Russell.’ This book, therefore, really falls under the same category as the others, and Lord John's qualifications as an historian may be considered with reference to them all. It is remarkable that his own idea of writing history apparently was altered in the ten or twelve years which elapsed between the publication of ‘The Life of Lord Russell' and that of ‘The Causes of the French Revolution.’ In the former book the reader misses the personal interest which is inseparable from all good biography. He feels that he is studying the time, and not that he is forming acquaintance with the man. But in the latter book he is tempted to make an exactly opposite criticism. He finds himself perpetually acquiring a knowledge of the details—the occasionally unsavoury details—of the lives of such men as Rousseau, Voltaire, Diderot, and others; and as constantly asking whether these references have any proper place in a philosophical historical treatise. Thus in the reign of Charles II. he is tempted to conclude that he is getting too much history and too little biography; while in the eighteenth century he is inclined to complain that he is getting too much biography and too little history. The second criticism which may be applied to Lord John's historical writings is really due to the times in which he wrote. In the beginning of this century an historian was not expected to have the same familiarity with original authorities which he is required to possess now. In one of his early essays Lord John himself called Hume ‘the most profound of modern historians.’" The epithet at once proves that Lord John had formed no conception of the qualifications which historians would in future be required to possess. Hume was one of the most profound thinkers of his generation; but he has no claim to be regarded as a profound historian. This misconception may be traced in all Lord John's historical writings. His reading was wide; his authorities were famous; but the occasions are only few when he travels beyond the ordinary books, or out of the beaten path, for his information. This circumstance is, indeed, hardly true of the ‘Life of Lord Russell.’ In preparing that work, Lord John * Essays, Life and Character, p. 63.
relied on the then unpublished letters of Rachel, Lady Russell; and, in the later edition, he had the advantage of reading the despatches of Barillon, to which the French Government had previously refused him access.' But the “Memoirs of the Affairs of Europe' is composed on a much more slender basis; and perhaps few historical works of great importance and ability have been constructed on narrower foundations. For, notwithstanding the defects which have been mentioned, the “Memoirs of the Affairs of Europe’ is both able and important. The account, with which the first volume commences, of the state of France at the conclusion of the reign of Louis XIV., is the most adequate in the English language. The description with which the second volume closes of the religious movement in England during the eighteenth century is perhaps tinged with the author's bias, but it is full, clear, and comprehensive. The opening chapters of the ‘Essay on the French Revolution,' which was originally intended as part of the third volume, are equally satisfactory; the “Historical Discourse on the Turks in Europe' is short and pregnant; and all these works may be read with interest and advantage in the present day. The opinions of the author are visible throughout his books. No one can doubt, as he reads, that he is occupied with the work of a man who is by conviction the firm friend of civil and religious liberty. The books are the books of a Whig, intended—so his critics constantly alleged—to propagate Whig doctrines. Every book written by a man who thinks and believes is in one sense open to a similar charge. Yet, if Lord John's works are thus far Whig books, they are singularly free from either prejudice or passion; and, if they labour to convince, they carry conviction from the moderation of their language, and not from the vigour of their expressions. Something perhaps ought to be added respecting Lord John Russell's style. His diction is always simple, pure, and unaffected. His style, clear at the beginning, improved by practice, and some of his sentences sparkle
* For the refusal, Preface, xviii-xxii, of Moore's Memoirs, iii. 6.
with point and antithesis which would have done credit to Gibbon. Yet, when all this has been said, it cannot be added that Lord John achieved any marked success as an historian. His earlier works, indeed, ran through several editions. The “Life of Lord Russell' gained for the author a profit of at least 200/ ; and the first volume of the ‘History’ was subsequently reproduced in two volumes, post octavo. But, if an inference may be drawn from the publishers' account, this edition had only a nominal sale, while only 500 copies of the second quarto volume were printed, and more than half of these were unsold six months after their publication. It is a proverb among publishers that continuations sell badly. Yet any one who has read the book, and who recollects that at the time of its publication its author was already known as a statesman of promise, will be surprised at the result. Disappointment alone might have induced the author to abandon the work if political avocations into which he was to be immediately drawn had not, thenceforward for several years, occupied all his time, and left him without leisure for literary pursuits. If, however, his books failed to obtain the large circulation which authors naturally desire for their works, and if the most important of them had in consequence less influence than it deserved, their composition had one effect which must not be lost sight of The man who gained most from Lord John's literary pursuits was Lord John himself. They made him, on the threshold of his career as a Minister, the most accomplished politician of his time. In the character of his knowledge, indeed, he formed a striking contrast to the statesman who, thenceforward, was to be his formidable adversary. Sir Robert Peel was a far better scholar than Lord John, and a much better economist. Lord John's knowledge of the classics, it has already been stated, was not exact, and his economical views were not always sound. But he had a much more intimate acquaintance with the history of his own country and of surrounding nations than Sir Robert Peel could claim. In the debates on organic questions which were immediately to arise this circumstance was to stand him in good stead. For it was his mission to reform both Church and State, and it was his good fortune, in doing