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politician. In the letter of February 2, the three Secretaries of State are described as 'one odious, another contemptible, the third [Lord John] both.' And in the letter of January 30 Lord John is thus addressed :—
You were born with a strong ambition and a feeble intellect. . . . Your ambition persuaded you that you were a great poet; your intellect in consequence produced the feeblest tragedy in our language. . . . Your ambition sought from prose fiction the fame which had been denied to your lyre; and your intellect in consequence produced the feeblest romance in our literature. Not deterred by the unhappy catastrophe of the fair maid of Arrouca . . . your ambition sought consolation in the notoriety of political literature, and your intellect in due time produced the feeblest political essay on record. . . . Your ambition resolved on rivalling the fame of Hume and Gibbon. Your ' Memoirs of the Affairs of Europe,' published with pompous parade in successive quarto volumes, retailed in frigid sentences a feeble compilation from the gossip of those pocket tomes of small talk which abound in French literature. . . . This luckless production closed your literary career; you flung down your futile pen in incapable despair; and, your feeble intellect having failed in literature, your strong ambition took refuge in politics. . . . Your friends, I speak of the circle in which you lived, . . . always treated you with a species of contempt. . . . Lord Grey, only five years ago, would not even condescend to offer you a seat in the Cabinet, and affected to state that, in according you a respectable office, he had been as much influenced by the state of your finances as of your capacity. ... A finer observer of human nature than that forlorn statesman might have recognised at this crisis in a noble with an historic name and no fortune, a vast ambition and a balked career, and soured, not to say malignant, from disappointment, some prime materials for the lead of a revolutionary faction. These materials have worked well. ... A miniature Mokanna, you are now exhaling upon the constitution of your country which you once eulogised ... all this long-hoarded venom and all those distempered humours that have for years accumulated in your petty heart and tainted the current of your mortified life. Your aim is to reduce everything to your own mean level—to degrade everything to your malignant standard. ... I think it is Macrobius who tells a story of a young Greek, who, having heard much of the wealth and wisdom of Egypt, determined .on visiting that celebrated land. When he
beheld the pyramids of Memphis and the gates of Thebes, he exclaimed, 'Oh, wonderful men, what must be your Gods!' . . . llut what was his mingled astonishment and disgust when he found a nation prostrate before the most contemptible and the most odious of created beings! The Gods of Egypt are the Ministers of England. . . . But, my Lord, how thunderstruck must be our visitor when he is told to recognise a Secretary of State in an infinitely small scarabeus; yes, my Lord, when he learns that you are the leader of the English House of Commons, our traveller may begin to comprehend how the Egyptians worshipped—An INSEcT.
Mr. Disraeli's strictures were sooner or later certain to be answered by Mr. Disraeli himself; and accordingly eight years after the Runnymede Letters Mr. Disraeli wrote—
The interval that elapsed between 1835 and 1837 proved that there was all this time in the Whig array one entirely competent to the office of leading a great party. . . . Lord John Russell has that degree of imagination, which, though evinced rather in sentiment than expression, still enables him to generalise from the details of his reading and experience, and to take those comprehensive views which, however easily depreciated by ordinary men in an age of routine, are indispensable to a statesman in the corjunctures in which we live. He understands, therefore, his position; and he has the moral intrepidity which prompts him on to dare that which his intellect assures him is politic He is consequently, at the same time, sagacious and bold in council. As an administrator, he is prompt and indefatigable. He is not a natural orator, and labours under physical difficulties which even a Demosthenic impulse could scarcely overcome. But he is experienced in debate, quick in reply, fertile in resource, takes large views, and frequently compensates for a dry and hesitating manner by the expression of those noble truths that flash across the fancy, and rise spontaneously to the lip, of men of poetic temperament when addressing popular assemblies. If we add to this a private life of dignified repute, the accidents of his birth and rank, which never can be severed from the man—the scion of a great historic family, and born, as it were, to the hereditary service of the State—it is difficult to ascertain at what period, or under what circumstances, the Whig party have ever possessed, cr could obtain, a more efficient leader.1
1 Coningsby, book v. ch. iv.
While 'Runnymede's' abuse was still wet from the printing-press, and Lord John was still weak from the effects of his recent illness, the session of 1836 began. A speech from the throne had rarely announced the preparation of more important measures of Reform. Parliament was invited to direct its 'early attention to the ecclesiastical establishment, with the intention of rendering it more efficient;' to relieve the tithe system from the fluctuations and objections to which it has hitherto been subject; to remedy 'any grievances which affect those who dissent from the doctrines or discipline of the Established Church;' to effect a just settlement of tithes in Ireland; to deal with municipal corporations in that country 'upon the same principles as those of the Acts which have already been passed for England and Scotland;' to approach the question of poor relief in Ireland 'with the caution due to its importance ar.d difficulty,' but 'with the experience of the salutary effect produced by the English poor law;' and to consider whether better provisions may not be made for the administration of justice, 'more especially in the Court of Chancery.'
The Government could not have expected to carry so many measures in a single year; and the session of 1836 is undoubtedly remembered for its failures as well as for its successes. Yet, though the Lords displayed an unceasing determination to thwart the projects of the Administration, much useful work was accomplished. And the measures which were carried were precisely those which were specially entrusted to Lord John Russell's management, and which had been framed under his superintendence.
At the close of the session of 1835 the Cabinet appointed committees to 'consider the whole case of the Dissenters,' and the English tithe system. Lord John served on both committees, and was the guiding spirit of each of them. Tithes and their unfairness were no new subject to him. His old constituents in Devonshire felt strongly on the matter, and in 1834 presented a petition to the House of Comm'ons praying that tithes should be commuted for a money payment equal to one-tenth of the rent. In speaking on this petition, which was presented by Lord Ebrington, Lord John had the courage to point out that he differed from the petitioners. Tithe, he explained, was not one-tenth of the rent, but one-tenth of the produce; and, on the assumption that the produce was equivalent to three rents, one-tenth of the rent would be only equivalent to one-thirtieth of the produce. But, though he dissented from the petitioners' conclusion, he took occasion to say that he considered tithes the institution of a barbarous age—a remark which subjected him to the retort from Mr. O'Connell that tithes had been introduced by the English into Ireland, so that the English were the barbarous bestowers of tithes on that country.1 Thus, even if Sir Robert Peel had not proposed to deal with the subject, Lord John could hardly have avoided legislation upon it.
The Bill, which he brought forward at the commencement of the session of 1836, passed without material amendment, and proved a permanent settlement of a difficult question. Instead, however, of recording a dull Parliamentary discussion, it will probably be simplest to insert Lord John's own account of the measure and of his reasons for introducing it. The unsettled state of the tithe question, he wrote—
was deeply injurious to the interests of agriculture and to those of the Church. In many instances where waste lands might have been brought into cultivation, or the produce of cultivated lands and the supply of food to the people largely augmented, the right of the Church to appropriate a tenth of the produce without regard to the expense of the improvement was a positive bar to cultivation. In many other instances, the attempts of the farmers to abate the rights of the Church, and to force the clergymen to be content with a twentieth part of the produce, or even less, instead of the legal tenth, had been the source of wrangling and ill-will between the farmers and the clergymen, to the destruction of Christian charity, and of the harmony that ought to prevail between the pastor and his flock. Pitt had attempted in vain to frame a complete measure on this subject. Peel had endeavoured to remedy the notorious evils by a voluntary commutation; but a commutation short of compulsory would have left many of the worst cases untouched—cases in which the Church had insisted unwisely upon its full rights, or a combination of farmers had determined to vex and worry a clergyman of easy disposition, till they reduced him'to penury by their obstinacy and injustice. All the evils of the tithe system were the subject of fair compromise and permanent settlement by the Act of 1836. Three commissioners, two of whom were appointed by the Crown and one by the Archbishop of Canterbury, were empowered, after examination, to proceed by certain fixed rules to a final adjudication. In about seven years this process was completed, and a work from which Pitt had shrunk was accomplished. The progress of agriculture was freed from vexatious impediments, and the clergy were spared the unseemly contentions which had fostered ill-will and disturbed social relations.1
1 Hansard, xi. 1038-1047.
Equally, or almost equally, complete was another measure carried in the same session. From the middle of the eighteenth century, when the Marriage Act was passed, to the year 1836, when it was reformed by Lord John Russell's efforts, marriage was a religious ceremony, which, except in the case of the Quaker or of the Jew, could only legally be performed by a clergyman of the Church of England. This law naturally produced great irritation among those who dissented from the doctrines of the Church; and in 1834, Lord John, on the part of the Whig Government, introduced a measure for the purpose of amending it. He proposed that Dissenters should be married in their own chapels, which were to be licensed; but that the banns should be asked in the parish church, and the register forwarded to the diocesan registrar. The proposal created no enthusiasm among the Dissenters, and the Bill was dropped. In the following year Sir Robert Peel, during his brief administration, proposed that marriage with Dissenters should be a civil contract, and not a religious ceremony. But this proposal also failed to excite any enthusiasm among Nonconformists. They desired as much as Churchmen that their marriages should be accompanied with
1 Recollections and Suggestions, p. 141.