“The European Revolutions of 1848” (by Edward Stillingfleet Cayley, 1856)
We greatly want a second Sydney Smith to write a new edition of the Noodle's Oration. Far be it from us to attempt more than a most distant imitation of that great original; but if such a work were executed, it would perhaps run somewhat as follows:——“The political events of the last eight years show the immense difference between theory and practice. Englishmen are practical—foreigners are theoretical. It may not be true that Frenchmen live principally upon frogs, but they are nourished by abstractions. They use such abominable words as Liberty, Order, and Principle, which no Christian man can endure. They believe that some things are false and other things true, and that some things are right and other things wrong— whereas, as Sir Archibald Alison has conclusively proved, that makes no difference at all. The one thing needful is what is practically right, and the one thing to be avoided is what is practically wrong. Though the vulgar herd deny it, the philosophic mind triumphantly and profoundly asserts that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Now whatever is eaten is pudding, and if you think it bad pudding, that shows that you are not practical, for you could not eat it if it was not there. You cannot say that it might have been better, except upon theoretical grounds. To say so would justly offend the cook, and inasmuch as the comfort of the servants is the ultimate object of all housekeeping, nobody can wish to offend the cook, who does not want to drive the family into the streets or the workhouse. A great philosopher of ancient times remarked that bad workmen complained of their tools. But foreigners always complain of the instruments of government, therefore all foreigners are bad workmen. It is true that the English have occasionally done so too, but they have been either respectable people or rabble. Apply our principle to the first, and the exception proves the rule—apply it to the second, and we have a striking confirmation of our statement. Shallow objectors have sometimes said that some foreign countries have put up with bad government too long ; but—besides that this would, if true, only prove the general corruption of man, which is the cornerstone of revelation—in all the cases in which foreigners have resisted, they have done so either prematurely or too late; and in the cases in which they have submitted, they have given way to that base timidity of disposition which is so strikingly contrasted with the stubborn gallantry of the Anglo-Norman race. A careful observer of history will not fail to see that the national character of England has arisen from its institutions, for we are all the creatures of circumstances; and also that our institutions are the expression of our national character, for the great truth of moral responsibility depends upon the recognition—of course in its right place and degree—of free will. The theorist will easlily consider these great principles contradictory, but a practical men well knows that it is quite possible to believe contradictions by only looking at half of them at a time. In the case of the Continent the same principles apply, though the results are different. There, a bad national character produced a corresponding government, which, attempting to elevate those who had erected it, was overthrown by the rash theorists who could not comprehend that the best institutions for a nation are those which suit it—in other words, those which it has already got, for if these not suit it they would not be there. Theories are of no value unless they are supported by facts. Therefore, all theories which condemn existing facts go for nothing, and none are true except those which justify what exists. One subject, no doubt, there is, which constitutes an exception to this rule, and is therefore the strongest proof of its truth which the nature of the case admits. Several minds of the deepest philosophical attainments—so deep that, upon all other subjects, public envy, that sure attendant of greatness, considers them illogical and unintelligible —have discovered that the great instrument in the providential government of the world, that which, as the poet observes, strikes with equal blows pauperum tabernas regumque turres, is the currency. An incontrovertible paper pound
We draw a veil over the rest; but we do not think that what we have written is at all an unfair representation of a kind of speculation of which Mr. Cayley’s book is one of the most complete specimens that we have lately met with. Again and again, in reading his constitutional theories, have we been reminded of that famous burst of elephantine playfulness which is almost the only lively point of one of our most valuable and philosophical law books. Austin's Lectures on Jurisprudence—“Thus saith Noodle, and he saith it with a gravity would make ye split.” If Mr. Cayley's statement in his preface, that “he collected most of the historical works bearing on the subject, as well as all the printed political articles and pamphlets that could be procured, both foreign and English," is correct, he has missed an excellent opportunity of making a very good book. He has, in fact, made a very bad one. He has attempted what for the resent is an impossibility. What Emmett said of his epitaph is true of the Revolutions of 1848 —-no one is competent as yet to write their history, especially if his political views are such as to lead him to consider that he is only writing an epitaph. If Mr. Cayley had republished, in a permanent and connected form, such of his materials as were not generally accessible, he would have made a useful contribution to literature; but he has succeeded only in re-stating facts which we all remember reading in the newspapers, and in interlarding them with a set of reflections which might all have been compressed into two short sentences:-—“ If anybody has an curiosity to know what Mr. Cayley, of the Inner Temple, thinks upon the subject of the Revolutions of 1848, he will find his opinions expressed in the political reflections of Sir A. Alison and of Mr. Samuel Laing. Mr. Cayley informs his readers that, if he chose, he could make jokes, and that he believes in an inconvertible paper currency." This would have exhausted pretty nearly all that is to be got out of these two volumes. In so far as their author is personally concerned, we should not consider it necessary to criticize his work at any length; but it is not unimportant to take every opportunity of protesting against books which have a tendency to give false impressions of the feelings with which Englishmen regard their neighbours. According to Mr. Cayley‘s view of the matter, the whole history and mystery of the French Revolution of 1848 is contained in a few commonplaces about the Government being corrupt, the King undecided, the bourgeoisie selfish, and the mob hungry, discontented, and furious. This kind of sweeping criticism is mixed up with the most commonplace trivialities about the essential identity of democracy and despotism, the inconveniences of republicanism, and the folly of "visionary theories." This is not the way in which history is written. If, for any inconceivable reason, anybody should ever wish to see what is to be said in this way, he has only to open at random any one of Sir Archibald Alison’s innumerable volumes, and he will find a perfect quarry of the material. A man ought to have larger sympathies, and opinions less cut and dried, before he can pretend to write upon such subjects. It is easy to lavish “fool," and “knave,” and “nonsense" on all persons and opinions which do not exactly reproduce the views of that particular phase of English society to which the critic has been accustomed; but it is irritating to read such writing, and it tends to give those to whom it is addressed perfectly false notions of the society from which it proceeds.
We will give a very few specimens of Mr. Cayley’s qualifications for his task. He is, in the first place, quite untrustworthy. Throughout his two volumes there is hardly a single reference to any book, pamphlet, newspaper, or other authority of any kind whatever, though the excuse which he gives for his publication is that he has amassed a great quantity of material. We will take a single illustration of this. In vol. II, pp. 34—8, he gives an account of the revolt in Berlin on the 18th of March, 1848. It is briefly this:—-The King issued a proclamation which was very popular, and the mob went to the palace to applaud. Two regiments of dragoons “unluckily" mistook the cheering for an attack, and began pushing the people back with their horses without orders. Accidentally, two muskets went off; and the people thereupon “imagined there was a design to slaughter them. At once the rushed to arms; barricades were thrown up in every street, of sorts of materials; a cab with the fare inside was made use of for one, and the fare not extracted till the town was pacified. When the barricade was taken down, he put his head out of the window and coolly requested that the door might be opened. Sharpshooters placed themselves in the windows," &c., &c. And after a sharp fight, 200 of the populace were killed, and about 300 of the tree s killed and wounded. What right has any man to put forward such a statement as this —-in which an absurd fable is recorded with as much gravity as the most important facts—on his own personal unsupported authority, when he does not even say that he was there himself, or that he ever spoke to any one who was? Possibly the account, which strikes us as monstrously improbable, may be true; but we should only believe it on the most cogent evidence, and of that Mr. Cayley does not give a single scrap. Every one knows that the origin of the Berlin insurrection is involved in great mystery. The Government and the Republicans have both, we believe, been accused of bringing it about for their own purposes. It is, therefore, most important that we should learn what the evidence upon the subject is, in order that we may form a just conclusion ; but to put forward a gratuitous statement like Mr. Cayley’s, is a very grave impertinence. Every other transaction mentioned in this book is related in the same style.
Mr. Cayley’s logic is as bad as his facts are questionable. After telling the above story, he goes on to say that the authorities withdrew the troops because there was nothing to fight about— that the troops, when fired upon, had “an innate right to resist—" and that it may be questionable whether “ it would not have been better for the advance of civilization and liberal institutions if the troops had finished the work they had begun." Surely, if Mr. Cayley is right in supposing that the whole fight originated in an unfortunate mistake, it is perfectly monstrous to doubt that the authorities ought to have withdrawn the troops at once. That they had a right to resist is no doubt true, but that right only justified acts necessary for self-defence. To repel an attack is one thing; but to storm barricade after barricade——raised, according to Mr. Cayley, for the legitimate purpose of defeating “a design to slaughter” the defenders of the barricades—is quite another. We are ashamed to think that an Englishman can be found to publish the opinion that if, by an unfortunate accident, a crowd and a body of troops are brought into collision, it is the duty of the crowd, under all circumstances, to submit to military execution. It is even more monstrous that the same writer should express a doubt whether, if the crowd should resist, it is not the duty of the authorities to encourage the troops “to finish what they have begun"—in other words, to perpetrate an indiscriminate and causeless massacre. We express no opinion upon a subject of which we know so little as the Berlin insurrection; but we feel no hesitation in saying that, if Mr. Cayley states the facts correctly, all the persons who permitted the fighting to continue were deliberate and wilful murderers. A still more outrageous piece of audacity of the same nature is to be found at page 188 of the same volume. Mr. Cayley there maintains that the Emperor of Russia was guilty of no breach of international law in invading Hungary, because Hungary had made itself an independent nation, and was therefore in the position of a country at war with Austria, the ally of Russia, which was thus within the law of nations in taking whichever side in the dispute it pleased. We shall not stop to show how completely Mr. Cayley misunderstands the very first principles of his subject—we will merely remark that the defence which he sets up for the Czar implies that the power interfering between two belligerents should bona fide consider them as independent nations. But the Emperor of Russia entered Hungary notoriously in order to subdue a rebellious province, not in order to conquer a foreign enemy. He never in any way recognised its independence, but invaded it expressly on the ground that it was not, and ought not to become, independent. In fact, Mr. Cayley's view is, that because Hungary was an independent nation, it was lawful for the Emperor of Russia to crush its independence. Writers like Mr. Cayley would soon change international law into a paltry pettifogging system of which our own conveyancers would be ashamed. If possible, a still more impudent quibble is that by which he attempts to show that, when Louis Napoleon executed the coup d'état, he was guilty of no violation of his oath to remain faithful to the “democratic republic." As his treatment of this subject gives a gauge of his capacity, we will republish it entire:—
‘What is a “democratic republic?" What a republic is we all know. It is another word for a state. All states are republics, properly so called. Some states are kingdoms, some are empires; some are neither one nor the other; and for the lack of any other term, the have been called indiiferently republics or states. The word “democratic,”' as a qualification of republic, signifies that the people can be governed as they like, and not as anybody else likes. Now the meaning of the oath to remain faithful to the democratic republic, if it meant anything at all, was to remain faithful to the state in which the people had their own way.’
Mr. Cayley is very wise in saying, “if it meant anything at all;" for certainly, if the words of an oath are to be construed according to their etymological origin, we shall doubt whether any words ever have a meaning. Does "Revolution,” for example, mean, a turning again? Does “Count" mean companion? or “ Marquis," one who rules border districts? or “Empire," military rule over an army? Has Mr. Cayley sufficient confidence in this wonderful theory to go to Paris and cry in the streets, “Vive la République Démocratique?" If so, why does he constantly inveigh against republicanism and democracy throughout the whole of his two volumes? Or is it his real deliberate opinion that words are always to be used in a sense which will justify the conduct of a single individual, or of a few individuals, and condemn the acts of a great number? “Democracy" means the government which people adopt, when Napoleon is to be justified—it retains its ordinary meaning in the phrases, “a democratic profligate mob," and “democrats—they ought not to be called men."
The style in which this book is written is admirably suited to its general character. It is full of bad grammar and bad English. We have “prudenter" for “more prudent," and “the opponents of those classes not noble" for “Opponents of the classes which did not form part of the nobility." Among other beauties of Cayley, we find such sentences as the following:— “The love of her subjects would be turned to hatred, their trust in her changed to suspicion, and their obedience cold." "The counts and barons are much more characteristic," meaning “original.” “The quarrel was tried to be patched up." “He was acting against them, without the Emperor having discharged them from their offices." Elsewhere we have “impracticable persons,” for “unpractical.” We must not, however, forget the principle characteristic of this particular historian, which is his constant affection of a certain dry, caustic humour. This conception is carried out by putting an exceedingly commonplace remark in a very short form, and in an unexpected place. Thus, “Freedom in the mouth of an Englishman does not mean either license or pillage” – “Practical common sense is our safeguard” – “This practical turn of mind is an English characteristic, and is one of the most stable elements of our constitution, and is much more important than at first appears to national prosperity”—“Undergraduates are not fit repositories for political power” – “Gentlemen do not usually lie” – “Talent without principle does not, on the whole, seem to operate for the tranquility or permanency of the States.” In short, if any one wishes to read 688 pages of the coarsest flattery of his own country, and the narrowest criticism of all others, ill-stated, ill-written, and ill-argued, we can conscientiously recommend to him – but to no one else – Mr. Cayley’s Revolutions of 1848.
Saturday Review, March 29, 1856.