Mr. Roebuck lately delivered a lecture [Reported in The Times of January 20, 1862] at Salisbury, which was an amplification of the following question:—''Why," asked the lecturer, "should there be any difference between the mental and moral and physical condition of one party (? part) of society as compared with another?" This comprehensive demand appears to have been narrowed in the course of the lecture into the simpler one—Why should not ordinary labouring men, living on the wages of their daily labour, be gentlemen as well as the rich? The question is well worth considering.
In justice to Mr. Roebuck, whose answer to his own question was not altogether satisfactory, the inquiry should begin with some account of his lecture. The subject was the trite one of "Popular Education," and the lecturer handled it as follows. He first drew a contrast between the political and military greatness of the nation and the unsatisfactory state, as he considered it, of a great part of the population. Admitting fully, and as the result of much thought and inquiry, the absolute necessity of great distinctions in society, without which, he said, no society could profitably exist, he went on to ask, why refinement and courtesy should be confined to the rich, and why those who are gentlefolks and those who are not should be distinguished not merely by social position, but by "distinctions like differences of race." "Go," he said, "into a gentleman's house—I use the phrase without intending to arrogate to that class anything, or to give offence to anybody—will you not find there consideration for every person's convenience? Will you not find the husband courteous to his wife, the wife kind to her children, and the father the real father of his children? He consults their convenience; he wishes to educate them; he does his best to advance them in the world; and his pleasures are the pleasures of civilized society. And now, go into the house of a labouring man, and what do you find there? Look at the man's manners to his family. I am speaking, gentlemen, of that which I have known. I am thinking of my constituents in the North, and of what I have seen in the South." Mr. Roebuck went on to draw a most repulsive picture of the scenes which pass in such houses. The agricultural labourer, he said, "finds his wife a slattern, is driven out of doors by the noise and screaming of his children, and the uncomfortableness of his house, and he goes to the 'Green Bough' next door, and drinks himself to the state of a brute,—though brutes, by-the-by, don't get drunk." The highly-paid North-country mechanic is even worse. Though his earnings are equal in amount to the pay of officers in the army, and far greater than the stipends of curates, he is little better than a beast. "He gets up in the morning, and goes to work. He comes home, and the first thing he usually does is to swear at his wife. Perhaps he beats his children, and then he caresses his dog. His whole life is passed in mere sensual enjoyment; getting drunk is his chief business in life; and when he has got drunk, his next business is to get sober."
The labourer and mechanic are unfavourably contrasted with the mercantile clerk, whose occupation is far less instructive in itself. He, we are told, "comes home and finds his wife ready dressed to receive him; has a comfortable dinner with his children; and his pleasures are the pleasures of an educated man. He reads his book, he occupies the mind of his family, and when he goes to bed he thanks God for the good God has rendered him." It is not merely the mercantile clerk who rises up in judgment against the labourers and mechanics. An even more mortifying contrast is drawn between those unhappy persons and the corresponding classes in foreign countries. At the French Exhibition the servants who brought the prize beasts were rewarded. "The gay and gallant Spaniard came up—a magnificent man, beautifully dressed—and he received his prizes with a bow and in a manner that would have done honour to a nobleman." He completely threw into the shade the "slouching man, with arms down, and a pair of gaiters on," who represented the English peasantry. The labourers are as ignorant as they are stupid. Mr. Roebuck mentioned "a labouring man whom I rather liked; a shrewd, clever fellow"—a Hampshire man, who had never heard of the Duke of Wellington. In a word, "the labouring man of this country is a mere brute animal, as compared with what he might be." That is Mr. Roebuck's final and compendious view of the subject. The remedy of this state of things he finds in education. Education will raise the lower classes to the same social level as the higher, though it will not efface distinctions of rank; nor need any one fear that it will make men effeminate, for the gentry, as India, China, and the military and naval history of the country testify, are the bravest and hardiest part of the bravest and hardiest army and navy in the world.
Of these, and many other sentiments of the kind hardly less pungently expressed, Mr. Roebuck, the representative of the most democratic constituency in England, delivered himself to a crowded meeting at Salisbury, which received his address with much applause, and which must have been attended by many members of the class which he addressed in such unmistakeably plain language. His speech undoubtedly proved, that whatever faults may belong to the bulk of the population of this country, they have, at least, the merit of exemplary good nature. There is, probably, no other part of the world in which a crowded audience would pass a couple of hours in listening to, and applauding, the most stinging objurgation of themselves and their neighbours, which the most caustic speaker of the day could invent. Certainly there is no other free country in which the representative of a town proverbially turbulent and democratic, would put in all the papers an announcement that his constituents were very little better than beasts, squandering their wages in brutal debauchery, and as much inferior to the upper classes of society as if they belonged to a different race. A man who should read such a lecture to the rowdies of New York would infallibly ruin his political prospects for life, if he did not interrupt his lecture to ride on a rail to the usual place of tarring and feathering.
Part of this result, no doubt, is due to the good-nature and tolerance which are happily characteristic of our population, but much must also be ascribed to the character of Mr. Roebuck himself. People will bear anything from a man who honestly tries to improve, and really cares for them; and through all Mr. Roebuck's hard language there runs a genuine tone of interest and pride in his nation which would excuse any amount of good advice. In the full swing of his denunciation of the English labourer, as compared with the Spaniard, he stops to point out that the faults which he describes are superficial. "Put a musket into that man's hand, take him to drill and send him to India, and you will hear of his glory throughout Europe." It is a pleasant thing to see how the different classes of the nation trust and honour each other at bottom, in the midst of the sharp things that they sometimes say of each other.
The substance of Mr. Roebuck's speech deserves careful examination, for, instructive as it is, it contains a considerable number of inconsistencies, and shows that its accomplished author had not taken the trouble, before he made it, to set clearly before his own mind the propositions which he meant to prove. For example, he attributes most of the stupidity and brutality which he laments to want of education, to the fact that labourers have no taste for reading, and that they do not appreciate the pleasures of the educated. Does he suppose that the Spanish peasantry, with whom he contrasts them so unfavourably, are great scholars? Are the Americans, amongst whom not merely the power of reading, but the taste for it is universal, remarkable for their gentleman-like demeanour? Do not the Sheffield mechanics, of whom he draws so dark a picture, pass nearly as much time in reading newspapers as in dog-fighting and drinking? The Hampshire labourer, who never heard of the Duke of Wellington, was, says Mr. Roebuck shrewd and clever, and, as Mr. Roebuck liked him, he was probably civil and sober as well. To support the theory for the sake of which he was quoted he ought to have been a brutal savage, fresh from beating his wife. The gentry, says Mr. Roebuck, are, as a rule, kind husbands and good fathers. Surely he does not seriously mean to say that there are no kind husbands and good fathers amongst the poor, or that some of the worst and most malignant forms of vice are in any degree inconsistent with mental refinement and intellectual cultivation. No doubt the broad assertion that it would be an unspeakable blessing for the nation if the lower classes could acquire some of the qualities which are at present the exclusive characteristics of their social superiors is perfectly true, but it is quite another question what those special qualities are, in which of them the poor are really deficient, and how their deficiencies are to be supplied. Each of these questions deserves more explicit consideration than it usually receives.
The characteristic moral distinctions by which society is as it were divided into two halves, are summed up in the one word "Gentleman." The division between those who are, and those who are not, entitled to this appellation, is as real and important as it is indefinite. It may, therefore, be worth while, in the first place, to examine the proper meaning of the word. The original meaning of the word gentleman, which it has never entirely lost, was nearly, if not quite, the same as that of its French equivalent gentilhomme. It denoted the fact that the person to whom it was applied was a member of one of a certain set of families, or the holder of a certain definite official or professional rank. As these families and officials were supposed to be distinguished from the rest of the world by the degree in which they possessed particular qualities, physical, moral, and intellectual, the word came by degrees to denote the combination of the two sets of distinctions; and as people came to perceive that the moral and intellectual qualities were far the most important and distinctive, they learned to attribute to the word a moral rather than a personal meaning. Hence, in the present day, the word implies the combination of a certain degree of social rank with a certain amount of the qualities which the possession of such rank ought to imply; but there is a constantly increasing disposition to insist more upon the moral and less upon the social element of the word, and it is not impossible that in course of time its use may come to be altogether dissociated from any merely conventional distinction. Leaving, then, on one side that part of the meaning of the word which relates to external social rank, these questions suggest themselves:—What are the personal qualities denoted or connoted by the word? How far, in point of fact, are the poor deficient in the possession of those qualities? To what is that deficiency to be ascribed? And how far can it be remedied?
A fashion has prevailed of describing every sort of sin or vice as being ungentlemanlike, and as deserving, on that ground, to be avoided. It is said, for example, that it is ungentlemanlike to swear; that no man deserves to be called a gentleman who would be guilty of the selfishness and treachery of seduction; and some popular writers have delighted in contrasting the claims of such a man (for example) as George IV. to be considered the first gentleman of Europe, with the innumerable acts of perfidy, debauchery, falsehood, and meanness which stained his whole career, personal and political. No doubt the result of this fashion has been to enable lay preachers, who had a natural reluctance to enter upon the deeper foundations on which morality rests, to preach very effective sermons. But to use words usefully is one thing; to use them correctly is quite another; and many reasons make the latter a hardly less important habit than the former.'
Like many other words, the word gentleman, considered merely in its personal sense, is used upon a tacit assumption which must become express if its full meaning is to be understood. This tacit assumption is that the persons to whom the word applies form a body associated together for the take of the pleasure which is to be derived from each other's society, and not for those more serious purposes which great associations of men, such as states, churches, armies, legislative and political bodies, and the like, are intended to promote. A man whose personal qualities fit him to take his place in such a society may properly, or at least intelligibly, be described as a gentleman, whatever else he may either have or want. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to give a complete list of the qualities which such a position implies, but they may be ranged under three great heads: some of them are artistic, some moral, and some intellectual: and of these the artistic qualities are the most definite, the most easily ascertained, and the most universally required. Thus it is equally inconsistent with the character of a gentleman to blow one's nose with one's fingers, to tell gross lies, or to be unable to read; but of the three offences the first is most obviously and most fundamentally irreconcilable with the character in question. Indeed the two others are ungentlemanlike principally, if not entirely, because of their inartistic nature. The reason why a lie is ungentlemanlike is because lying is not merely a vice, but an ugly and displeasing vice. Lies which are not ugly and displeasing, exaggerations for example, or inaccuracies, are not ungentlemanlike. Breaches of morality quite as decided and to the full as injurious to society, are not in the least inconsistent with the character of a gentleman. A man, for example, might be a perfect gentleman who was utterly dead to all sense of religious duty, or entirely devoid of charity towards his neighbour. Indeed the graver kinds of crime are not of necessity ungentlemanlike. Perhaps picking pockets, or obtaining money by false pretences, might be so described; but if a man from jealousy committed murder or arson it would be an abuse of language to give such a name to his conduct. No doubt the moral quality of an action is one of the elements which contribute to its beauty, or at least to our opinion of its beauty, for admiration is to a great extent the creature of association, so that we learn to admire and consider as beautiful those acts which we associate with beneficial results. Still it is by reason of their beauty, whether derived from their moral excellence or not, that we call certain dispositions gentlemanlike, and others not; nor is it to every kind of beauty that we ascribe that name, but only to those descriptions of beauty which are sufficiently striking and obvious to command the attention and sympathy of persons who associate together for the purpose of enjoying each other's society, whilst they are engaged in that enjoyment. Hence it follows that when we speak of a gentleman we do not mean either a good man, or a wise man, but a man socially pleasant, and we consider his goodness and wisdom, his moral and intellectual qualities as relevant to his claims to be considered a gentleman only in so far as they contribute to his social pleasantness.
This may appear to some persons to give a lower notion of what is meant by a gentleman than is conveyed by that vague mode of speaking upon the subject, which aims at denouncing all faults and vices whatever as being offences against good manners. In fact, however, it is always important to use language correctly; and the exaggerations referred to have a strong tendency to conceal the fact that the object of preserving the beauty, dignity, and pleasantness of life has a value of its own altogether independent of the general utility of the qualities by which those objects are brought about. It may seem at first sight a small thing to consider moral virtues with reference to the amount of social pleasure which they confer, but, in reality, it is by no means a small thing. On the contrary, the production of this pleasure is a matter of vast importance, for it colours the whole of life, and goes far to determine the temper in which we regard its various events. The use of the various sentiments and duties to which the word "gentlemanlike" points in public and private life, is closely analogous to the use of female beauty, accomplishments, and good manners in domestic life. The degree of conscious affection which prevails in any household is regulated, to a very great degree, by the amount of these elements which it contains; and, in the same way, our patriotism, and all the different sentiments and habits which flow from that source, greatly depend on the degree in which the national affairs are so managed as to impress and captivate the imagination. Nor is this in the least unreasonable. It is part of the constitution of human nature, of which the imagination is one of the most important parts. Loyalty to the Queen, a passionate ardour for the national glory, and a determination to uphold the honour of England at any price and any risk, are no more amiable self-deceptions than it is an amiable self-deception to love a woman because she is beautiful, amiable, and accomplished, or to feel keen delight in magnificent scenery. The satisfactions derived from such sources are quite as real as the pleasures derived from a good income, and far greater than the pleasures derived from the difference between a large income and a comparatively small one. It might be rash to marry a woman for her beauty and accomplishments, if she and her intended husband were both entirely without means; but a man would indeed be a wretched cur who preferred an ugly and vulgar woman with £30,000, to an accomplished and beautiful woman who had but £5,000, supposing his own prospects to be reasonably good. No doubt there are scores of men in our great manufacturing towns who, having pushed their way to great wealth and influence by mere force of character, would willingly buy the refinement of mind and manner which early education would have given them at the price of half their fortunes, and they would make an excellent bargain if they could do so.
The importance of the feelings and manners of gentlemen are most distinctly shown when they are exhibited on a great scale. The real abomination of the civil war in America—hateful as it is in every way— is its emphatically blackguardly character. Happily perhaps for their reputation, the Confederate States are sealed up from the rest of the world, but the Northerners act on every occasion and in every relation of life as if they had fallen under the dominion of the very scum of the earth as if they had committed the government to the rogues, the press to the blackguards, and the army to the cowards who must always he found in a great nation. Every one who knows America is well aware that it contains men as brave, as honourable, and as worthy in all respects of the title of gentlemen as are to be found in any part of the world, and possibly their numerical proportion to the whole population is not smaller than in other countries; but it is difficult to describe the infamy with which the conduct of their public men and public writers is loading their character in the opinion of all Europe. The timid fraudulence which was equally incapable of apologizing for an insult frankly, and of justifying it boldly; the wretched "ovations" which celebrated an ignominious rout; and the blackguard attempts to deter us from enforcing our rights by threatening to steal our money, were greater national evils than a score of defeats in fair fighting and a heavy national debt. These and other things of the same kind are so many blows to the self-respect of every man in the nation. They make men of honour hang their heads and withdraw from public life; they put public affairs into the hands of Nym the pickpocket, Bardolph, who is or ought to be hanged for robbing a church, and ancient Pistol, who eats his leek and swears that he will be most horribly revenged. No defeat, no humiliation, no public calamity can be compared with this, for such results tend to degrade a nation from being the object of the best and strongest of human feelings into a theatre for the gratification of its vilest and most contemptible propensities.
Such being the nature and importance of a gentlemanlike temper, how far is it true that the bulk of the English people are, as Mr. Roebuck says, destitute of it—and that to such an extent, that between those who are gentlemen and those who are not there is as much difference as between the members of different races. Is it true, in fact, that the poor are miserable savages, "little better than brute animals in comparison with what they ought to be?" Mr.Roebuck's assertions were, no doubt, kindly meant. He cannot be accused of being indifferent to his country. With all his asperity and with all his crotchets, no one who has watched his career will deny that, whoever may be a brute animal, he, at all events, is as true a gentleman as ever lived, and one as keenly alive to the honour and interests of his country as any man whom it contains. The fact that such a man, with no influence and no party to back him, should for many years have been member for Sheffield, is strong evidence that the Northern mechanics do not all pass the whole of their lives in getting drunk and getting sober. Whatever their faults may be, they know a man when they see him, and prefer being represented by a gentleman and man of honour, even if he is crotchety and sometimes rates them soundly, to being flattered by a wretched stump-orator, whose only gift is a power of pouring out in a fluent way torrents of water-gruel oratory dashed with bad brandy.
In this particular case, however, he has allowed indignation to write verses which nature would not have denied and would have written much better by herself. He has done great injustice to the bulk of his fellow-countrymen, and though his advice in the main was good, it confounded together several things which ought to be kept distinct. In order to answer the two questions—why the labouring poor should not all be gentlemen? and how far they foil short of the standard to which they ought to attain?—it is necessary to keep in mind the distinction already suggested as to the three heads under which the character of a gentleman may be considered—namely, the artistic, the moral, and the intellectual aspects of that character. First, as to the intellectual aspect. It is a mere dream to suppose that so long as the differences of rank, which Mr. Roebuck rightly considers essential to society, continue to exist, there will not be an immense and indelible intellectual difference between the upper and the lower classes of society. It is just as absurd to suppose that the average labourer or mechanic will ever be intellectually equal to the average gentleman, as to suppose that the average gentleman will ever have the muscles of a man who works with his hands ten hours a day. The brain of a barrister in full practice will be as much more fully developed than the brain of a blacksmith, as the arm of the blacksmith will be better developed than the arm of the barrister. This distinction is by no means confined to the more intellectual professions, such as politics, the bar, or medicine. It extends to most of the social positions which, in common language, are described as conferring the rank of a gentleman, as compared with those which do not confer it. Whatever may be the faults of the comfortable classes in our community, no reasonable person will accuse them, as a body, of want of energy. There is hardly to be found amongst us such a thing as a really idle class. A country gentleman, for example, hunts and shoots, goes to magistrates' meetings, and to the quarter sessions, and finds an immense variety of occupations in the management of his estate and affairs. He is almost sure to be something of a lawyer, something of a farmer, and, in these days, very probably he is something of a soldier as well. At all events, as the head of a family, he has, like the Centurion, servants under him, and says "to one man come, and he cometh, and to another go, and he goeth. To this it must be added, that he has generally been educated up to the age of twenty-two or twenty-three at school or college. That such a person should not be intellectually superior to a man of the same natural gifts, who was taken from a school where he just learned to read and write, and to do elementary sums, at eleven or twelve years of age, and who since that time has passed his life in shoemaking or carpentering, is absurd; and unless Mr. Roebuck, or anyone else who is dissatisfied with the condition of the labouring classes, is prepared to suggest means by which they can all pass a third of their lives in preparing for the work of the other two-thirds, and by which they may be supplied with an entirely different set of employments for those remaining two-thirds from that which they have at present, he will never be able to efface or materially to diminish the difference which now exists.
It must be observed that this distinction, which arises from the very nature of things, runs through the whole subject. The different elements of our nature are only ideally, and not actually, distinct. We can form separate conceptions in our own minds of the intellect, the moral character, and the artistic perceptions,—just as we speak of the arms, the legs, the heart, and the lungs; but, in fact, the three mental divisions all run into each other, just as the heart is directly connected with the lungs and the arm is attached to the shoulder so that if it were cut off it would, as the greatest of ancient philosophers declared, be no longer an arm except in name. A man whose intellect is highly cultivated will, by that circumstance alone, be enabled to see more clearly the moral relation and significance of different actions, and to appreciate more fully the artistic merits of particular courses of conduct, than one who does not enjoy similar advantages. Hence the intellectual superiority which the higher ranks of society must always enjoy over the lower, will involve a corresponding superiority in reference to moral and artistic matters. A gentleman, as such, will probably have more delicate moral perceptions and better taste than the members of other classes, for this simple reason, that the superior cultivation of his understanding will have increased the strength and delicacy of all his perceptions, moral, intellectual, or artistic.
For these reasons there must always be an intellectual distinction between the higher and lower classes, corresponding to that distinction between the classes themselves which Mr. Roebuck admits to be indispensable to the general welfare of society. It may, however, happen in any particular society, that the difference is greater than it should be; and no doubt, if Mr. Roebuck were right in saying that in this country it is as great as the difference between two races, he would have proved a very bad state of things; but he is not correct in his facts, and there is every reason to hope that, ten years hence, his description will be utterly unlike anything which will then exist. The whole subject was examined with most minute and elaborate care by the Education Commissioners, and the result of their report seems to be, that the substantial part of education—the power of reading, writing, and ciphering, in a substantial manner—is already possessed and used by a considerable part of the labouring population—in fact, by the large majority of people under forty years of age; and that if, for ten years more, matters go on as they have for the last twenty years, that part of the population to which Mr. Roebuck referred—the independent poor—will be able, with hardly an exception, to read and write without any disagreeable effort, and to cipher in a serviceable manner. Practical people cannot expect much more than that. The human brain has but a limited amount of energy; and if a man has to dig, or hammer, and saw, or stitch leather for ten hours a day, he will never—unless he is a very remarkable man—pass much time in reading, or read with much system. If he is a remarkable man, he will soon rise above the necessity of carpentering or shoemaking.
The answer to the first part of Mr. Roebuck's question, why there should be any difference other than that of social rank between those who are and those who are not gentlemen, is that the difference of social rank which he recognizes as necessary, and the difference in circumstances on which it rests, involve a corresponding intellectual difference, and that this intellectual difference is not at present in this country much greater, and will probably before long cease to be at all greater, than from the nature of the case it always must be.
The next question refers to the artistic difference between those who are gentlemen and those who are not. Mr. Roebuck did not divide the subject in this way, but he appears to have been more struck with this than with any other part of the contrast on which he dwelt so vigorously. As compared with the mercantile clerk, or with the Spanish peasant, the English labourer, it appears, is a kind of brute. Questions of this kind are emphatically and of necessity matters of taste, and it is hard to get beyond contrary affirmations on the opposite sides of the question; but there are many persons whose impressions of their countrymen altogether differ from Mr. Roebuck's, and who would give totally different evidence as to the artistic differences between the gentleman and the working man, and as to the relative merits of labourers and mercantile clerks in point of manners. As has been already observed, the intellectual difference between the two classes involves a corresponding difference in point not merely of intellect, but of manners and morals also. How far that difference is exceeded in this particular case is the only question at issue. It is one which it is impossible to answer because of its indefinite nature; but though no precise answer can be given, it is easy to exaggerate both the amount and the importance of the difference, and Mr. Roebuck appears to have done both.
It may appear paradoxical, but it is strictly true, that the manners of an English gentleman have much more in common with the manners of a labourer than with the manners of a mercantile clerk or a small shopkeeper. It is true that a gentleman's accent differs from a labourer's; he holds himself differently, and his features express altogether a different class of emotions and recollections, but the manner of the two men has a radical similarity which ought not to be overlooked by any one who wishes to understand English society. The great characteristic of the manners of a gentleman, as we conceive them in England, is plain, downright, frank simplicity. It is meant to be, and to a great extent it is, the outward and visible sign of the two great cognate virtues—truth and courage. It is the manner of men who expect each other to say, in the plainest way, just what they mean, and to stand to what they say, with but little regard either for the opinions or for the approbation of others, though with full respect to their feelings.
This sturdy mixture of frankness when they do speak, with a perfect willingness to hold their tongues when they have nothing to say, is the great distinguishing feature of educated Englishmen, and is the one which always strikes foreigners with surprise. It is their incapacity to appreciate the qualities which it covers, which makes their criticisms on us so wildly remote from the truth as they often are. This manner prevails much more amongst the labouring than amongst the shopkeeping classes. Their language proves it conclusively. A gentleman and a labouring man would tell the same story in nearly the same words, differently pronounced, of course, and arranged in the one case grammatically, and in the other not. In either case the words themselves would be plain, racy, and smacking of the soil from which they grow. The language of the commercial clerk, and the manner in which he brings it out, are both framed on quite a different model. He thinks about himself, and constantly tries to talk fine. He calls a school an academy, speaks of proceeding when he means going, and talks, in short, much in the style in which the members of his own class write police reports and accounts of appalling catastrophes for the newspapers. The manners of a sailor, a non-commissioned officer in the army, a gamekeeper, or of the better kind of labourers—men whose masters trust them, and who are well-conducted and sober (as hundreds of thousands are)—are much better in themselves, and are capable of a for higher polish, than the manners of a bagman or a small shopkeeper.
Whether or not the manners of a respectable English labourer are better than those of a Spanish or French peasant, is a question of taste. They are formed on a totally different model, and differ much in the same particulars in which the manners of a Spanish or French and English gentleman would differ. Every nation has its ideal; and the ideal after which a French gentleman, for example, aspires, though it has many good points, has some which are far from being good. The constant demand which the manners of French gentlemen make for sympathy and admiration is very well for those who like it, but it is not everybody who does. It is hardly possible to find pleasanter, more honourable, or more instructive companions than well-educated and well-bred Frenchmen; but to an English associate, they constantly suggest the wish that they were a little more indifferent to what other people are likely to think and say about them;—in other words, that they had thicker skins and plainer manners. It is this thickness of skin and plainness of manner, carried a little to excess, which give their peculiar appearance to English labourers and mechanics, and delude people into describing them in such language as that of Mr. Roebuck. This is the real explanation of the stories which cause so much patriotic regret to that eloquent lecturer. One cannot help liking him for the mixture of patriotic pique and pride with which he contrasts the courtly Spaniard at the Paris Exhibition with the slouching Englishman, adding a pretty clear intimation of his private opinion that if the two men were each put behind a musket and a bayonet, the balance might be the other way; but, in truth, his pride is better founded than his censure. Probably the Spaniard believed that the eyes of the whole universe were fixed on himself and his bull—that he individually was an honour to his province, and that in the whole city of Paris there was not such another man or bull to be found. The Englishman, on the contrary, probably thought very little of the whole affair; and, considering it perfectly natural that the French should give him a prize, was almost, if not altogether indifferent as to whether they gave it or not. Of course the two sentiments would be embodied in a corresponding manner; but most Englishmen would have considerable sympathy with a man who would not let himself be put out of the way because a set of foreigners admired his master's cattle. It is another illustration of the very same sentiment which, in all probability, led the squire to whom the bull belonged to walk about the Boulevards in a shooting jacket and wide-awake. Why, he would ask, should he not dress as he liked in a town where nobody knew him, or was likely to notice him? Mr. Roebuck himself would hardly contend that the Spaniard was better educated than the Englishman. In all probability, he could not spell his own name, and had never learnt his letters, whilst the Englishman must have been quite an exception if he was not perfectly able to read his newspaper and his Bible, and to write a letter to his wife or daughter.
The other awful example is of just the same kind. Mr. Roebuck walked into his garden with The Times in his hand, and told his humble friend that the Duke of Wellington was dead. "I'm sorry for he, sir— who was he?" was the answer; at which Mr. Roebuck testifies his virtuous indignation. Considering that the present Emperor of the French owed many of the votes which ratified his title to the fact that the enlightened and well-behaved peasantry firmly believed that he was the hero of Austerlitz and Jena just returned from St. Helena, Mr. Roebuck's friend was not in a state of unexampled ignorance. He had, however, one merit, which is more common here than elsewhere. He owned his ignorance like an honest man, and did not affect to talk about what he did not understand. This is an invaluable characteristic, and one which deserves the highest praise in days when everybody is exposed to eminent risk of being pretentious and conceited, and when many people, especially in the rank just above labouring men, fall into that snare to a woeful extent. Thousands of mercantile clerks and small shopkeepers would have known very little more about the Duke of Wellington than the Hampshire labourer, but not one in a hundred would have been above the meanness of pretending to know all about him. Considered merely as a matter of manners, no gentleman could have spoken more appropriately, or in better language, than the man in question—if he had only substituted "him" for "he." The sentiment is, "You tell me that a great man, a duke, is dead, and you tell me this as a piece of bad news which affects the nation at large. I am very sorry to hear it. Pray, tell me something about this great man, for I don't know who he was." This sentiment, expressed as it was in the simplest and fewest possible words, was essentially courteous and proper. It admitted Mr. Roebuck's superior information and knowledge. It gave him credit for putting the proper interpretation on an interesting event, and it expressed a wish for further instruction. Could Mr. Roebuck himself have done or said more? The mere fact of being ignorant about the Duke of Wellington is one which goes for nothing at all. A man's education must be measured by what he does, and not by what he does not know. If it were not so, there would not be in the world such a thing as a well-instructed man. Not long ago, a barrister, who was not unknown in his own or in other lines of life, was asked if he knew where Nootka Sound was. He said: "I have not the least idea; I have hitherto done very well without knowing; but if I cared to know, I would find out all about it in ten minutes." Dr. Johnson, in his Dictionary, defined the pastern as the knee of a horse, and on being asked how he came to do so, answered, "Ignorance, madam— pure ignorance." Any extent of ignorance of specific facts is perfectly consistent with the manner and sentiments of a gentleman. The only ignorance inconsistent with it is ignorance of the principal means of acquiring knowledge in use amongst the society to which the person in question belongs at the time. Thus the North American Indians have, in many respects, the manners of gentlemen; but an Indian ignorant of the arts of war and hunting would never have acquired the manner of the warriors and huntsmen of his tribe. The French are the most ignorant nation in Europe, though their manners have some excellent points; but a Frenchman who was isolated from the social influences which affect his countrymen so deeply, would no doubt be as rough and brutal as the mountain shepherds whose ferocious appearance so much scandalized the old Marquis de Mirabeau. So an Englishman may be very ignorant; but if he has had to do with kind and considerate employers, and knows how to read and write, he will probably be simple, modest, plain-spoken, and respectful, but otherwise not.
It is always desirable in speculations on the state of a country to have a clear notion of what is wanted; and in reference to the question, what degree of artistic cultivation ought to be expected of English labouring people, it is by no means difficult to give an answer, which is not the less plain because it is not expressed in precise language. There are in the country many thousand men, little, if at all, removed from the class in question, whose manners are quite as good, and approach quite as nearly to the manners of gentlemen, as can or ought to be expected of persons in that class of life. If our labourers and mechanics in general were as well behaved as steady policemen, sober non-commissioned officers, or respectable railway porters, they would behave as well as there is any reason to suppose men who work with their hands all day long and are supported by the wages of their labour ever will behave. It would be a very bad exchange if they took to behaving like Frenchmen or Spaniards, or to giving to their language that detestable affectation of literary style which turns a good house into an eligible residence, and makes a man contemplate the erection of such a residence instead of intending to build it.
Thus, the second part of Mr. Roebuck's question, why the labouring poor should be inferior to the gentry as to refinement of manner, may be answered by saying that there must always be a difference of degree, for the reasons already assigned; but that the difference is not nearly so great as he supposes, and that it is not at all impossible, nor even improbable, that the continued sympathy between class and class, and the spread of education, may soon diminish that difference to its normal and proper magnitude.
The last and most important point to be considered relates to the moral differences between the upper and lower classes. According to Mr. Roebuck, the difference amounts to this, that the one are high-minded, affectionate, and self-controlled, and the others brutes, whose lives are passed partly in drunkenness, partly in domestic tyranny. Such a mode of disposing of the matter is bad on the face of it. It is far too summary and simple to be true. The question in fact, is extremely complex, nor does any one possess the knowledge necessary to solve it completely. Some general observations, however, may be made respecting it.
In the first place, it is most important to notice the deep sympathy and, indeed, identity of moral character which runs through all classes of the nation, and ought to be specially and fully recognized. The resemblances between all classes of Englishmen are generic. The differences are specific. From the Queen, whose exhortation to her children on the death of their father to support her in the discharge of her public duties drew tears from many eyes not easily moistened, down to the sturdy private soldier, who told his captors that they might knock out his brains if they pleased, but that nothing on earth should make him do homage to a Chinaman, and was as good as his word, there are links of sentiment and principle too close to be ever dissevered. No English gentleman would be worthy of the name, who did not consider the adjective as infinitely more valuable and characteristic than the substantive. Indeed his distinction from his neighbours consists only in the fact that circumstances enable him to put a special degree of lustre and polish on qualities which belong to millions of his countrymen, just as much as to himself. It is this which justifies Mr. Roebuck, in his assertion that there is no reason to fear that the lower classes will be made effeminate if they are to resemble their social superiors. The material is the same throughout; and the gentry, when they live up to their opportunities, are only picked and polished specimens of the material of which the nation at large is composed.
The fact that there is no essential difference between the characters of the different sections of society, or, at any rate, no difference which is in favour of the higher classes, is nowhere more apparent than in respect of those qualities in which the spirit of gentlemen is supposed to display itself most fully—the qualities of generosity, self-sacrifice, and patriotism. There is probably no class of men in the world who possess these qualities, in a higher degree, than the bulk of the independent English poor. They are often described as dull and apathetic; but any one who will look at broad, notorious facts, may see that this is utterly false. They are, as a rule, men of strong characters, and therefore of strong passions, and if their spirit is roused upon any point whatever, they become, in a settled, stubborn way of their own, utterly indifferent to danger, to interest, or to present or future comfort. The strikes which have of late produced so much distress, and been so deeply and perhaps justly blamed, have proved this beyond a doubt. It may be quite true that the workmen were utterly wrong, and perfectly absurd; but however this may be, it is certain that, having taken their view, they trusted and stood by each other and their leaders, with the same perfect confidence and dogged resolution that drove the Russians down the hill of Inkermann and the French from the ridge of Albuera. Whenever, and in whatever form, the demand is made, the same qualities are always forthcoming in any required quantity. There is no point of generosity or self-devotion which will not be reached by the commonest class of Englishmen, if they are put upon their honour, and treated with confidence and sympathy. It was a work of great difficulty and delicacy to form the Naval Reserve. There were all sorts of prejudices and difficulties to overcome; but when the men had fully studied the subject, had made their bargain, and accepted their retaining fees, they came forward as one man to discharge their part of the contract on the first rumour that their services might be required; and it may be said, in passing, that no gentlemen in Europe could have offered their services with better grace, or expressed their offer in terms simpler, and more to the purpose. The same spirit shows itself on every occasion. The soldiers who fell in to meet inevitable death on the deck of the Birkenhead, as quietly as they would have fallen in on parade, and who did die accordingly with impassive calmness, showed a degree of heroism which would have immortalized the proudest aristocracy in the world. It is to be hoped that gentlemen would have done as well. The best gentlemen in the world could have done no better.
Nor is it on those great occasions only that such characteristics are displayed. No more touching proof of courtesy was ever given than was shown by the wounded men in the Crimea, who avoided every rough or impatient expression in the presence of the ladies who came from England to nurse them. This was but one instance in a thousand of the extreme delicacy of feeling which poor people constantly possess. No one can have been in the habit of seeing them without learning that their feelings are much stronger in proportion to their understandings than is the case with gentlefolks; that they accordingly express them with far less reserve, and that they are therefore both more aware of the nature of each other's feelings, and in some respects more on their guard against wounding them, than richer people.
With all these facts in view, it seems hard to join in Mr. Roebuck's opinion that the labouring man is "a mere brute animal," in comparison with what he should be. These vehement expressions rest almost entirely upon the manners of Mr. Roebuck's constituents at Sheffield, and if he had confined himself to saying that Sheffield is a very rough place, and that the Sheffield grinders are more given to liquor, to cock-fighting, dog-fighting, bad language, and wife-beating, than most of her Majesty's subjects, he would probably have been corroborated by much independent evidence. This, however, arises to a great extent from peculiar circumstances. Mr. Roebuck himself truly says that many of his constituents earn immense wages by manual labour, and spend what they earn in chronic drunkenness and low debauchery. This is very true, and the same remark applies to many other parts of the manufacturing districts. The inference from this is, that it is a bad thing to set a beggar on horseback. If men are brought up to live on 10s. or 14s. a week, and suddenly rise to £4 or £5, they are subjected to just the same sort of temptation as a young man in another class who passes from a stingy allowance at school or college, to the uncontrolled possession of a large fortune. Sailors with prize-money, and Australian diggers, broke out into just the same sort of riot and folly. The rapid growth of our manufactures has been to several of our large towns just what the gold discoveries were to California and Australia. Society has been disorganized and disarranged, and of course individual character suffers from it. Let any one think of the villages, or towns, or streets, which he knows himself, and he will see how unjust it is to describe the poor of this country as a horde of drunken savages.
Looking at the matter apart from well-meant oratorical exaggerations, the answer to the whole of Mr. Roebuck's question will appear to be this —that there always will and must be a difference between the intellectual moral, and artistic condition of the rich and poor, corresponding to the difference between them in social rank—that he has greatly exaggerated the degree in which that difference actually prevails at present in this country, and that there is reason to hope that it is in a way to be reduced to its natural and normal magnitude.
Cornhill Magazine, March 1862.