“History of Europe: 1815-1848” (by Archibald Alison)
We have frequently had occasion to express pretty clearly our opinion of the merits of Sir Archibald Alison. We need not, therefore, in noticing the new volume of his history which has been recently published, attempt any further estimate of the general characteristics of his mind or writings. For those who are not offended by a verbose and careless style, who are contented with a meagre list of authorities, and who believe that the currency is the be-all and end-all of human society, Sir Archibald's works must always have charms quite independent of the subject matter to which they refer. To more exacting readers, they are valuable as affording almost the only history of very recent events which aims at permanence. Till an abler writer comes forward to take his place, Sir Archibald must continue to be nearly the only resource of those who wish to have an account of the last half century which is certainly much more portable than the Times, or even than the Annual Register. Envelopment in the dense Scotch mist—moral, intellectual, and sometimes even grammatical—in which the landscape is shrouded, is the price which they must pay for the convenience. There is no part of history with which men in general are less acquainted than that which the Scotch say “marches” with contemporary politics. Put an object too near your eye, and it is distorted; put it beyond a certain point, and it becomes clear; but between the two there is one small interval where it is almost invisible. Much in the same way we look upon the occurrences of the last few years with all the minute recollection and warm feeling which they excited when we first read of them as articles of news. When we look back for a certain distance, men and things assume that indescribable “historical” aspect which we all perceive but which no one can explain. Between the two there is a debateable land, peopled partly by the present and partly by a past generation—which has lost the freshness of contemporary interest, and has not gained the dignity of history.
The sixth volume of Sir Archibald's History relates the affairs of France from 1837 to 1841—those of England from 1834 to 1841– and concludes with a sketch of the history of British India from the end of the Mahratta war in 1806 to the disasters of the Afghan campaign in 1842. The chapters on India please us decidedly the best, or we ought perhaps to say, contain least of what grates upon our feelings. They do certainly begin with an original speculation on the “Universal feeling of mankind to resist foreign aggression,” which is followed by an inquiry into the abstruse “reasons of this universal feeling.” The universal feeling is simply that people do not like aggression, and the reason is, because it is unpleasant. There is also a good deal of shallow denunciation of the Company's government, founded on the exaggerated language of a French writer, but apart from this there is less to object to than usual. Sir Archibald does not lack vivacity, and his short abstract of a few popular books on the Afghan campaign is spirited and readable. There is also a good deal of life in the account of the Pindarree, the Burmese, and the Ghookka wars, the storm of Bhurtpore, and the Vellore mutiny.
With respect to France, England, and the United States (which last receive a passing notice of about forty pages), Sir Archibald is, in the present volume, in a less cross-grained mood than usual. His currency crotchets, as might have been expected, leave upon the reader's mind the impression of a Scotch reel danced by phantoms; but the fact that “Providence has opened vast banks of issue in California and Australia” exercises a soothing influence over the Lanarkshire seer, who looks upon one-pound notes, or their equivalents, as the chariot of Israel and the horses thereof. The particular passage of French history to which he directs his readers' attention, is—when it is read by the light of subsequent occurrences—one of the most melancholy passages in the history of modern Europe. We know of hardly any other which so curiously illustrates the text, “Thou hast multiplied the nation and not increased the joy.” With few exceptions, the principal events between 1837 and 1841 must be matter of painful, sometimes humiliating, reflection to every Frenchman. The increase of wealth caused by the great modern mechanical inventions, and especially the establishment of a well-organized network of railroads" connecting together the principal towns in the country, are a considerable set-off to the gloomy aspect of political affairs; but there is something not only terrible, but affecting, in the waste of courage and of many other noble qualities which characterized the whole of the feverish reign of Louis Philippe. Nothing can be more melancholy than the records of the series of abortive conspiracies and useless bloodshed by which one secret, society after another attempted to establish a new order of things. In reading the history of such events as the insurrection of May 12, 1837, we feel something of the same kind of regret which is excited by hearing of a spirited schoolboy being maimed for life in a school fight. It is sad to think that so many brave men should have found no better use for courage, ingenuity, and a self-devotion at times almost heroic, than that of bringing destruction on themselves, and ultimately of preventing the growth of the liberties of their country; and these reflections acquire all the more force from the circumstance that it is impossible not to see that no two things could be more opposed to each other than the end and the means of such men as Barbés and his associates. Nothing can be more hopeless than the notion of obtaining political freedom by the slavish organization of secret societies.
The politics proper of France during the period in question are not much more satisfactory. The war of parties which signalized the establishment and the overthrow of the government of Marshal Soult in 1837, and of that of M. Thiers in 1840, furnished, no doubt, abundant subjects of discontent for those who were in favour of a second revolution. It is impossible to read the history of them without seeing how weak was the bond which united the various sections of French politicians, and how deep and ineradicable were the motives to mutual distrust by which they were divided. The spectacle of a king fortifying his capital against his people, a people forming secret associations for the overthrow of their government, and two knots of politicians, each watching its opportunity of overturning the existing order of things to bring in the representatives of a defeated party, enables us to understand, though it may not induce us to sympathize with, those who at no very distant period drew from the spectacle the practical conclusion that constitutional government, with its petty personal springs of action, its compromises, its half measures, and its general uncertainty and vacillation, was a mere conventional good—a sham, destined to be swept away by advancing cultivation. We do not wish to speak disrespectfully of a great and friendly nation, but we cannot help saying that, though Louis Philippe's reign may naturally enough have excited such feelings, Louis Napoleon's ought to suggest an answer to them. Constitutional government no doubt exhibits, but it does not produce, the defects of human nature—on the contrary, it has a tendency to cure them by the very fact that it lays them open to criticism. In short, the moral of this melancholy story would seem to be that we should recognise the provocation which the revolutionary party received, without denying that they did not take the proper steps to remove their grievances.
The annals of England during the period to which Sir Archibald's volume refers must also be read in the light of the experience of a later time. Viewed merely as it stands, the history of the ten years which followed the Reform Bill is not a brilliant one. We turn to it with a strange feeling. Men still young can perfectly remember discussions upon subjects now as completely settled as the succession of the House of Hanover. Twenty years ago, emigration hardly existed, and over-population was the great terror of the day. Twenty years ago, “the number of agricultural labourers in Ireland actually exceeded those of England by 75,000.” There were “585,000 heads of families who for seven months in the year were without employment, and the persons dependent on them were 1,500,000 more." Murders in many of the counties were reckoned by hundreds, and discontent and agitation were on the increase, and did not reach their maximum for full seven years. Scotland, at about the same time, was by no means exempt from distress. It is exactly twenty years since the famous strike of the Glasgow cotton-spinners, which involved a dreadful amount, not only of misery, but of crime of the most serious kind, and issued in the arrest and trial of sixteen persons for organized conspiracies to murder. In England, the course of events was by no means a very cheering one. Chartism, now almost a forgotten word, was growing to a head, and in the year 1840 actually broke out into insurrection at Birmingham and Newport. In the colonies we had two Canadian rebellions, and at the other end of the world we were involved in a Chinese war. The great actions of the time were mostly negative. It was the very height of what Mr. Carlyle rather cynically called the “scavenger” age. Corrupt corporations, rotten boroughs, obsolete laws, cruel punishments capriciously inflicted, and many other excrescences and malformations were removed in abundance; and a vast variety of the great physical undertakings which have so greatly altered the face of the nation, and the manners of its inhabitants were set on foot. Great and indispensable as all these operations were, it is impossible to look back upon them without feeling their incomplete and preliminary character. To put down an abuse is a great thing, no doubt, but the paeans which follow it are soon exhausted, and the question is, What next? Continual reforming is like living on medicine, and though the doctor is an indispensible person we are generally glad to have done with him. A great nation wants results as well as machinery. The answer to such criticism as this is, that it is impossible to take a fair estimate of the value of the great changes which ushered in the last quarter of a century, without paying special attention to the records of the last ten years. We doubt whether the history of mankind affords a more splendid justification of a generous policy. The manner in which free discussion, temperate good sense, and mutual forbearance alleviated the distress of the poor, abolished all serious political discontent, and brought the nation safely through war, famine, pestilence, and the contagion of political convulsions which shook every State in Europe to its foundations—form a subject worthy of the highest historical genius. We do not see any reason to expect that Sir Archibald Alison will tell the story of the last fifteen years as it ought to be told, but whoever does so will win the highest rank amongst modern historians.
Saturday Review, May 2, 1857.