Thursday, December 1, 2016

Allison's History of Europe

Review of:
The History of Europe, from the Fall of Napoleon to the Accession of Louis Napoleon (by Archibald Alison, 1859).

The wise Laputans, Swift tells us, “shut up the whole compass of their minds in music and mathematics;” and, accordingly, extracted ice from gunpowder and sunbeams from cucumbers. Had it not been for this peculiarity the Dean supposes that they would have been like other men—would have drawn proper conclusions from the phenomena before them, and have avoided the habit of barren and crazy philosophizing. In that event he even thinks that they would have displayed some “imagination, fancy, and invention,” and that they would not have been “very bad reasoners,” and “vehemently given to opposing" obvious certainties. The volume before us makes us wish that Sir Archibald Alison would take this language to himself, and would learn from it a profitable lesson. Could he divest himself of the Laputan ideas as regards the Currency, Free-trade, Education, and the Reform Bill, which have carried him into a maze of false theories and misstatements in which his wanderings are truly ridiculous, we might say that he has shown in this fragment of his work that he has some of the qualities of an historian. Undoubtedly, even though it had been “conspicuous” for this desirable “absence,” it would still have been open to much objection, as full of puerile remarks puffed out in pompous language, as rolling on in turgid and exaggerated length, as remarkably deficient in patient thought, and as abounding in slipshod grammar. But, with all these faults of design and execution, which in some places have made this history quite intolerable, Sir Archibald Alison nevertheless possesses merits which are less disfigured than usual in this volume. He has an eye for the picturesque, and thus can portray with clearness and animation the external features of a country and a district. He can describe battles and campaigns with vigour and brilliancy, although here he is addicted to a positive dogmatism which, of course, reminds one of Hannibal's sophist. He is also generous in his nature, and scrupulously impartial as far as his prejudices will allow; and he is not without a strong sympathy with his subject, and a consciousness of its vastness and dignity. These qualities in the pages before us are not entirely counterbalanced by the vices of wrong thinking and declamation; and, accordingly, Sir Archibald Alison's narratives of the wars in China and India from 1842 to 1850, of the Hungarian struggle of 1849, and of the campaigns of Radetsky in Italy will certainly be popular, and are really interesting. In short, if the reader will skip the “philosophy” of this volume and confine himself to its account of “facts,” he will find a good deal in it worth a perusal. The task, perhaps, may seem formidable, but it is less laborious and more entertaining than that of studying the last dozen Annual Registers.

The worst part of the volume, as has always happened in the course of this history, is that which relates to the affairs of Great Britain. Here Sir Archibald Alison fondly believes that he can see into the causes of things; and the result, as is now generally known, is that he perverts, misstates, and disregards facts, in order that he may reconcile them with a “pre-established harmony” of absurdity. Of course, the phantoms of Atwood reappear upon this scene of the Alisonian drama, as they did in others which preceded it, and perform the part of Destiny in a Greek play—the one great agency which regulates everything. We are not, indeed, told, as we were before, that an “expanded currency” was the cause of the fall of Hannibal, that a “contracted currency” was the destruction of Rome, and that the Act of 1819 has “doubled our debts and halved our resources.” Such strange revelations were not to be expected twice, but still a survey of our Empire from 1848 to 1857 enables Sir Archibald Alison to make others a shade only less remarkable. Thus (p.901) he informs us, “that his History has been written to little purpose if it is not apparent that in an ancient, opulent, and commercial nation, the monetary measures which the holders of realized wealth, for their own sakes, are prompted to pursue is (sic) the source of unbounded industrial distress"—that is, that the Acts of 1819 and 1844 have cruelly and wrongly “strangled our industry,” by extinguishing in 1847 and 1857 some insolvent houses, and bringing a vast amount of overtrading to its natural termination. For the purpose of assailing our whole currency system, and especially of refuting Lord Overstone, he assures us (p.247) that it is “a mistake to suppose that the issue of inconvertible paper, in moderate quantities, will drive specie out of the country.” The proof of this assurance is that, notwithstanding a forced paper circulation in 1848, confessedly to a limited extent, the exports of France within that year were able to find a market abroad, and to attract eleven millions of specie in exchange. That is to say, a financial shift in a moment of Revolution, adopted, as Sir Archibald Alison admits, to counteract the effects of “sudden and enormous hoarding” which was rapidly withdrawing the precious metals from the market, has no tendency to force specie out of circulation when the trade of gold and silver is free, and commerce is in its normal condition! We need scarcely say, however, that the gold discoveries, more frequently than anything else, call forth Sir Archibald Alison's currency doctrines in this volume; and it is pleasant to hear that California and Australia have converted into “a sudden burst of prosperity” the “low prices and general misery” which in 1851 were bringing the Empire to “destruction.” We accept the great change with proper thankfulness, and yet we may perhaps be allowed to doubt if a single fact can be the cause of all things, or even if it has had at all the result which Sir Archibald Alison ascribes to it. We may admit that the gold discoveries have had the effect of “greatly stimulating industry and production,” though not to the extent of metamorphosing the aspect of the Empire; and we are certain that they have not had this effect “by increasing prices in every part of the world” (p.904). For, in the first place, it is very remarkable, notwithstanding the immense increase in the production of gold which has been witnessed during the last eight years, that the prices of all commodities have not risen in the same ratio, which is the only sure proof of a depreciation of the precious metals; and, in the next place, had this event occurred, its only possible operation on “industry” would have been a relief from a part of taxation, and a reduction in the value of old debts—a result by no means necessarily in favour of industry. It is of course obvious that the gold discoveries have had the effect of opening a vast field for labour which otherwise might not have found an investment. But Sir Archibald Alison is not content with this; and when he prays them in aid of his currency doctrines, and informs us that they “have given us a currency commensurate to the increased numbers and transactions of the civillized world"—and that this “has raised prices, advanced wages, enormously increased exports and imports," and created an Eldorado of prosperity—he merely runs into those tirades of nonsense which have made a byword of his “philosophy.”

Sir Archibald Alison reiterates, in this volume, an “eternal law" against Free-trade in corn, which all our readers are perhaps not acquainted with. The “new and poor State,” he informs us—for instance, Poland, Russia, or America—will always under-sell an “old and rich one,” like England, in corn. The reason of this is, that “money is cheap” and “prices high” in the “old State,” whereas “money is dear” and “prices are low” in the “new one;” and that agriculture does not allow of that elaborate machinery by which the former can so reduce the cost of production of grain as to enable it to compete with the latter. In manufactures, however, elaborate machinery is possible, and, accordingly, in these products the “old State” undersells the “new one;” but this, in the long run, only precipitates its ruin, because the result of manufacturing industry is invariably to check the growth of the species. From this he infers that the agriculture of “old rich.” England should be “protected,” more especially as its population is declining; and, in fact, it is tending to inanition. If this “law” be really “eternal,” we wonder how it comes to pass that the corn fields of Kent and Essex have not been turned into pastures—that, since the repeal of the Corn-laws in 1846, agriculture has made a most wonderful progress, and especially has attracted more capital than hitherto to itself —and that the half-manufacturing nation of England grows so much faster than that of agricultural France? How Sir Archibald Alison, in the face of overwhelming facts, can repeat this idle and trifling nonsense, we really are at a loss to know; and we suppose that we can only plead for him the remark of Adam Smith, “that there is no amount of speculative absurdity, too great for minds of a dull and positive character.” It is also not a little remarkable that (p.778) he allows that, since the commencement of Free-trade, agricultural machinery has been immensely improved, and that he implies that, in 1859, “British rural industry” is in a very good way. In other words, in one part of his book, he gives up the “demonstration” which he had elaborated in another. This volume also contains several palinodes as regards the mischievous effects of education, the increase of crime in the British Islands, and the melancholy results of the Reform Bill; but, as this is the crambe repetita of obvious nonsense, we shall not write another word about it. Let us add, however, as we have said before, that the chapter on Great Britain is by far the worst in this volume, and that even this has some good remarks upon the abandonment of the system of transportation, upon the true objects of colonial government, and upon the folly of reducing our naval and military establishments to the level of the Manchester party. It is also written throughout in a patriotic spirit, and with singular liberality towards political opponents; and here and there it has some interesting passages, though generally it is overloaded with excessive wordiness. In short, faulty as this chapter is, it proves that when Sir Archibald Alison can get rid of philosophy and economics, and confine himself to narrative and fact, he is not without the real merits of good feeling, common sense, and the love of justice. The old Athenian in the play had many excellences, and was not at all deficient in shrewdness, though he could not read the secret of the “immortal clouds,” or match Socrates in the fence of logic; and this, we think, is about the measure of Sir Archibald Alison when dealing with the more complex problems of history.

The fiftieth, fifty-first, and last chapters of this volume are occupied with the history of France from 1848 to 1852. As was to be expected, they contain much moralizing about the sequence of “democracy” and “despotism,” and several platitudes as regards the “retribution” which inevitably follows revolutionary outbursts. They are also deficient in their descriptions of the state and tendency of French opinion at this period, and their long paragraphs of shallow reflections are not pregnant with the genius of the time. In one respect they are very unjust. They roll out a good deal of ponderous invective against the Socialists, Communists, and Jacobins of Paris, but they do not utter a word of censure against the author of the 2nd of December. The barricades of June are violently assailed, but the fusillades which inaugurated the “Empire of Peace” do their bloody work without a protest. In fact, Sir Archibald Alison's horror of “democracy” makes Louis Napoleon rather a favourite; and, although he is far from raising him to an object of hero-worship, he welcomes him as a man of destiny. In other particulars these chapters are more just, and contain some reasonable observations, while their narrative is not devoid of liveliness and interest. A fair hit is made at Mr. Disraeli as regards the characteristics of “Tory Democracy;” and the fallacies of Socialism are not ill exposed, though sufficient stress is not laid upon its tendency to destroy both capital and industry. The alternate sentimentalism, conceit, and generosity of Lamartine, while at the head of the Provisional Government, are also described with sufficient truth; and a proper measure of blame is meted out to the more selfish leaders of the Democratic party. As regards the actual events of these four years, the tremendous insurrection of June, 1848, is a fluent and interesting piece of narrative; and the oscillations of the Republic between anarchy and despotism, the steady growth of the power of Louis Napoleon, the antagonism in opinion between town and country in France, and even the coup d'├ętat of the 2nd of December, are rendered with tolerable fidelity and effect. On the whole, these chapters will probably be read, and perhaps it will be some time before the subject will be treated in so popular a style, though their errors are sufficiently plain, and they would be much better for considerable pruning.

This volume also gives an account of the Italian and German revolutions of 1848-49. Here again the “philosophy” of Sir Archibald Alison is of the most mushroom species, while his narrative is not without some merits. The “causes” of the Italian outbreak were “the reforms of Pio Nono, the democratic concessions of Charles_Albert, and the more sweeping innovations of the King of Naples,” and had nothing to do with hostility to alien Governments, with the broken promises of faithless rulers, and with the contagion of the movement at Paris. The “causes” of the rising in Germany were the increase of wealth and the dreams of doctrinaires, and of course in no wise can be traced to the treachery and injustice of princes, or to the dregs of feudalism working in modern society. Passing by, however, such “views” as these, Sir Archibald Alison's description of the theatre of war in Italy in 1848-49, of the brilliant and masterly campaigns of Radetzky, and of the crowning victory of Novara, will, especially just now, repay perusal; and the same remark applies in a less degree to the Hungarian struggle of 1849. Indeed, we do not think that any other work has done equal justice to the military and political abilities of the Magyar Georgey; and Sir Archibald Alison shows reason for believing that, but for the interference of Kossuth, the result of the struggle might have been very different from what it was. The war in China also is not ill described; and the splendid triumphs of Napier in Scinde, and the fierce contest with the Sikhs at Chillianwallah and Goojerat are narrated with some energy and picturesqueness. On the whole, we close the volume with the reflection that, if its false philosophy could be sloughed off, if its political economy could be blotted out, if its tawdry moralizing could be unwritten, and if its exuberant wordiness could be cut short, it would leave behind it a residuum not quite unworthy of the name of history. As it stands, however, it must be characterized as a work
Where little’s just or fit,
A glaring chaos, and wild heap of wit. 
Saturday Review, June 18, 1859.

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