Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Allison's History of Europe

Review of:
History of Europe, from 1815 to 1852.  Vol VII (by Archibald Alison, 1849).

The seventh bulky volume of Alison's History of Europe since the Peace is in a certain sense its own justification, for, unless the work had commanded readers and purchasers, it must long since have arrived at a compulsory conclusion. The style and the mode of composition undoubtedly contain some elements of popularity, although they may be distasteful to acute and practised intellects. Ordinary minds willingly acquiesce in a prolixity which takes nothing for granted, as graminivorous animals find that the bulk of their food is equally indispensable with its nutritious properties. Sir Archibald Alison is no dealer in the concentrated essence of thought, but he is fluent and easy; so that if his sentences are sometimes confused, the general bearing of his paragraphs can always be sufficiently ascertained. It is not perhaps his fault that a history of the period from 1841 to 1848 produces an effect resembling, that of a last week's newspaper, in reviving recollections which are at once familiar and obsolete. No human being is known to have read the Annual Register of any current year, although that useful publication contains valuable materials for the use of posterity.  The present work is a more ambitious and voluminous attempt to anticipate the task of history before experience has shown the relative importance and the ultimate significance of events. In walking over the hot ashes of recent conflicts, the writer has endeavoured, not without considerable success, to maintain a tone of calmness and impartiality; and the effort has been rendered easier by the conviction which pervades his work, that he is recording the inevitable decline of the British Empire. The rashness of the Reformers and the treachery of Peel may alarm or irritate superficial observers, but at the worst they can only have accelerated the operation of a general law. Providence, which during the French war is known to have been on the side of the Tories, seems in these latter years to have interfered but seldom, and, except in the instance of the gold discoveries, only for purposes of punishment and destruction. The Irish famine is in some degree attributed to this exceptional agency; but the mysterious power which has exercised a malignant and irresistible influence over the fortunes of the country originated in the Bank Act of 1819, and assumes the form of a metallic currency. The suggestion that the monetary crisis of 1847 was attributable to the convertibility of bank-notes is by no means paradoxical or new; but it has not been generally known that the results extended to California, to Australia, and to the Crimea. “Peel's-bill Peel,” as Cobbett called him, has more to answer for than the Bonaparte who terrified our fathers.
‘Who makes the quartern loaves and Luddites rise?
Who fills the butchers' shops with large blue flies?
Why he!’
Yet, after all, his noxious bullion, like the spear of Achilles, ultimately cured the wound which it had inflicted:—
‘Such was the terrible monetary crisis of 1847 in Great Britain—the most disastrous and widespread of which there is any record in the annals of mankind. Its effects, not merely in the British Empire, but in both hemispheres, have been in the highest degree important, and in no instance has agency of supreme wisdom in educing lasting good out of transitory evil been more conspicuous. Beyond all question, it was mainly instrumental in bringing to a crisis the general discontent in France, and overturning the corrupt Government of Louis Philippe; the suspension of credit, want of employment, and stagnation of industry among the workmen of Paris, which proved fatal to the Orleans dynasty, had its origin in the Bank Charter Act of London. It perpetuated through a course of years the misery, first induced by the famine in Ireland; an gave rise to the prodigious and long-continued exodus of the Irish people, which has ended in transferring two millions of Celts from the shores of the Emerald Isle to the transatlantic wilds. It has given comparative security and unanimity to the British Empire, by extracting the thorn which had so long festered in its side, implanted by Irish suffering and envenomed by sacerdotal ambition. It has led to the overthrow of the monarchies of Austria and Prussia, and by bringing down the reserve of legitimacy in the shape of Russian battalions to the Hungarian plains, it subverted for a time the balance of power in Europe, impelled Nicholas into the career of Oriental ambition, and ultimately arranged the forces of the West against those of the East on the shores of the Crimea. Finally, it produced in the far West and South-east effects still more lasting and important; for by the money pressure it produced in America, it forced the United States into foreign aggression, as the means of paying their domestic debts, transferred California from the lazy hands of the Spaniards, by whom its treasures had lain undiscovered for three hundred years, into the active grasp of the Anglo-Saxon; revealed to British enterprise, sent into exile by domestic suffering, the hidden treasures of Australia; and gave a permanent and beneficial impulse to the industry of the whole world, by providing a currency adequate to its increasing numbers and transactions in the treasures it brought to light in both hemispheres.’
It was impossible for the historian of 1845 and 1846 to avoid the often-debated question whether Sir Robert Peel was a patriot or a traitor; and on this point Sir Archibald Alison seems to exhibit an amiable inconsistency. Unable to acquit, and unwilling to condemn, he intimates that the Minister, with the deepest perfidy, brought forward a measure which is rapidly reducing his country to a state of ruin; but he candidly admits that his motives were perfectly disinterested, and he is by no means disposed to attribute the introduction of Free Trade to any less respectable cause than the operation of a universal law. According to the Alisonian philosophy, nations, like individuals, contain in the elements of their growth the ultimate seeds of their dissolution. Healthy progress in agriculture and in general industry leads, through the accumulation of wealth and the development of civilization, to the expansion and aggrandizement of great cities. The town populations desire cheap food, to the detriment of the producers; and as their comparative power is constantly increasing, they ultimately succeed in opening the ports. By a necessary consequence cultivation declines; arable lands are thrown into pasture; and the hardy tillers of the soil, leaving their desert fields, crowd into the towns, which are again and again designated as the graves of the human race. The effects of slave labour in Italy under the Empire, combined with the gratuitous distribution of foreign corn to the citizens of Rome, are repeatedly quoted as warnings against the approaching dangers of England, or rather as illustrations of an imminent and unavoidable catastrophe. The terrified reader, overwhelmed by the copious eloquence of his prophetic teacher, scarcely ventures to ask himself whether all the wheat lands of England are really laid down with grass seeds, and acquiesces in the conclusion that the tenant-farmers of Lincolnshire have been supplanted by villici with gangs of slaves—wondering, at the same time, whether there is a daily distribution of corn at Charing-cross, before the hour at which the Adelphi and Lyceum are opened to the multitude at the expense of the State. In the presence of such misfortunes few will care to investigate the merits of an individual statesman. It is only the moralist who has time to regret “that we have fallen into such days as those, when a Marlborough was elevated to the height of greatness by betraying one Sovereign, and Ney suffered the death of a traitor for attempting to betray another.” There are, however, triflers who, amid the wreck of empires, still busy themselves with questions of superfluous curiosity; and some may ask what those days were in which Marlborough and Ney contemporaneously experienced opposite fortunes, and how the execution of a French Marshal for deserting from Louis XVIII. resembles the promotion of an English officer who abandoned James II. It is a relief to find, that although all parties concurred in the melancholy conclusion which has been quoted, “a calm consideration of the case must, in justice to Sir Robert Peel, very materially modify those opinions.”

The least ambitious parts of the work will perhaps be found most useful. The summaries of Parliamentary debates which are included in the text are drawn up with care and impartiality; but the reasons put forward by the supporters or opponents of political measures seldom form a part of legitimate history. Those who have witnessed the actual results can feel but a faint interest in the predictions which have been verified or contradicted by the event. It is intolerably tiresome to be reminded of the grounds on which Lord John Russell supported an Irish Arms Act if he was in office, or threw it out when it happened to involve the fate of a hostile Ministry. The motives of statesmen are often concealed from contemporary observation; but the arguments by which they attempt to influence public opinion are notorious at the time, and afterwards comparatively immaterial. Nevertheless, the pages which are devoted to the record of Parliamentary proceedings may possibly be useful to readers who are too young to remember the contests of ten or twelve years ago. Sir Archibald Alison himself must regard the actors in the drama with a benevolent compassion, when he reflects on their universal ignorance of the great law of destiny which they were unconsciously helping, to fulfil. Personal ability and honesty of purpose may still command respect; but gold and Free Trade were carrying out their deadly mission whether Whigs or Tories were in power.

Delineations of personal character are more interesting than Parliamentary reports, and it is not surprising that an oratorical historian should indulge in the composition of elaborate contemporary portraits. The period, however, which is comprised in the present volume, included within its limits but one entire political career. Sir Robert Peel and Lord John Russell had been introduced upon the stage long before; and the formal analysis of Mr. Disraeli's genius is reserved for a subsequent volume. The eulogy which is devoted to the memory of Lord George Bentinck converts into a faultless hero that spirited, hard-headed, and hard-mouthed partisan. His countenance may possibly have been, as his admirer declares, a model of manly beauty; but he can scarcely be described as a young man leading a body of veterans in the Corn-law struggle. The statement that he had been for three years private secretary to Mr. Canning, who died in 1827, might have suggested the conclusion that he must have arrived at mature years in 1845. The acquisition of political importance after so long an interval of obscurity constitutes the only remarkable peculiarity of his career. The secession of all the Conservative statesmen left the party without a leader; and it was found, to the surprise of all men, that Lord George Bentinck possessed unequalled qualifications for the vacant post. The nature of the contest was exceptional, inasmuch as feeling was opposed to reason, while the hope of early revenge seemed a compensation for the obvious impossibility of success. It was desirable that the champion of the defeated cause should combine a high personal bearing with a total absence of delicacy or scruple when the interests of faction were at stake. Lord George Bentinck brought to the performance of his task all the qualities and defects which were best suited to the purpose.  Incapable of candour to an opponent, but commanding the attachment of his friends, skilful in calculation and impervious to reasoning, an adept in statistics although he never understood the rudiments of political economy, the Protectionist leader combined the acuteness of an attorney and the memory of an actuary with the resolute obstinacy of an old-fashioned farmer. His lieutenant and biographer performed a still more remarkable feat when he succeeded to the command of the party, without the aid of connexion, of personal popularity, or of sympathy with any single article of the creed which his followers professed; but it may be doubted whether the malcontents of 1846 could have rallied except under a chief who shared as heartily in their economical prejudices as in their animosity against Sir Robert Peel. It is not surprising that Sir Archibald Alison should feel a cordial sympathy for the vigorous antagonist of modern enlightenment and degeneracy.

The characters assigned to contemporary French politicians are colourless copies from portraits of questionable fidelity; and the numerous marginal references to the work of Cassagnac show that recent history may be written without the necessity of recondite research. The cycle of events which commenced at the beginning of 1848 is too important to be recorded from a recollection of newspapers and of pamphlets. A mere book of reference might be composed in a less ambitious style; and the humblest annalist would hesitate to quote a despatch forwarded by Lord Palmerston to Lord Ponsonby from the French translation of a writer who was professedly hostile to the policy of England. References to Lamartine's account of the Revolution of 1838 may be thought more excusable; but a moderate exercise of the critical faculty would lead to utter disregard of the most singular record of mendacious vanity which is to be found in political literature. It is an unlucky circumstance that none of the actors in the Revolution of February seem to possess the faculty either of telling the truth or of uttering their respective fictions in concert.

Future writers may perhaps follow the example of Mr. Buckle, by showing the connexion of carbon with civilization, and laying down the chemical conditions of history; but Sir Archibald Alison, like Lord Derby, belongs to the ante-scientific era, and finds the gloomy labyrinths of paper currency sufficiently obscure and impressive for his purpose. In one instance only he is tempted to expatiate in the regions of natural history, until he stumbles on a physiological paradox which seems to require further elucidation. The discovery is introduced by a passage of characteristic eloquence on a subject which has hitherto been considered, rather useful than ornamental. Since the pious hawkers of Constantinople solemnly ejaculated “In the name of the Prophet, figs", no article of domestic use has been described in so exalted a strain:--
‘Planted originally in the mountains of Peru, THE POTATO possesses the qualities which distinctly mark it as the destined food, in part at least, of a large portion of mankind. It flourishes in nearly every climate except the very warmest and the very coldest; more sensitive to frost than, even the dahlia or geranium, it is to be seen in perfection in every region of the globe except the tropics or the Arctic circle.  During the brief months of summer, it makes its way and arrives at maturity in every part of the temperate zone. The roots in their natural state are not much larger than a strawberry: under the fostering hand of culture they swell to ten or sometimes twenty times the size. It is far more productive, when brought to perfection by cultivation, of food for the use of man, than any cereal; it yields, on an equal space, three times as much for his sustenance as the best wheaten crop. Like civilization, however, of which it is the attendant and support, it involves in itself the seeds of corruption in its latest and most advanced stages, which threaten calamities as great to the physical necessities of man as the depravity, which often overspreads a wealthy and luxurious society does to his moral. But the wisdom of nature has provided a remedy for the one as well as for the other like the human race, the succulent and prolific plant can be propagated by seminal descent as well as by the propagation so and a new and untainted race be induced by the planting of fresh seeds in a region where the former race has been degraded by a long course of artificial culture.’
It seems that the hopeless aspiration of Adam after his fall, is realized in these later times. It will no longer be asked why Divine Wisdom did not—
‘fill the world at once
With men, as angels, without feminine;
Or find some other way to generate
Henceforth the human race, like the succulent and prolific potato, may, it seems, be propagated by slips; yet it is to be eared that men will share in the decay of the analogous plant, from precisely the same causes. The potato-rot not only resembles the decay of civilization, but it is intimately connected with cash payments:
Then was seen what, under the existing monetary system, three weeks' rain in August can do in the British Isles. Hardly had Parliament separated on the 9th of August, amidst general congratulations for the past, and the warmest anticipations for the future, when the heavens seemed to open, and incessant deluges overspread the already saturated earth. These were accompanied by violent thunderstorms, in the course of which the electric fluid descended in sheets of flame into “the green and deluged earth.”’
Lightning is not uncommon in thunderstorms; but if Parliament, instead of separating, had repealed the Act of 1819, the electric fluid might, it seems, have descended without affecting the soundness of the root, which “during the brief months of summer, makes its way and arrives at maturity.”  It is frightful to think of the future effects which rainy weather may produce under the fatal influence of our existing monetary system.

Saturday Review, March 27, 1858.

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