Page images
PDF
EPUB

writes, “ When I began to thump the cushion of my pulpit, on first coming to Foston, as is my wont when I preach, the accumulated dust of 150 years made such a cloud that for some minutes I lost sight of my congregation.” He was cheered by the visits of such friends as Mackintosh, Jeffrey, and Romilly; and the solitude never appeared to affect the flow of his animal spirits ; indeed it has well been doubted whether any rural clergyman ever lived a more happy, rational, or useful life than Sydney Smith.

Foston-le-Clay lost him at last; he was appointed by Lord Lyndhurst to a stall in Bristol Cathedral, and received the rectorship of Combe Florey, near Taunton. Three years later, he became one of the Canons Residentiary of St. Paul's Cathedral, and henceforth devoted himself to the discharge of his official duties, but did not cease his literary labour. He wrote, however, nothing for The Edinburgh after 1827. The neglect of the state of Pennsylvania to pay the interest on her bonds, he condemned in indignant and forcible terms, in his “ Petition to Congress” and “Letters on American Debts." He left in manuscript an account of English misrule in Ireland, which Lord Macaulay advised his widow not to publish. To the last of his life his humour attended him, and under the last regimen of his physician he expressed his longing for " even the wing of a roasted butterfly.”

Sydney Smith has been variously criticised, but some of his writings have survived, and will survive, both the exaggerated praise of too friendly reviewers, and the faint approval of his opponents. It is amusing and instructive to compare, at this day, a few of the contrasting criticisms.

The Quarterly Review, May 1809, in reviewing his sermons, says of his doctrine : “ It is of a degraded kind ; and after a very attentive consideration of these volumes, we are compelled to say that the author appears to belong to the Socinian school. It is possible he may not be aware of the real nature of his own principles. He is obviously unacquainted with his profession, and the time may come when better and more regular studies than London has permitted, will force this conviction upon him.

Our opinion of him is lower than we had expected. Indeed, we were well aware that there was something false and meretricious in the sort of celebrity which he has attained ; something which a wise man would never have allowed himself to acquire ; or, having acquired, would have been in haste to

He seems incapable of a regular or extended train of reasoning. He works up his paragraphs in a brisk and epigrammatic manner, careless how they agree with each other. Amidst an apparent copiousness, we are surprised at detecting such poverty of thought ; and this want of original power is ill-compensated by the liveliness with which he would disguise it.” And so on, in the same strain.

The London Monthly Review, on the other hand, says: “Mr. Smith possesses a command of words, and he is a spirited and sensible declaimer."

throw away.

Again, in February, 1810, The Quarterly Review (in an article written by J. W. Croker) says : “ The present publication (Visitation Sermon) is by far the worst of all his performances, avowed or imputed. Literary merit it has none; but in arrogance, presumption, and absurdity, it far outdoes all his former outdoings. Indeed, we regard

, it as one of the most deplorable mistakes that has ever been committed by a man of supposed talents.”

Another Tory, Sir Archibald Alison, writes : “He had no philosophic turn, little poetic fancy, and scarce any eloquence, but a prodigious fund of innate sagacity, vast powers of humorous illustration, and a clear perception of the practical bearing of every question.

In society he was very much sought after, for the fame of his convivial talents and the real force of his colloquial expressions ; but there was a constant straining after effect, and too little interchange of thought to raise his discourse to a very high charm."

Lord Macaulay writes, in a letter to the widow : “ He is universally admitted to have been a great reasoner, and the greatest master of ridicule that has appeared among us since Swift.”

Edward Everett, an American Statesman, says : “ The first remark that I made to myself, after listening to Mr. Sydney Smith's conversation, was, that if he had not been known as the wittiest man of his day, he would have been accounted one of the wisest.” Lord Cockburn, in “ Memorials of his Time,” says

« Smith's reputation here (Edinburgh 1797-1802) was the same as it has been throughout his life, that of a wise wit. Was there ever more sense combined with more hilarious jocularity ?”

Leslie, in his “ Autobiographical Recollections,” says: “I thought him the best preacher I ever heard ; and I know of no better sermons than those he has published.”

Thomas Moore, in his Memoirs, writes : “But Sydney, Sydney is in his way inimitable, and, as a conversational wit, beats all the men I have ever met. Curran's fancy went much higher, but also much lower. Sydney, in his gayest flights, though boisterous, is never vulgar."

There can be little doubt that, in this debate upon the wisdom, wit, eloquence, and soundness of Sydney Smith, the “Ayes” have it. Finally, we can quote the affectionate words of Lady Holland, which may be received with approval and universal agreement. “There is not a single word in them (his writings) that might not be placed before the purity of youth, or that is unfit for the eye of a woman; he has exercised his powers of wit and sarcasm to the utmost, without ever sullying his pages with impurities, or degrading his talent and profession by irreligion ; and this, I believe, can, in very few instances, be asserted of any other eminent humorous writer, either French or English, who have used such powers to any great extent.”

Amongst the thousands of readers of his works, there will be a very few who will hesitate to yield to Sydney Smith the right to be called the Wise, as well as the Witty, Canon.

S. O. B.

[ocr errors][ocr errors]
[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

--

SYDNEY SMITH.

NECKER ON FRENCH POLITICS AND FINANCE:

a

Dernières Vues de Politiques, et de Finance. Par M. NECKER. An 10. 1802. IF power could be measured by territory, or counted by population,

the inveteracy, and the disproportion which exists between France and England, must occasion to every friend of the latter country the most serious and well-founded apprehensions. Fortunately however for us, the question of power is not only what is the amount of population? but, how is that population governed ? How far is a confidence in the stability of political institutions established by an experience of their wisdom? Are the various interests of society adjusted and protected by a system of laws thoroughly tried, gradually ameliorated, and purely administered ? What is the degree of general prosperity evinced by that most perfect of all criteria, general credit? These are the considerations to which an enlightened politician, who speculates on the future destiny of nations, will direct his attention, more than to the august and imposing exterior of territorial dominion, or to those brilliant moments, when a nation, under the influence of great passions, rises above its neighbours, and above itself, in military renown.

If it be visionary to suppose the grandeur and safety of the two nations as compatible and co-existent, we have the important (though the cruel) consolation of reflecting, that the French have yet to put together the very elements of a civil and political constitution ; that they have to experience all the danger and all the inconvenience which result from the rashness and the imperfect views of legislators, who B

9

[ocr errors]

have everything to conjecture, and everything to create ; that they must submit to the confusion of repeated change, or the greater evil of obstinate perseverance in error ; that they must live for a century in that state of perilous uncertainty in which every revolutionised nation remains, before rational liberty becomes feeling and habit, as well as law, and is written in the hearts of men as plainly as in the letter of the statute; and that the opportunity of beginning this immense edifice of human happiness is so far from being presented to them at present, that it is extremely problematical whether or not they are to be bandied from one vulgar usurper to another, and remain for a century subjugated to the rigour of a military government, at once the scorn and the scourge of Europe.

To the more pleasing supposition, that the First Consul will make use of his power to give his country a free constitution, we are indebted for the work of M. Necker now before us, a work of which good temper is the characteristic excellence : it everywhere preserves that cool impartiality which it is so difficult to retain in the discussion of subjects connected with recent and important events : modestly proposes the results of reflection; and, neither deceived nor wearied by theories, examines the best of all that mankind have said or done for the attainment of rational liberty.

The principal object of M. Necker's book is to examine this question, “An opportunity of election supposed, and her present circumstances considered-what is the best form of government which France is capable of receiving ?” and he answers his own query, by giving the preference to a Republic One and Indivisible.

The work is divided into four parts.
1. An Examination of the present constitution of France.
2. On the best form of a Republic One and Indivisible.
3. On the best form of a Monarchial Government.
4. Thoughts upon Finance.

From the misfortune which has hitherto attended all discussions of present constitutions in France, M. Necker has not escaped. The subject has proved too rapid for the author ; and its existence has ceased before its properties were examined. This part of the work, therefore, we shall entirely pass over; because, to discuss a mere name, is an idle waste of time, and no man pretends that the present constitution of France can, with propriety, be considered as anything

We shall proceed to a description of that form of a republican government which appears to M. Necker best calculated to promote the happiness of that country.

Every department is to be divided into five parts, each of which is to send one member. Upon the eve of an election, all persons paying 200 livres of government taxes in direct contribution, are to assemble together, and choose 100 members from their own number, who form what M. Necker calls a Chamber of Indication. This Chamber of Indication is to present five candidates, of whom the people are to elect one: and the right of voting in this latter election is given to everybody engaged in a wholesale or retail business ; to all superinten

more.

dents of manufactures and trades ; to all commissioned and non-commissioned officers and soldiers who have received their discharge ; and

; to all citizens paying, in direct contribution, to the amount of twelve livres. Votes are not to be given in one spot, but before the chief magistrate of each commune where the voter resides, and there inserted in registers; from a comparison of which, the successful candidate is to be determined. The municipal officers are to enjoy the right of recommending one of these candidates to the people, who are free to adopt their recommendation or not, as they may think proper. The right of voting is confined to qualified single men of twenty-five years of age; married men of the same description may vote at any age.

To this plan of election we cannot help thinking there are many great and insuperable objections. The first and infallible consequence of it would be, a devolution of the whole elective franchise upon the Chamber of Indication, and a complete exclusion of the people from any share in the privilege ; for the Chamber, bound to return five candidates, would take care to return four out of the five so thoroughly objectionable, that the people would be compelled to choose the fifth. Such has been the constant effect of all elections so constituted in Great Britain, where the power of conferring the office has always been found to be vested in those who named the candidates, not in those who selected an individual from the candidates named.

But if such were not the consequences of a double election, and if it were so well constituted, as to retain that character which the Legislature meant to impress upon it, there are other reasons which would induce us to pronounce it a very pernicious institution. The only foundation of political liberty is the spirit of the people; and the only circumstance which makes a lively impression upon their senses, and powerfully reminds them of their importance, their power, and their rights, is the periodical choice of their representatives. How easily that spirit may be totally extinguished, and of the degree of abject fear and slavery to which the human race may be reduced for ages, every man of reflection is sufficiently aware; and he knows that the preservation of that feeling is, of all other objects of political science, the most delicate and the most difficult. It appears to us that a people who did not choose their representatives, but only those who chose their representatives, would very soon become indifferent to their elections altogether. To deprive them of the power of nominating their own candidate would be still worse. The eagerness of the people to vote is kept alive by their occasional expulsion of a candidate who has rendered himself objectionable, or the adoption of one who knows how to render himself agreeable to them. They are proud of being solicited personally by a man of family or wealth. Even the uproar and the confusion and the clamour of a popular election in England, have their use; they give a stamp to the names, Liberty, Constitution, and People: they infuse sentiments which nothing but violent passions and gross objects of sense could infuse, and which would never exist, perhaps, if the sober constituents were to sneak, one by one, into a notary's office to deliver their votes for a representative, or were to

« PreviousContinue »