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He showed his firm adherence to it as modelled by our national constitution, and was constant to its offices of devotion, both in public and in his family. He appeared a champion for it, with great reputation, in the cause of the seven bishops, at a time when the Church was really in danger. To which we may add, that he held a short friendship and correspondence with the great Archbishop Tillotson, being actuated by the same spirit of candour and moderation, and moved rather with pity than indignation towards the persons of those who differed from him in the unessential parts of Christianity.
“His great humanity appeared in the animated circumstances of his conversations. You found it in the benevolence of his aspect, the complacency of his behaviour, and the tone of his voice. He joined the greatest delicacy of good-breeding to the greatest strength of reason. By approving the sentiments of a person with whom he conversed, in such particulars as were just, he won him over from those points in which he was mistaken; and had so agreeable a way of conveying knowledge, that whoever conferred with him grew the wiser, without perceiving that he had been instructed.”
Addison goes on to say that Somers was not more distinguished as a patriot and statesman, than as a person of universal knowledge and learning. As by a just division of his time between public affairs and private retirement, he took care to keep up both “the great and good man; so did he, by the same means, accomplish and perfect himself not only in the knowledge of men and things, but in the skill of the most refined arts and sciences.
“That unwearied diligence which followed him through all the stages of his life, gave him such a thorough insight into the laws of the land, that he passed for one of the greatest masters of his profession at his first appearance in it. ...
"He enjoyed, in the highest perfection, two talents which do not often meet in the same person—the greatest strength of good sense, and the most exquisite taste of politeness. Without the first learning is but an incumbrance, and without the last is ungraceful. My Lord Somers was master of these two qualifications in so eminent a degree, that all the parts of knowledge appeared in him with such an additional strength and beauty, as they want in the possession of others. If he delivered his opinion of a piece of poetry, a statue, or a picture, there was something so just and delicate in his observations as naturally produced pleasure and assent in those who heard him.
“His solidity and eloquence, improved by the reading of the finest authors, both of the learned and modern languages, discovered itself in all his productions. His oratory was masculine and persuasive, free from everything trivial and affected. His style in writing was chaste and pure, but at the same time full of spirit and politeness, and fit to convey the most intricate business to the understanding of the reader with the utmost clearness and perspicuity. And here it is to be lamented that this extraordinary person, out of his natural aversion to vainglory, wrote several pieces, as well as performed several actions, which he did not assume the honour of.”
The critic concludes with the remark that Somers will undoubtedly make one of the most distinguished figures in the bistory of his age, though his merit will not appear in all its fulness, because he wrote much to which he did not attach his name; gave privately many excellent counsels; did numerous offices of friendship to persons who never knew their benefactor ; performed great services to his country, of which others reaped the glory; and, in a word, made it his endeavour to do worthy actions rather than gain an illustrious character.
Bishop Burnet says * of this great man, that he was very learned in his profession, with a great deal more
Bishop Buriet, “E’istory of Our Own Times," ii. 107.
learning in other professions—in divinity, philosophy, and history. He had a great capacity for business, with an extraordinary temper,—for he was fair and gentle, perhaps to a fault, considering his post,—so that he had all the patience and softness, as well as the justice and equity, becoming a great magistrate.
Horace Walpole generally infuses a flavour of the cynical into his criticisms, but there is neither arrière pensée nor insinuation in his character of Somers, whom he calls * one of those divine men, who, like a chapel in a palace, remain unprofaned, while all the rest is tyranny, corruption, and folly. “ All the traditional accounts of him, the historians of the last age and its best authors, represent him as the most incorrupt lawyer, and the honestest statesman, as a master orator, a genius of the finest taste, and a patriot of the noblest and most extensive views; as a man who dispensed blessings by his life, and planned them for posterity.”
We may sum up these testimonies in the brilliant portrait of the great lawyer-statesman, drawn by Lord Macaulay :
“He was equally eminent as a jurist and as a politician, as an orator and a writer. His speeches have perished, but his State papers remain, and are models of terse, luminous, and dignified eloquence. ... He united all the qualities of a great judge—in intellect comprehensive, quick and acute, diligence, integrity, patience, suavity. In council, the calm wisdom which he possessed in a measure rarely found among men of parts so quick and of opinions so decided as his, acquired for him the authority of an oracle. The superiority of his powers appeared not less clearly in private circles. The charm of his conversation was heightened by the frankness with which he poured out his thoughts. His good temper and his good-breeding never failed. His gesture, his look, his tones were expressive of benevolence. His humanity was the more remarkable, because he had received from nature a body such as is generally found united with a peevish and irritable mind. His life was one long malady: his nerves were weak; his complexion was livid ; his face was prematurely wrinkled; yet his enemies could not picture that he had ever once, during a long and troubled public life, been goaded, even by sudden provocation, into vehemence inconsistent with the mild dignity of his character.”
* Horace Walpole, “ Royal and Noble Authors,” Works, i. 430.
They asserted, therefore, that by nature he was a man of very strong passions, which he kept under only by the exercise of a very rigid self-control-an assertion which in itself was a panegyric.
“The most accomplished men of those times have told us, that there was scarcely any subject on which Somers was not competent to instruct or delight. He had never travelled, and in that age an Englishman who had not travelled was generally thought unqualified to give an opinion on works of art; but connoisseurs, familiar with the masterpieces of the Vatican and of the Florentine Gallery, allowed that the taste of Somers in painting and sculpture was exquisite. Philology was one of his favourite pursuits.
He had learned the whole vast range of polite literature, ancient and modern. He was at once a muni
a . ficent and a severely judicious patron of genius and learning. Locke owed opulence to Somers. By Somers, Addison was drawn forth from a cell in a college. In distant countries the name of Somers was mentioned with respect and gratitude by great scholars and poets who had never seen his face.”
He was the benefactor of Leclerc, and the friend of Filicaja, as he was also the patron of Hickes and Vertue.
“His powers of mind and his acquirements were not denied even by his detractors. The most acrimonious Tories were
forced to admit, with an ungracious snarl which increased the value of their praise, that he had all the intellectual qualities of a great man, and that in him alone among his contemporaries brilliant eloquence and wit were to be found associated with the quiet and steady prudence which nsures success in life. It is a remarkable fact, that in the foulest of all the many libels which were published against him he was slandered under the name of Cicero. As his abilities could not be questioned, he was charged with irreligion and immorality. That he was heterodox all the country vicars and foxhunting squires firmly believed; but as to the nature and extent of his heterodoxy there were many different opinions. He seems to have been a Low Churchman of the school of Tillotson, whom he always loved and honoured ; and he was, like Tillotson, called by bigots a Presbyterian, an Arian, a Socinian, a Deist, and an Atheist.
“ The private life of this great statesman and magistrate was malignantly scrutinised; and tales were told about his libertinism, which went on growing till they became too absurd for the credulity even of party spirit. ... There is, however, reason to believe that there was a small nucleus of truth round which this great mass of fiction gathered, and that the wisdom and self-command which Somers never wanted in the senate, on the judgment seat, at the council board, or in the society of wits, scholars, and philosophers, was not always proof against female attractions."
John Somers was born, as is supposed, about the 9th of March, 1650, in the ancient mansion of White Ladies, which had formerly been a monastery, in the city of Worcester. He came of a respectable family, which had long been possessed of the manor of Clifton, in the parish of Swapstoke, Gloucestershire, and counted among its kinsmen the celebrated navigator, Sir George
* Lord Macaulay, “ History of England.” chap xx.