« AnteriorContinuar »
Critical Notices of the most important and valuable Works,
97, 233, 369, 505
Biographical Sketches of Celebrated Persons, lately Deceased,
131, 267, 401, 540
Marriages and Deaths
133, 270, 405, 542
Provincial Occurrences in Great Britain and Ireland 134, 270, 406, 54
NEW MONTHLY MAGAZINE.
THE ARISTOCRACY OF ENGLAND.
"All this violent cry against the nobility I take to be a mere work of art. To be honoured, and even privileged by the laws, opinions, and inveterate usages of our country, growing out of the prejudices of ages, has nothing to provoke the horror and indignation of any man. Even to be too tenacious of those privileges is not absolutely a crime. The strong struggle in every individual to preserve possession of what he has found to belong to him, and to distinguish him, is one of the securities against injustice and despotism implanted in our nature. It operates as an instinct to secure property, and to preserve communities in a settled state."
There was a time when the aristocracy was believed—honestly believed—to be not only an integral part of the constitution of England, and as beneficial in the balance of power as the Crown and the people, but to be also quite as efficient to good. Since the French Revolution (of 1788) this opinion has undergone a variety of modifications. The republicans of France, in their zeal for fraternization, would have taught the English to annihilate every privileged order,-in their own phrase, to have“ strangled the last of kings in the bowels of the last of priests.” This brutal inveteracy naturally provoked in all good minds a powerful revulsion, and thus engendered in a large majority of the nation, and for a long time, a more profound reverence for prerogative and privilege than was perhaps just to the democracy of the constitution and the commonwealth. The use Napoleon subsequently made of both empire and aristocracy reduced that estimation, and now the tide is turning again against the “ orders”—aristocracy in especial; not, indeed, that the decree for its extinction is either imagined or propounded, but new orders are initiated, at least in name; the self-styled “ aristocracy of talent” is setting itself busily to work to reason and reduce the aristocracy of rank to a level somewhat below its own place, and is endeavouring so to modify the rights of the said aristocracy of rank, that, by making it elective, hereditary honours may be superseded by talent. We are amongst those who sincerely believe with the professors of the older faith, that aristocracy, properly so called, not only enjoys, but deserves its place in the constitution and the commonwealth ; and under this conviction, we shall proceed to examine the validity of the reasons by which attempts are making to strip it of its rightful authority.
These arguments, so far as they can be abstracted and condensed, appear to be confined to two heads.
First, That the aristocracy has obtained, by a sort of moral as well as legal influence, an universal, and therefore a baneful, importance, in our institutions, habits, and manners; and,
Secondly, That the rights, hitherto safely and virtuously exercised by the order, are now avoided, and ought to be forfeited by their vices and
May.-VOL. XLI. NO. CLXI.
their follies. Heavy charges these, but not therefore, not on that account, the more likely to be just.
It will scarcely fail to be observed, that these accusations, be they true or be they false, do not attack the theory of a constitution equipoised like our own. They do not, in the slightest degree, impeach the beautifully-concentrated opinion of Cicero, quoted by Blackstone—“ Esse optime constitutam rempublicam, quæ ex tribus generalibus illis, regali, optimo, et populari, sit modice confusa ;” or of the learned judge himself, when he says, “ Here, then, is lodged the sovereignty of the British constitution; and lodged as beneficially as possible for society—for in no other shape could we be so certain of finding the three great qualitieş of government so well and so happily united. If the supreme power were lodged in any one of the three branches separately, we must be exposed to the inconveniences of either absolute monarchy, aristocracy, or democracy; and so want two of the three principal ingredients of good polity, either virtue, wisdom, or power. If it were lodged in any two of the branches, for instance, in the King and House of Lords, our laws might be providently made and well executed, but they might not always have the good of the people in view : if lodged in the King and Commons, we should want that circumspection and mediatory caution which the wisdom of the peers is to afford : if the supreme right of legislature were lodged in the two Houses only, and the King had no negative upon their proceedings, they might be tempted to encroach upon the royal prerogative, or perhaps to abolish the kingly office, and thereby weaken (if not totally destroy) the strength of the executive power, But the constitutional government of this island is so admirably tempered and compounded, that nothing can endanger or hurt it, but destroying the equilibrium of power between one branch of the legislature and the rest. For if ever it should happen that the independence of any one of the three should be lost, or that it should become subservient to the views of either of the other two, there would soon be an end of our constitution.' This opinion, we say, is still not impeached-on the contrary, it is but perhaps the more established, since the complaint is, that, by the acquisition of new powers, the aristocracy have usurped a part of the rights of the Crown or of the democracy; and to remedy this disturbance of the original balance, it is averred that the elective mode is preferable to hereditary descent: of this, however, hereafter. The indictment is drawn against the aristocracy for misdemeanour and undue influence.
The method by which we propose to refute these charges, is, simply to demonstrate that they do not lie against the aristocracy, properly so called, however they may affect those who would be thought to belong to that order, and, for this especial end, are falsely classed with it by its calumniators. Upon this head great confusion exists. Aristocracy, the aristocracy of title and place, won by valour or by wisdom, and perpetuated to the descendant of the hero or the statesman-has been so intimately confounded and mixed, by the vanity of individuals, by the generalizations of unreflecting, careless, or interested writers and talkers, by the wilful malice of many, by the folly and gregarious insolence of more, that no distinct perception of the truth is maintained. A vainglorious assumption induces all who hope by such means to be so classed and distinguished, to babble of “ the aristocracy of wealth” and “ the aristocracy of talent," when they mean no more than the power which
those attributes confer, and which has nothing more to do with aristocracy
than any of the other modifications of circumstances which constitute society. It is merely a façon de parler—a mode of speech which exaggerates these possessions and endowments into more than their natural importance and dignity. But the want of thus distinguishing the artificial from the natural—the earned from the unearned place in the constitutional construction of the commonwealth of England, may be productive of infinite mischief.
For the real aristoeracy is a comparatively small, and also a compact body; and out of these very facts it has happened that its qualities are so ill understood. It is seen from a distance, or not seen at all; persons of the lower world so rarely obtain admission into its circles, or only into its inferior and worst circles,-for it must necessarily be to a certain degree exclusive,--that its principles, feelings, attainments, pursuits, and habits, are apprehended only in the very slight degree that they are open to ordinary inspection; and hence, not only liable to be misunderstood, but to be misrepresented exactly in proportion to the general ignorance respecting the particulars above recited. We shall show how completely this has been the case.
Up to a certain period,-a date a little preceding the middle of the last century,--the ramparts which the pride of station and the power of affluence raised around the privileged orders had not been laid open by that general leveller, knowledge. Respect and fear alike environed the nobility, concealed them from the gaze of the common eye, or elevated them above it. Their formalities, their seclusion, enveloped all their doings in a mysteriousness very favourable to the sentiment of distant wonder and admiration which appertains to the great, and not less impervious to the familiarity which makes " no man a hero to his valet-dechambre.” Even their rich and stiff habiliments kept alive in themselves a reserve, and in others a deference, which added to their exaltation. The change that has brought them into the comparatively easy intercourse with the world has divested “ the order” of the marvellousness that appertained to it; and, by the transition, of the effects of that law through which nature has ordained that “ omne ignotum pro magnifico est,” the qualities of the parties may, and no doubt they have altered with the progression that has wrought this change in the popular sentiment; but it is by no means so certain that they have also deteriorated : on the contrary, it is probable that the material transmutation lies in the increased energy and activity which has been exerted throughout all classes; and it will be difficult either to substantiate or to believe that increased action is nothing more than increased weakness. By this fact, however, we may account for one portion of the decrease of estimation of the upper ranks of society. And further, the tendency of such a feeling is to depreciate, beyond measure, all those advantages which it is the common desire, if not the common interest, of their inferiors to undervalue and reduce. The very disdain, not of the arts, but of the accidents, which thus enshrined them from observation, argues indeed an augmented consciousness of desert which rarely attends a diminution of power; and when we examine the matter more closely, we shall find such to be the incitement. The admission of inferiors to their society has not, in this age, been so much the consequence of the vice or weakness imputed by the satirists of the last, as of the desire of approbation, and the sensibility to merit. The noble has descended from his sphere, not only to encourage but to contend in his own very business with the plebeian. Not war, government, and legislation---not learning and eloquence alone have been cultivated by the patrician. Agriculture has been ennobled by very numerous examples; what does not internal navigation owe to the Duke of Bridgewater? The late Earl Stanhope devoted himself to pursuits purely mechanical, and the printing-press received from him its first great improvements since its earliest invention. This our age has been fertile of noble authors in most departments of literature. Even music has been advanced incalculably by the devotion of titled individuals. All the arts, indeed, have received an impulse, not from the раtronage alone, but from the practice of nobility. These pursuits have brought the aristocracy in some sort into contact and collision, as it were, with the world below them ; while the concentration of the families of peers in London, and the more popular access to the public amusements—the attractions of the sea-coast in summer, and of sporting in the winter, which have grown with the growth of opulence and the more extended intercourses of society offered and promoted by this very opulence, which has also placed numberless of the sons of professional and mercantile success upon
* Another evil attended the course marked out by the French Revolution. That period has not yet sufficiently receded to enable history to determine whether the policy pursued by the one great mind which guided the affairs of England, and bore along such a current of opinion that the minister might fairly be said to have formed, as well as wielded, the national sentiment, was or was not judicious. It was, however, granted to Mr. Pitt to spare the country from the devastation of the çivil war of revolutionary fury, while all the rest of hither Europe suffered under its desolation. A part of the means was unquestionably the elevation of mere partisans to the peerage. Hence the members of that order were enlarged beyond the former range of heroism and talent; and hence an augmentation of familiarity,
unrepressed by the worth which had been the recommendation to that elevation, inevitably followed.
the same plane with the nobles of the land, and given them equality in almost every one of its prerogatives and enjoyments except birth and rank,—all these circumstances have served to mingle in one common mass the noble and the rich and the ingenious—the virtuous and the vicious alike—to confound them into an anomalous body, now. registered with studious iniquity in the popular nomenclature by the common denomination of “ the aristocracy,” or a still worse and more fused synonym—“ the world of fashion.” Nothing could better serve the turn of those who wish to push aristocracy from its place, to degrade or to change its nature. But this mass is not the aristocracy.
Out of this “ world of fashion” no small portion of the calumny is drawn, and even to this intent fashion itself is falsified. Fashion is but the following of the weak after the strong. Fashion, like everything else, has its degrees: it begins in good and ends in evil, as virtues often become vices in their excess. Fashion has its elegances—ay, and its intellectual elegances—as well as its follies : the elegances are often, if not always, the aristocracy, the vices and the follies the democracy, of fashion. Those whose time is placed their own disposal, whose wealth is superabundant, have been agreed, ever since the world stood, to crowd as much gratification, be it frivolous, or be it solid, be it of moderation, or be it of excess, into that time, as their wealth could purchase. The superior intellects, the superior voluptuousness, the superior taste, the superior fancy, have, during the same long period, con