« PreviousContinue »
ART. V.-History of Cabinets : from the Union with Scot
land to the Acquisition of Canada and Bengal. By W. M.
TORRENS. In two volumes. London: 1894. WE E review this book with some diffidence. On the one
hand our duty towards our readers compels us to notice its deficiencies; on the other hand we are disinclined to criticise a work which the author has produced amidst the many difficulties of failing eyesight, and which he has not lived to revise, or possibly to complete. We feel much more disposed to point out the many proofs which it affords of the writer's industry than to dwell on the eccentricities of his style or on the deficiencies of his matter. Proof of Mr. Torrens's industry may be found on every page. There is ample evidence that he has honestly endeavoured to master the complicated details of the history which he relates. But unfortunately he fails throughout to impart his knowledge to his readers in a form calculated to impress the imagination or the memory. He has neither the power to sift the chaff from the wheat nor to emphasise what is important. 'Quidquid agunt homines' is the 'farrago' of his libelli.' And the infinitely great in Mr. Torrens's pages seems of hardly more account than the infinitely little.
The impressions which we have thus formed are moreover strengthened by our inability to realise the object to which Mr. Torrens's labours are directed. We can understand an author seriously addressing himself to the task of tracing the gradual evolution of government by cabinet in this country. Both the opening and the closing passages of Mr. Torrens's book raise the presumption that he had this object in view.
The phrase " Cabinet Council,” 'he writes in his first chapter, was sometimes applied to those who were summoned to confer together on affairs of moment, at the instance of the king, and generally in his presence. But, in its nature, it was essentially a consultative, not an administrative, body. It had no separate or permanent head, and homogeneity of opinions upon the great questions of the day does not appear to have been required; while the conventional liability to be summoned was confessedly dependent upon the pleasure of the Crown, varying and shifting as it did from time to time." And he adds, in his last paragraph :
• Cabinet rule had been upon its trial for nearly half a century; and, despite many blemishes and errors, its superiority to the systems of government that had preceded it was tacitly accepted by the nation. ... The supremacy of Parliament had been gradually established not only in the making of laws, but in the power of enforcing them; for the ministers, who in combination formed the executive, though nominally appointed by the king, were, as everybody knew, cooptatively chosen by the chiefs of the party that happened to be in power.'
These two paragraphs justify the presumption that Mr. Torrens intended to describe, and thought that he had related, the history of the developement of the cabinet during the period in which this country gradually passed from personal to parliamentary government. But, on the other hand, he does not call his book the ‘History of the Cabinet,' but the · History of Cabinets. The period with which it is concerned, moreover, is too brief; while it commences too late, and ends too soon, for the purposes of an author desirous of giving a comprehensive account of the transition from government by prerogative to government by parliament; and if, for once, we may borrow one of Mr. Torrens's confused metaphors, the warp and woof' of his narrative are so 'thickly embossed' with other matter that the central threads are not always distinguishable.
We are thus driven to the conclusion that Mr. Torrens did not aim at an elaborate treatise on the gradual developement of government by cabinet, but desired to write the history of the cabinets which governed England from 1707 to 1760. If we are right in this conclusion, his book must be regarded as a political history of England for half a century. But then we should have thought that Mr. Torrens would have been one of the first to see that there was hardly room for such a work on our bookshelves. The reader who wishes to study that history at first hand will go to Hervey, Horace Walpole, and other contemporary writers. The reader who desires to examine it through the perspective of intervening generations will prefer Mr. Lecky, or even Lord Stanhope, to Mr. Torrens. No doubt there are some things in Mr. Torrens which are not in either Lord Stanhope or Mr. Lecky. But the ordinary reader will have no leisure to wade through two bulky volumes for the sake of the little additional information which Mr. Torrens has included, and which cannot be found in his predecessors' pages.
Perhaps, too, the reader who does conscientiously wade through Mr. Torrens's narrative will be disposed to doubt our author's qualification for the task which he hąs under
taken. A political history of England should, at any rate, contain adequate portraits of the chief statesmen of the period with which it is concerned. But Mr. Torrens has not the art of making his characters live. His pages do not convey to us any adequate idea of the men who governed England from the time of Godolphin to the time of Newcastle. Mr. Torrens, indeed, seems hardly to appreciate the greatness of the greatest men. The two statesmen who successively obtained a preponderating influence in the House of Commons during the half-century with which these volumes deal were, beyond all question, Sir Robert Walpole and the first William Pitt. No two men could have been moulded on more different models. Walpole was essentially a minister of peace; Pitt was as essentially a minister of war. Walpole was one of the few great financiers which this country has produced; Pitt was indifferent to all financial considerations. With Walpole policy was subordinate to finance; with Pitt finance was always subordinate to policy. Walpole was the boon companion of his political friends; Pitt was haughty and unbending both to his followers and his supporters. Walpole used the arts of political corruption, which were practised uniformly at the time, to strengthen his position and to maintain his superiority; Pitt scornfully delegated such transactions to his nominal leader, the Duke of Newcastle. But if these two statesmen were in many respects so different, they both rose to positions of the highest eminence by the force of their own abilities and of the almost universal opinion that they were the men for the crises in which they lived. Walpole rose to the helm from the conviction that he was the only man alive who could repair the ruin of commercial disaster; Pitt was accepted by an unwilling oligarchy as a powerful colleague, from the belief that he was the statesman competent to bring an unsuccessful war to a successful issue. To quote his own proud boast: 'He knew that he could save
this country, and that no other person can. Both men justified the anticipations which had been formed of them. Walpole rapidly retrieved the commercial losses consequent on an insane speculation, and conferred on his country the blessings of peace abroad and prosperity at home; Pitt, as rapidly, infused spirit into the dejected, and imparted energy to the desponding. Quebec in the west, and Plassy in the East, cast fresh lustre on our arms; and England, under his auspices, was thus enabled to acquire a preponderating influence in both hemispheres, and at the same time to wage successful warfare on the Continent of Europe.
We should have thought that any author would have been enabled to hold up one of two men, so different in their characters and so different in their policy, as an example to posterity. But Mr. Torrens is almost uniformly as unjust to the one as he is to the other. He speaks of Walpole as the father of corruption, as a despot, as indolent, extravagant, and thoughtless. He writes of Pitt as a great 'actor,' as “a libertine in exaggeration;' and he even ascribes Henry Fox's discontent in 1757 to “some unre'corded insolence of Pitt or forgotten gaucherie of Newó castle.' This is how he speaks of a speech of Pitt :
'It would not have been pertinent then (in 1755), as it would not be pertinent now, to ask how many hoped [Pitt] would realise in practice the splendid professions uttered with such matchless suavity and fervour, or how many inwardly questioned whether the heart of the man was smitten with their truth when he smote his brow, as if by irresistible influence, in attestation of his sincerity. His audience knew that in that Theatre Royal the managers had long kept him unemployed, and then taken him on as a supernumerary, to keep him quiet; and that, tired at last of the cramping bonds of subordination, he had resolved to set at nought the rest of his Majesty's servants, and show, without leave, that he was fitter to play Brutus than any of them. There was hardly a man in the crowded chapel of St. Stephen's that would have missed the specious harangue, or one upon whom next day it left any other impression than that the great artist was determined to try for the foremost place, if not for the managership of the company.'
In different, though in equally misleading, language, he thus sums up Walpole's character :-
Many attempts there have been to fabricate cheap but showy images of Walpole as entitled to historic gratitude as a great and good minister; and, if greatness consists in suffering commercial enterprise to grow fat, and agricultural industry to grow lean, art and literature to become half-starved, the Church Establishment to be debased to the level of a working trade, and political morality to be regarded as a mere lingering superstition, he may be entitled to the epithet. But neither nationally nor socially can the claim be made out for statesmanship entitling his memory to be held in grateful recollection. His ministerial career began with the repression of one Scottish rebellion, and ended on the eve of one still more sanguinary. His government is identified with the prevalence of rural distress in England, so keen as to drive one of his oldest colleagues into secession and denunciation, and with the presence in Ireland of a famine more pitiless and unpitied, save one, that has ever afflicted that unhappy country. Without a pretence of religious zeal, the Cabinet, of which he was the animating
spirit, kept up the code of sectarian oppression, branded by the greatest political thinker of his time as the most “fitted to obliterate in a people the best instincts of human nature itself that ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.” When forced at length to relax his grasp of power, the good nature, for which he was sometimes extolled, showed itself chiefly in paternal solicitude for his natural children, his legitimate offspring having already been amply provided for at the public cost.'
We have cited these two passages at length because they appear to us to illustrate Mr. Torrens's singular incapacity to appreciate the services of great men. To describe Walpole as indolent, extravagant, and thoughtless is as misleading as to write down the first Pitt as a great actor. In his portrait of Walpole, indeed, Mr. Torrens has apparently relied on all the scurrilous abuse which he could collect from the pages of the Craftsman,' or from other contemporary literature. He has inserted all the shadows and omitted all the lights; and he has, in consequence, produced a caricature so gross that we can only hope that any reader who is even temporarily misled by it may correct the erroneous impressions which he may derive from the narrative before us by consulting the conclusive replies to it which have been given beforehand by such different writers as Mr. Lecky and Mr. Morley.
We cannot ourselves, on the present occasion, however, afford space for the somewhat unnecessary task of vindicating the characters of the great statesmen of the eighteenth century. We shall not attempt in this article to correct Mr. Torrens's history, or even to follow him through his discursive narrative. We shall avail ourselves of his labours to illustrate the subject to which we suppose that he originally intended to address himself. We shall endeavour, in other words, partly by his aid, though chiefly from other sources, to trace the developement of government by cabinet, and to make our purpose plain we shall modify Mr. Torrens's title and call this article not the ' History of Cabinets, but the . History of the Cabinet.'
There was probably never a time, in the history either of this country or of any other nation, when the sovereign did not lean for advice on a few of his subjects specially eminent from wealth, from position, or from ability. Thus a cabinet must have existed, in fact, long before it attracted public notice. The Privy Council, indeed, owes its name to the circumstance that it only originally included the private advisers of the monarch. The gradual enlargement of the