Select British Eloquence/Lord Digby
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|This is Chauncey A. Goodrich's biographical sketch of Lord Digby, which serves as an introduction to his speeches, which follow. It forms a part of Select British Eloquence, published 1865.|
George Digby, oldest son of the Earl of Bristol, was born at Madrid in 1612, during the residence of his father in that city as English embassador to the Court of Spain. He was educated at Magdalen College, Oxford; and entered into public life at the age of twenty-eight, being returned member of Parliament for the county of Dorset, in April, 1640. In common with his father, who had incurred the displeasure of the King by his impeachment of Buckingham in 1626, Lord Digby came forward at an early period of the session, as an open and determined enemy of the Court. Among the "Speeches relative to Grievances," his, as representative of Dorsetshire, was one of the most bold and impassioned. His argument shortly after in favor of triennial Parliaments, was characterized by a still higher order of eloquence; and in the course of it he made a bitter attack upon Strafford, in showing the necessity of frequent Parliaments as a control upon ministers, declaring "he must not expect to be pardoned in this world till he is dispatched to the other."
From the ardor with which he expressed these sentiments, and the leading part he took in every measure for the defense of the people's rights, Lord Digby was appointed one of the managers for the impeachment of Strafford. Into this he entered, for a time, with the utmost zeal. He is described by Clarendon as a man of uncommon activity of mind and fertility of invention; bold and impetuous in whatever designs he undertook; but deficient in judgment, inordinately vain and ambitious, of a volatile and unquiet spirit, disposed to separate councils, and governed more by impulse than by fixed principles. Whether the course he took in respect to the attainder of Strafford ought to be referred in any degree to the last-mentioned traits of character, or solely to a sense of justice, a conviction forced upon him in the progress of the trial that the testimony had failed to sustain the charge of treason, can not, perhaps, be decided at the present day. The internal evidence afforded by the speech, is strongly in favor of his honesty and rectitude of intention. He appears throughout like one who was conscious of having gone too far; and who was determined to retrieve his error, at whatever expense of popular odium it might cost him. Had he stopped here, there would have been no ground for imputations on his character. But he almost instantly changed the whole tenor of his political life. He abandoned his former principles; he joined the Court party; and did more, as we learn from Clarendon, to ruin Charles by his rashness and pertinacity, than any other man. But, whatever may be thought of Digby, the speech is one of great manliness and force. It is plausible in its statements, just in its distinctions, and weighty in its reasonings. Without exhibiting any great superiority of genius, and especially any richness of imagination, it presents us with a rapid succession of striking and appropriate thoughts, clearly arranged and vividly expressed. In one respect, the diction is worthy of being studied. It abounds in those direct and pointed forms of speech, which sink at once into the heart; and by their very plainness give an air of perfect sincerity to the speaker, which of all things is the most important to one who is contending (as he was) against the force of popular prejudice. Much of the celebrity attached to this speech is owing, no doubt, to the circumstances under which it was delivered. The House of Commons must have presented a scene of the most exciting nature when, at the moment of taking the final vote on the bill, one of the managers of the impeachment came forward to abandon his ground; to disclose the proceedings of the committee in secret session; and to denounce the condemnation of Strafford by a bill of attainder, as an act of murder.