Eminent English liberals in and out of Parliament/Charles Bradlaugh

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search



"There is heresy here, you perceive: for the right
 Of privately judging means simply that light
 Has been granted to me for deciding on you;
 And in happier times, before atheism grew,
 The deed contained clauses for cooking you too."

I HAVE been warned by kind friends who have been pleased to commend several of the foregoing sketches much beyond their deserts,—friends whose good opinion I highly value,—that, whatever I do, I must on no account allow "Bradlaugh" to appear in this series. To very many "Iconoclast" is still monstrum horrendum cui lumen ademptum. But my reply has invariably been. How are you to keep him out? The man is altogether too big to be passed over, if one is not to lose sight of every thing savoring of reasonable proportion. Besides, though due regard must be had to the "single life," it is of yet greater importance to consider the "type;" and a more marked type of Radicalism than that which is incarnated in Mr. Charles Bradlaugh does not exist. He is the grim captain of that section of English Radicals, far more powerful than is generally supposed, who boldly inscribe on their banner the watchwords. Atheism, Malthusianism, Republicanism. These formidable isms, which philosophers have excogitated in the closet or whispered in the salon, Mr. Bradlaugh has with stentorian voice proclaimed from the housetop. It is not that his opinions differ so much from those entertained by many most respectable and intelligent members of "society:" his offence consists in having conveyed the news to the "man in the street." He has insisted on popularizing doctrines which "vested interests" desire to see imparted only to a select body of initiated.

In all such matters, however, there is really but one question to be asked: Has the propagandist acted in good faith? has he been true to his own convictions? Now, Mr. Bradlaugh is a very big man, as well in mind as in body, and large objects ought never to be inspected with a microscope. He has been the hero of a hundred fights, and it may well be that he has not on all occasions conducted himself with the perfect chivalry of a knight of romance. Still, taking him all in all, and having due consideration for the many hardships and temptations of a career such as his, I cannot doubt that he has been valiant—singularly valiant—for the truth as he has known it, and that he will be justly regarded by posterity as one of the most remarkable figures of his time and country. His anti-religious ideas are in the main repugnant to me, as I dare say they are to most of my readers; but let us not judge Mr. Bradlaugh or any other public-spirited citizen by our particular standard of spiritual rectitude. "Those who have not the law are a law unto themselves, their conscience accusing or excusing one another." To his own Master, to the light which lighteth every man who Cometh into this world, Mr. Bradlaugh must stand or fall. Judge not that ye be not judged. Rather let us say, as did Oliver Cromwell in a somewhat similar case, "Sir, the state, in choosing men to serve it, takes no notice of their opinions: if they be willing faithfully to serve it, that satisfies. I advised you formerly to bear with men of different minds from yourself. … Take heed of being too sharp or too easily sharpened by others against those to whom you can object little, but that they square not with you in every opinion concerning matters of religion."

It is a work of some difficulty to summarize the checkered career of Mr. Bradlaugh. He himself has attempted it with indifferent success in a brief "Autobiography," clear enough so far as the narrative of events is concerned, but lacking somewhat in human interest.

He was born at Hoxton in 1833. His father was a struggling, indefatigable solicitor's clerk, who could but ill afford to give his son Charles the scanty education which he actually received. At seven years of age he attended a national school in Abbey Street, Bethnal Green. Subsequently he was sent to a small private school hi the same quarter, and in his eleventh year he completed his meagre educational curriculum at a boys' school in Hackney Road, having acquired little beyond a knowledge of the three R's. He is, consequently, for the most part a self-taught man; but he has taught himself to some purpose. His mind is in a splendid state of discipline. You can account for the fact when you see his library, which is as extensive as it is curious,—the well-worn accumulations of a life devoted to stormy controversy abroad and intense study at home. I never remember to have seen such a serviceable collection of argumentative shot and shell as on Mr. Bradlaugh's shelves.

Mr. Bradlaugh was first employed as errand-boy to the firm which his father served. In his fourteenth year he was equal to the more important duty of acting as wharf-clerk and cashier to a firm of coal-merchants in Britannia Fields, City Road. While so engaged, the serious troubles of his life began. In his sixteenth year he was a model young Christian, an enthusiastic Sunday-school teacher,—altogether a promising neophyte of the Church as by law established. But he had not, like Mr. Spurgeon, attained to that chronic state of conversion, that sublime superiority to reason, which should enable him to dote with unutterable joy on such empty words as "Look, look, look!" The Bishop of London was announced to hold a confirmation in Bethnal Green; and the incumbent of St. Peter's, Hackney Eoad, in an evil hour, requested his youthful Sunday-school teacher to be prepared with suitable answers to any questions that might be put by the Right Reverend Father in God affecting the Thirty-Nine Articles and cognate matters. Like an obedient son of the Church, young Bradlaugh complied, and began to compare the Articles with the Gospels; but finding, as well he might, that they differed, he wrote a respectful note to his clergyman, asking to be piloted through one or two of his difficulties. The ill-advised incumbent replied by informing the lad's parents that their son had turned atheist, and that he had been suspended from his functions as a Sunday-school teacher for a period of three months. It is not given to the clerical profession, as a rule, to know much about human nature; but this was an exceptional blunder. I do not know that Mr. Bradlaugh is constitutionally a doubter,—indeed, I think not; but he is a born fighter, a dialectical athlete revelling in the gaudium certaminis as a strong man rejoices to run a race. The young tiger had tasted blood. He refused to attend church during the interval of his suspension as a teacher, and soon began to spend his Sundays elsewhere and otherwise. The time (1849) was one of great religious and political ferment; and Bonner's Fields, near where the Consumption Hospital now stands, was the habitual resort of disputants of all kinds. Thither Bradlaugh repaired to mingle with youthful ardor in the fray,—at first on the orthodox Christian side, then as a deist, and ultimately as a full-fledged atheist or ne plus ultra infidel. How great a spark the rash, intolerant incumbent of St. Peter's had kindled! Mr. Bradlaugh's next step on the downward path was to become a teetotaller, and this brought matters to a crisis. At the instance of the reverend gentleman, Mr. Bradlaugh's employers gave him "three days to change his opinions, or lose his situation." He might have swallowed one at a time; but "beer and the Bible" made his gorge rise.

Rather than succumb, the poor boy elected to go out from his father's house a social outcast, and throw himself on the stony-hearted world. Whether pride or principle had most to do with this hegira, it might be hard to say; but, in any case, the die was irrevocably cast. He soon became known as a boy-preacher of the most audacious infidelity; but it did not pay. Unlike Spurgeon's godliness, Bradlaugh's ungodliness was by no means "great gain." In his seventeenth year he found himself reduced to such straits that he was compelled to enlist in the Seventh Dragoon Guards; and with this regiment he served for three years in Ireland, and there he did not neglect his opportunities. He studied the grievances of the Irish people on the spot, and hence his never-failing sympathy with that much-enduring race. By his hand was drawn up the famous manifesto of the Irish Republic which ushered in the Fenian agitation. In 1853, through the death of an aunt, he inherited a small sum of money, out of which he purchased his discharge, and returned to London, quitting the regiment with a "very good character" from his colonel, who all along treated him with marked consideration. He was soon lucky enough to find employment in the chambers of a solicitor named Rogers, a liberal-minded man, who was proof against all the shafts of anonymous bigotry which were showered on him as the harborer of Iconoclast. In this office Mr. Bradlaugh acquired a knowledge of legal principles and procedure of which the most eminent counsel at the English bar might well be proud. He again began to lecture in various metropolitan free-thought institutions, more particularly the Hall of Science, City Road, of which my friend, Mr. Evelyn Jerrold, has recently given an account so just and graphic.

In 1855 Mr. Bradlaugh had his first encounter with the police authorities in regard to the right of public meeting in Hyde Park. He carried his point, and was publicly thanked by the Royal Commission of Inquiry for the value of the evidence given by him on the occasion. In 1858 Mr. Edward Truelove, the well-known and personally estimable free-thought publisher, was arrested for issuing the pamphlet, "Is Tyrannicide Justifiable?" while Simon Bernard was at the same time incarcerated, at the instance of the French Government, for alleged complicity in the Orsini conspiracy. In the defence of both Mr. Bradlaugh rendered material assistance.

"In October, 1860," said Mr. Bradlaugh in his "Autobiography," "I paid my first visit to Wigan, and certainly lectured there under considerable difficulty, the resident clergy actually inciting the populace to ph3'8ical violence and part destruction of the building I lectured in. I, however, supported by a courageous woman and her husband, persevered, and, despite bricks and kicks, visited Wigan again and again until I had, bon gré, mal gré, improved the manners and customs of the people, so that I am now a welcome speaker there. I could not," he naively adds, "improve the morals of the clergy, as the public journals have recently shown; but that was their misfortune, not my fault."

In 1861 Mt. Bradlaugh was arrested at the instance of the Young Men's Christian Association of Plymouth; but he succeeded, thanks to his forensic skill, in wringing from an unwilling bench of magistrates a prompt certificate of dismissal. Mr. Bradlaugh then, in turn, raised proceedings against the Plymouth superintendent of police for illegal arrest. The verdict, one farthing damages, though unsatisfactory in the main, had yet two important results: it made the Plymouth authorities pay sweetly for their intolerance in the shape of costs, and it secured the right of free speech in Plymouth and adjoining towns.

In 1862 a Church of England clergyman was guilty of a foul libel affecting the late Mrs. Bradlaugh and her two amiable and highly accomplished daughters, whom to know is to respect. "This fellow," says Mr. Bradlaugh, "I compelled to retract every word he had uttered, and to pay a hundred pounds, which, after deducting costs, was divided amongst various charitable institutions. The reverend libeller wrote me an abject letter, begging me not; to ruin his prospects in the Church by publishing his name. I consented, and he has since repaid my mercy by losing no opportunity of being offensive. He is a prominent contributor to 'The Rock,' and a fierce ultra-Protestant. "Mr. Bradlaugh's relations with the Anglican priesthood, it must be admitted, have at all times been most unfortunate.

To the Reform League, in 1867, Mr. Bradlaugh rendered most valuable services,—services which, when his connection with the association ceased, were handsomely acknowledged in writing by the president, Mr. Beales, and the secretary, Mr. George Howell. To his marvellous courage and perseverance is it likewise owing that the last fetter has been struck off the press of England. Up to 1869 every newspaper was required by law to give securities to the extent of four thousand dollars against the appearance of blasphemous or seditious libels. Mr. Bradlaugh, refusing compliance, printed his journal "in defiance of her Majesty's Government," and so repeatedly baffled the law officers of the crown in their prosecutions, that the statute had finally to be repealed, the late Mr. J. S. Mill writing thus to the defendant in connection with the event: "You have gained a very honorable success in obtaining a repeal of the mischievous act by your persevering resistance." Mr. Bradlaugh was likewise instrumental, after much costly litigation, in establishing the competency of freethinkers to give evidence in courts of law. He carried a case in which his testimony as plaintiff was objected to from court to court till the Evidence Acts of 1869 and 1870 eventually relieved freethinkers from the disability so grievous and unjust. No sooner was he returned to Parliament than he found himself confronted by a similar difficulty. So fresh in the public mind and so dramatic were the circumstances attending the attempt to exclude him from the House, that they need not be narrated here. Suffice it to say that the courage, ability, and tact with which Mr. Bradlaugh conducted his case have been handsomely acknowledged even by bitter opponents.

During the Franco-Prussian war, Mr. Bradlaugh took no active part in favor of either side till the installation of the provisional republican government. Then, as might have been expected, he used his utmost influence on behalf of France. Great meetings were held in London, and in the leading provincial towns, to express sympathy with the struggling republic, which, it was hoped, might ultimately be able to drive the invader from French soil. Twice was Mr. Bradlaugh put under arrest—once by the provisional government, and once by M. Thiers—for his presumed support of dangerous sections of the republican party; but his loyalty to the cause of free government in France did not go unacknowledged. The Tours government thanked him for his fraternal efforts in a long and flattering letter signed by Gambetta, Cremieux, Glais Bizoin, and Fourichon; while M. Tissot, the French chargé d'affaires in England, and Emmanuel Arago, a member of the provisional government, addressed him individually, the last-named eminent man concluding his note with the words: "Mr. Bradlaugh est et sera toujours dans la republique notre concitoyen."

In 1873 Mr. Bradlaugh conve3'ed to the short-lived republican government of Spain the congratulations of a great Radical meeting held in the Town Hall of Birmingham, and was received by the republicans of nearly every shade with open arms, notwithstanding an intimation, lodged by Mr. Layard in his ambassadorial capacity, that the Queen of England would regard any manifestations of confidence in Mr. Bradlaugh as a personal affront. The speech which the English iconoclast delivered at the great banquet given in his honor at Madrid was marked by singular moderation of tone. He was perhaps the first Englishman who foresaw the accession of the Alphonsists to power.

Towards the end of 1873 Mr. Bradlaugh visited the United States of America, and commenced an extensive lecturing tour, dealing with such subjects as English republicanism, the Irish land question, &c.; and, wisely shunning the field of religious controversy, he lectured in all the chief towns of New England and the middle States, and met generally with a most cordial reception. At Boston—cultured, critical Boston—"Wendell Phillips, "the silver-tongued Demosthenes of America," presided at Mr. Bradlaugh's lecture, with Senator Sumner and Lloyd Garrison on the platform beside him. Mr. Phillips introduced the great bugbear of English public life as "the Samuel Adams of 1873," the Samuel Adams of 1766 being "that austere patriot always faithful and true" who spoke the first words of defiant protest against the tyranny of English monarchical rule in New England. The lecturer realized on an average the handsome sum of one hundred and sixty dollars per lecture.

On the occasion of the Prince of Wales' mischievous and insidiously planned jaunt to India, Mr. Bradlaugh was not wanting to the popular cause. He called the people together in Hyde Park, in which he may be said to have preserved the right of public meeting, and entered a spirited though unavailing protest against the subsidy; and petitions bearing one hundred and thirty-five thousand signatures were in consequence laid on the table of the House of Commons. The shameless Tichborne imposture he relentlessly exposed, and throughout the late disgraceful Jingo episode in the history- of the nation he was faithful even to the shedding of blood. At the second of the two memorable Jingo demonstrations in Hyde Park, he would in all probability have been killed but for his enormous bodily strength and personal intrepidity. As it was, his left arm, with which he protected his head from the savage blows of his assailants, fell powerless by his side before he could cleave his way with a heavy truncheon to a place of safety. Erysipelas supervened, and for three weeks his life was in peril. It is but fair to add that five of his foemen found their way to St. George's Hospital.

I have mentioned these matters with perhaps tedious minuteness, because in public life Mr. Bradlaugh, like politicians in better repute, has a right to be judged by his "fruits." It is but too common in respectable circles to regard him as a vulgar, self-seeking demagogue. Now, demagogue he may be, but certainly not in the objectionable, accepted sense of the word. He has never concealed his anxiety to get into Parliament; but of all the roads by which St. Stephen's may be approached he has certainly chosen the least likely and the most arduous. He has been at a world of pains to spoil his own chances. All the great "interests"—royalty, aristocracy, plutocracy, church, chapel, public house—have arrayed themselves against him. Yet, excepting Mr. Gladstone, this man has per-, haps the most attached personal following of any politician in England. This unique position he has won by his daring, by his intellect, by his Titanic energy, and by his general thoroughness of character. If he is not a real hero, he is a surprisingly clever counterfeit. In his own way, and by his own example, he has inspired many thousands of the most abject of his countrymen with re-invigorated feelings of self-reliance and renewed hope on earth. He has taught them the inestimable lesson of self-help, of righteous indignation against oppression.

On the other hand, like nearly all atheists whom I have known, he is a consummate egotist. He who recognizes in nature no power greater than himself almost necessarily rises rapidly in self-esteem. There is very little room left for the Christian virtues of patience, humility, charity. Indeed, these are pretty much what Mr. Bradlaugh attributes to Christ as faults of character. There is no God, and Charles Bradlaugh is his prophet. This is the secret of his power. Not that I mean to affirm in the least that Bradlaugh's egotism is incompatible with the common weal. In a different way from Beesly or Spurgeon, he has arrived at certainty. That is all. He might say, like Faust, —

"No scruples or doubts in my bosom dwell,
 Nor idle fears of devils in hell."

Hurrah for the "Everlasting No!" On this sure foundation let the edifice of human happiness be erected. Absolute selfishness more or less enlightened—call it individualism, or by whatever name you will—is the way, the truth, and the life. Whenever any great world-synthesis of religious or moral ideas has broken down, this has been the inevitable result of analysis. But the human race can never permanently live on negations. In the heat of conflict, while the old system is dying and the new is unborn, they may appear almost like gospel truths; but, when the ground has once been fairly cleared, their significance is at an end. Men once more begin to recognize in nature a more profound purpose, a more all-pervading intelligence, a more sacred continuity, than before. Comte attempted to piece together the broken links of our faith, but failed. Mr. Bradlaugh merely dances an Indian war-dance in paint and feathers among the débris. It is, in my opinion, a poor and questionable occupation for so able a man. The Deliverer is yet to come, and there are many signs that he cannot now be far off. Meantime wise men will possess their souls in patience, awaiting with confidence the dawn of the better day. "Almighty God! thou wilt cause the day to dawn; but as yet struggles the twelfth hour of the night. Nocturnal birds of prey are on the wing; the dead walk; the living dream."

But all this has little to do with Mr. Bradlaugh's politics, which are of this world, and not of the next. He is peculiarly wanted at this moment at St. Stephen's, where a disease worse than paralysis has seized on the legislative body. If the corpse can be revivified, he is the man to do it; and Northampton has deserved well of the country at large in securing his return, should we even take no higher ground than this, that desperate diseases require desperate remedies. I am, moreover, bound to say this in favor of Mr. Bradlaugh as a politician, that in all my experience I have never known him take the wrong side on any public question. And what he has been in the past he will be in the future. He could not now betray the people though he were to try. It is a disgrace to any system of government pretending to be representative that the acknowledged chief of militant English republicanism, and, what is of less consequence, of organized secularism, should have so long been excluded from the legislature of a country which he has done so much by ceaseless toil to preserve from sinking into political apathy. A better plea than the protracted exclusion of Mr. Bradlaugh from the House of Commons could not be adduced in favor of Mr. Hare's scheme of proportional representation.

It remains to glance, however briefly, at Mr. Bradlaugh's published writings. These consist chiefly of theological and political essays. Of the former, the philosophical or expositional portion is, for a very different reason, about as worthless as those of Mr. Spurgeon; while the historical—as, for example, the lives of David, of Jacob, and Jonah—is, to say the least, very amusing, though I should scarcely have thought the game worth the candle. Of his political works, on the other hand, all are accurate and of immediate interest. "Hints to Emigrants to the United States," in particular, no intending emigrant should be without. It is a plain, unvarnished tale, told by the most competent and impartial observer who has yet applied his mind to this important subject. His sketches of Cromwell and Washington, though biography is by no means his forte, display statesmanlike insight. I conclude with the words of final "Contrast:"—

"A fitting emblem for Oliver Cromwell la presented by the grandly glorious western sunset. Still mighty in the fierceness of its rays, few eyes can look steadily into the golden radiance of that evening sun: the strongest must lower their glances, dazzled by its brilliance. Every cloud is rich with ruddy gilding, as if the mere presence of that sun made glorious the very path it trod. And yet, while one looks, the tints deepen into scarlet, crimson, purple, as though that sun had been some mailed warrior, who had gained his grand pre-eminence by force of steel, and had left a bloody track to mark his steps to power. And, even while you pause to look, the thick dark veil of night falls over all, with a blackness so cold, complete, and impenetrable, as to make you almost doubt the reality of the mighty magnificence which yet has scarcely ceased. In the eventide of his life's day such a sun was Cromwell. Few men might look him fairly in the face as peers in strength. His presence gives a glory to the history page which gilds the smaller men whom he led. And yet Tredah and Worcester, Preston and Dunbar, and a host of other encrimsoned clouds compel us to remember how much the sword was used to carve his steps to rule. And then comes the night of death,—so thickly black, that even the grave cannot protect Cromwell's bones from the gibbet's desecration. And not unfittingly might the sunrise, almost without twilight, in the same land, do service as emblem for George Washington. He must be a bold man who, in the mists and chills of the dying night, not certain of its coming, would dare to watch for the rising sun. And yet, while he watches, the silver rays, climbing over the horizon's hill, shed light and clearness round; and soon a golden warmth breathes life and health and beauty into blade and bud, giving hope of the meridian splendor soon to come. George Washington was the morning sun of a day whose noontide has not yet been marked,—a day of liberty rendered more possible now that slavery's cloud no longer hides the sun; a day the enduring light of which depends alone on the honest republicanism of those who now dwell in that land where Washington was doorkeeper in Liberty's temple."