Eminent English liberals in and out of Parliament/John Bright
Thou art e'en as just a man
As e'er my conversation coped withal."
THERE is a quaint passage in "Ecclesiasticus " which expresses better than any thing I can think of my conception of the way in which Mr. Bright will be regarded by a not distant posterity. "Let us praise famous men," it runs, "and our fathers that begat us. God hath wrought great glory by them through His great power from the beginning; men renowned for their power giving counsel by their understanding, and declaring prophecies; leaders of the people by their counsels and by their knowledge meet for the people, wise and eloquent in their instructions; rich men furnished with ability, living peaceably in their habitations." "All these," it is added, "were honored in their generations, and were the glory of their times." And, assuredly, if characteristics such as these appertain to any man of our day and generation, it is to John Bright. What leader of the people has given wiser counsel, more eloquent instruction,—nay, declared more prophecies? As applied to him, the title of Right Honorable is, for a wonder, fully deserved. It fits like a glove. From the beginning of his career until now "great glory has been wrought by him," and that, too, "through His great power," Mr. Bright would be the first to postulate.
Least of all our public men is the illustrious tribune of the people an adventurer, self-seeker, or demagogue. I do not know that he can be described as a "rich" man. "Riches" is a specially comparative term in this aristocracy-ridden land; but certainly the anti-corn law agitation found him a well-to-do man, "furnished with ability, living peaceably in his habitation" at Rochdale, where he might have remained to this day hardly distinguishable from the mass of his fellow-citizens, had he not had what, in the phraseology of Puritanism, is named a "call." He was at the mill, as Elisha was at the plough, when the divine messenger laid hold of him in the guise of a gaunt, starving multitude, for whose wrongs he was imperatively commanded to seek redress at the hands of a heartless and stupid legislature. The corn laws repealed, the horizon of his public duties widened; but the spirit in which he has continued to act has remained the same. He is the great Puritan statesman of England, ever consciously living, as did his favorite poet Milton, "in his great Taskmaster's eye." This is the key to his simple but grand character, as it is to that of the much more complex Gladstone,—a singular fact, certainly, in view of the grave doubts now entertained in so many not incompetent quarters with respect to the objective reality of all religious beliefs.
Mr. Bright has completed his sixty-eighth year, having been born in 1811, in his father's house at Greenbank, near Rochdale. Needless to say his ancestors did not "come over at the Conquest." So far as is known, there is not a single "de" among them. The first discoverable local habitation of the Brights is a place still called "Bright's Farm," near Lyneham, in Wiltshire. Here, in 1714, a certain Abraham Bright married Martha Jacobs, a handsome Jewess; and shortly afterwards the couple removed to Coventry, where Abraham begat William Bright, who begat Jacob, who begat Jacob junior, who, coming to Rochdale in 1796, was espoused to Martha Wood, the daughter of a respectable tradesman of Bolton-leMoors, and became in due course the father of John the Great, the subject of this sketch.
Mr. Bright's ancestry abounds in Abrahams and Jacobs, Marthas and Marys. He has a sort of vested interest in scriptural characters and scriptural knowledge, which comes as instinctively to him as fox-hunting to a squire of the county. He is a hereditary Nonconformist; nearly all his relatives, as is well known, being members of the Society of Friends. He may be said to have been born resisting church rates. His father, a most estimable man, could never be induced to pay them, and was, in consequence, as familiar with execution warrants as with the pages of his ledger. Not a bad example, assuredly, for a youthful people's tribune! Bright the elder had started life as a poor but honest weaver, working, as his right honorable son has told all the world, for six shillings a week! In 1809 he took an old mill named Greenbank. Some Manchester friends who had confidence in his intelligence and integrity supplied the capital; and, by the time that the ex-President of the Board of Trade had attained years of discretion, the family were in easy circumstances. The business has since been much developed; but the knowledge that Mr. Bright, from the first, possessed a substantial "stake in the country," has given a cogency to his more Radical and humanitarian opinions in the eyes of the middle class, which no amount of mere argument could have ever supplied.
Was Mr. Bright equally happy in his education? The question is one of great difficulty; but, on the whole, I am disposed to think he was. True, he did not learn much at the Friends' schools which he frequented; but, on the other hand,—unlike Mr, Gladstone, with his great academic acquirements,—he learned nothing which it has been necessary for him, by a painful process, to unlearn. If, like Shakespeare, he "knows little Latin and less Greek," he knows uncommonly well how to do without them. At the Ackworth and York schools his heart was cultivated, if his head was not crammed. The foundations were laid deep and strong of a placid, free, wise, and upright manhood. "Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers." It was the educational aim of the friends of Bright's childhood to instil wisdom first, and to leave knowledge pretty much to take care of itself. I do not like to contemplate what might have happened to Mr. Bright if he had gone to Eton and to Oxford with Mr. Gladstone, and drunk in all the pernicious ecclesiastical and political nonsense which the Premier imbibed in his misdirected youth. Mr. Gladstone has survived Oxford, and come out clothed and in his right mind; but it is highly doubtful if Mr. Bright would have been equally fortunate. He is by temperament a Conservative, who has been singularly faithful to all the ideas with which he started in life. What he is to-day he was forty-five years ago. His principles are far-reaching, and susceptible of varied application; but I venture to affirm, that, if they were once realized, he would be about the last man in England to find new ones. He is the incarnation of Quakerism, summing up in his own person all its noble law and all its prophets. The sect which has been numerically so weak and morally so strong will never produce another such. Its theory of the public good, though perhaps the highest of any, is limited after all.
One part of. Mr. Bright's education which was not neglected, and which has been to him from boyhood a source of real inspiration, I ought not to overlook; viz., his study of the great poets. He has a genius for appropriate quotation; and, if I might give a hint to my young readers, let me recommend them to verify, as occasion offers, the sources from which he draws. They will be well repaid for the trouble.
Like most generous and humane natures, he is fond of the lower animals, more especially of dogs; but his canine, I am sorry to say, are not equal to his unerring poetic, instincts. In this respect he is not much above the shockingly low average taste of Lancashire. In his youth he was a good football-player, a smart cricketer, an expert swimmer, and during a period of convalescence, more than twenty years ago, he acquired the art of salmon-fishing, which he has since, for recreative reasons chiefly, brought to considerable perfection. He is a total abstainer; and what with a steady hand, a quick eye, and indomitable patience, few better amateur anglers appear on the Spey.
He is a charming companion, with a weakness for strolling into billiard-rooms. Once at Llandudno, the story goes, he played in a public billiard-room with a stranger, who turned out to be a truculent Tory manufacturer from Yorkshire. While the game was proceeding, the Yorkshireman's wife chanced to ask some of the hotel attendants how her husband was engaged, and was beside herself with alarm on" learning that he was in the company of one against whom she had so often heard him express the most bloodthirsty sentiments. "Are they fighting?" she asked, and could with difficulty be that no altercation was going on. About a couple of hours afterwards the husband turned up, rubbing his hands, and told his wife with much satisfaction that he had just been having a game at billiards with a most pleasant casual acquaintance, and that they had arranged for another trial of skill next day. "Why," exclaimed the lady, "it is John Bright you have been playing with!" The manufacturer's countenance fell; but, speedily recovering himself, he observed, in extenuation of his conduct, that the newspapers always told lies about people, and, so thoroughly was he now satisfied of Mr. Bright's entire harmlessness, that, in given circumstances, he should vote for him himself.
At home, at One Ash, Mr. Bright enjoys universal respect. His abode, though most unostentatious, is a model of comfort and good taste. His library is noteworthy, being specially rich in history, biography, and poetry. At the close of the corn-law agitation upwards of twenty-five thousand dollars were subscribed by his admirers, and twelve hundred volumes purchased therewith, as some slight acknowledgment of his powerful advocacy of the good cause. As of yore, he regularly attends the services at the humble meetinghouse of the Friends; and, as age advances, the sources of his piety show no symptom of drying up. His charities, and—
"That best portion of a good man's life,
His little, nameless, unremembered acts
Of kindness and of love,"
which are in reality numerous, are seldom recorded, because Mr. Bright, like his father before him, declines to blow a trumpet when he does a good deed. He acts on the principle of not letting his right hand know what his left hand doeth in such matters; and, as a consequence, his benefactions are better known to the beneficiaries than to the public.
As to Mr. Bright's relations with his work-people, many lying legends were at one time circulated by the Tory press. They practically, however, received their quietus on the 2oth of January, 1867, when the alleged victims of Mr. Bright's tyranny met and unanimously passed resolutions so complimentary to their employer, that for shame's cause the Conservative organs had to look about for fresh subjects of vilification. At that time Mr. Bright was able to say, "From 1809 to 1867 is at least fifty-seven years; and I venture to affirm, that with one single exception, and that not of long duration, there has been during that period uninterrupted harmony and confidence between my family and those who have assisted us and been employed in it." How few employers in this age of "strikes" can say as much!
With respect to Mr. Bright's oratory, I agree with all competent judges that it is as nearly as possible perfect. He is the prince of English speakers. I have been told by some authorities who have heard Wendell Phillips speak, that he is equal to Mr. Bright; but, from speeches by the celebrated American which I have read, I should very much doubt it. The heart, the conscience, the intellect, Mr. Bright can touch with equal ease. His speech is the natural expression of a mind at once beautiful and strong. The whole man speaks, and not, as is the case with most other speakers, only a part of him. His words glide like a pleasant brook, without haste and without rest. His rising in the House is always an event. I remember by chance being in the Speaker's Gallery on a Wednesday afternoon when he made his now celebrated speech on the Burials Bill. He had seldom spoken since his severe illness, and was not expected to address the House. The debate had been of the poorest select vestry stamp, without ability and without human interest of any kind, when suddenly a movement of expectation was visible on both sides of the House:—
"And hark! the cry is, 'Astur!' and lo! the ranks divide,
And the great lord of Luna comes with his stately stride.
Upon his ample shoulders clangs loud the fourfold shield,
And in his hand he shakes the brand which none save he can wield."
The effect was magical. Languid and recumbent legislators sat erect, and were all attention in a moment. It was curious to observe how the occupants of the Conservative benches, the majority of whom in the late Parliament looked for all the world like a band of horse-jockeys and prize-fighters, were affected. Mr. Bright talked to them with all the simplicity and confidence of a good paterfamilias addressing his family circle with his back to his own mantel-piece. And such talk! No wonder that they listened with silent respect. The whole House was transformed by it, and began to feel something like a proper sense of its own duty and dignity. Before he had spoken five minutes, the level of the debate had been raised fifty degrees at least; and there was not an honorable, nor, for the matter of that, a dishonorable, member present who did not feel that the Government was morally and logically routed, whatever its numerical triumph might be. Mr. Bright does one thing of which so many members are oblivious: he never in any of his speeches in Parliament forgets that he is in the great council of the nation; and, however violent may be the supposition, he always assumes that his opponents are there to be convinced, if only the matter at issue is put in a proper light. The prevailing tone of his mind is one of hopefulness. He has large faith, and believes in the inevitable progress of humanity and the ultimate invincibility of truth. As he once said, "There is much shower and sunshine between the sowing of the seed and the reaping of the harvest; but the harvest is reaped after all."
But, though his nature is large and forgiving, in solemn earnestness of rebuke he is unmatched. Once or twice Lord Palmerston, in the very height of his power and popularity, was made to wince like a convict under the sentence of a judge; and, if we except the unique moral insensibility of a Beaconsfield, it would be difficult to conceive of a more arduous undertaking than that of reaching the conscience of Lord Palmerston. In the terrible struggle which threatened to rend the great American Republic to pieces, the innermost soul of the tribune of the people was stirred within him, and he touched the limits of actual prophecy. In the darkest hour of the fortunes of the North he declared, "The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Gladstone) as a speaker is not surpassed by any man in England, and he is a great statesman. He believes the cause of the North to be hopeless, and that their enterprise cannot succeed. … I have another and a far brighter vision before my gaze. It may be a vision; but I will cherish it. I see one vast confederation stretching from the frozen North in unbroken line to the glowing South, and from the wild billows of the Atlantic westward to the calmer waters of the Pacific main; and I see one people and one language, and one law and one faith, and over all that wide continent the home of freedom and a refuge for the oppressed of every race and of every clime."
It remains to notice, however briefly, some of the more noticeable events of Mr. Bright's public life. They have not been so numerous as might, on first thoughts, be supposed: for he has all his da3'S been a sower of seed, and not a reaper; and, of much that he has sown, future generations will reap the fruit. His "record" will be best found in his collected speeches, which are, in my opinion, the finest in the language, whether as regards matter or diction. I know no politician who has been more uniformly in the right when others have been in the wrong, and I know no greater master of the English tongue.
His first public appearance was made at Rochdale, in 1830, in his nineteenth year. It was in favor of temperance, and is said to have been a success. Like most young speakers, he commenced by committing to memory what he intended to utter on the platform, but soon abandoned so clumsy and exhaustive a method of address. Instead of memoriter reproductions, he held impromptu rehearsals at odd hours in his father's mill before Mr. Nicholas Nuttall, an intelligent workman and unsparing critic; but even now his perorations are written out with the greatest care. Like most young men in easy circumstances, he had a desire for travel, which was gratified by a visit to Jerusalem. On coming within sight of the Holy City, he was melted to tears.
In the month of October, 1838, the Anti-Corn Law League had its insignificant and unpromising beginning. Five Scotsmen,—W. A. Cunningham, Andrew Dalzell, James Leslie, Archibald Prentis, and Philip Thomson, residents in Manchester,—along with William Rawson, a native of the town, met like the apostles of old, in an "upper room," and decreed the origin of the mammoth association. In the printed list of the members of the provisional committee Mr. Bright's name stands second. He had found his vocation; and, in the course of the memorable campaign that followed, he and the late Mr. Cobden contracted a friendship which has justly become historic. In speaking in the House of Mr. Cobden's decease, the strong man, bowed down with the weight of his sorrow, was barely able to utter, "After twenty years of most intimate and almost brotherly friendship with him, I little knew how much I loved him until I found that I had lost him." Siste, viator!
In 1843 Mr. Bright first took his seat in Parliament for Durham, and in 1847 he was returned for Manchester without opposition. In 1852 he was re-elected after a contest; but at the subsequent general election of 1857 he lost his seat on account of his unbending opposition to the Crimean war, and to the swagger of Palmerston in China. In the autumn of the same year, however, he was returned by Birmingham at a byelection, and has continued to represent the great Radical Mecca in Parliament ever since.
His memorable defeat at Manchester was, for him, the greatest moral victory of his life, and he has had many. With a sublime courage, which has never been surpassed, he strove almost single-handed to arrest in its mad career a whole nation in pursuit of a mischievous phantom. In the American war his services to his own country and to America were unrivalled, and happily more successful.
That he is one of the best and most intelligent friends of India, of Ireland, and of the unenfranchised and unprivileged masses of Englishmen and Scotsmen will go without saying. As a member of Mr. Gladstone's cabinet he was introduced at court, and is said to be a favorite there. I should have liked him better had he continued—to use his own words—"to abide among his own people." Evil communications have a tendency to corrupt the best manners, and Mr. Bright has never been at his best since he made the acquaintance of royalty.
Latterly the brunt of the fighting has fallen on Gladstone, who, by an arduous heart-searching process, has, at seventy, reached conceptions of the public good which were familiar to Mr. Bright's mind at twenty. It is Mr. Bright's turn to put his powerful hand to the plough. He looks vigorous as ever, and it has not been his wont to spare himself in great emergencies. Let him remember the wisdom of Ulysses addressed to the "great and godlike" Achilles,—
"To have done,
Is to hang quite out of fashion, like a rusty mail,
In monmnental mockery."