Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/The statesman: his health

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2663160Once a Week, Series 1, Volume II — The statesman. His health
1859-1860Harriet Martineau


The health of the Statesman!” some may say.

“Well: the health of public men is of importance, certainly; but they constitute a scarcely appreciable element in the mortality of the country.”

Estimated by mere number—by the list of dead statesmen within any fixed term of years—this is true. But the lives of other men are bound up in those of rulers, for safety or destruction. Not only may one minister cause the loss of thousands of men by war, and another save tens of thousands by domestic improvements; but the lot and life of a multitude of citizens depend on the length or shortness of the rule of a great minister,—that is to say on his living or dying. Not only, therefore, is it very interesting to study the chances and liabilities of the health of public men, but it is also highly important. So few statesmen who have long wielded power die exactly like other men, or might not have been expected to live longer than they do, or to die differently that they are certainly not a class to be omitted in any sanitary studies, however small their numbers may be.

Our study must be of British statesmen, to answer any practical purpose. On the continent, hitherto, the work and the anxieties of rulers have been of a different kind from anything seen or understood in England. In despotic politics, the ministers are simply the servants of their sovereigns, charged with definite business of a certain kind and amount; and outside that business, having only to obey orders, and to bear all consequences of their acts in their own persons, in favour or disgrace at court. If they are the masters of their sovereigns, they become virtually sovereigns, and subject to the liabilities of that function.

In revolutionary government the administrators have abundance of anxiety and responsibility; but their term of office is short, and their course of action so empirical and precarious that their occupation is rather an accident in their lives than its main pursuit. The constitutional governments of the continent are too recent to afford types of statesmen under that régime.

In the United States, again, all political offices are held for a short time. Men may and do devote themselves to politics for life; but no man is in office for many years together except in the legislature; and the parliamentary function occupies much less of time and thought where the legislature has jurisdiction over only five subjects, than in England, where the whole political structure and its workings are under the charge of parliament.

In America each sovereign State manages its own affairs, in so easy a style that there is hardly room for statesmanship; and the Government at Washington is concerned only with the few interests which belong to the States in federal union. Thus, though we may find there some illustrations of the effects of political life, we cannot reason from them to the effects of political life in England, where the conditions are essentially different.

The conditions have changed very much in England, in course of centuries, and half and quarter centuries. When English Statesmen were responsible to the king or nobody, they lived a different life from their successors who had a parliament to manage, and from those more modern successors who are responsible to parliament in a fuller sense than at any former time. Ancient statesmen had an easier life of it—in all respects, perhaps, but that of dependence on the favour of the monarch. Modern statesmen have more wear and tear to endure, with less showy and more rare rewards, but not less substantial and heart-felt satisfactions. The anxieties to which they are subject are different from those of old times; and so are their maladies and modes of living and dying. It may, indeed be doubted whether the life of the British statesman of the nineteenth century has ever been lived in any former time or other country. The vocation is as peculiar as the character and function of the English aristocracy which usually furnishes the supply of statesmen.

Our public men who have risen to high office, being derived hitherto from the aristocracy, have had a classical education more or less thorough. They have passed through some one of our great schools, or perhaps from the training of a private tutor, to the University. Men of their quality of mind are sure to have done a great deal at college; for the idlers and mere pleasure seekers are not the stuff of which statesmen are made. Their studies are, to the real great men, a store of health, as well as capacity, laid by unconsciously to meet future needs, and ward off future dangers. In fostering and gratifying their love of classical lore, they were unawares obtaining that breadth of view, that depth of insight into human nature and affairs, that robustness of spirit which grows out of large experience of other than familiar modes of thought, and that serenity of intellect and temper which go far to secure a sound mind in a sound body. It is of immense importance to the orator to know the best oratory of other nations and ages: it gives an inexpressible charm to the utterance of a scholar that the philosophy and poetry of all times are breathing through his thought and speech: but there are richer blessings than these in high literary training. The ripe scholar, who is familiar with the life and thought of remote ages, and has nourished his mind upon the choice remains of their best men and best times, is too strong to be moved by transient influences which alarm and disconcert men who know nothing beyond their own time and circumstances. The superficially-educated public man, of whose quality much was seen in the successive revolutions in France, and a good deal is constantly seen in the United States, is easily agitated,—is always either suspicious or liable to surprise, and fluctuates in his views and purposes, unless he find a stand-point for some particular question on some clear ethical principle. He has no support beyond the men and the incidents immediately about him. On the other hand, the scholar is familiar with the principles of liberty in all their forms; he knows the inevitable issues of despotism; he possesses the convictions and the experience of various races and many ages, and reinforces his own mind by any amount that he may need of the immortal store laid up for us in Greek and Roman literature. Hence the calmness and dignity of a long series of great ministers in England, compared with the stolidity of the agents of Czars and Kaisers, or the screaming passion of revolutionary office-holders, or the big talk and solemn alarms, and petulant sensitiveness common in the Capitol at Washington.

Thus in early life have our great statesmen provided themselves for the future strife of political existence with inexhaustible supplies of calm and natural and elevating pleasure, and with an expansion of mind able to render them masters of most situations in which they can be placed; or, at worst, masters of themselves in any position. When we have honoured the greatness of Lord Grey, carrying his Reform Bill through a political tempest almost unequalled in fierceness and duration, we follow him into his home and study. He must have been more or less chafed in the House, however calm was his bearing; and now, alone, and deep in the night, he charms away his troubles before he sleeps with his Horace, or some other poet beloved in his youth. Pitt used to forget all cares of empire when he indulged for an hour in a play of Aristophanes, or when he and Canning read Lucan or recited Horace under the trees at Wimbledon. It was so with Fox under cares less creditable than those of state. When two friends followed him home, believing him in a suicidal mood from losses at play, and entered his study two minutes after him, they found him lying on his back on the hearth-rug,—not cutting his throat, but deep in an Ode of Horace. He had thrown off his coat, and taken up his book, and proved himself a robuster man than his friends gave him credit for. It is true Pitt died broken-hearted; but public affairs were never too much for him till he gave up the only chance of health by giving up temperance and prudence in his personal affairs. His debts worried him; and port wine killed him. The habits of his class and time were against him. Pitt could bear everything before he was harassed by debt and weakened by the maladies which grow out of excess in wine. The account of Fox must be somewhat different. The wonder is, not that he died dropsical at fifty-seven, but that he lived so long in reckless habits of wine, play, and debt. In these men scholarship could have no more than an ameliorating effect. To see its true operation, we must study the fine examples which modern history presents of aged statesmen who have triumphed over care and irritation, and kept their freshness of mind and serenity of mood to the last.

Another consequence of our great statesmen being generally drawn from the aristocracy is, that they become early trained and inured to hard official life. The first step taken by any Pitt or Grenville, when a rising young man choosing a political career, was to go into parliament, and the next was to enter a public office in some working capacity. There were plenty of idlers, no doubt; but, as I said before, I am now speaking only of the efficient men.

Their minds thus became familiarised with large affairs and with the diligent transaction of business, while their habits were early formed on the observances of political life; on the work and hours of parliament, and the incessant application required by the administration of government. While the homely middle-class family was uneasy at being out of bed after ten or eleven o’clock, our public men formed the habit of taking their sleep when they could get it. Some appeared at places of public amusement after the House was up: some supped at their club: one, as we know, used to sit down by his own fire, with two or three new quarterlies and half a dozen pamphlets, and then and there empty all these into his own brain, and the contents of two full decanters into his own stomach;—sometimes, we are told, not going to bed at all, but shaving and dressing for breakfast, and appearing in the law-courts, ready for business. It would perhaps be difficult to find three men in the whole nation who would not soon be killed, or driven mad, by such defiance of the laws of health. Nothing, of course, can justify it: but the lives of public men show us that the conditions of health range more widely than we are accustomed to suppose. One member of a recent cabinet cannot do his work unless he has eight hours of undisturbed sleep in the twenty-four; while another can sleep, like Lord Clyde, anywhere and at any moment, and may never need more than five hours altogether. It may be doubted whether men’s appetite for sleep does not differ as widely as their appetite for food. There can be no doubt, however, that the late hours of the modern House of Commons are a sin and a folly. Among the six hundred members there must be many who cannot suit their brains and nerves to such arbitrary arrangements as those which involve sittings after midnight. However convenient the practice may be for the dispatch of business, and however difficult it may now be to change it, the objection remains incontrovertible, that midnight debates are violations of the laws of the human constitution.

What are the special dangers to health of the class of statesmen, over and above those belonging to parliamentary life, with its irregular hours?

Judging by observation the perils are chiefly those which belong to moral anxiety.

It may be a question whether the old method of ruling the empire, or the new system of increased responsibility to parliament, involved the greater anxiety. In times when ministers made their own parliaments, and told them little more than was convenient to themselves, they had more responsibility, and less solicitude about the sayings and doings of parliament. What the wear and tear of the older time was, we partly learn from what Lord Liverpool said, towards the close of his career. He declared, in his own house on Wimbledon Common, that for twenty-five years of official life he had never for one day looked at that—pointing to a heap of official letters—without a qualm of apprehension, and a reluctance to break the seals—so keen was his sense of the probability of some misfortune having happened in some part or another of our empire, or our relations with other empires. Lord Liverpool had not the temperament of genius, with its keen sensibilities; and he stood the siege of state cares for an unusual length of time: but at last he was found on the floor, in a fit of apoplexy—politically dead. On the other hand, a later statesman has said two things, at different times, which, put together, constitute an awful disclosure. One day he said that there was no living without office, after having once held it. “Everything palls,” he said, “and the restlessness is intolerable, and admits of only one cure.” On another occasion, he said that an honest man enters upon office resolved against being disturbed by the newspapers, in regard to intended government measures, because Ministers must understand their own circumstances and plans better than anybody outside can understand them. But by degrees the anxiety grows. The antagonism does its work, sooner or later: till at last the Minister looks upon his pile of morning papers with as much dread of learning their contents as Lord Liverpool could feel at sight of his letters. The obvious reflection is that, if such be the life of a statesman, there can be no compensation for its sufferings.

This, it may be said, is a matter of individual taste and opinion. Moreover, it may be remarked that this is no affair of ours at this moment. But I am not so sure of this. As the study of the statesman’s health involves that of his sufferings in his calling, so it also involves the cause of those sufferings. As the wear and tear of moral anxiety destroys his health and shortens his life, it comes within our present business to inquire into the nature and the necessity of that anxiety.

It is said, on occasion, that nothing wears a man down so certainly and rapidly, in a position of responsibility, as conscientiousness. This is probably true of the keen kind of conscientiousness which belongs to a delicate moral organisation. But the higher order of conscientiousness which works truly because it is robust, is the best known sustainer of the nerves and regulator of the brain. This will hardly be denied by any one. While it may be supposed, on the one hand, that the ambitious statesman who defies scruples, by his moral obtuseness escapes the sufferings and perils which better men undergo, it appears, on the other hand, that the advantage rests at last with the best patriot;—with the statesman who is harassed by no personal aims, and tormented by no weak misgivings. Having ascertained his own aims, and explored his means, he commits himself to a well-considered policy, hoping that it will succeed, and resolved that it shall be no fault of his if it does not. A man who can thus form his design, and pursue it through whatever may befal, setting his face up the mountain, and climbing steadily, in spite of the voices, is hardly the man to sink down with shattered nerves, or to wear away to a shaking spectre before the eyes of the nation.

After the deaths of Lord Liverpool and Mr. Canning, we were told that the average life of an English Premier was six years. This must mean six years of continuous office, without any relief. Of course, a sum of six years, divided by intervals, is altogether a different affair. Six years seems a sadly short time for the possession of the prize of a whole life’s work. But, again, if we consider what it is to be charged with the destinies of a nation, and in a manner of many nations, without respite for six years, we cannot wonder at any consequence of such a strain. For the Prime Minister there is no holiday. In the comparatively easy days of ministerial and manageable parliaments, Mr. Pitt and Lord Liverpool could only go down to Bath when apprehending a fit of the gout,—merely transacting their business there with less convenience than at home. From the real pressure they had no escape whatever; and no Prime Minister ever can have it. The nearest approach to relief is an ever-increasing openness with parliament, and a growing publicity about the affairs which happen during the recess. It is not often that a nation meets with a statesman as buoyant and full of spirit as Lord Palmerston in his old age. It is a commoner thing to see our ministers wearing old before their time,—with shaky hands, stooping shoulders, anxious countenances, or petulant tempers. Sometimes a hardly-pressed statesman sinks under the first attack of illness, without a chance of rally. Sometimes a suicide occurs. Only too often we have heard of some subordinate member having died of brain-fever after the passage of some act committed to his charge: and again, of two or three brothers of a brilliant family being carried off in succession by the combined fatigue and fever of toil and political ambition. These are heavy costs for our being well served. Is there nothing to be done to save them?

The days of port wine and hereditary gout are passing away. Our Premiers have still gout occasionally: but it is wearing out under the more temperate habits of our time,—more temperate as to wine. Can nothing be done to reduce the other kinds of intemperance—excess in passion or feeling—under which the brain sooner or later gives way?

Prudence in personal habits may do much. Avoiding long fasting and late full meals is one point: securing a sufficiency of sleep is another. The effect of ten minutes’ sleep in bringing down the pulse of a worried man can be certified by many a good wife, who stands between her husband and the whole world for that length of time (if she cannot get more) every afternoon. Let horse exercise be a daily duty. Then let holiday be made conscientiously, when possible. Let the shooting-season be made much of, and the Premier be heard of from the stubbles with satisfaction by every good citizen. Let Easter, Christmas, and all the feasts, and the Derby-day, and all holidays, be laid hold of for the refreshment of the over-tasked mind.

When all is done in the way of these external precautions and provisions, no good will ensue if the interior of the case be a bad one. If ambition enters into it, more or less, eating care enters with it. For every gratification, ambition pays the price of a hundred cares: whereas any heart-breaking discouragement is scarcely possible for a statesman who is sincerely and devotedly the servant of his country, and the well-wisher of every interest in it. If he can work towards his end, be must obtain more or less success: and if he is precluded from doing it, he yields up the responsibility to others, and still contends, for the satisfaction of the struggle. A steady will and a calm temper are almost certain of success in a good cause; and without the destruction of the winner.

We give up the great soldier on the battle-field, and the noble sailor at sea, in the moment of victory. We do so because amidst fire and slaughter we have no choice. It need not be so in the field of political administration. There a man need not do and die. He may do and live: and this is his duty, no less than his privilege. A calm mind disperses other foes than those of political conflict: it keeps disease at arm’s length. And when the mind is at the same time full of noble aims, and the heart of rational hope, while the intellect is kept equably at work on the highest order of business, it would seem that the statesman should rather outlive his contemporaries than sink before them, as the rational man outlives the imbecile, and the benevolent are young and gay when egotists are wearing out. The higher the man and his work, the stronger his vitality. Such is Nature’s clear intention. It ought not to fail in such an order as that of statesmen in a progressive age of the world.

Harriet Martineau.