Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 4/Last week (February 16, 1861)

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The Session has scarcely begun, and yet in the speech delivered by Lord John Russell at the beginning of Last Week we have a very satisfactory exposition of the views of the British Ministry with regard to foreign affairs. Now foreign affairs, and various measures of legal reform—mainly those connected with the criminal and the bankruptcy code—are the legitimate business of the present session of the British Parliament. When all has been said and done that can be said and done upon these subjects during the hundred and twenty evenings of which a session consists, there will always be a vast amount of business which yet enlists no warm political sympathies, and arouses no great share of political excitement, but which requires time in order that it may be thoroughly performed. As long, too, as a popular assembly retains its character, a certain period of its sittings must always be devoted to the discussion of merely personal questions, for its members are not machines, but men with feelings and passions which will occasionally lead them astray. Happy will it be for us if, when the 12th of August arrives, the two Houses have really got through a considerable amount of practical business, and during the course of their session have served as apt exponents of the views and opinions of the British people upon the many mighty questions which are at the present moment agitating the minds of the Continental nations. Happier, still, will it be if such expression of opinion serves in any material way to preserve the peace of Europe.

The one great omission in the Royal Speech, and in the programme of the Ministry, appears to be that of all question of Reform in our parliamentary institutions. Is this question of Reform, therefore, abandoned, because it is adjourned?—or because the present Ministers have arrived at the conclusion that in the actual temper of the Houses and of the country, it cannot be dealt with by any large and comprehensive bill? Surely not. Lord Derby, unwillingly enough, brought in a very bad bill, but, bad as it was, it was at least a proof of how far he and his party were willing to go. Lord John Russell, again, brought in a bill which did not satisfy anybody. That bill was the measure of the intentions of the Whigs and Ministerialists upon the subject of Reform. Mr. Bright brought a scheme under the notice of the constituencies; but, as it turned out, the constituencies regarded it with such indifference, that it was not thought worth while to bring it under the serious consideration of the House. What is to be done? Conservatives, Ministerial Liberals, and Radicals, have each in turn endeavoured to deal with the question, but the endeavours have invariably proved failures. It is undeniable that throughout the country there exists an apathy upon this matter which it is impossible to stimulate into action, or to overcome by the ordinary machinery of political agitation.

One of two inferences must be the correct one. Either this question must be left to a more convenient season, or it must be handled in some manner upon which our statesmen have not yet hit. Possibly piecemeal legislation and a Consolidation Bill at a distant period, may furnish a proper solution of the question. Possibly, when the ferment of men’s minds with regard to foreign affairs is at an end, and they have time and opportunity to turn their thoughts once more to the consideration of domestic affairs, they may be more inclined than they seem just now to compel the statesmen of this country to sink their differences, and arrive at a fresh and comprehensive settlement of a question which, however frequently it may be settled, must always remain an open one, amongst a free people.

As long as the Whigs remain in power, and until they see that their power is seriously threatened by an adjournment of the question, it may now be considered as put aside. On the other hand, it must be remembered that the public announcement in Parliament, from the lips of Lord John Russell, that he and his colleagues have determined to abandon it for a time, has weakened their hold upon the support—such as it was—of Mr. Bright and the extreme Radicals. Again, since the Whigs have declared thus openly their intention to give up their Reform Bill, the great obstacle which impeded the return to power of Lord Derby and his followers is removed.

What is to happen in Continental Europe during the next six months? That is the question which is uppermost in the thoughts of us all at the present moment. Lord John Russell this day week, in answer to a question from Mr. Fitzgerald, gave it as his own opinion that, despite of the warlike rumours which reach our ears from all sides, the peace of Europe may yet be preserved. It is to be presumed that this expression of opinion represents the views of his colleagues; but at the same time it may be remarked that the speech delivered by the French Emperor on the opening of the Chambers the other day was not very encouraging. No words spoken by him, it may he, could have restored confidence to Europe, for his words and his acts have too often been at variance. A suggestion, indeed, for the reduction of the military and maritime forces of France, had it been carried out in act, would have been acceptable enough, and might have afforded substantial grounds for belief in his sincerity. No such suggestion was made; but on the contrary, it is notorious that he is pressing on the construction of a war-fleet, with all expedition—that he is laying up vast quantities of warlike stores—that he is putting his land forces upon a war-footing, and even calling out his reserves. It is asserted in political circles, that the protest of the sixty members delivered the other day to Lord Palmerston, and pointing out the necessity for a reduction in our expenditure, was made public just in time to give a more warlike colour to the phrases of the French Emperor’s speech. it encouraged him to calculate upon our internal divisions; for if the British nation is not determined collectively—that is to say, with the exception of an inconsiderable minority—to maintain the forces of the country at such a point of efficiency as may enable us at any time to make our authority felt in the discussion of European affairs, Louis Napoleon is not the man to respect our protests or our scruples. Whatever British statesmen may believe, the opinion of the Prussian king and his advisers certainly is that the independence of Prussia is threatened.

At the opening of the Chambers at Berlin the other day, the king expressed himself in the gloomiest manner as to the turn events might take, and that ere long. Here, then, we have contradictory statements made—with the interval of but a few days between them—in Berlin, and in London. The Oracle at Paris is not very clear; but what meaning can be disengaged from its mystic phrases would rather seem to be of an ominous kind, and that the more when it is considered in connection with the warlike preparations urged forward in such haste throughout the length and breadth of the French Empire—more especially upon the Rhenish and Eastern frontier.

Last Week, again, we received intelligence from Berlin that M. Von Vincke’s amendment during the discussion upon the address had been carried by a majority of 159 against 146 votes in the Chamber of Deputies, and that despite of the most determined efforts upon the part of Baron Von Schleinitz and the Ministerialists. But in truth here is somewhat more than a check to a Ministry: the carrying of this amendment is a positive veto imposed by the country on the policy of the sovereign. The terms of the amendment were to the effect—“That we do not consider it to be either for the interest of Prussia or of Germany to place obstacles in the way of the consolidation of the unity of Italy.” It was in vain that the Minister protested that the Prussian Government had not the least reason to be opposed to the development of Italy: that although it did not consider the principle of non-intervention as binding, it had not actually interfered in Italy: that the position of Venetia was, in a military sense, too important to Austria directly, and indirectly to Germany, to allow of its cession being advised by Prussia: that in all probability both Austria and Sardinia would content themselves with the maintenance of a defensive attitude, and that through the influence of the Great Powers a final contest would certainly be postponed, and, possibly, might be altogether averted: and, finally, that the Prussian Government had resolved not in any way to interfere with the national Italian movement, so long as it remained a national movement and did not assume a development which seemed to carry with it a threat to the stability of German power. Every effort, in short, was made to meet the amendment half way, and to treat it as though all that was really vital in it had been actually incorporated into the policy of the Prussian Government, but only with such prudent reserves as would recommend themselves upon the most cursory consideration to the easy acceptance of every German Liberal. The Prussian deputies were well aware that this was but a hollow pretence, and that even if no positive engagement subsisted, there had been an understanding between the sovereigns of Southern and of Northern Germany that Prussia would not fail Austria in her need, if the Austrian possession of Venetia was seriously attacked. What renders this event the more remarkable is, that M. Von Vincke, who is really a man with some claim to be considered a Liberal in the English and parliamentary sense of the word, and who was a very foremost man indeed in the Frankfort Parliament after the events of 1848, has, by proposing this amendment, abandoned the ground which he then occupied. In those days he struggled—no man more effectively—to liberate Germany from the great and petty despotisms under which she had been groaning since the fall of Napoleon Bonaparte. When the question, however, of the liberation of Italy was mooted amongst the German Liberals of that period, it found but few abettors—and certainly M. Von Vincke was not amongst the number. Twelve years have made a difference in his views; and, let us hope, in common with the other German Liberals, he now sees that in the interests of Freedom and Independence it is better that a nation should be surrounded by free and independent nations, than that it should have this or that river, this or that mountain, as its boundary. It would be difficult to struggle for the cause of Freedom on one side of the Alps, and for that of Slavery and Oppression on the other.

This is a very notable event, that the German Liberals have resolved at last to give up that which hitherto has been to them a point of national honour and pride—namely, the right of keeping the Italians in thraldom. It would be an illustration of this change in the political and public opinions of Germany, if we Englishmen were to carry our thoughts back to the time when penal laws, political disabilities, and religious exclusions pressed most heavily upon the people of Ireland, and to imagine how an English Radical would have been received amongst his fellow Radicals, if he had proposed that there should be an entire end of English dominion in Ireland, and that, in fact, England ought to give up Ireland altogether. This resolution of the Prussian Parliament is pre-eminently the event of Last Week; for whatever importance may be attached to the proceedings of the British Parliament, and the declarations of the British Minister, these at least were foreseen. We knew well enough that the inhabitants of these islands had no ambitious designs to be carried out upon the continent of Europe. It was also clear that any Minister who endeavoured to entangle this country in engagements with foreign powers, or to commit us to hostilities with foreign sovereigns, could scarcely reckon upon any prolonged lease of office. If we are forced into a quarrel, we must be forced into it indeed! Other nations—pre-eminently France—have intervened in the affairs of foreign countries from selfish motives. Our forefathers alone were so ill-advised as to be carried away by whiffs of sentiment and enthusiasm, and thus committed themselves to a series of deadly struggles, now in the Spanish peninsula—now in Belgium—now in South America—and they reaped their reward in the ingratitude, not to say in the abhorrence, of those whom they had endeavoured to assist with all their might. If the English people have learnt the great lesson of moderation and sobriety of thought in matters connected with foreign policy, this has been the result of bitter experience, and many a fruitless sacrifice. We feel at last that enough has been done. If foreign nations would win their way to freedom and independence, they must do as we have done,—they must gain these precious advantages for themselves, and hand them down as an inheritance to their children to be preserved by prudent heads—by stout hands—and by fearless hearts.

How much wiser are the nations than their rulers; and how thankful we should be that, in this country, at least, the rough collective wisdom of the many ever prevails against the polished ambition of the few! The recent decision of the Prussian Chambers may well preserve the country from the horrors of a French invasion: it may suffice to restore tone and consistency to a population which, although divided into many petty sovereignties, may be numbered at 60,000,000 of human beings apt enough for war, although inclined by constitution and habits to peaceful pursuits. In Germany, not in France, lies the real solution of the great problem of European peace. If the Germans are but united amongst themselves they will present such an obstacle to the ambitious designs of the French Emperor as must compel him to seek for a field of action other than the territories of his immediate neighbours. Now when a French sovereign aims at any conquests save those which lie upon his immediate frontier, he must needs go to sea, and a French navy is not invulnerable. History is there as a witness of the fact.

Let us, however, be just to Louis Napoleon. Truly enough it seems immediately due to him that at the present moment we are expending something like £30,000,000 annually in armaments and warlike preparations; but it must be remembered that he is but taking advantage of the faithlessness and folly of the sovereigns who have ruled over Continental Europe since 1815. But for their treachery—but for their impotent endeavours to reduce the European nations back to a condition of spiritual and political serfdom, we should not have heard of the Revolutions of 1830, nor of 1848—we should not have gone through the trials of a Crimean, nor the anxieties of an Italian war. Napoleon Bonaparte was the avenger of the misgovernment of two centuries; his nephew and successor would never have ascended the throne of France, nor moved a regiment across his own frontier, but for the tacit coalition in favour of despotism which has prevailed amongst the sovereigns of Continental Europe since 1815. Louis Napoleon, Emperor of the French, and Conqueror at Magenta and Solferino, is the natural successor to Prince Metternich. There will be no peace in Europe—and no reduction in the English income-tax—until the millions of Continental Europe are really contented with their condition, and have a decisive voice in the conduct of their own affairs. France has turned two dynasties adrift. Italy has shaken off her purple rags. Russia is settling accounts with her serfs, and now Germany is declaring to her sovereigns that what has been shall be no more: but that, come what may, the people will set aside the decisions of their sovereigns when these appear to be at variance with the true interests of the German name.

We are living at a period of which no Englishman appears to appreciate the true importance, because, whilst the game is being played out, we are not suffering any other anxieties than those which follow from excessive taxation. How often have Englishmen now in middle life asked of those who have gone before them: “How did you contrive to live through the struggles of the war with Revolutionary France? How was London affected when Lord Whitworth was dismissed from Paris, and the Peace of Amiens was broken? How did you bear the suspense of Trafalgar—the ague-fit of Walcheren—the fever of Salamanca, Talavera, Waterloo?” The answer invariably was—“Quietly enough!” Why not? Why should not these lesser historical vicissitudes have been tolerable, if we are going peacefully about our daily business, even whilst the greatest experiments ever made by the human race in despotism and self-government are turning out failures, and are being cast aside like Brummel’s cravats? There is the Papacy, in which mankind have more or less believed for something not very short of 2000 years, and its present representative is a peevish old man railing against the unfaithful Faithful under the protection of French bayonets, General Guyon stands between the inheritance of the great Gregory and destruction.

On the other side of the Atlantic the work of George Washington is also well-nigh undone. He and his fellows, when they sought to assert the independence of human beings, and that no man should pay suit and reverence to any, save to his Creator alone, could little foresee that in less than a century the free Confederation which they had founded would be dissolved into its elements, that too upon the question of whether the model freemen of the far West should retain their fellow-creatures in slavery. Turn from Pio Nono, and President Buchanan, to the East of Europe, and what do we see there but the dissolution of that famous old Austrian Empire, which had increased in volume and strength since the days of Rudoph of Hapsburg like a rolling snow-ball, and which seems destined like a snow-ball to melt away in the times of Francis Joseph? The recent address of the city of Pesth to the Austrian Emperor, which was published in the English journals in the course of Last Week, is calculated to dispel the last illusions which might have been entertained upon this point even by the most bigoted partisans of the Imperial faction.

The Hungarians—at least, so say the Liberals of Pesth, who, amongst their countrymen, are remarkable for moderation—refuse to give money or soldiers to the Austrian Emperor unless these are voted by a national and independent parliament. They demand that the government of Hungary shall be replaced upon the old footing such as it was before Maria Theresa tampered with it—before Francis betrayed it—and before Felix Schwarzenberg trampled it under foot. The cry of Hungary finds its echo in the Italian Peninsula, and now Northern Germany has declared that it will not, to please its sovereign, interfere in the course of events upon the other side of the Alps.

Surely here is a sufficient suggestion of the great historical events which have occurred during Last Week.