Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 4/Last week (February 9, 1861)

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The speech just delivered by the English Queen at the opening of Parliament has a great advantage over the recent public addresses of the French Emperor, of the King of Prussia, and of the President of the United States. Paris is the modern Delphi, and Louis Napoleon the Sibyl who utters oracular responses, which the hearers must interpret at their peril, yet which by their double meaning baffle all human comprehension. Translate into modern French, “Cross the Mincio, and you will destroy a great kingdom,” and you have a specimen of such an “allocution” as Louis Napoleon is in the habit of addressing to the diplomatic body on the occasion of a birth-day reception, or, still more probably, upon the first of the year. Scarcely have these sentences passed his lips when the Funds and the Public Securities fall a fluttering like startled doves. If he is diffuse, Europe gives him credit for an elaborate attempt to conceal his thoughts. Our English Cromwell was great in this kind; the ruler of France, to do him but justice, more commonly affects the pithy style, yet even so he only provokes criticism the more. If he “hopes” the peace of Europe may be preserved, the hope implies a doubt; and a doubt the slaughter of half a million men. Again, on what grounds does his “hope” rest? If upon good grounds, Europe trembles. He is too frank and cordial. At the same time that he hopes for peace, and is able to assign satisfactory reasons for that belief, he is known to be rifling cannon, calling out his reserves, and putting the Empire upon a war footing.

Our great ally protests too much. He is too full of confidence and gunpowder. On the first day of the present year the oracle was concise enough. Louis Napoleon hoped for peace, on the ground that such a perfectly good understanding reigned amongst the Sovereigns of Europe. The contrary is notoriously the fact, so what becomes of the Imperial hope? It lies deep down at the bottom of Pandora’s box; but plagues, wars, and famines fly out, and brood over the surface of the earth, before we reach that meek-eyed Hope which is to prove our consolation in the midst of so much affliction. Louis Napoleon hopes for peace, and Europe is in arms.

The Royal Speech of the King of Prussia, read in the First Chamber this day week, is less enigmatical than the French oracle, yet ominous enough. Here is what the Royalty of Prussia says to his Chamber:—“We must not conceal from one another that we are perhaps approaching troublous times. In view of this probability everything depends upon the country through its representatives being united to me. I hope, I desire, and I expect this. It is thus only that we shall be strong both at home and abroad, and be able to await the future with confidence.” Were ever more dismal words uttered from a king’s mouth, or written by a king’s pen? The gloom is in the sky, the chill has passed over the landscape, and the Prussian Ruler does but give utterance to the common feeling when he speaks of the coining storm.

He talks to the representatives of his people of “troublous times,” as well he may. The four great military powers of Europe are, or rather were, France, Russia, Austria, and Prussia. France, with the help of England, has humbled Russia to the dust, and avenged the calamities of the retreat from Moscow. The power for aggressive warfare has departed from Russia for at least our generation. France, again, has struck Austria in her most vital point, has destroyed her military prestige, and has left her exposed to the fiery indignation of her most important province. Prussia alone is standing. The two great monarchies which should have stood by her side are humbled and hand-bound; and Prussia in 1861 is left alone to try conclusions with Louis Napoleon, as Prussia was now somewhat more than half a century ago, when Austerlitz had been just fought. The envoys who had been sent to threaten then remained to fawn, and uttered a blessing instead of a curse upon the head of the warrior who had just destroyed the power of their ally, and who was about to raise his hand and sweep them in their turn from the map of Europe. Prussia stands alone now, as she stood alone then, after that dreadful struggle.

Might one not suppose that, in the presence of such awful peril, the statesmen who direct the destinies of the Prussian kingdom would be setting their house in order, husbanding their powers, strengthening themselves by alliances, avoiding all causes of offence, and keeping the swords of their regiments sheathed until the time had arrived for drawing them in defence of the homes and landmarks of the land? In place of all this, and just at the moment that France is bristling with bayonets—that Russia is paralysed, and that Austria is devouring herself, we find that the Prussian King has delivered himself up into the hands of the reactionary party, and is threatening useless and unprovoked hostilities against a neighbouring sovereign—the King of Denmark—in a quarrel hatched up by the pedants of the German Universities. If Louis Napoleon be what many of his ill-wishers say, how he must hug himself as he marks the stupendous folly under the influence of which the Prussians—his last antagonists—are about to exhaust their strength, and to leave the road to Berlin open to the French armies, without even the trouble of a halt at Jena by the way!

It needs no great amount of political sagacity to foretell that if the Prussian regiments are once fairly engaged in the Duchies, the brunt of the struggle will fall upon them alone. Victory—if victory is to be theirs at all—will only come to them after heavy losses, and then the French armies are arrayed upon the threshold of the kingdom. Has France ceased to covet the possession of the Rhenish Provinces? Is Louis Napoleon the man to miss the opportunity when he sees an antagonist helpless at his feet? We remember to have read of one Harold, who, in former days upon the southern shore of these islands, dearly expiated a victory which he had gained on the eastern coast. The Prussian sovereign, if he engages in this foolish war, may gain a duchy and lose a kingdom amid the derision of Europe.

Prussia, at the present moment, can look only to this country in the hour of need for any serious assistance. Russia lies too far off, and is hamstrung. If a rifle is discharged in Europe, Austria will be struggling for her own existence, and will scarcely be able to array an army upon the banks of the Rhine. As for the troops of the minor powers of the confederation, France has invariably given good account of them since nations have contended with regular armies at all. But will the English people—speaking by the mouths of their representatives—consent to engage in such a quarrel at all?—still more, would they consent to engage in it if the assistance of England were not sought until the nation seeking it had practically committed suicide? Prussia, with her armies and resources intact, is one thing; Prussia defeated—her capital in possession of a foreign invader, and her king in flight, is quite another. In calculating our own risks, we should consider the effective power of that nation and sovereign who may seek our aid.

Of course, in the present day, as far as this country is concerned, dynastic and sentimental considerations are out of the question. We all wish well to that fair young Princess who was so lately the ornament of the British Court. Could we make her husband’s inheritance secure without calling down calamity upon our own people, we would cheerfully do so. This, however, cannot be: it is not by personal sympathies with royal houses that the affairs of the world are settled in our time. There would be serious danger to England if France should destroy, one by one, the great military powers of Europe, largely extend her frontiers, and obtain a complete preponderance on the continent. This is the only ground upon which any government could ask of the British psople to engage themselves once more in the hazards of a continental war. In any case, if we were to do so at all—a matter not much in accordance with the present temper of the nation—we should at least claim a voice in council, and decline to prescribe for the patient, if we were not called in until he were dead.

Let us not deceive ourselves. Whatever turn matters may take in the coming spring, England can no longer afford to fight a continental war by subsidies. Nor, if we are commonly prudent, would we risk the small army which we absolutely require as a home-garrison, and as the nucleus of our own defence, if our own turn should come at last, upon the soil of the continent. It was all well enough to entrust what forces we could raise to the care of a commander of consummate skill, when, if we had been defeated, the reserve behind us was Europe in arms, and when France had been exhausted by the hostilities of a quarter of a century. The hazard was awful enough even so; but with the resources of France intact, with India upon our hands, and with the necessity in which this country stands of working at high-pressure in order to support its taxation, we cannot afford once more to expend an army of 30,000 or 40,000 trained troops upon the plains of Belgium. That would not be the most proper ground on which to make our stand if we were compelled to do so at all.

As though this miserable business of Schleswig-Holstein were not enough, the belief now appears to be that if Austria were attacked in Venetia, or if there should be a fresh insurrection in Hungary—and the second contingency is probable enough—she has obtained promises of assistance from without. Now in such a matter Russia could scarcely do again what she did in the days of the Czar Nicholas. Her own abortive efforts in the Crimea, and the deep ingratitude of Austria forbid such a conclusion. The aid then can only come from Germany; and here again the Germans would be but playing the game of France, and leaving the Rhenish provinces exposed to the covetous grasp of the French Emperor.

Under such circumstances the sentences of the speech just delivered by the British Queen to her Parliament, will be scanned with unusual interest. The formal phrases of “continued assurances of friendship from all foreign powers,” though expressions of course, have a meaning in the lips of Queen Victoria. What she says at least is known to be the truth. Even the habitual calumniators of England are aware that we have not, and cannot have any dreams of ambition, or of territorial aggrandizement upon the continent of Europe. Our interest, and our inclination concur in the maintenance of peace. Never did British statesmen have before them a nobler, or a more difficult task than during the present year. In their hands lie the only chances for the preservation of the peace of Europe—and these chances may well be neutralised by the folly and fatuity of foreign statesmen. Throughout the session which now commences our minds must be far more intently directed to foreign affairs than to those great questions of reform and domestic interest, which we would more gladly take up. We must put these islands in such a state of defence that, upon any contingency which may arise, any continental sovereign would desire to leave us at least in peace. Even if Louis Napoleon indulges the dream at all, the time for measuring his strength with Great Britain is not yet come. It is only when Europe is at his feet that he will venture to run the risk of a maritime war with the British navy, despite of his iron-cased frigates, and the great preparations already made in the arsenals of the empire.

From the considerations mentioned then it would seem to follow that those clauses in the Royal Speech which treat of foreign affairs are those which most especially deserve attention. With such a spring and such a summer before us, it would be vain to expect that the two Houses of Parliament should carry through any large measure of Reform, or indeed any considerable change in our domestic arrangements. The Session opens with a taxation of 70,000,000l. (independently of local rates and taxes)—with Europe in arms, and with grievous danger that the great Confederation on the other side of the Atlantic may be dissolved into two or more groups of independent states. We cannot pretend, with any feeling of confidence, to see far into the future. One thing is clear—that we must be prepared for any contingency; for it seems as though, in the long run, Great Britain must be prepared to stand alone. The pressure of taxation meanwhile upon the industrial energies of the country is fearful. If matters are to stand as at present, the weekly bills of the British nation may be set down at about one million and a half sterling a-week. In this calculation we scarcely take account of local burdens—as county rates, &c.—which may be looked upon as payments for service actually performed; nor of Indian deficits, for the responsibility for these has not yet been fixed upon the British tax-payer. Nor is it easy to see how this alarming sum total can be modified, in the present position of Europe. The figures of the interest on the debt are engraved upon bronze. The chisel of the Financial Reformers cannot reach them. The expenditure upon the two services may perhaps be handled to a certain slight extent, but never in such a way as really to relieve the nation until the continent is tranquil again.

The suggestions, however, for legal reforms inserted in the Royal Speech might be carried out, whatever may be the turmoil upon the continent. It would be an inestimable advantage to the mercantile classes if this last attempt at Bankruptcy Reform should prove successful, for Sir Richard Bethell’s bill of last session—with the exception of the two propositions which were so summarily and so deservedly negatived last year—was framed in accordance with their views. The public, however, must not look for ‘finality’ in Bankruptcy Law. Englishmen of middle age have already lived through three or four systems, and if they attain the average term of man’s existence, they will in all probability see three or four more. Considering that the subject-matter of Bankruptcy Law is the cheapest, the speediest, and the most efficient method of winding up the affairs of bankrupt traders, it is not wonderful that the additional experience of each successive decade should suggest improvements. It is otherwise with regard to the cases of Real Property Law, and to the maxims and definitions of Criminal Law. Property must rest upon secure and unshifting foundations. The harmless act of to-day must not be the crime of to-morrow. The great principles of law should remain unchanged—alter forms of procedure as much as you will. It is to be hoped that the various measures for the consolidation of the Criminal Law, introduced last year, may also be carried through this session; for this would have a great tendency to promote clearness and simplicity in a branch of jurisprudence in which these qualities are much to be desired.

A fearful tragedy, which happened at the beginning of Last Week, may possibly suggest to our legislators the propriety of raking up from their archives the recommendations of one of their own Select Committee. The reference of course is to that miserable accident by Wimbledon, and to the untimely end of poor Dr. Baly. One would grieve to hear that any human being had been cut off in this untimely and tragical manner; but, in the case of Dr. Baly, we have lost one of the most useful Englishmen of his time. He had just attained the age when his skill, as a scientific and practical physician, was at its maturity. For thirty years he had been sedulously engaged, night and day, in studies and attendances which had qualified him to hold the foremost rank in his profession; and, according to all probability, there were before him yet another twenty years during which he would have brought consolation and relief to suffering humanity, and have saved or prolonged many a life upon which the lives of many depended. Now of all this there is an end. That wise head and kind heart can no longer be summoned to counsel when the agony of the sufferer, and the anguish of those to whom he may be dear, are at their highest. As we have been told, Dr. Baly, after a hard day’s work, was on his way to visit a sick child, when he himself was killed as by a thunderbolt. Better, since it was to be, that the death should have been so sudden, in the case of such a man.

Now, some three or four years ago, there was a Select Committee of the House of Commons which sat to take evidence upon the subject of Railway Accidents. They met, they took evidence, and they published a report. In this report are contained the most valuable suggestions for giving additional security to the passenger-traffic upon railways. We may presume that the inquiry was fair and ample, and certainly the railway interest was largely represented both on and before the committee. All that is now necessary is that Parliament should give authority to the Board of Trade to see these recommendations carried into effect, and comparative security in railway-travelling would be the result. This matter affects us all, and any Member of Parliament who would take the subject up might be very sure that he would be heartily supported by the people and the press of this country.

Two other notable events were recorded Last Week. The one was the final closing of the inquiry in the Road Murder case, by the decision delivered by the Queen’s Bench with regard to the coroner, and the direction for a fresh inquest. Practically, the affair came to nothing, and the result matters but little; for if the police did not succeed in getting upon the traces of the murderer or murderers within twenty-four hours after the deed was done, the inquiry became one of mere hap-hazard. We may know all about the Road Murder yet, but Chance and Conscience are the only two detectives who can help us now.

The second event is the departure of Garibaldi from Caprera. It seems, the guerilla chieftain has departed from his island, yet no one is able to state whither he has gone, or by whom he is accompanied. Last year he disappeared in like manner, and conquered a kingdom. Upon the present occasion, the suggestion is that we shall hear of him next upon the coast of Dalmatia, or perhaps in Hungary. If so, this means insurrection in Austria, and Austria in desperation may endeavour to meet the attack by a forward movement in Northern Italy. We now see why Garibaldi refused to accept military rank under Victor Emmanuel. As a private individual, he does not drag the new-born kingdom of Italy at his heels. His acts are his own; but if he is able to give a formal shape and colour to the national movement in Hungary, he will not have laboured in vain, and his present action will have greater political significance than even what he accomplished during the year 1860.