Political Essays (1819)/On the Regal Character
ON THE REGAL CHARACTER.
May 16, 1818.
This is a subject exceedingly curious, and worth explaining. In writing a criticism, we hope we shall not be accused of intending a libel.
Kings are remarkable for long memories, in the merest trifles. They never forget a face or person they have once seen, nor an anecdote they have been told of any one they know. Whatever differences of character or understanding they manifest in other respects, they all possess what Dr. Spursheim would call the organ of individuality, or the power of recollecting particular local circumstances, nearly in the same degree; though we shall attempt to account for it without recurring to his system. This kind of personal memory is the natural effect of that self-importance which makes them attach a corresponding importance to all that comes in contact with themselves. Nothing can be a matter of indifference to a King, that happens to a King. That intense consciousness of their personal identity, which never quits them, extends to whatever falls under their immediate cognisance. It is the glare of Majesty reflected from their own persons on the persons of those about them that fixes their attention; and it is the same false glare that makes them blind and insensible to all that lies beyond that narrow sphere. "My Lord," said an English King to one of his courtiers, "I have seen you in that coat before with different buttons"—to the astonishment of the Noble Peer. There was nothing wonderful in it. It was the habitual jealousy of the Sovereign of the respect due to him, that made him regard with lynx-eyed watchfulness even the accidental change of dress in one of his favourites. The least diminution of glossy splendour in a birth-day suit, considered as a mark of slackened duty, or waning loyalty, would expose it, tarnished and thread-bare, to the keen glance of dormant pride, waked to suspicion. A God does not penetrate into the hearts of his worshippers with surer insight, than a King, fond of the attributes of awe and sovereignty, detects the different degrees of hollow adulation in those around him. Every thing relating to external appearance and deportment is scanned with the utmost nicety, as compromising the dignity of the royal presence. Involuntary gestures become overt acts; a look is construed into high treason; an inconsiderate word is magnified into a crime against the State. To suggest advice, or offer information unasked, is to arraign the fallibility of the throne: to hint a difference of opinion to a King, would create as great a shock, as if you were to present a pistol to the breast of any other man. "Never touch a King," was the answer of an infirm Monarch to one who had saved him from a dangerous fall. When a glass of wine was presented to the Emperor Alexander by a servant in livery, he started, as if he had trod upon a serpent. Such is their respect for themselves! Such is their contempt for human nature!—"There's a divinity doth hedge a King," that keeps their bodies and their minds sacred within the magic circle of a name; and it is their fear lest this circle should be violated or approached without sufficient awe, that makes them observe and remember the countenances and demeanour of others with such infinite circumspection and exactness.
As Kings have the sagacity of pride, courtiers have the cunning of fear. They watch their own behaviour and that of others with breathless apprehension, and move amidst the artificial forms of court-etiquette, as if the least error must be fatal to them. Their sense of personal propriety is heightened by servility: every faculty is wound up to flatter the vanity and prejudices of their superiors. When Coates painted a portrait in crayons of the Queen, on her first arrival in this country, the King, followed by a train of attendants, went to look at it. The trembling artist stood by. "Well, what do you think?" said the King to those in waiting. Not a word in reply. "Do you think it like?" Still all was hushed as death. "Why, yes, I think it is like, very like." A buzz of admiration instantly filled the room; and the old Duchess of Northumberland, going up to the artist, and tapping him familiarly on the shoulder, said, "Remember, Mr. Coates, I am to have the first copy." On another occasion, when the Queen had sat for her portrait, one of the Maids of Honour coming into the room, curtesied to the reflection in the glass, affecting to mistake it for the Queen. The picture was, you may be sure, a flattering likeness. In the "Memoirs of Count Grammont," it is related of Louis XIV. that having a dispute at chess with one of his courtiers, no one present would give an opinion. "Oh!" said he, "here comes Count Hamilton, he shall decide which of us is in the right." "Your Majesty is in the wrong," replied the Count, without looking at the board. On which, the King remonstrating with him on the impossibility of his judging till he saw the state of the game, he answered, "Does your Majesty suppose that if you were in the right, all these noblemen would stand by and say nothing?" A King was once curious to know, which was the tallest, himself or a certain courtier. "Let us measure," said the King. The King stood up to be measured first; but when the person who was fixed upon to take their height came to measure the Nobleman, he found it quite impossible, as he first rose on tip-toe, then crouched down, now shrugged up his shoulders to the right, then twisted his body to the left. Afterwards his friend asking him the reason of these unaccountable gesticulations, he replied, "I could not tell whether the King wished me to be taller or shorter than himself; and all the time I was making those odd movements, I was watching his countenance to see what I ought to do." If such is the exquisite pliability of the inmates of a court in trifles like these, what must be their independence of spirit and disinterested integrity in questions of peace and war, that involve the rights of Sovereigns or the liberties of the people! It has been suggested (and not without reason), that the difficulty of trusting to the professions of those who surround them, is one circumstance that renders Kings such expert physiognomists, the language of the countenance being the only one they have left to decypher the thoughts of others; and the very disguises which are practised to prevent the emotions of the mind from appearing in the face, only rendering them more acute and discriminating observers. It is the same insincerity and fear of giving offence by candour and plain-speaking in their immediate dependents, that makes Kings gossips and inquisitive. They have no way of ascertaining the opinions of others, but by getting them up into a corner, and extorting the commonest information from them, piecemeal, by endless teasing tiresome questions, and cross-examination. The walls of a palace, like those of a nunnery, are the favoured abode of scandal and tittle-tattle. The inhabitants of both are equally shut out from the common privileges and common incidents of humanity, and whatever relates to the every-day world about us, has to them the air of a romance. The desire which the most meritorious Princes have shewn to acquire information on matters of fact rather than of opinion, is partly because their prejudices will not suffer them to exercise their understandings freely on the most important speculative questions, partly from their jealousy of being dictated to on any point that admits of a question;—as, on the other hand, the desire which the Sovereigns of northern and uncultivated kingdoms have shewn to become acquainted with the arts and elegances of life in southern nations, is evidently owing to their natural jealousy of the advantages of civilization over barbarism. From the principle last stated, Peter the Great visited this country, and worked in our dock-yards as a common shipwright. To the same source may be traced the curiosity of the Duchess of Oldenburgh to see a beef-steak cooked, to take a peep into Mr. Meux's great brewing-vat, and to hear Mr. Whitbread speak!
The common regal character is then the reverse of what it ought to be. It is the purely personal, occupied with its own petty feelings, prejudices, and pursuits; whereas it ought to be the purely philosophical, exempt from all personal considerations, and contemplating itself only in its general and paramount relation to the State. This is the reason why there have been so few great Kings. They want the power of abstraction: and their situations are necessarily at variance with their duties, in this respect; for every thing forces them to concentrate their attention upon themselves, and to consider their rank and privileges in connexion with their private advantage, rather than with public good. This is but natural. It is easier to employ the power they possess in pampering their own appetites and passions, than to wield it for the benefit of a great empire. They see well enough how the community is made for them, not so well how they are made for the community. Not knowing how to act as stewards for their trust, they set up for heirs to the estate, and waste it at their pleasure:—without aspiring to reign as Kings, they are contented to live as spunges upon royalty. A great King ought to be the greatest philosopher and the truest patriot in his dominions: hereditary Kings can be but common mortals. It is not that they are not equal to other men, but to be equal to their rank as Kings, they ought to be more than men. Their power is equal to that of the whole community: their wisdom and virtue ought to keep pace with their power. But in ordinary cases, the height to which they are raised, instead of enlarging their views or ennobling their sentiments, makes them giddy with vanity, and ready to look down on the world which is subjected to their power, as the plaything of their will. They regard men crawling on the face of the earth, as we do insects that cross our path, and survey the common drama of human life, as a fantoccini exhibition got up for their amusement. There is no sympathy between Kings and their subjects—except in a constitutional monarchy like ours, through the medium of Lords and Commons! Take away that check upon their ambition and rapacity, and their pretensions become as monstrous as they are ridiculous. Without the common feelings of humanity in their own breasts, they have no regard for them in their aggregate amount and accumulating force. Reigning in contempt of the people, they would crush and trample upon all power but their own. They consider the claims of justice and compassion as so many impertinent interferences with the royal prerogative. They despise the millions of slaves whom they see linked to the foot of the throne; and they soon hate what they despise. They will sacrifice a kingdom for a caprice, and mankind for a bauble. Weighed in the scales of their pride, the meanest things become of the greatest importance: weighed in the balance of reason, the universe is nothing to them. It is this overweening, aggravated, intolerable sense of swelling pride and ungovernable self-will, that so often drives them mad; as it is their blind fatuity and insensibility to all beyond themselves, that, transmitted through successive generations and confirmed by regal intermarriages, in time makes them idiots. When we see a poor creature like Ferdinand VII., who can hardly gabble out his words like a human being, more imbecile than a woman, more hypocritical than a priest, decked and dandled in the long robes and swaddling-clothes of legitimacy, lullabied to rest with the dreams of superstition, drunk with the patriot blood of his country, and launching the thunders of his coward-arm against the rising liberties of a new world, while he claims the style and title of Image of the Divinity, we may laugh or weep, but there is nothing to wonder at. Tyrants lose all respect for humanity in proportion as they are sunk beneath it;—taught to believe themselves of a different species, they really become so; lose their participation with their kind; and, in mimicking the God, dwindle into the brute! Blind with prejudices as a mole, stung with truth as with scorpions, sore all over with wounded pride like a boil, their minds a heap of morbid proud flesh and bloated humours, a disease and gangrene in the State, instead of its life-blood and vital principle;—foreign despots claim mankind as their property, "independently of their conduct or merits," and there is one Englishman found base enough to echo the foul calumny against his country and his kind.
We might, in the same manner, account for the disparity between the public and private character of Kings. It is the misfortune of most Kings (not their fault) to be born to thrones, a situation which ordinary talents or virtue cannot fill with impunity. We often find a very respectable man make but a very sorry figure as a Sovereign. Nay, a Prince may be possessed of extraordinary virtues and accomplishments, and not be the more thought of for them. He may, for instance, be a man of good nature and good manners, graceful in his person, the idol of the other sex, the model of his own; every word or look may be marked with the utmost sense of propriety and delicate attention to the feelings of others; he may be a good classic, well versed in history,—may speak Italian, French, Spanish, and German fluently; he may be an excellent mimic; he may say good things, and do friendly ones; he may be able to join in a catch, or utter a repartee, or dictate a billet-doux; he may be master of Hoyle, and deep in the rules of the Jockey club; he may have an equal taste in ragouts and poetry, in dancing and in dress; he may adjust a toupee with the dexterity of a friseur, or tie a cravat with the hand and eye of a man-milliner: he may have all these graces and accomplishments, and as many more, and yet he may be nothing; as without any one of them he may be a great Prince. They are not the graces and accomplishments of a Sovereign, but of a lord of the bedchamber. They do not shew a great mind, bent on great objects, and swayed by lofty views. They are rather foibles and blemishes in the character of a ruler, for they imply that his attention has been turned as much upon adorning his own person as upon advancing the State. Charles II. was a King, such as we have here described; amiable, witty, and accomplished, and yet his memory is equally despised and detested. Charles was without strength of mind, or public principle. He could not arrive at the comprehension of that mixed mass of thought and feeling, a kingdom—he thought merely of the throne. He was as unlike Cromwell in the manner in which he came by the sovereignty of the realm as in the use he made of it. He saw himself, not in the glass of history, but in the glass on his toilette; not in the eyes of posterity, but in those of his courtiers and mistresses. Instead of regulating his conduct by public opinion and abstract reason, he did every thing from a feeling of personal vanity. Charles would have been more annoyed with the rejection of a licentious overture than with the rebellion of a province; and poured out the blood of his subjects with the same gaiety and indifference as he did a glass of wine. He had no idea of his obligations to the State, and only laid aside the private gentleman, to become the tyrant of his people. Charles was popular in his life-time, Cibber tells us, because he used to walk out with his spaniels and feed his ducks in St. James's park. History has consigned his name to infamy for the executions under Jefferies, and for his league with a legitimate despot (Louis XIV.), to undermine the liberties of his country.
What is it, then, that makes a great Prince? Not the understanding Purcell or Mozart, but the having an ear open to the voice of truth and justice! Not a taste in made dishes, or French wines, or court-dresses, but a fellow-feeling with the calamities of hunger, of cold, of disease, and nakedness! Not a knowledge of the elegances of fashionable life, but a heart that feels for the millions of its fellow-beings in want of the common necessaries of life! Not a set of brilliant frivolous accomplishments, but a manly strength of character, proof against the seductions of a throne! He, in short, is a patriot King, who without any other faculty usually possessed by Sovereigns, has one which they seldom possess,—the power in imagination of changing places with his people. Such a King may indeed aspire to the character of a ruling providence over a nation; any other is but the head-cypher of a court.