Political Essays (1819)/On the Spy-System I
On the Spy-System
Morning Chronicle, June 30, 1817.
Lord Castlereagh, in the debate some evenings ago, appeared in a new character, and mingled with his usual stock of political common places, some lively moral paradoxes, after a new French pattern. According to his Lordship's comprehensive and liberal views, the liberty and independence of nations are best supported abroad by the point of the bayonet; and morality, religion, and social order, are best defended at home by spies and informers. It is a pretty system, and worthy of itself from first to last. The Noble Lord in the blue ribbon took the characters of Castles and Oliver under the protection of his blushing honours and elegant casuistry, and lamented that by the idle clamour raised against such characters, Gentlemen were deterred from entering into the honourable, useful, and profitable profession of Government Spies. Perhaps this piece of intellectual gallantry on the part of the Noble Lord, was not quite so disinterested as it at first appears. There might be something of fellow-feeling in it. The obloquy which lights on the underlings in such cases, sometimes glances indirectly on their principals and patrons; nor do they wipe it off by becoming their defenders. Lord Castlereagh may say with Lingo in the play, who boasts "that he is not a scholar, but a master of scholars," that he is not a spy, but a creator of spies and informers—not a receiver, but a distributor of blood-money—not a travelling companion and scurvy accomplice in the forging and uttering of sham treasons and accommodation plots, but head of the town-firm established for that purpose—not the dupe or agent of the treasons hatched by others, but chief mover and instigator of the grand plot for increasing the power of the Sovereign, by hazarding the safety of his person. Lord Castlereagh recommended the character of his accomplices, as spies and informers, to the respect and gratitude of the country and the House; he lamented the prejudice entertained against this species of patriotic service, as hindering gentlemen from resorting to it as a liberal and honourable profession. One of these delicious protegés of ministerial gratitude, was, it seems, at one time a distributor of forged notes, and gained the reward promised by act of Parliament, by hanging his accomplices. Could not his Lordship's nice notions of honour relax a little farther, and recommend the legal traffic in bank notes and blood-money, as a new opening to honourable ambition and profitable industry? Castles's wife was also the keeper of a house of ill fame. Could not his Lordship, with the hand of a master, have drawn a veil of delicacy over this slight stain in his character, and redeemed a profession, not without high example to justify it, from the vulgar obloquy that attends it? We are afraid his Lordship is but half an adept in these sort of lax paradoxes, and that Peachum, Jonathan Wild, and Count Fathom, are much honester teachers of that kind of transcendental morality than he. This kind of revolutionary jargon must have sounded oddly in the ears of some of his Lordship's hearers. Mr. Wynne, who dreads all re-action so much, must have looked particularly argute at this innovation in the parliamentary theory of moral sentiments. What would the country gentlemen say to it? One would think Lord Lascelles's hat, that broad brimmed monument of true old English respectability, must have cowered and doubled down in dog's ears at the sound! What will the ardent and superannuated zeal of that preux Chevalier, the Editor of The Day and New Times, say to this stain upon the innate honour and purity of legitimacy, to this new proof that "the age of chivalry is gone for ever, and that of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded!" What will John Bull, who has been crammed these twenty five years with the draff and husks of concrete prejudices, unsifted, unbolted, in their rawest state, say to the analytical distinctions, to the refined police-morality of the Noble Lord? We might consider his harangue on the public services and private virtues of spies and informers, according to the utility-doctrine of modern philosophy, as forming an era in the history of English loyalty and Parliamentary pliability. What! Is it meant, after building up the present system of power and influence on the accumulated pile of our political prejudices, to extend and strengthen it, by undermining all our moral sentiments and national habits? Yet we are told, that there is no imputation on the moral character of Oliver! We wonder Mr. Wilberforce did not suggest that his religious character also remained unimpeached, except, indeed, that he had been guilty of subornation of treason on the Sabbath-day. According to our present catechism of legitimacy, to be a cat's-paw is to be virtuous—is to be moral—is to be pious—is to be loyal—is to be a patriot—is to be what Castles is, and Castlereagh approves!—This subject naturally leads us into low company and low allusions. As, after Fielding's Hero had finished his speech on honour, his friend the Count pronounced him a Great Prig, so, after Lord Castlereagh's speech of Monday evening, we can no longer refuse to consider him a Great Man, in the sense of the philosophical historian; that is to say, a man who has a very great regard for himself, and a very great contempt for the prejudices and feelings of the rest of mankind.
July 15, 1817.
The debate in the House of Commons on Mr. Brougham's motion took a very spirited, and rather personal turn. We do not think Lord Castlereagh was quite successful in rebutting the principal charges brought against his foreign and domestic policy. With respect to Genoa, for instance, and the late arbitrary contributions levied on British merchants there, his Lordship seemed to say that he had but one object, and that in this respect his conduct had been uniformly consistent while abroad, namely, to protect legitimacy, and that the rights and property of British subjects were accordingly left to shift for themselves, as things beneath his notice. This answer will hardly satisfy most of our readers. He considered it an illiberal and injurious policy to attempt to force our exclusive commercial interests upon foreign nations. But is there no alternative in his Lordship's mind between bullying and domineering over other nations, and tamely crouching under every species of insult or act of pillage they may wantonly exercise upon us? We have put down the colossal power of Bonaparte. Is every "petty tyrant" who has succeeded him, to brave us with impunity, lest a word of remonstrance, a whisper of complaint, should rouse their vengeance? Are we not to mention their names, lest these new Gods of the earth, these modern Dii Minores, should hear us? His Lordship also appears to despair of the restoration of peace in Spanish America. If he includes in the idea of peace the quiet re-establishment of the tyranny of the old Government, we are happy to agree with him.
With respect to the changes which have taken place at home, his Lordship failed in making the necessity for them clear to our understandings. We cannot assent to the accuracy of his statements, or the soundness of his logic. He has suspended the laws of the country to save us from the danger of anarchy! We deny the danger, and deprecate the remedy. If ministers could afford to fan the flame of insurrection, to alarm the country into a surrender of its liberties, we contend that a danger that could be thus tampered with, thus made a convenient pretence for seizing a power beyond the law to put it down, might have been put down without a power beyond the law. If a Government's conspiring against itself were a sufficient ground for arming it with arbitrary power, no country could for a moment be safe against ministerial treachery and encroachment, against real despotism founded on pretended disaffection. Government would be in perpetual convulsions and affected hysterics, like a fine lady who wants to domineer over her credulous husband. We deny that disaffection existed, except that kind which arose from extreme distress. Hunger is not disloyalty. Nor can we admit that a Government's having reduced a country to a state of unparalleled distress, and consequent desperation, is a reason for giving carte blanche to the Government, and putting the people under military execution. At this rate, the worse the Government, the more firmly it ought to be rooted: the greater the abuse of confidence, the more blind and unlimited the confidence ought to be: and any administration need only bring a nation to the brink of ruin, in order to have a right to plunge it into the depths of slavery. It is easy to keep the peace with the sword;—more flattering to the pride of power to crush resistance to oppression, than to remove the causes of it. To reduce a people to the alternative of rebellion or of arbitrary sway, does not require the talents of a great statesman. If Lord Castlereagh claims the merit of having reduced us to that alternative, we shall not dispute it with him: whatever may be the result, we cannot thank him.
His Lordship might, however, have made good his retreat, with a decent orderly appearance, if he had not chosen to go out of his way to take up a Spy behind him on his new metaphysical charger, and to ride the high horse over all those, who are not the fast friends and staunch admirers of that profession, as traitors and no true men. Sir Francis Burdett, not relishing this assault of the master and man, pulled off the Squire, and rolling him in the mud, pelted him so unmercifully with Irish evidence and musty affidavits of his friends and relations, that his gallant patron, seeing the plight he was in, dismounted, and was condescending enough to acknowledge, that "cruelty was in every species detestable," and that "he lamented to think that there were miscreants in human nature capable of committing crime for the love of reward;" sentiments not new indeed, but new in his Lordship's mouth. The country gentlemen must have felt relieved, and Lord Lascelles's hat have recovered its primitive shape! The House of Commons is no dupe; Lord Castlereagh no driveller. Would he then seriously persuade them, that the Spy hanged his old friends and accomplices out of pure love to his country, and disinterested friendship to his Lordship? We would advise the noble Lord in the blue ribbon to cut his parliamentary connexion with his police acquaintance at once. The thing cannot answer; it is against decorum. He might as well introduce his scavenger as a person of fashion at Carlton-House, as attempt to pass off his Spy as a gentleman, and a man of honour, any where else! The gentlemen-ushers would turn up their noses at one of his Lordship's necessary appendages, and the moral sense of the English nation turns with disgust from the other, when forced upon it as a beau morçeau of morality, with the sauce picquant of ministerial panegyric! We were glad to find the former Secretary for Ireland reprobating the practice of flogging to extract evidence, as "a most wicked and unwarrantable piece of torture;" a confession which seemed to be extorted from his Lordship by the impression made by the reading of some of Mr. Finnerty's affidavits, as they are called, though they are no more Mr. Finnerty's affidavits, who procured them, than they are Mr. Bennet's, who read them. Every thing relating to this subject is particularly interesting at this moment, when the same power is vested in the same hands in this country, that was wielded twenty years ago in Ireland—not indeed as a precedent to the English government, but as a warning to the English people. We give no opinion on the truth or falsehood of the allegations contained in the affidavits, but we do say, that the noble Secretary reasoned very badly on the subject. He says that Mr. Finnerty is not a very loyal man, that is, he is not very strongly attached to his Lordship's person or government, and therefore neither Mr. Finnerty, nor any person taking an oath in an Irish court of justice, reflecting on his Lordship's administration, is to be believed. Mr. Finnerty published an account of the proceedings on Orr's trial, which was deemed a libel, and therefore the whole history of the Irish rebellion and of the year 1798 is a fable. Lord Castlereagh would not consent to quash his prosecution of Mr. Finnerty on this ground some years ago, because he would not shun inquiry, and yet the affidavits were not suffered to be read in court, and his Lordship deprecates their production in parliament. He thinks it hard that he must be called on to prove a negative, when others swear positively to the affirmative. Accusation against his Lordship is to pass not for a proof of guilt but innocence, and his inability to refute the charge only calls for a greater degree of candid interpretation and implicit faith in his Lordship's word. Insinuation only requires confidence to repel it—proof more confidence—conviction unlimited confidence. Whether the things ever happened or no, they are to be equally buried in eternal silence in Mr. Finnerty's "disloyal breast:" not a tittle of evidence is to be suffered to escape from the budget of affidavits which he has got together by forbidden means. His Lordship's Irish administration is to be inscrutable as another Providence, secret as another Inquisition; the English Parliament are to put the broad seal of their sanction upon it! It was certainly unlucky at this juncture of the debate, that Mr. W. Smith should have started up with the case of Mr. Judkin Fitzgerald, who (it seems, by his own account of his services, not from any affidavits against him) had been most active in inflicting this "cruel and unwarrantable species of torture," and was made a Baronet in consequence.
"And struts Sir Judkin, an exceeding knave!"
The unconsciousness of the Irish government exceeds every thing. They are not only "innocent of the knowledge, till they applaud the deed," but ignorant of it, after they have applauded it. It is no wonder that the fixed air and volatile spirit of Mr. Canning's wit frothed up at this indiscreet mention of Sir Judkin, and that he wished to "bury him quick," under the artificial flowers of his oratory. The dead tell no tales—of the dead or the living! Mr. Canning twitted Mr. W. Smith with attacking the dead, because "he had found that the absent could answer." Does this allude to the Laureate? If so, let Mr. Canning call for more flowers, and lay him by the side of Sir Judkin. This allusion to the answer to Mr. W. Smith is, however, remarkably candid, as Mr. Southey declares in it that he never thought Mr. Canning worth an answer. He may now return the compliment in kind, by inscribing the next edition of his "Inscriptions" to the author of the "Anti-Jacobin."