The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift/Volume 16/A Vindication of Erasmus Lewis
"Quin, quæ dixisti modo,
Omnia ementitus equidem Sosia Amphitryonis sum."
"Parva motu primo, mox sense attollit in auras."
Feb. 2, 1712-13.
I INTEND this paper for the service of a particular person; but herein I hope, at the same time, to do some good to the publick. A monstrous story has been for a while most industriously handed about, reflecting upon a gentleman in great trust under the principal secretary of state; who has conducted himself with so much prudence, that before this incident, neither the most virulent pens nor tongues have been so bold as to attack him. The reader easily understands, that the person here meant is Mr. Lewis, secretary to the earl of Dartmouth; concerning whom a story has run, for about ten days past, which makes a mighty noise in this town, is no doubt with very ample additions transmitted to every part of the kingdom, and probably will be returned to us by the Dutch Gazetteer, with the judicious comments peculiar to that political author: wherefore, having received the fact and the circumstances from the best hands, I shall here set them down before the reader; who will easily pardon the style, which is made up of extracts from the depositions and assertions of the several persons concerned.
On Sunday last was month, Mr. Lewis, secretary to the earl of Dartmouth, and Mr. Skelton, met by accident at Mr. Scarborough's lodgings in St. James's, among seven other persons, viz. the earls of Sussex and Finlater, the lady Barbara Skelton, lady Walter, Mrs. Vernon, Mrs. Scarborough, and miss Scarborough her daughter; who all declared, "that Mr. Lewis and Mr. Skelton were half an hour in company together." There Mrs. Scarborough made Mr. Skelton and Mr. Lewis known to each other; and told the former, "that he ought to thank Mr. Lewis for the trouble he had given himself in the dispatch of a license under the privy seal, by which Mr Skelton was permitted to come from France to England." Hereupon Mr. Skelton saluted Mr. Lewis, and told him, "he would wait on him at his house, to return him his thanks." Two or three days after, Mr. Skelton, in company with the earl of Sussex, his lady's father, went to a house in Marlborough street, where he was informed Mr. Lewis lived; and, as soon as the supposed Mr. Lewis appeared, Mr. Skelton expressed himself in these words: "Sir, I beg your pardon; I find I am mistaken: I came to visit Mr. Lewis of my lord Dartmouth's office, to thank him for the service he did me in passing my privy-seal." Mr. Levi, alias Lewis, answered, "Sir, there is no harm done." Upon which, Mr. Skelton immediately withdrew to my lord Sussex, who staid for him in the coach; and drove away. Mr. Skelton, who was a stranger to the town, ordered the coachman to drive to Mr. Lewis's without more particular directions: and this was the occasion of the mistake.
For above a fortnight nothing was said of this matter; but, on Saturday the 24th of January last, a report began to spread, that Mr. Skelton going by mistake to Mr. Henry Levi, alias Lewis, instead of Mr. Lewis of the secretary's office, had told him, "that he had services for him from the earls of Perth, Middleton, Melfort, and about twelve persons more, of the court of St. Germain." When Mr Lewis heard of this, he wrote to the above-mentioned Henry Levi, alias Lewis, desiring to be informed, what ground there was for this report; and received for answer, "that his friend Skelton could best inform him." Mr. Lewis wrote a second letter, insisting on an account of this matter, and that he would come and demand it in person. Accordingly he and Charles Ford, esq. went the next morning, and found the said Levi in a great surprise at the report, who declared, "He had never given the least occasion for it, and that he would go to all the coffeehouses in town, to do Mr. Lewis justice." He was asked by Mr. Lewis, "Whether Mr. Skelton had named from what places and persons he had brought those services?" Mr. Levi, alias Lewis, answered, "He was positive Mr. Skelton had neither named person nor place." Here Mr. Skelton was called in; and Mr. Levi, alias Lewis, confirmed what he had said in his hearing. Mr. Lewis then desired, he would give him in writing what he had declared before the company; but Mr. Levi, alias Lewis, excused it, as unnecessary, "because he had already said he would do him justice in all the coffeehouses in town." On the other hand, Mr. Lewis insisted to have it in writing, as being less troublesome; and to this Mr. Levi, alias Lewis, replied, "That he would give his answer by three o'clock in the afternoon." Accordingly Mr. Ford went to his house at the time appointed, but did not find him at home; and in the mean time the said Levi went to White's Chocolate-house; where, notwithstanding all he had before denied, he spread the above-mentioned report afresh, with several additional circumstances, as, "That when Mr. Skelton and the earl of Sussex came to his house, they staid with him a considerable time, and drank tea."
The earl of Peterborough, uncle to the said Mr. Skelton, thought himself obliged to inquire into the truth of this matter: and after some search, found Mr. Levi, alias Lewis, at the Thatched-house tavern; where he denied every thing again to his lordship, as he had done in the morning to Mr. Ford, Mr. Lewis, and Mr. Skelton.
This affair coming to the knowledge of the queen, her majesty was pleased to order an examination of it by some lords of the council. Their lordships appointed Wednesday the 2th of January last for this inquiry: and gave notice for attendance to the said Levi, alias Lewis, and several other persons who had knowledge of the matter. When Mr. Levi, alias Lewis, was called in, he declared, "That Mr. Skelton told him he had services for him from France, but did not name any persons." William Pulteney, esq. who was summoned, affirmed, "That he had told him, Mr. Skelton named the earls of Perth and Melfort." Here Levi, alias Lewis, appeared in confusion; for he had intreated Mr. Pulteney, not to say he had named any names, "for he would not stand it;" but Mr. Pulteney answered, "You may give yourself the lie; I will not." The earl of Sussex declared, "he did not go out of his coach, and that his son-in-law, Mr. Skelton, had not been gone half a minute before he returned to the coach." Mr. Skelton declared, "That he knew Mr. Lewis by sight perfectly well; that he immediately saw his mistake; that he said nothing to him but the words first mentioned; and that he had not brought Mr. Lewis any service from any person whatsoever." The earl of Finlater and other persons summoned declared, "That Mr. Lewis and Mr. Skelton were personally known to each other," which rendered it wholly improbable that Mr. Skelton should mistake him: so that the whole matter appeared to be only a foolish and malicious invention of the said Levi, alias Lewis, who, when called to an account, utterly disowned it.
If Mr. Levi's view, in broaching this incoherent slander, was to make his court to any particular persons, he has been extremely disappointed; since all men of principle, laying aside the distinction of opinions in politicks, have entirely agreed in abandoning him; which I observe with a great deal of pleasure, as it is for the honour of humankind. But, as neither virtue nor vice are wholly engrossed by either party, the good qualities of the mind, whatever bias they may receive by mistaken principles or mistaken politicks, will not be extinguished. When I reflect on this, I cannot, without being a very partial writer, forbear doing justice to William Pulteney, esq. who, being desired by this same Mr. Levi to drop one part of what he knew, refused it with disdain. Men of honour will always side with the truth; of which the behaviour of Mr. Pulteney, and of a great number of gentlemen of worth and quality, are undeniable instances.
I am only sorry, that the unhappy author of this report seems left so entirely desolate of all his acquaintance, that he has nothing but his own conduct to direct him; and consequently is so far from acknowledging his iniquity and repentance to the world, that, in the Daily Courant of Saturday last, he has published a Narrative, as he calls it, of what passed between him and Mr. Skelton; wherein he recedes from some part of his former confession. This narrative is drawn up by way of answer to an advertisement in the same paper two days before: which advertisement was couched in very moderate terms, and such as Mr. Levi ought, in all prudence, to have acquiesced in. I freely acquit every body but himself from any share in this miserable proceeding; and can foretel him, that as his prevaricating manner of adhering to some part of the story will not convince one rational person of his veracity; so neither will any body interpret it otherwise than as a blunder of a helpless creature, left to itself; who endeavours to get out of one difficulty, by plunging into a greater. It is therefore for the sake of this poor young man, that I shall set before him, in the plainest manner I am able, some few inconsistencies in that narrative of his; the truth of which, he says, he is ready to attest upon oath; which whether he would avoid by an oath only upon the gospels, himself can best determine.
Mr. Levi says, in the aforesaid narrative in the Daily Courant, "That Mr. Skelten mistaking him for Mr. Lewis, told him he had several services to him from France, and named the names of several persons, which he [Levi] will not be positive to." Is it possible that, among several names, he cannot be positive so much as to one, after having named the earls of Perth, Middleton, and Melfort, so often at White's and the coffeehouses r Again, he declared, "that my lord Sussex came in with Mr. Skelton; that both drank tea with him;" and therefore whatever words passed, my lord Sussex must be a witness to. But his lordship declares before the council, "that he never stirred out of the coach; and that Mr. Skelton, in going, returning, and talking with Levi, was not absent half a minute." Therefore, now, in his printed narrative, he contradicts that essential circumstance of my lord Sussex coming in along with Mr. Skelton; so that we are here to suppose that this discourse passed only between him and Mr. Skelton, without any third person for a witness, and therefore he thought he might safely affirm what he pleased. Besides, the nature of their discourse, as Mr. Levi reports it, makes this part of his narrative impossible and absurd, because the truth of it turns upon Mr. Skelton's mistaking him for the real Mr. Lewis; and it happens that seven persons of quality were by in a room, where Mr. Lewis and Mr. Skelton were half an hour in company, and saw them talk together. It happens likewise, that the real and counterfeit Lewis have no more resemblance to each other in their persons, than they have in their understandings, their truth, their reputation, or their principles. Besides, in this narrative, Mr. Levi directly affirms what he directly denied to the earl of Peterborough, Mr. Ford, and Mr. Lewis himself; to whom he twice or thrice expressly affirmed, that Mr. Skelton had not named either place or person.
There is one circumstance in Levi's narrative, which may deceive the reader. He says, "Mr. Skelton was taken into the dining-room;" this dining-room is a ground-room next the street, and Mr. Skelton never went farther than the door of it. His many prevarications in this whole affair, and the many thousand various ways of telling his story, are too tedious to be related. I shall therefore conclude with one remark: By the true account given in this paper, it appears that Mr. Skelton finding his mistake before he spoke a word, begged Mr. Levi's pardon, and by way of apology, told him, "his visit was intended to Mr. Lewis of my lord Dartmouth's office, to thank him for the service he had done him, in passing the privy-seal." It is probable that Mr. Levi's low intellectuals were deluded by the word service, which he took as compliments from some persons; and then it was easy to find names. Thus, what his ignorance and simplicity misled him to begin, his malice taught him to propagate.
I have been the more solicitous to set this matter in a clear light, because Mr. Lewis being employed and trusted in publick affairs, if this report had prevailed, persons of the first rank might possibly have been wounded through his sides.
- "My friend Lewis has had a lye spread on him, by the mistake of a man, who went to another of his name, to give him thanks for passing his privy seal to come from France. That other Lewis spread about, that the man brought him thanks from lord Perth and lord Melfort (lords now with the pretender) for his great services, &c. The lords will examine that other Lewis to morrow in council; and I believe you will hear of it in the prints, for I will make Abel Roper give an account of it." Journal to Stella, Jan. 27, 1712-13.
"I was in the city with my printer, to alter an Examiner; about my friend Lewis's story, which will be told with remarks." Ibid. Jan. 31.
"I could do nothing till to day about the Examiner; but the printer came this morning, and I dictated to him what was fit to be said: and then Mr. Lewis came, and corrected it as he would have it: so that I was neither at church nor court." Ibid. Feb. 1.
- Mr. Henry Lewis, a Hamburgh merchant.
- This account by Dr. Swift was published Feb. 2; and was confirmed in the Gazette of the following day by three advertisements, containing the respective affidavits of Erasmus Lewis, esq. Charles Ford, esq. and brigadier Skelton. The two first of these gentlemen deposed, "That, having called at Mr. Henry Lewis's house, he told them, He was much surprised at the reports which had been raised on this occasion; and that he would go to all the chocolatehouses and coffeehouses in town, to do justice to Mr. Erasmus Lewis." And the testimony of Mr. Skelton himself seems sufficiently to have cleared up the whole. Yet there remained some who were obstinately incredulous; as appears by the Flying Post of Feb. 3.