Sydney Smith
George W. E. Russell

Part 1 out of 5

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In writing this Study of Sydney Smith, I have been working in a
harvest-field where a succession of diligent gleaners had preceded me.

As soon as Sydney Smith died, his widow began to accumulate material for
her husband's biography. She did not live to see the work accomplished, but
she enjoined in her will that some record of his life should be written.
The duty was undertaken by his daughter, Saba Lady Holland, who in 1855
published _A Memoir of the Reverend Sydney Smith_. To this memoir was
subjoined a volume of extracts from his letters, compiled by his friend and
admirer Mrs. Austin.

For nearly thirty years Lady Holland's Memoir and Mrs, Austin's Selection
of Letters together constituted the sole Biography of Sydney Smith, and
they still remain of prime authority; but they are lamentably inaccurate in

Lord Houghton's slight but vivid monograph was published in 1873. In 1884
Mr. Stuart Reid produced _A Sketch of the Life and Times of Sydney Smith_,
in which he supplemented the earlier narrative with some traditions derived
from friends then living, and "painted the figure of Sydney Smith against
the background of his times." In 1898 the late Sir Leslie Stephen
contributed an article on Sydney Smith to the _Dictionary of National
Biography_; but added little to what was already known.

On these various writings I have perforce relied, for their respective
authors seemed to have exhausted all available resources. Lord Carlisle has
some of Sydney Smith's letters at Castle Howard, and Lord Ilchester has
some at Holland House; but both assure me that everything worth publishing
has already been published.

I have, however, been more fortunate in my application to my cousin, Mr.
Rollo Russell, and to four of Sydney Smith's descendants--Mr. Sydney
Holland, Mr. Holland-Hibbert of Munden, Miss Caroline Holland, and Mrs.
Cropper of Ellergreen. To all these my thanks are due for interesting
information, and access to valuable records. In common with all who use the
Reading-Room of the British Museum, I am greatly indebted to the skill and
courtesy of Mr. G.F. Barwick.

So much for the biographical part of my work. In the critical part I have
relied less on authority, and more on my own devotion to Sydney Smith's
writings. That devotion dates from my schooldays at Harrow, and is due to
the kindness of my father. He had known "dear old Sydney" well, and gave me
the Collected Works, exhorting me to study them as models of forcible and
pointed English. From that day to this, I have had no more favourite


November 12th, 1904.





















A worthy tradesman, who had accumulated a large fortune, married a lady of
gentle birth and manners. In later years one of his daughters said to a
friend of the family, "I dare say you notice a great difference between
papa's behaviour and mamma's. It is easily accounted for. Papa, immensely
to his credit, raised himself to his present position from the shop; but
mamma was extremely well born. She was a Miss Smith--one of _the old
Smiths, of Essex_."

It might appear that Sydney Smith was a growth of the same majestic but
mysterious tree, for he was born at Woodford; but further research traces
his ancestry to Devonshire. "We are all one family," he used to say, "all
the Smiths who dwell on the face of the earth. You may try to disguise it
in any way you like--Smyth, or Smythe, or Smijth[1]--but you always get
back to Smith after all--the most numerous and most respectable family in
England." When a compiler of pedigrees asked permission to insert Sydney's
arms in a County History, he replied, "I regret, sir, not to be able to
contribute to so valuable a work; but the Smiths never had any arms. They
invariably sealed their letters with their thumbs." In later life he
adopted the excellent and characteristic motto--_Faber meae fortunae_; and,
to some impertinent questions about his grandfather, he replied with
becoming gravity--"He disappeared about the time of the assizes, and we
asked no questions."

As a matter of fact, this maligned progenitor came to London from
Devonshire, established a business in Eastcheap, and left it to his two
sons, Robert and James. Robert Smith[2] made over his share to his brother
and went forth to see the world. This object he pursued, amid great
vicissitudes of fortune and environment, till in old age he settled down at
Bishop's Lydeard, in Somerset. He married Maria Olier, a pretty girl of
French descent, and by her had five children: Robert Percy--better known as
"Bobus"--born in 1770; Sydney in 1771; Cecil in 1772; Courtenay in 1773;
and Maria in 1774.

Sydney Smith was born on the 3rd of June; and was baptized on the 1st of
July in the parish church of Woodford. His infancy was passed at South
Stoneham, near Southampton. At the age of six he was sent to a private
school at Southampton, and on the 19th of July 1782 was elected a Scholar
of Winchester College. He stayed at Winchester for six years, and worked
his way to the top place in the school, being "Prefect of Hall" when he
left in 1788. Beyond these facts, Winchester seems to retain no impressions
of her brilliant son, in this respect contrasting strangely with other
Public Schools. Westminster knows all about Cowper--and a sorry tale it is.
Canning left an ineffaceable mark on Eton. Harrow abounds in traditions,
oral and written, of Sheridan and Byron, Peel and Palmerston. But
Winchester is silent about Sydney Smith.

Sydney, however, was not silent about Winchester. In one of the liveliest
passages of his controversial writings, he said:--

"I was at school and college with the Archbishop of Canterbury:[3]
fifty-three years ago he knocked me down with the chess-board for
checkmating him--and now he is attempting to take away my patronage. I
believe these are the only two acts of violence he ever committed in
his life."

Now Howley was a prefect when Sydney was a junior, and this game of chess
must have been (as a living Wykehamist has pointed out to me) "a command
performance." The big boy liked chess, so the little boy had to play it:
the big boy disliked being checkmated, so the little boy was knocked down.
This and similar experiences probably coloured Sydney's mind when he wrote
in 1810:--

"At a Public School (for such is the system established by immemorial
custom) every boy is alternately tyrant and slave. The power which the
elder part of these communities exercises over the younger is
exceedingly great; very difficult to be controlled; and accompanied,
not unfrequently, with cruelty and caprice. It is the common law of
these places, that the younger should be implicitly obedient to the
elder boys; and this obedience resembles more the submission of a
slave to his master, or of a sailor to his captain, than the common
and natural deference which would always be shown by one boy to
another a few years older than himself. Now, this system we cannot
help considering as an evil, because it inflicts upon boys, for two or
three years of their lives, many painful hardships, and much
unpleasant servitude. These sufferings might perhaps be of some use in
military schools; but to give to a boy the habit of enduring
privations to which he will never again be called upon to submit--to
inure him to pains which he will never again feel--and to subject him
to the privation of comforts, with which he will always in future
abound--is surely not a very useful and valuable severity in
education. It is not the life in miniature which he is to lead
hereafter, nor does it bear any relation to it; he will never again be
subjected to so much insolence and caprice; nor ever, in all human
probability, called upon to make so many sacrifices. The servile
obedience which it teaches might be useful to a menial domestic; or
the habit of enterprise which it encourages prove of importance to a
military partisan; but we cannot see what bearing it has upon the
calm, regular, civil life, which the sons of gentlemen, destined to
opulent idleness, or to any of the more learned professions, are
destined to lead. Such a system makes many boys very miserable; and
produces those bad effects upon the temper and disposition which
boyish suffering always does produce. But what good it does, we are
much at a loss to conceive. Reasonable obedience is extremely useful
in forming the disposition. Submission to tyranny lays the foundation
of hatred, suspicion, cunning, and a variety of odious passions....

"The wretchedness of school tyranny is trifling enough to a man who
only contemplates it, in ease of body and tranquillity of mind,
through the medium of twenty intervening years; but it is quite as
real, and quite as acute, while it lasts, as any of the sufferings of
mature life: and the utility of these sufferings, or the price paid in
compensation for them, should be clearly made out to a conscientious
parent before he consents to expose his children to them."

Lady Holland tells us that in old age her father "used to shudder at the
recollections of Winchester," and represented the system prevailing there
in his youth as composed of "abuse, neglect, and vice." And, speaking of
the experience of lower boys at Public Schools in general, he described it
as "an intense system of tyranny, of which the English are very fond, and
think it fits a boy for the world; but the world, bad as it is, has nothing
half so bad."

"A man gets well pummelled at a Public School; is subject to every
misery and every indignity which seventeen years of age can inflict
upon nine and ten; has his eye nearly knocked out, and his clothes
stolen and cut to pieces; and twenty years afterwards, when he is a
chrysalis, and has forgotten the miseries of his grub state, is
determined to act a manly part in life, and says, 'I passed through
all that myself, and I am determined my son shall pass through it as I
have done'; and away goes his bleating progeny to the tyranny and
servitude of the Long Chamber or the Large Dormitory. It would surely
be much more rational to say, 'Because I have passed through it, I am
determined my son shall not pass through it. Because I was kicked for
nothing, and cuffed for nothing, and fagged for everything, I will
spare all these miseries to my child.'"

And, while he thus condemned the discipline under which he had been reared,
he had no better opinion of the instruction. Not that he was an opponent of
classical education: on the contrary, he had a genuine and reasoned
admiration for "the two ancient languages." He held that, compared to them,
"merely as vehicles of thought and passion, all modern languages are dull,
ill-contrived, and barbarous." He thought that even the most accomplished
of modern writers might still be glad to "borrow descriptive power from
Tacitus; dignified perspicuity from Livy; simplicity from Caesar; and from
Homer some portion of that light and heat which, dispersed into ten
thousand channels, has filled the world with bright images and illustrious
thoughts. Let the cultivator of modern literature addict himself to the
purest models of taste which France, Italy, and England could supply--he
might still learn from Virgil to be majestic, and from Tibullus to be
tender; he might not yet look upon the face of nature as Theocritus saw it;
nor might he reach those springs of pathos with which Euripides softened
the hearts of his audience."

This sound appreciation of what was best in classical literature was
accompanied in Sydney Smith by the most outspoken contempt for the way in
which Greek and Latin are taught in Public Schools. He thought that
schoolmasters encouraged their pupils to "love the instrument better than
the end--not the luxury which the difficulty encloses, but the
difficulty--not the filbert, but the shell--not what may be read in Greek,
but Greek itself?"

"We think that, in order to secure an attention to Homer and Virgil, we
must catch up every man, whether he is to be a clergyman or a duke,
begin with him at six years of age, and never quit him till he is
twenty; making him conjugate and decline for life and death; and so
teaching him to estimate his progress in real wisdom as he can scan
the verses of the Greek Tragedians."

He desired that boys should obtain a quick and easy mastery over the
authors whom they had to read, and on this account he urged that they
should be taught by the use of literal and interlinear translations; but "a
literal translation, or any translation, of a school-book is a contraband
article in English schools, which a schoolmaster would instantly seize, as
a custom-house officer would seize a barrel of gin."

Grammar, gerund-grinding, the tyranny of the Lexicon and the Dictionary,
had got the schoolboys of England in their grasp, and the boy "was
suffocated with the nonsense of grammarians, overwhelmed with every species
of difficulty disproportionate to his age, and driven by despair to pegtop
or marbles"; while the British Parent stood and spoke thus with himself:--

"Have I read through Lilly? Have I learnt by heart that most atrocious
monument of absurdity, the Westminster Grammar? Have I been whipt for
the substantives? whipt for the verbs? and whipt for and with the
interjections? Have I picked the sense slowly, and word by word, out
of Hederich? and shall my son be exempt from all this misery?... Ay,
ay, it's all mighty well; but I went through this myself, and I am
determined my children shall do the same."

Another grotesque abuse with regard to which Sydney Smith was a reformer
fifty years before his time was compulsory versification.--

"There are few boys who remain to the age of eighteen or nineteen at a
Public School without making above ten thousand Latin verses--a
greater number than is contained in the _Aeneid_; and, after he
has made this quantity of verses in a dead language, unless the poet
should happen to be a very weak man indeed, he never makes another as
long as he lives."[4]

"The English clergy, in whose hands education entirely rests, bring up
the first young men of the country as if they were all to keep
grammar-schools in little country-towns; and a nobleman, upon whose
knowledge and liberality the honour and welfare of his country may
depend, is diligently worried, for half his life, with the small
pedantry of longs and shorts."

The same process is applied at the other end of the social scale. The
baker's son, young Crumpet, is sent to a grammar-school, "takes to his
books, spends the best years of his life, as all eminent Englishmen do, in
making Latin verses, learns that the _Crum_ in Crumpet is long and the
_pet_ short, goes to the University, gets a prize for an essay on the
Dispersion of the Jews, takes Orders, becomes a Bishop's chaplain, has a
young nobleman for his pupil, publishes a useless classic and a Serious
Call to the Unconverted, and then goes through the Elysian transitions of
Prebendary, Dean, Prelate, and the long train of purple, profit, and

In this vivacious passage, Sydney Smith caricatures his own career; which,
though it neither began in a baker's shop nor ended in an episcopal palace,
followed pretty closely the line of development here indicated. At
Winchester he "took to his books" with such goodwill that, in spite of all
hindrances, he became an excellent scholar, and laid the strong foundations
for a wide and generous culture. His family indeed propagated some pleasing
traditions about his schooldays--one of a benevolent stranger who found him
reading Virgil when other boys were playing cricket, patted his head, and
foretold his future greatness; another of a round-robin from his
schoolfellows, declining to compete against him for prizes, "because he
always gained them." But this is not history.

From Winchester Sydney Smith passed in natural course to the other of "the
two colleges of St. Mary Winton"; and, in the interval between Winchester
and Oxford, his father sent him for six months to Normandy, with a view to
improving his French. Revolution was in the air, and it was thought a
salutary precaution that he should join one of the Jacobin clubs in the
town where he boarded, and he was duly entered as "Le Citoyen Smit, Membre
Affilie au Club des Jacobins de Mont Villiers."

But he was soon recalled to more tranquil scenes. He was elected Scholar of
New College, Oxford, on the 5th of January 1789, and at the end of his
second year he exchanged his Scholarship for a Fellowship. From that time
on he never cost his father a farthing, and he paid a considerable debt for
his younger brother Courtenay, though, as he justly remarks, "a hundred
pounds a year was very difficult to spread over the wants of a College
life." Ten years later he wrote--"I got in debt by buying books. I never
borrowed a farthing of anybody, and never received much; and have lived in
poverty and economy all my life."

His career at Oxford is buried in even deeper obscurity than his schooltime
at Winchester. This is no doubt to be explained, on the intellectual side,
by the fact that members of New College were at that time exempt from
public examination; and, on the social side, by the straitened
circumstances which prevented him from showing hospitality, and the pride
which made him unwilling to accept what he could not return. We are left to
gather his feelings about Oxford and the system pursued there, from casual
references in his critical writings; and these are uncomplimentary enough.
When he wishes to stigmatize a proposition as enormously and preposterously
absurd, he says that there is "no authority on earth (always excepting the
Dean of Christ Church), which could make it credible to me." When stirred
to the liveliest indignation by the iniquities which a Tory Government is
practising in Ireland, he exclaims--"A Senior Proctor of the University of
Oxford, the Head of a House, or the examining chaplain to a Bishop, may
believe these things can last; but every man of the world, whose
understanding has been exercised in the business of life, must see (and see
with a breaking heart) that they will soon come to a fearful termination."
He praised a comparison of the Universities to "enormous hulks confined
with mooring-chains, everything flowing and progressing around them," while
they themselves stood still.

When pleading for a wider and more reasonable course of studies at Oxford,
he says:--

"A genuine Oxford tutor would shudder to hear his young men disputing
upon moral and political truth, forming and putting down theories, and
indulging in all the boldness of youthful discussion. He would augur
nothing from it but impiety to God and treason to Kings."

Protesting against the undue predominance of classical studies in the
Universities, as at the Public Schools, he says:--

"Classical literature is the great object at Oxford. Many minds so
employed have produced many works, and much fame in that department:
but if all liberal arts and sciences useful to human life had been
taught there; if some had dedicated themselves to chemistry, some to
mathematics, some to experimental philosophy; and if every attainment
had been honoured in the mixt ratio of its difficulty and utility; the
system of such an University would have been much more valuable, but
the splendour of its name something less."

The hopelessness of any attempt to reform the curriculum of Oxford by
opening the door to Political Economy is stated with characteristic

"When an University has been doing useless things for a long time, it
appears at first degrading to them to be useful A set of lectures upon
Political Economy would be discouraged in Oxford, possibly despised,
probably not permitted. To discuss the Enclosure of Commons, and to
dwell upon imports and exports--to come so near to common life, would
seem to be undignified and contemptible. In the same manner, the Parr
or the Bentley of his day would be scandalised to be put on a level
with the discoverer of a neutral salt; and yet what other measure is
there of dignity in intellectual labour, but usefulness and
difficulty? And what ought the term _University_ to mean, but a
place where every science is taught which is liberal, and at the same
time useful to mankind? Nothing would so much tend to bring classical
literature within proper bounds as a steady and invariable appeal to
these tests in our appreciation of all human knowledge. The puffed-up
pedant would collapse into his proper size, and the maker of verses
and the rememberer of words would soon assume that station which is
the lot of those who go up unbidden to the upper places of the feast."

In 1810 he wrote, with reference to the newly-invented Examination for
Honours at Oxford:--

"If Oxford is become at last sensible of the miserable state to which
it was reduced, as everybody else was out of Oxford, and if it is
making serious efforts to recover from the degradation into which it
was plunged a few years past, the good wishes of every respectable man
must go with it."

And again:--

"On the new plan of Oxford education we shall offer no remarks. It has
many defects; but it is very honourable to the University to have made
such an experiment. The improvement upon the old plan is certainly
very great; and we most sincerely and honestly wish to it every
species of success."

His opinions on the subject of the Universities did not mellow with age. As
late as 1831 he wrote of a friend who had just sent his son to Cambridge:--

"He has put him there to spend his money, to lose what good qualities
he has, and to gain nothing useful in return. If men had made no more
progress in the common arts of life than they have in education, we
should at this moment be dividing our food with our fingers, and
drinking out of the palms of our hands."

It was just as bad when a lady sent her son to his own University.--

"I feel for her about her son at Oxford, knowing, as I do, that the
only consequences of a University education are the growth of vice and
the waste of money."

In 1792 Sydney Smith took his degree,[5] and now the question of a
profession had to be faced and decided. It was necessary that he should
begin to make money at once, for the pecuniary resources of the family,
narrow at the beat, were now severely taxed by his mother's failing health
and by the cost of starting his brothers in the world. At Oxford, he had
dabbled in medicine and anatomy, and had attended the lectures of Dr.,
afterwards Sir Christopher, Pegge,[6] who recommended him to become a
doctor. His father wished to send him as a super-cargo to China! His own
strong preference was for the Bar, but his father, who had already brought
up one son to that profession and found it more expensive than profitable,
looked very unfavourably on the design; and under paternal pressure the
wittiest Englishman of his generation determined to seek Holy Orders, or,
to use his own old-fashioned phrase, to "enter the Church." He assumed the
sacred character without enthusiasm, and looked back on its adoption with
regret. "The law," he said in after life, "is decidedly the best profession
for a young man if he has anything in him. In the Church a man is thrown
into life with his hands tied, and bid to swim; he does well if he keeps
his head above water."

Under these rather dismal auspices, Sydney Smith was ordained Deacon in
1794. He might, one would suppose, have been ordained on his Fellowship,
and have continued to reside in College with a view to obtaining a
Lectureship or some other office of profit. Perhaps he found the mental
atmosphere of Oxford insalubrious. Perhaps he was unpopular in College.
Perhaps his political opinions were already too liberal for the place.
Certain it is that his visit to France, in the earlier stages of the
Revolution, had led him to extol the French for teaching mankind "the use
of their power, their reason, and their rights." Whatever was the cause, he
turned his back on Oxford, and, as soon as he was ordained, became Curate
of Netheravon, a village near Amesbury.[7] As he himself said, "the name of
Curate had lost its legal meaning, and, instead of denoting the incumbent
of a living, came to signify the deputy of an absentee." He had sole charge
of the parish of Netheravon, and was also expected to perform one service
every Sunday at the adjoining village of Fittleton. "Nothing," wrote the
new-fledged Curate, "can equal the profound, the immeasurable, the awful
dulness of this place, in the which I lie, dead and buried, in hope of a
joyful resurrection in 1796." Indeed, it is not easy to conceive a more
dismal situation for a young, ardent, and active man, fresh from Oxford,
full of intellectual ambition, and not very keenly alive to the spiritual
opportunities of his calling. The village, a kind of oasis in the desert of
Salisbury Plain, was not touched by any of the coaching-roads. The only
method of communication with the outside world was by the market-cart which
brought the necessaries of life from Salisbury once a week. The vicar was
non-resident; and the squire, Mr. Hicks-Beach, was only an occasional
visitor, for his principal residence was fifty miles off, at Williamstrip,
near Fairford. (He had acquired Netheravon by his marriage with Miss
Beach.) The church was empty, and the curate in charge likened his
preaching to the voice of one crying in the wilderness. The condition of
the village may best be judged from a report made to Mr. Hicks-Beach by his
steward in 1793. Nearly every one was dependent on parochial relief. Not a
man earned ten shillings a week. A man with a wife and four children worked
for six shillings a week. A girl earned, by spinning, four shillings a
month. Idleness, disease, and immorality were rife; and, as an incentive to
profitable industry, a young farmer beat a sickly labourer within an inch
of his life.

Mrs. Hicks-Beach referred this uncomfortable report on the condition of her
property to the newly-installed curate, requesting his opinion on the cases
specified. The curate replied with characteristic vigour. One family owed
its wretched condition to mismanagement and extravagance; another to
"ignorance bordering on brutality"; another to "Irish extraction, numbers,
disease, and habits of idleness." One family was composed of "weak, witless
people, totally wretched, without sense to extricate them from their
wretchedness"; a second was "perfectly wretched and helpless"; and a third
was "aliment for Newgate, food for the halter--a ragged, wretched, savage,
stubborn race."[8]

The squire and Mrs. Hicks-Beach, who seem to have been thoroughly
high-principled and intelligent people, were much concerned to find the
curate corroborating and even expanding the evil reports of the steward.
They immediately began considering remedies, and decided that their first
reform should be to establish a Sunday-school. The institution so named
bore little resemblance to the Sunday-schools of the present day, but
followed a plan which Robert Raikes[9] and Mrs. Hannah More[10] had
originated, and which Bishop Shute Barrington[11] (who was translated to
Durham in 1791) had strongly urged on the Diocese of Sarum.[12] Boys and
girls were taught together. The master and mistress were paid the modest
salary of two shillings a Sunday. The children were taught spelling and
reading, and, as soon as they had mastered those arts, were made to read
the Bible, the Prayer Book, and Mrs. More's tracts. The children attended
church, sitting together in a big pew, and, in hot weather, had their
lessons in the church, before and after the service. As soon as the
Sunday-school had proved itself popular and successful, an Industrial
School was arranged for three nights in the week, so that the girls of the
village might be taught domestic arts. Both institutions prospered, and
ninety years later Mr. Stuart Reid, visiting the cottages of Netheravon in
order to collect material for his book, caught the lingering tradition that
Sydney Smith "was fond of children and young people, and took pains to
teach them."

This tradition bears out what Sydney Smith said in his Farewell Sermon to
the people of Netheravon. Preaching from Proverbs iv. 13, "Take fast hold
of instruction," he said:--

"The Sunday-school which, with some trouble and expense, has been
brought to the state in which you see it, will afford to the poorest
people an opportunity of giving to their children some share of
education, and I will not suppose that anybody can be so indolent, and
so unprincipled, as not to exact from their children a regular
attendance upon it. I sincerely exhort you, and beg of you now, for
the last time, that after this institution has been got into some kind
of order, you will not suffer it to fall to ruin by your own
negligence. I have lived among your children, and have taught them
myself, and have seen them improve, and I know it will make them
better and happier men."

And now a change was at hand. The curate of Netheravon had never intended
to stay there longer than he was obliged, and the "happy resurrection" for
which he had hoped came in an unexpected fashion. Here is his own account
of his translation, written in 1839:--

"The squire of the parish took a fancy to me, and requested me to go
with his son to reside at the University of Weimar; before we could
get there, Germany became the seat of war, and in stress of politics
we put into Edinburgh, where I remained five years. The principles of
the French Revolution were then fully afloat, and it is impossible to
conceive a more violent and agitated state of society."

Sydney Smith and his pupil, Michael Beach,[13] arrived at Edinburgh in June
1798. They lodged successively at 38 South Hanover Street, 19 Ann Street,
and 46 George Street. The University of Edinburgh was then in its days of
glory. Dugald Stewart was Professor of Moral Philosophy; John Playfair, of
Mathematics; John Hill, of Humanity. The teaching was at once interesting
and systematic, the intellectual atmosphere liberal and enterprising.
English parents who cared seriously for mental and moral freedom, such as
the Duke of Somerset, the Duke of Bedford, and Lord Lansdowne, sent their
sons to Edinburgh instead of Oxford or Cambridge. The University was in
close relations with the Bar, then adorned by the great names of Francis
Jeffrey, Francis Homer, Henry Brougham, and Walter Scott. While Michael
Beach was duly attending the professorial lectures, his tutor was not idle.
From Dugald Stewart, and Thomas Brown, he acquired the elements of Moral
Philosophy. He gratified a lifelong fancy by attending the Clinical
Lectures given by Dr. Gregory[14] in the hospitals of Edinburgh, and
studied Chemistry under Dr. Black.[15] He amused himself with chemical

"I mix'd 4 of Holland gin with 8 of olive oil, and stirr'd them well
together. I then added 4 of nitric acid. A violent ebullition ensued.
Nitrous oether, as I suppos'd, was generated, and in about four hours
the oil became perfectly concrete, white and hard as tallow."

To these scientific pastimes were soon added some more professional
activities. The Episcopalians of Edinburgh at this time worshipped in
Charlotte Chapel, Rose Street, which was sold in 1818 to the Baptists. The
incumbent was the Rev. Archibald Alison,[16] who wrote a treatise on
"Taste" and ministered in one of the ugliest buildings in the world. The
arrival in Edinburgh of a clever young man in English Orders was an
opportunity not to be neglected, and Sydney Smith was often invited to
preach in Charlotte Chapel. Writing to Mr. Hicks-Beach, he says:--

"I have the pleasure of seeing my audience nod approbation while they

And again:--

"The people of Edinburgh gape at my sermons. In the middle of an
exquisite address to Virtue, beginning 'O Virtue!' I saw a rascal
gaping as if his jaws were torn asunder."

But this, though perhaps it may have perplexed the worthy squire to whom it
was addressed, is mere self-banter. Sydney's preaching attracted some of
the keenest minds in Edinburgh. It was fresh, practical, pungent; and,
though rich in a vigorous and resounding eloquence, was poles asunder from
the rhetoric of which "O Virtue!" is a typical instance.

So popular were these sermons at Charlotte Chapel that in 1800 the preacher
ventured to publish a small volume of them, which was soon followed by a
second and enlarged edition. This book of sermons is dedicated to Lord Webb
Seymour[17]--"because I know no man who, in spite of the disadvantages of
high birth, lives to more honourable and commendable purposes than

The preface to the book is a vigorous plea for greater animation in
preaching, a wider variety of topics, and a more direct bearing on
practical life, than were then usual in the pulpits of the Church of

"Is it wonder," he asks, "that every semi-delirious sectary, who pours
forth his animated nonsense with the genuine look and voice of
passion, should gesticulate away the congregation of the most profound
and learned divine of the Established Church, and in two Sundays
preach him bare to the very sexton? Why are we natural everywhere but
in the pulpit? No man expresses warm and animated feelings anywhere
else, with his mouth alone, but with his whole body; he articulates
with every limb, and talks from head to foot with a thousand voices.
Why this holoplexia on sacred occasions alone? Why call in the aid of
paralysis to piety? Is it a rule of oratory to balance the style
against the subject, and to handle the most sublime truths in the
dullest language and the driest manner? Is sin to be taken from men,
as Eve was from Adam, by casting them into a deep slumber? Or from
what possible perversion of common sense are we to look like
field-preachers in Zembla, holy lumps of ice, numbed into quiescence
and stagnation and mumbling?"

The subjects with which these sermons deal are practical in the highest
degree, such as "The Love of Country," "The Poor Magdalen," "The Causes of
Republican Opinions," "The Effect of Christianity on Manners," and "The
Treatment of Servants." One or two short samples of his thought and style
will not be out of place.

This is from his sermon on the Magdalen:--

"The best mediation with God Almighty the Father, and His Son of Mercy
and Love, is the prayer of a human being whom you have saved from

This is from the sermon on "Christianity and Manners":--

"If ye would that men should love you, love ye also them, not with
gentleness of face alone, or the shallow mockery of smiles, but in
singleness of heart, in forbearance, judging mercifully, entering into
the mind of thy brother, to spare him pain, to prevent his wrath, to
be unto him an eternal fountain of peace. These are the fruits of the
Spirit, and this the soul that emanates from our sacred religion. If
ye bear these fruits now in the time of this life, if ye write these
laws on the tablets of your hearts so as ye not only say but do them,
then indeed are ye the true servants of Jesus and the children of His
redemption. For you He came down from Heaven; for you He was scorned
and hated upon earth; for you mangled on the Cross; and at the last
day, when the trumpet shall sound, and the earth melt, and the heavens
groan and die, ye shall spring up from the dust of the grave, the
ever-living spirits of God."

All the sermons breathe the same fiery indignation against cruelty and
tyranny, the same quick sympathy with poverty, suffering, and debasement;
and, here and there, especially in the occasional references to France and
Switzerland, they show pretty clearly the preacher's political bias. In his
own phrase, he "loved truth better than he loved Dundas,[18] at that time
the tyrant of Scotland"; and it would have been a miracle if his
outspokenness had passed without remonstrance from the authoritative and
privileged classes. But the spirited preface to the second edition shows
that he had already learned to hold his own, unshaken and unterrified, in
what he believed to be a righteous cause:--

"As long as God gives me life and strength I will never cease to
attack, in the way of my profession and to the best of my abilities,
any system of principles injurious to the public happiness, whether
they be sanctioned by the voice of the many, or whether they be not;
and may the same God take that unworthy life away, whenever I shrink
from the contempt and misrepresentation to which my duty shall call me
to submit."

The year 1800 was marked, for Sydney Smith, by an event even more momentous
than the publication of his first book. It was the year of his marriage.
His sister Maria had a friend and schoolfellow called Catharine Amelia
Pybus. He had known her as a child; and while still quite young had become
engaged to marry her, whenever circumstances should make it possible. The
young lady's father was John Pybus, who had gone to India in the service of
the Company, attained official distinction and made money. Returning to
England, he settled at Cheam in Surrey, where he died in 1789. In 1800 his
daughter Catharine was twenty-two years old. Her brother, a Tory Member of
Parliament and a placeman under Pitt, strongly objected to an alliance with
a penniless and unknown clergyman of Liberal principles; but Miss Pybus
happily knew her own mind, and she was married to Sydney Smith in the
parish church of Cheam on the 2nd of July 1800. The bride had a small
fortune of her own, and this was just as well, for her husband's total
wealth consisted of "six small silver teaspoons," which he flung into her
lap, saying, "There, Kate, you lucky girl, I give you all my fortune!"

In the autumn of 1800, Mr. and Mrs. Sydney Smith established themselves at
No. 46 George Street, Edinburgh. Mrs. Smith sold her pearl necklace for
L500, and bought plate and linen with the proceeds. Michael Beach had now
quitted Edinburgh for Oxford, but his younger brother William took his
place in the Smiths' house, and was joined by the eldest son of Mr. Gordon
of Ellon. Lady Holland states that with each of these young gentlemen her
father received L400 a year; and Mr. Hicks-Beach, grateful for his good
influence on Michael, made a considerable addition to the covenanted

In 1802 the Smiths' eldest child was born and was christened Saba. The name
was taken out of the Psalms for the Fourteenth Day of the Month, and was
bestowed on her in obedience to her father's conviction that, where parents
were constrained to give their child so indistinctive a surname as Smith,
they ought to counterbalance it with a Christian name more original and
vivacious. Saba Smith became the wife of the eminent physician, Sir Henry
Holland, and died in 1866. The other children were--a boy, who was born and
died in 1803; Douglas, born in 1805, died in 1829; Emily, wife of Nathaniel
Hibbert, born in 1807, died in 1874; Wyndham, born in 1813, died in 1871.

[1] For this remarkable variant, _see_ Burke's Peerage, _Bowyer-
Smijth_, _Bart._

[2] (1739-1827.)

[3] William Howley (1766-1848).

[4] In 1819 Sydney Smith violated his own canon, thus: "But, after all, I
believe we shall all go--

"_ad veteris Nicolai tristia regna,
Pitt ubi combustum Dundasque videbimus omnes_."

[5] He became M.A. in 1796.

[6] (1765-1822.) Lees' Reader in Anatomy 1790, Regius Professor of Medicine

[7] It is curious that the date and place of Sydney Smith's ordination as
Deacon cannot be traced. He would naturally have been ordained at
Salisbury by John Douglas, Bishop of Sarum; but there is a gap in that
prelate's Register of Ordinations between 1791 and 1796. He may have
been ordained on Letters Dimissory in some other diocese. He was
raised to the Priesthood in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, on the
22nd of May 1796 by Edward Smallwell, Bishop of Oxford; being
described as Fellow of New College, and B.A.

For the foregoing facts I am indebted to the courtesy of Mr. A.R.
Malden, Registrar of the Diocese of Salisbury, and Mr. J.A. Davenport,
Registrar of the Diocese of Oxford.

[8] Quoted by Mr. Stuart Reid.

[9] (1735-1811).

[10] (1745-1833.)

[11] (1734-1826.)

[12] "At the commencement of the nineteenth century, the Sunday-school had
become a part of the regular organization of almost every well-worked
parish. It was then a far more serious affair than it is now, for,
where there was no week-day school, it supplied secular as well as
religious instruction to the children. In fact, the Sunday-school took
up a considerable part of the day,"--J.H. OVERTON, _The English
Church in the Nineteenth Century_.

[13] Grandfather of Sir Michael Hicks-Beach, M.P.

[14] James Gregory (1753-1821), Professor of Medicine.

[15] Joseph Black (1728-1799), Professor of Chemistry.

[16] (1757-1839.)

[17] (1777-1819). Son of the 10th Duke of Somerset.

[18] Henry Dundas (1742-1811), Lord Advocate, created Viscount Melville in



We now approach what was perhaps the most important event in Sydney Smith's
life, and this was the foundation of the _Edinburgh Review_. Writing in
1839, and looking back upon the struggles of his early manhood, he thus
described the circumstances in which the Review originated:--

"Among the first persons with whom I became acquainted [in Edinburgh]
were Lord Jeffrey, Lord Murray (late Lord Advocate for Scotland), and
Lord Brougham; all of them maintaining opinions upon political
subjects a little too liberal for the dynasty of Dundas, then
exercising supreme power over the northern division of the Island.

"One day we happened to meet in the eighth or ninth story or flat in
Buccleugh Place, the elevated residence of the then Mr. Jeffrey. I
proposed that we should set up a Review; this was acceded to with
acclamation. I was appointed Editor, and remained long enough in
Edinburgh to edit the first number of the _Edinburgh Review_. The
motto I proposed for the Review was--

"'_Tenui musam, meditamur avena._'

"'We cultivate literature on a little oatmeal.'

"But this was too near the truth to be admitted, and so we took our
present grave motto from Publius Syrus, of whom none of us had, I am
sure, ever read a single line; and so began what has since turned out
to be a very important and able journal. When I left Edinburgh, it
fell into the stronger hands of Lord Jeffrey and Lord Brougham, and
reached the highest point of popularity and success.

"To appreciate the value of the _Edinburgh Review_, the state of
England at the period when that journal began should be had in
remembrance. The Catholics were not emancipated. The Corporation and
Test Acts were unrepealed. The Game-Laws were horribly oppressive;
steel-traps and spring-guns were set all over the country; prisoners
tried for their lives could have no counsel. Lord Eldon and the Court
of Chancery pressed heavily on mankind. Libel was punished by the most
cruel and vindictive imprisonments. The principles of Political
Economy were little understood. The laws of debt and conspiracy were
upon the worst footing. The enormous wickedness of the slave-trade was
tolerated. A thousand evils were in existence, which the talents of
good and able men have since lessened or removed; and these efforts
have been not a little assisted by the honest boldness of the
_Edinburgh Review_."

Lord Brougham has left on record a similar account.

"I at once entered warmly into Smith's scheme. Jeffrey, by nature
always rather timid, was full of doubts and fears. It required all
Smith's overpowering vivacity to argue and laugh Jeffrey out of his
difficulties. There would, he said, be no lack of contributors. There
was himself, ready to write any number of articles, or to edit the
whole; there was Jeffrey, _facile princeps_ in all kinds of
literature; there was myself, full of mathematics and everything
relating to the Colonies; there was Horner for Political Economy, and
Murray for General Subjects. Besides, might we not, from our great and
never-to-be-doubted success, fairly hope to receive help from such
leviathans as Playfair, Dugald Stewart, Thomas Brown, Thomson, and

These bright forecasts put heart of grace into the timid Jeffrey. Sydney
Smith's jovial optimism prevailed. The financial part of the business was
arranged with Constable in Edinburgh, and Longman in London: and the first
number (clad in that famous livery of Blue and Buff[19] which the Whigs had
copied from Charles Fox's coat and waistcoat) appeared in the autumn of
1802. The cover was thus inscribed--





Oct. 1802--Jan. 1803

_To be continued quarterly_

* * * * *

Judex damnatur cum nocens absolvitur


To this first number Sydney Smith contributed five articles. Four of these
are reviews of sermons, and the fifth is a slashing attack on John
Bowles,[20] who had published an alarmist pamphlet on the designs of
France. Jeffrey thought this attack too severe, but the author could not
agree. He thought Bowles "a very stupid and a very contemptible fellow."

"He has been hangman for these ten years to all the poor authors in
England, is generally considered to be hired by government, and has
talked about social order till be has talked himself into L600 or L700
per annum. That there can be a fairer object for critical severity I
cannot conceive."

To the first four numbers Sydney Smith contributed in all eighteen
articles; and he continued to contribute, at irregular intervals, till
1827. The substance and style of his articles will be considered later on.
As to his motives in writing, he stated them to Jeffrey as being, "First,
the love of you; second, the habit of reviewing; third, the love of money;
to which I may add a fourth, the love of punishing fraud and folly."

Ticknor[21] has put it on record that, late in life, Sydney Smith thus
described his pecuniary relations with the _Review_:--"When I wrote an
article, I used to send it to Jeffrey, and waited till it came out;
immediately after which I enclosed to him a bill in these words, or words
like them: 'Francis Jeffrey, Esq., to Rev. Sydney Smith: To a very wise and
witty article on such a subject, so many sheets, at forty-five guineas a
sheet'; and the money always came."

Sydney Smith "remained long enough in Edinburgh to edit the first number"
of the new review, but he now determined to leave Edinburgh and settle in
London, and Jeffrey became editor. Regarding Holy Orders frankly as a
profession, Sydney naturally desired professional advancement, and this of
course could not be attained in presbyterian Scotland. "I could not hold
myself justified to my wife and family if I were to sacrifice any longer to
the love of present ease, those exertions which every man is bound to make
for the improvement of his situation."

He left Edinburgh with very mixed feelings, for he hated the place and
loved its inhabitants. He called it "that energetic and unfragrant city."
He dwelt in memory on its "odious smells, barbarous sounds, bad suppers,
excellent hearts, and most enlightened and cultivated understandings."

"No nation," he said, "has so large a stock of benevolence of heart,
as the Scotch. Their temper stands anything but an attack on their
climate. They would have you even believe they can ripen fruit; and,
to be candid, I must own in remarkably warm summers I have tasted
peaches that made most excellent pickles; and it is upon record that
at the Siege of Perth, on one occasion the ammunition failing, their
nectarines made admirable cannon-balls. Even the enlightened mind of
Jeffrey cannot shake off the illusion that myrtles flourish at Craig
Crook.[22] In vain I have represented to him that they are of the
genus _Carduus_, and pointed out their prickly peculiarities....
Jeffrey sticks to his myrtle illusions, and treats my attacks with as
much contempt as if I had been a wild visionary, who had never
breathed his caller air, nor lived and suffered under the rigour of
his climate, nor spent five years in discussing metaphysics and
medicine in that garret of the earth--that knuckle-end of
England--that land of Calvin, oatcakes, and sulphur."

As soon as he reached England, he wrote to his friend Jeffrey:--

"I left Edinburgh with great heaviness of heart; I knew what I was
leaving, and was ignorant to what I was going. My good fortune will be
very great, if I should ever again fall into the society of so many
liberal, correct, and instructed men, and live with them on such terms
of friendship as I have done with you, and you know whom, at

On arriving in London, in the autumn of 1803, the Sydney Smiths lodged for
a while at 77 Upper Guilford Street, and soon afterwards established
themselves at 8 Doughty Street. Sydney's dearest friend, Francis
Horner,[23] had preceded him to London, and was already beginning to make
his mark at the Bar, without, apparently, abandoning his philosophical
pursuits. "He lives very high up in Garden Court, and thinks a good deal
about Mankind." But he could spare a thought for individuals as well as for
the race, and did a great deal towards securing his friend an introduction
into congenial society. Doughty Street was a legal quarter, and among those
with whom the Smiths soon made friends were Sir Samuel Romilly, James
Scarlett (afterwards Lord Abinger), and Sir James Mackintosh. To these were
added as time went on, Henry Grattan, Alexander Marcet, John William Ward
(afterwards Lord Dudley), Samuel Rogers, Henry Luttrell, "Conversation"
Sharp, and Lord Holland.

Sydney Smith's eldest brother Robert ("Bobus"[24]) had married Caroline
Vernon, Lord Holland's aunt. Sydney's politics were the politics of Holland
House. Lord Holland was always recruiting for the Liberal army, and an
Edinburgh Reviewer was a recruit worth capturing. So the hospitable doors
were soon thrown open to the young clergyman from Doughty Street, who
suddenly found himself a member of the most brilliant circle ever gathered
under an English roof. In old age he used to declare, to the amusement of
his friends, that as a young man he had been shy, but had wrestled with the
temptation and overcome it. As regards the master[25] of Holland House, it
was not easy to be shy in the presence of "that frank politeness which at
once relieved all the embarrassment of the youngest and most timid writer
or artist, who found himself for the first time among Ambassadors and
Earls."[26] And even the imperious mistress[27] of the house found her
match in Sydney Smith, who only made fun of her foibles, and repaid her
insolence with raillery. Referring to this period, when he had long
outlived it, he said:--

"I well remember, when Mrs. Sydney and I were young, in London, with
no other equipage than my umbrella, when we went out to dinner in a
hackney coach (a vehicle, by the bye, now become almost matter of
history), when the rattling step was let down, and the proud, powdered
red-plushes grinned, and her gown was fringed with straw, how the iron
entered into my soul."

One of the most useful friends whom the Smiths discovered in London was Mr.
Thomas Bernard,[28] afterwards a baronet of good estate in Buckinghamshire,
and a zealous worker in all kinds of social and educational reform. Mr.
Bernard was Treasurer of the Royal Institution in Albemarle Street, which
had been founded in 1799; and, with the laudable desire of putting a few
pounds into a friend's pocket, he suggested that Sydney Smith should be
invited to lecture before the Institution. The invitation was cordially
given and gratefully accepted. The lecturer chose "Moral Philosophy" for
his subject, and the Introductory Lecture, in which he defined his terms,
was delivered on the 10th of November 1804. The second and third lectures
dealt with the History of Moral Philosophy; the fourth, with the Powers of
External Perception; the fifth, with Conception; the sixth, with Memory;
the seventh, with Imagination; the eighth, with Reason and Judgment; and
the ninth, with the Conduct of the Understanding.

These lectures were treated by the author as forming one course, their
general subject being "The Understanding." In February 1805 he wrote to his
friend Jeffrey:--"I got through my first course I think creditably; whether
any better than creditably others know better than myself. I have still ten
to read." This second course followed immediately on the first, and, under
the general head of "Taste," discussed topics so various as "Wit and
Humour," "The Beautiful," "The Sublime," "The Faculties of Animals as
compared with those of Man," and "The Faculties of Beasts." By this time
the lectures had become fashionable. One eye-witness writes:--

"All Albemarle Street, and a part of Grafton Street, was rendered
impassable by the concourse of carriages assembled there during the
time of their delivery. There was not sufficient room for the persons
assembling; the lobbies were filled, and the doors into them from the
lecture-room were left open."

Horner reckoned "from six to eight hundred hearers and not a seat to be
procured, even if you go there an hour before the time." Sir Robert Peel,
who had just left Harrow, was one of the audience, and remembered the
lectures forty years after their delivery. As late as 1843, Dr. Whewell[29]
inquired if they were still accessible. Sydney Smith, according to Lord
Houghton, described his performances as "the most successful swindle of the
season"; and, writing to Jeffrey in April 1805, he says:--

"My lectures are just now at such an absurd pitch of celebrity, that I
must lose a good deal of reputation before the public settles into a
just equilibrium respecting them. I am most heartily ashamed of my own
fame, because I am conscious I do not deserve it, and that the moment
men of sense are provoked by the clamour to look into my claims, it
will be at an end."

Notwithstanding this premonition, the lecturer adventured on a third
course, which was delivered at the same place in the spring of 1806.
"Galleries were erected, which had never before been required, and the
success was complete." The general subject of this third course was "The
Active Powers of the Mind," and it dealt with "The Evil Affections," "The
Benevolent Affections," "The Passions," "The Desires," "Surprise, Novelty,
and Variety," and "Habit."

As soon as the lectures were delivered, the lecturer threw the manuscripts
into the fire; and it is satisfactory to find that he did not take his
performance very seriously, or set a very high value on his philosophical
attainments. In 1843 he wrote, in reply to Dr. Whewell's inquiry:--

"My lectures are gone to the dogs, and are utterly forgotten. I knew
nothing of Moral Philosophy, but I was thoroughly aware that I wanted
L200 to furnish my house. The success, however, was prodigious; all
Albemarle Street blocked up with carriages, and such an uproar as I
never remember to have seen excited by any other literary imposture.
Every week I had a new theory about Conception and Perception, and
supported it by a natural manner, a torrent of words, and an impudence
scarcely credible in this prudent age. Still, in justice to myself, I
must say there were some good things in them. But good and bad are all

As a matter of fact, however, they were not "all gone." Mrs. Smith had
rescued the manuscripts, a good deal damaged, from the flames, and after
her husband's death she published the three courses in one volume under the
title, _Elementary Sketches of Moral Philosophy_.

Was it worth while to publish them? The answer must depend on the object of
publication. If the book was meant to be considered as a serious
contribution to mental science, the manuscripts might as well have remained
where their author threw them. If, on the other hand, it was intended only
to show the versatility, adroitness, and plausibility of a young man in
need of money, nothing could have better illustrated those aspects of
Sydney Smith's character and career. He is thirty-three years old, married,
with an increasing family, and no means of subsistence beyond periodical
journalism and odd jobs of clerical duty. "Two or three random sermons," he
says, "I have discharged, and thought I perceived that the greater part of
the congregation thought me mad. The clerk was as pale as death in helping
me off with my gown, for fear I should bite him." He wants money to furnish
his house. A benevolent friend obtains him the opportunity of lecturing. It
is not uncharitable to suppose that he chooses a subject in which accurate
knowledge and close argument will be less requisite than fluency, fancy,
bold statement, and extraordinarily felicitous illustration. The five years
spent in Edinburgh can now be turned to profitable account. Dugald Stewards
lectures can be exhumed, decorated, and reproduced. The whole book reeks of
Scotland. The lecturer sets out by declaring that Moral Philosophy is
taught in the Scotch Universities alone. England knows nothing about it. At
Edinburgh Moral Philosophy means Mental Philosophy, and is concerned with
"the faculties of the mind and the effects which our reasoning powers and
our passions produce upon the actions of our lives." It has nothing to do
with ethics or duty. And the definition used in Edinburgh is also used in
Albemarle Street. Dugald Stewart and Thomas Brown[30] and Adam Smith, Hume
and Reid and Oswald and Beattie and Ferguson, are names which meet us on
every page. The lecturer has learnt from Scotsmen, and reproduces what the
Scotsmen taught him. Mind and Matter are two great realities. When people
are informed that all thought is explained by vibrations and
"vibratiuncles" of the brain, and that what they consider their arms and
legs are not arms and legs but ideas, then, says the lecturer, they will
pardonably identify Philosophy with Lunacy. "Bishop Berkeley destroyed this
world in one octavo volume; and nothing remained after his time but Mind;
which experienced a similar fate at the hand of Mr. Hume in 1737.... But is
there any one out of Bedlam who _doubts_ of the existence of matter? who
doubts of his own personal identity? or of his consciousness? or of the
general credibility of memory?"

From this rough-and-ready delimitation of the area within which Moral
Philosophy must work, if it is to escape the reproach of insanity, the
lecturer goes on, as becomes a divine, to champion his study against the
reproach of tending to Atheism. He groups all our senses, faculties, and
impulses together, and says: "All these things Moral Philosophy observes,
and, observing, adores the Being from whence they proceed."

Having thus defined his subject, the lecturer goes on, in his second and
third lectures, to trace the history of Moral Philosophy, from Pythagoras
to Mrs. Trimmer. Plato is praised for beauty of style, and blamed for
mistiness of doctrine. Aristotle is contrasted, greatly to his
disadvantage, with Bacon. "Volumes of Aristotelian philosophy have been
written which, if piled one upon another, would have equalled the Tower of
Babel in Height, and far exceeded it in Confusion." But to Bacon "we are
indebted for an almost daily extension of our knowledge of the laws of
nature in the outward world; and the same modest and cautious spirit of
enquiry, extended to Moral Philosophy, will probably give us clear,
intelligible ideas of our spiritual nature."

The remaining lectures of this course are those which suffered most
severely from the flames, and are indeed in so fragmentary a condition as
to render any close criticism of them impossible. But enough has been
quoted to show that Sydney Smith, so far as he was in any sense concerned
with philosophy, was a sworn foe to mysticism and ideality, and a
worshipper of Baconian common-sense even in the sphere of mind and soul.

He was never tired of poking fun at his philosophical friends in Edinburgh.
When sending some Scotch grouse to Lady Holland, he said--"I take the
liberty to send you two brace of grouse--curious, because killed by a
Scotch metaphysician: in other and better language, they are mere ideas,
shot by other ideas, out of a pure intellectual notion called a gun." In
another letter to the same correspondent he says--"I hope you are reading
Mr. Stewart's book, and are far gone in the Philosophy of Mind--a science,
as he repeatedly tells us, still in its infancy. I propose, myself, to wait
till it comes to years of discretion."

To his friend Jeffrey he wrote in 1804:--

"I exhort you to restrain the violent tendency of your nature for
analysis, and to cultivate synthetical propensities. What is virtue?
What's the use of truth? What's the use of honour? What's a guinea but
a d----d yellow circle? The whole effort of your mind is to destroy.
Because others build slightly and eagerly, you employ yourself in
kicking down their houses, and contract a sort of aversion for the
more honourable, useful, and difficult task of building well yourself."

He reports a saying of his little boy's, "which in Scotland would be heard
as of high metaphysical promise. Emily was asking why one flower was blue,
and another pink, and another yellow. 'Why, in short,' said Douglas, 'it is
their _nature_; and, when we say that, what do we mean? It is only another
word for _mystery_; it only means that we know nothing at all about the
matter.' This observation from a child eight years old is not common."

The second and third courses of lectures would force us (even if we had not
the lecturer's confession to guide us) irresistibly to the conclusion that
he had said all he knew about Moral Philosophy, and rather more, in the
first course. It is only by the exercise of a genial violence that his
dissertations on Wit and Humour, Irish Bulls, Taste, Animals, and Habit,
can be forced to take shelter under the dignified title of Moral
Philosophy. But, philosophical defects apart, they are excellent lectures.
They abound in miscellaneous knowledge and out-of-the-way reading, and they
bristle with illustrations which have passed into the common anecdotage of

"In the late rebellion in Ireland, the rebels, who had conceived a
high degree of indignation against some great banker, passed a
resolution that they would burn his notes, which accordingly they did,
with great assiduity; forgetting that, in burning his notes, they were
destroying his debts, and that for every note which went into the
flames, a correspondent value went into the banker's pocket."

In every war of the last century this story has been revived. It would be
curious to see if it can be traced back further than Sydney Smith.

From the lecture on Habit, I cull this pleasing anecdote:--

"The famous Isaac Barrow, the mathematician and divine, had an
habitual dislike of dogs, and it proceeded from the following
cause:--He was a very early riser; and one morning, as he was walking
in the garden of a friend's house, with whom he was staying, a fierce
mastiff, that used to be chained all day, and let loose all night, for
the security of the house, set upon him with the greatest fury. The
doctor caught him by the throat, threw him, and lay upon him; and,
whilst he kept him down, considered what he should do in that
exigence. The account the doctor gave of it to his friends was, that
he had once a mind to have killed the dog; but he altered his
resolution upon recollecting that it would be unjust, since the dog
only did his duty, and he himself was to blame for rambling out so
early. At length he called out so loud, that he was heard by some in
the house, who came out, and speedily separated the mastiff and the
mathematician. However, it is added, that the adventure gave the
doctor a strong habitual aversion for dogs; and I dare say, if the
truth were known, fixed in the dog's mind a still stronger aversion to

This last sentence is in exactly the same vein of humour as the comment, in
the review of Waterton's Travels,[31] on the snake that bit itself. "Mr.
Waterton, though much given to sentiment, made a Labairi snake bite itself,
but no bad consequences ensued--nor would any bad consequences ensue, if a
court-martial was to order a sinful soldier to give himself a thousand
lashes. It is barely possible that the snake had some faint idea whom and
what he was biting."

The house which was furnished with the products of this Moral Philosophy
was No. 18 Orchard Street, Portman Square, and here the Smiths lived till
they left London for a rural parish. Meanwhile, the excellent Bernard had
secured some clerical employment for his friend. Through his influence the
Rev. Sydney Smith was elected "alternate Evening Preacher at the Foundling
Hospital," on the 27th of March 1805. He tried to open a Proprietary Chapel
on his own account, but was foiled by the obstinacy of the Rector in whose
parish it was situate.[32] He was appointed Morning Preacher at Berkeley
Chapel, Mayfair, and combined his duties there with similar duties at
Fitzroy Chapel, now St. Saviour's Church, Fitzroy Square.[33] These various
appointments, coupled with his lectures at the Royal Institution, brought
him increasingly into public notice. His preaching was admired by some
important people. His contributions to the _Edinburgh_, so entirely
unlike anything else in periodical literature, were eagerly anticipated and
keenly canvassed. It was reported that King George III. had read them, and
had said, "He is a very clever fellow, but he will never be a bishop." His
social gifts won him friends wherever he went; and Lord and Lady Holland,
though themselves not addicted to the public observances of religion, were
anxious to promote his professional advancement; but this was not easy.
"From the beginning of the century," he wrote, "to the death of Lord
Liverpool, was an awful period for those who had the misfortune to
entertain Liberal opinions, and were too honest to sell them for the ermine
of the judge or the lawn of the prelate--a long and hopeless career in your
profession, the chuckling grin of noodles, the sarcastic leer of the
genuine political rogue--prebendaries, deans, and bishops made over your
head--reverend renegadoes advanced to the highest dignities of the Church,
for helping to rivet the fetters of Catholic and Protestant dissenters, and
no more chance of a Whig administration than of a thaw in Zembla."

But this gloomy period of oppression and exclusion was broken by a
transient gleam. Pitt died on the 23rd of January 1806, and Lord
Grenville[34] succeeded him, at the head of the ministry of "All the
Talents." In this place, perhaps, may be not unsuitably inserted the
epitaph which Sydney Smith suggested for Pitt's statue in Hanover Square.

To the Right Honourable William Pitt
Whose errors in foreign policy
And lavish expenditure of our Resources at home
Have laid the foundation of National Bankruptcy
And scattered the seeds of Revolution,
This Monument was erected
By many weak men, who mistook his eloquence for wisdom
And his insolence for magnanimity,
By many unworthy men whom he had ennobled,
And by many base men, whom he had enriched at the Public
But for Englishmen
This Statue raised from such motives
Has not been erected in vain.
They learn from it those dreadful abuses
Which exist under the mockery
Of a free Representation,
And feel the deep necessity
Of a great and efficient Reform.

In Lord Grenville's ministry Lord Erskine became Lord Chancellor, and Lord
Holland Lord Privy Seal. In the autumn of 1806 the living of
Foston-le-Clay, eight miles from York, fell vacant. It was in the
Chancellor's gift; the Lord Privy Seal said a word to his colleague; the
Chancellor cordially accepted "the nominee of Lord and Lady Holland"; and
that nominee was Sydney Smith. Foston was worth L500 a year, and Dr.
Markham, Archbishop of York, allowed the new Rector to be non-resident,
accepting his duties at the Foundling Hospital as a sufficient
justification for absence from his parish. Early in 1807 he preached at the
Temple Church, and published by request, a sermon on Toleration, which drew
this testimony from a scandalized peer:[35]--

"Sydney Smith preached yesterday a sermon on the Catholic question....
It would have made an admirable party speech in Parliament, but as a
sermon, the author deserved the Star Chamber, if it still existed."

During the summer of 1807, the Smiths lived in a hired house at Sonning on
the Thames; and one of their neighbours was the great civilian Sir William
Scott,[36] afterwards Lord Stowell (who deserves to be honoured for having
coined the phrase--"The elegant simplicity of the Three per cents"). The
old judge took a fancy to the young clergyman, and pointed out, in a
friendly spirit, how much he had lost by his devotion to Whiggism. In later
life, Sydney Smith wrote to Lord John Russell[37]--"I remember with
pleasure, thirty years ago, old Lord Stowell saying to me, 'Mr. Smith, you
would have been a much richer man if you had joined us.'"

But the Tory table-talk of Earley[38] was powerless to seduce this staunch
partisan from his political allegiance; and, just at this period, he was
meditating the most skilful and the most resounding blow which he ever
struck for freedom and justice.

It was a critical time. The besotted resistance of the King to the
slightest concession in favour of his Roman Catholic subjects had driven
the ministry of "All the Talents" out of office in the spring. The High
Tories succeeded them, and the General Election which ensued on the change
of government gave a strong majority for "No Popery" and reaction.
Meanwhile the greatest genius that the world has ever seen was wading
through slaughter to a universal throne, and no effective resistance had as
yet been offered to a progress which menaced the freedom of Europe and the
existence of its states. At such a juncture it seemed to Sydney Smith that
England could not spare a single soldier or sailor, nor afford to alienate
the loyalty of a single citizen. "Buonaparte," he wrote, "is as rapid and
as terrible as the lightning of God; would he were as transient." It was
nothing short of national suicide to reject men desirous of serving in the
army and navy on account of their beliefs, to madden English Romanists by
defrauding them of their civil rights, and to outrage the whole people of
Ireland by affixing a legal stigma to their religion.

His musings on this pregnant theme took shape in--


This Letter was published in the summer of 1807, and "its effect was like a
spark on a heap of gunpowder," It was followed by nine more, bearing the
same title, four of which appeared in the same year and five in the next. A
little later Sydney Smith wrote to Lord Grey--"I wish I could write as well
as Plymley: but, if I could, where is such a case to be found? When had any
lawyer such a brief?"

In 1808 _Peter Plymley's Letters_ were collected and published in a
pamphlet, and the pamphlet ran through sixteen editions. "The government of
that day," wrote Sydney Smith in 1839, "took great pains to find out the
author; all that they _could_ find out was that they were brought to Mr.
Budd, the publisher, by the Earl of Lauderdale.[39] Somehow or another it
came to be conjectured that I was the author.[40]... They had an immense
circulation at the time, and I think above twenty thousand copies were
sold." Some little space must be bestowed upon these masterpieces of humour
and wisdom.

[19] "Yet mark one caution, ere thy next Review
Spread its light wings of Saffron and of Blue,
Beware lest blundering Brougham spoil the sale,
Turn Beef to Bannocks, Cauliflowers to Kail."

BYRON, _English Bards and Scotch Reviewers_.

[20] Barrister, and writer of political pamphlets between 1791 and 1807.

[21] George Ticknor (1791-1871), American traveller and man of letters.

[22] Jeffrey's house near Edinburgh.

[23] (1778-1817.) Barrister and M.P. On his death, Sydney Smith wrote---"I
say nothing of the great and miserable loss we have all sustained. He
will always live in our recollection; and it will be useful to us all,
in the great occasions of life, to reflect how Horner would act and
think in them, if God had prolonged his life."

[24] Sydney Smith used to say, "Bobus and I have inverted the laws of
nature. He rose by his gravity; I sank by my levity."

[25] Henry Richard (1773-1840), 3rd Lord Holland.

[26] Macaulay, "Lord Holland."

[27] The Lady Holland who figures so frequently in Sydney Smith's
correspondence was Elizabeth Vassall (1770-1845), wife of the 3rd Lord
Holland. Sydney Smith's daughter, Saba, did not become Lady Holland
till 1853, when her husband, Dr. Holland, was made a baronet.

[28] (1750-1818).

[29] William Whewell (1794-1866), Master of Trinity College, Cambridge,
author of _Elements of Morality_, 1845.

[30] Sydney Smith wrote his friend Sir George Philips in 1836--"Thomas
Brown was an intimate friend of mine, and used to dine with me
regularly every Sunday in Edinburgh. He was a Lake poet, a profound
metaphysician, and one of the most virtuous men that ever lived. As a
metaphysician, Dugald Stewart was a humbug to him. Brown had real
talents for the thing. You must recognize, in reading Brown, many of
those arguments with which I have so often reduced you to silence in
metaphysical discussions. Your discovery of Brown is amusing. Go on!
You will detect Dryden if you persevere; bring to light John Milton,
and drag William Shakspeare from his ill-deserved obscurity!"

[31] See p. 185.

[32] See his Essay on "Toleration":--"A chapel belonging to the
Swedenborgians, or Methodists of the New Jerusalem, was offered, two
or three years since, in London, to a clergyman of the Establishment.
The proprietor was tired of his irrational tenants, and wished for
better doctrine. The rector, with every possible compliment to the
fitness of the person in question, positively refused the application;
and the church remains in the hands of Methodists."

[33] Sir David Wilkie (1785-1841) wrote in 1808:--"To church, where I heard
Sydney Smith preach a sermon, which, for its eloquence and power of
reasoning, exceeded anything I had ever heard. The subject was the
Conversion of St. Paul, of which he proved the authenticity, in
opposition to all the objections and doubts of infidelity."

[34] William Wyndham Grenville (1759-1834), created Lord Grenville in 1790.

[35] Morton Eden (1751-1830), created Lord Henley in 1799.

[36] (1745-1836), created Lord Stowell in 1821.

[37] (1792-1878).

[38] A house which Lord Stowell acquired by his marriage with an heiress,
Anna Maria Bagnall.

[39] James, 8th Earl of Lauderdale (1759-1839).

[40] Byron, in _English Bards and Scotch Reviewers_, attributes the
authorship of Peter Plymley to "Smug Sydney." See also his allusion to
"Peter Pith" in _Don Juan_, canto xvi.



_Peter Plymley's Letters_ are supposed to be written by a Londoner, who is
in favour of removing the secular disabilities of Roman Catholics, to his
brother Abraham, the parson of a rural parish. They proceed throughout on
the assumption that the parson is a kind-hearted, honest, and conscientious
man; but rather stupid, grossly ignorant of public affairs, and frightened
to death by a bogy of his own imagining. That bogy is the idea of a Popish
conspiracy against the crown, church, and commonwealth. Abraham
communicates his alarms to his brother Peter in London, and Peter's
_Letters_ are replies to these outpourings.

Letter I. begins by assuring Abraham that there is no truth in the rumour
that the Pope has landed on English soil, and has been housed by the
Spencers or the Hollands or the Grenvilles. "The best-informed clergy in
the neighbourhood of the metropolis are convinced that the rumour is
without foundation." Having set this fear at rest, Peter deals with
Abraham's argument.--

"You say that the Roman Catholics interpret the Scriptures in an
unorthodox manner, Very likely.... But I want soldiers and sailors for
the state; I want to make a greater use than I now can do of a poor
country full of men; I want to render the military service popular
among the Irish; to check the power of France; to make every possible
exertion for the safety of Europe, which in twenty years' time will be
nothing but a mass of French slaves: and then you, and ten thousand
other such boobies as you, call out--'For God's sake, do not think of
raising cavalry and infantry in Ireland! They interpret the Epistle to
Timothy in a different manner from what we do.... 'What! when Turk,
Jew, Heretic, Infidel, Catholic, Protestant, are all combined against
this country; when men of every religious persuasion, and no religious
persuasion, when the population of half the globe, is up in arms
against us; are we to stand examining our generals and armies as a
bishop examines candidates for holy orders? and to suffer no one to
bleed for England who does not agree with you about the Second of

And then Peter disclaims the reproach of unfriendliness to the Established

"I love the Church as well as you do; but you totally mistake the
nature of an Establishment, when you contend that it ought to be
connected with the military and civil careers of every individual in
the state. It is quite right that there should be one clergyman in
every parish interpreting the Scriptures after a particular manner,
ruled by a regular hierarchy, and paid with a rich proportion of
haycocks and wheat sheaves. When I have laid this foundation for a
national religion in the state--when I have placed ten thousand
well-educated men in different parts of the kingdom to preach it up,
and compelled every one to pay them, whether they hear them or not--I
have taken such measures as I know must always procure an immense
majority in favour of the Established Church; but I can go no farther.
I cannot set up a civil inquisition, and say to one--'You shall not be
a butcher, because you are not orthodox'; and prohibit another from
brewing, and a third from administering the law, and a fourth from
defending the country. If common justice did not prohibit me from such
a conduct, common sense would."

Persecution, Peter goes on to say, makes martyrs. Fanatics delight in the
feeling that they are persecuted for righteousness' sake; and, the more
they are harried, the more tenaciously they cling to their misbeliefs.--

"This is just the effect your disqualifying laws have produced. They
have fed Dr. Rees and Dr. Kippis;[41] crowded the congregation of the
Old Jewry[42] to suffocation; and enabled every sublapsarian, and
supralapsarian, and semipelagian, clergyman to build himself a neat
brick chapel, and live with some distant resemblance to the state of a

But, says Abraham, the King is bound by his Coronation Oath to resist the
emancipation of the Roman Catholics. Peter replies--

"Suppose Bonaparte were to retrieve the only very great blunder he has
made, and were to succeed, after repeated trials, in making an
impression upon Ireland, do you think we should bear anything of the
impediment of a Coronation Oath? or would the spirit of this country
tolerate for an hour such ministers and such unheard-of nonsense, if
the most distant prospect existed of conciliating the Catholics by
every species even of the most abject concession? And yet, if your
argument is good for anything, the Coronation Oath ought to reject, at
such a moment, every tendency to conciliation, and to bind Ireland for
ever to the Crown of France."

After a cursory reference to Abraham's fears about Popish fires and
faggots, and a reminder that "there were as many persons put to death for
religious opinions under the mild Elizabeth as under the bloody Mary,"
Peter concludes with these vigorous sentences--

"You tell me I am a party man. I hope I shall always be so, when I see
my country in the hands of a pert London joker[43] and a second-rate
lawyer.[44] Of the first, no other good is known than that he makes
pretty Latin verses; the second seems to me to have the head of a
country parson and the tongue of an Old Bailey barrister. If I could
see good measures pursued, I care not who is in power; but I have a
passionate love for common justice and for common sense, and I abhor
and despise every man who builds up his political fortune upon their

Abraham's next objection to emancipation appears to have been that a Roman
Catholic will not respect an oath. "Why not?" asks Peter in Letter II.
"What upon earth has kept him out of Parliament, or excluded him from all
the offices whence he is excluded, but his respect for oaths? There is no
law which prohibits a Catholic to sit in Parliament. There could be no such
law; because it is impossible to find out what passes in the interior of
any man's mind.... The Catholic is excluded from Parliament because he will
not swear that he disbelieves the leading doctrines of his religion. The
Catholic asks you to abolish some oaths which oppress him; your answer is,
that he does not respect oaths. Then why subject him to the test of oaths?
The oaths keep him out of Parliament; why, then he respects them. Turn
which way you will, either your laws are nugatory, or the Catholic is bound
by religious obligations as you are."

From Roman Catholics in general, Peter now turns to the Roman Catholics of

"The moment the very name of Ireland is mentioned, the English seem to
bid adieu to common feeling, common prudence, and common sense, and to
act with the barbarity of tyrants and the fatuity of idiots. Whatever
your opinion may be of the follies of the Roman Catholic religion,
remember they are the follies of four millions of human beings,
increasing rapidly in numbers, wealth and intelligence, who, if firmly
united with this country, would set at defiance the power of France,
and, if once wrested from their alliance with England, would in three
years render its existence as an independent nation absolutely
impossible. You speak of danger to the Establishment; I request to
know when the Establishment was ever so much in danger as when Hoche
was in Bantry Bay, and whether all the books of Bossuet, or the arts
of the Jesuits, were half so terrible?... Whatever you think of the
Catholics, there they are--you cannot get rid of them. Your
alternative is to give them a lawful place for stating their
grievances, or an unlawful one. If you do not admit them to the House
of Commons, they will hold their Parliament in Potatoe Place, Dublin,
and be ten times as violent and inflammatory as they would be in
Westminster. Nothing would give me such an idea of security as to see
twenty or thirty Catholic gentlemen in Parliament, looked upon by all
the Catholics as the fair and proper organ of their party. I should
have thought it the height of good fortune that such a wish existed on
their part, and the very essence of madness and ignorance to reject

A noble lord--his name unluckily has perished--had attempted to salve his
own conscience and that of his colleagues in hostility to the Roman claims,
by affirming that exclusion from civil office was not persecution; and
Peter handles him with delighted vigour, in a passage which, more than
eighty years later, was quoted with enthusiasm by Mr. Gladstone.[45]--

"A distinction, I perceive, is taken by one of the most feeble
noblemen in Great Britain, between persecution and the deprivation of
political power; whereas there is no more distinction between these
two things than there is between him who makes the distinction and a
booby. If I strip off the relic-covered jacket of a Catholic and give
him twenty stripes, I persecute. If I say, 'Everybody in the town
where you live shall be a candidate for lucrative and honourable
offices but you, who are a Catholic,' I do not persecute! What
barbarous nonsense is this! As if degradation was not as great an evil
as bodily pain, or as severe poverty; as if I could not be as great a
tyrant by saying, 'You shall not enjoy,' as by saying, 'You shall
suffer.'... You may not be aware of it, most reverend Abraham, but you
deny their freedom to the Catholics upon the same principle that Sarah
your wife refuses to give the receipt for a ham or a gooseberry
dumpling. She values her receipts, not because they secure to her a
certain flavour, but because they remind her that her neighbours want
it--a feeling laughable in a priestess, shameful in a priest; venial
when it withholds the blessings of a ham, tyrannical and execrable
when it narrows the boon of religious freedom."

Letter III. gives utterance to a genuine alarm inspired by Bonaparte's
uninterrupted progress. England is confronted by the most formidable
adversary whom she has ever known, and her defence is entrusted to Canning
and Perceval. Canning's armoury contains nothing more serviceable than
"schoolboy jokes and doggerel rhymes, an affronting petulance, and the
tones and gesticulations of Mr. Pitt." Perceval, instead of looking after
the national defences,

"will bestow the strictest attention on the smaller parts of
ecclesiastical government. In the last agonies of England he will
bring in a bill to regulate Easter offerings; and he will adjust the
stipends of curates, when the flag of France is unfurled on the hills
of Kent.[46]... Whatever can be done by very mistaken notions of the
piety of a Christian, and by very wretched imitations of the eloquence
of Mr. Pitt, will be done by these two gentlemen";

but these are no adequate defences against the genius and ambition of
Bonaparte. "There is nothing to oppose to the conqueror of the world but a
small table-wit, and the sallow Surveyor of the Meltings."[47]

Abraham, terrified by those prognostics, asks Peter if he thinks it
possible for England to survive the recent misfortunes of Europe. Peter
replies that if Bonaparte lives, and a great deal is not immediately
conceded to the Roman Catholics, England must perish, and perish in

"It is doubly miserable to become slaves abroad, because we would be
tyrants at home; and to perish because we have raised up worse enemies
within, from our own bigotry, than we are exposed to without from the
unprincipled ambition of France."

Then he goes on to a famous apologue. England is a frigate, attacked by a
corsair of immense strength and size. The rigging is cut, there is water in
the hold, men are dropping off very fast, the peril is extreme. How do you
think the captain (whom we will call Perceval) acts? Does he call all hands
on deck and talk to them of king, country, glory, sweethearts, gin, French
prisons, wooden shoes, old England, and hearts of oak--till they give three
cheers, rush to their guns, and, after a tremendous conflict, succeed in
beating off the enemy?--

"Not a syllable of all this: this is not the manner in which the
honourable commander goes to work. The first thing he does is to
secure twenty or thirty of his prime sailors who happen to be
Catholics, to clap them in irons, and set over them a guard of as many
Protestants. Having taken this admirable method of defending himself
against his infidel opponents, he goes upon deck, reminds the sailors,
in a very bitter harangue, that they are of different religions;
exhorts the Episcopal gunner not to trust to the Presbyterian
quartermaster, issues positive orders that the Catholics should be
fired at upon the first appearance of discontent; rushes through blood
and brains, examining his men in the Catechism and xxxix. articles,
and positively forbids every one to sponge or ram who has not taken
the Sacrament according to the Church of England.... Built as she is
of heart of oak, and admirably manned, is it possible with such a
captain to save this ship from going to the bottom?"

Abraham's next argument against a policy of concession is that it would
only lead to further demands in the future. In reply to this Peter makes
vigorous use of Spencer Perceval's official career. Perceval had held a
sinecure for several years; at the time of writing he was Chancellor of the
Exchequer; and he had just attempted, and been defeated in attempting, a
most nefarious job, by which the revenues of the Duchy of Lancaster were to
have been secured to him for life.

"Suppose the person to whom he applied for the Meltings had withstood
every plea of wife and fourteen children, no business, and good
character, and had refused him this paltry little office, because he
might hereafter attempt to get hold of the revenues of the Duchy of
Lancaster for life; would not Mr. Perceval have contended eagerly
against the injustice of refusing moderate requests, because
immoderate ones may hereafter be made? Would he not have said (and
said truly), 'Leave such exorbitant attempts as these to the general
indignation of the Commons, who will take care to defeat them when
they do occur; but do not refuse me the Irons and the Meltings now,
because I may totally lose sight of all moderation hereafter'?"

Letter IV. begins with a reply to those who contended that England ought
not to pay for the education of the Roman Catholic clergy in Ireland.

"The whole sum now appropriated by Government to the religious
education of four millions of Christians is L13,000--a sum about one
hundred times as large being appropriated in the same country to about
one-eighth part of this number of Protestants. When it was proposed to
raise this grant from L8000 to L13,000, its present amount, this sum
was objected to by that most indulgent of Christians, Mr. Spencer
Perceval, as enormous; he himself having secured for his own eating
and drinking, and the eating and drinking of the Master and Miss
Percevals, the reversionary sum of L21,000 a year of the public
money,[48] and having just failed in a desperate and rapacious attempt
to secure to himself for life the revenues of the Duchy of Lancaster;
and the best of it is, that this Minister, after abusing his
predecessors for their impious bounty to the Catholics, has found
himself compelled, from the apprehension of immediate danger, to grant
the sum in question."

Abraham now goes on to plead that our present relations with the Roman
Catholics date from the Revolution of 1688, and that laws passed at that
period are unalterable. To this Peter replies:--

"When I hear any man talk of an unalterable law, the only effect it
produces upon me is to convince me that he is an unalterable fool....
Besides, it happens that, to the principal incapacities under which
the Irish suffer, they were subjected _after_ that great and
glorious Revolution, to which we are indebted for so many
blessings.... The Catholics were not excluded from the Irish House of
Commons, or military commands, before the 3rd and 4th of William and
Mary, and the 1st and 2nd of Queen Anne."

Then he goes on to cite the example of Scotland. There the English
government had, in times past, tried to force the national conscience in
matters of faith and worship. The government had failed, as it deserved to
fail, for Scotland was resolute and rebellious. Then "the true and only
remedy was applied. The Scotch were suffered to worship God after their own
tiresome manner, without pain, penalty, and privation." And Scotland had
become a contented, loyal, and profitable part of the United Kingdom.
Exactly the reverse was happening in Ireland. A vehement hostility to the
Union was spreading through all parts of the country and all classes of the

"The Irish see that their national independence is gone, without
having recovered any single one of those advantages which they were
taught to expect from the sacrifice. All good things were to flow from
the Union; they have none of them gained anything. Every man's pride
is wounded by it; no man's interest is promoted. In the seventh year
of that Union, four million Catholics, lured by all kinds of promises
to yield up the separate dignity and sovereignty of their country, are
forced to squabble with such a man as Mr. Spencer Perceval for five
thousand pounds with which to educate their children in their own mode
of worship; he, the same Mr. Spencer, having secured to his own
Protestant self a reversionary portion of the public money amounting
to four times that sum.... Our conduct to Ireland, during the whole of
this war, has been that of a man who subscribes to hospitals, weeps at
charity-sermons, carries out broth and blankets to beggars, and then
comes home and beats his wife and children. We have compassion for the
victims of all other oppression and injustice, except our own."

It is of no use for statesmen to ignore the Irish question. It is much too
urgent and too dangerous a topic to be long suppressed.--

"A man may command his family to say nothing more about the stone, and
surgical operations; but the ponderous malice still lies upon the
nerve, and gets so big that the patient breaks his own law of silence,
clamours for the knife, and expires under its late operation. Believe
me, you talk folly when you speak of suppressing the Irish question. I
wish to God that the case admitted of such a remedy ... but, if the
wants of the Catholics are not heard in the manly tones of Lord
Grenville, or the servile drawl of Lord Castlereagh, they will be
heard ere long in the madness of mobs, and the conflicts of armed

In Letter V. Peter turns upon Abraham, who cannot believe that England will
ever be ruined and conquered, and says:--

"Alas! so reasoned, in their time, the Austrian, Russian, and Prussian
Plymleys. But the English are brave? So were all these nations. You
might get together an hundred thousand men individually brave; but,
without generals capable of commanding such a machine, it would be as
useless as a first-rate man-of-war manned by Oxford clergymen or
Parisian shopkeepers. I do not say this to the disparagement of
English officers: they have had no means of acquiring experience. But
I do say it to create alarm. We do not appear to me to be half alarmed
enough, or to entertain that sense of our danger which leads to the
most obvious means of self-defence. As for the spirit of the
peasantry, in making a gallant defence behind hedgerows and through
plate-racks and hencoops, highly as I think of their bravery, I do not
know any nation in Europe so likely to be struck with panic as the
English; and this from their total unacquaintance with the science of
war. Old wheat and beans blazing for twenty miles round--cart-mares
shot--sows of Lord Somerville's[49] breed running wild over the
country--the minister of the parish wounded sorely in his hinder
parts--Mrs. Plymley in fits--all these scenes of war an Austrian or a
Russian has seen three or four times over. But it is now three
centuries since an English pig has fallen in fair battle upon English
ground, or a farm-house been rifled.... But whatever was our
conduct--if every ploughman was as great a hero as he who was called
from his oxen to save Rome from her enemies--I should still say that,
at such a crisis, you want the affections of all your subjects in both
islands. There is no spirit which you must alienate, no heart you must
avert. Every man must feel he has a country, and that there is an
urgent and pressing cause why he should expose himself to death."

Although Peter is so seriously concerned about the military disasters which
will fall on England unless she behaves more wisely to her Roman Catholic
population, he is not the least afraid of any dangers arising from the
Roman Catholic religion. England has done with it, once for all--

"Tell me that the world will return again under the influence of the
smallpox; that Lord Castlereagh will hereafter oppose the power of the
court; that Lord Howick and Mr. Grattan will each of them do a mean
and dishonourable action; that anybody who has heard Lord Redesdale
speak will knowingly and willingly hear him again; that Lord Eldon has
assented to the fact of two and two making four, without shedding
tears, or expressing the smallest doubt or scruple; tell me any other
thing absurd or incredible, but, for the love of common sense, let me
hear no more of the danger to be apprehended from the general
diffusion of Popery. It is too absurd to be reasoned upon; every man
feels it is nonsense when he hears it stated, and so does every man
while he is stating it."

No, the only real danger which Peter sees--and this he sees with startling
clearness--is that Ireland will be absorbed by France, and will welcome her
deliverance from England; that the civil existence of England will be most
seriously imperilled; and that the Irish themselves will, in the long-run,
suffer grievously by the change,--

"Who can doubt but that Ireland will experience ultimately from France
a treatment to which the conduct they have experienced from England is
the love of a parent or a brother? Who can doubt that, five years
after he has got hold of the country, Ireland will be tossed by
Bonaparte as a present to some one of his ruffian generals, who will
knock the head of Mr. Keogh against the head of Cardinal Troy, shoot
twenty of the most noisy blockheads of the Roman persuasion, wash his
pug-dogs in holy water, and confiscate the salt butter of the Milesian
Republic to the last tub? But what matters this? or who is wise enough
in Ireland to heed it? or when had common sense much influence with my
poor dear Irish? Mr. Perceval does not know the Irish; but I know
them, and I know that, at every rash and mad hazard, they will break
the Union, revenge their wounded pride and their insulted religion,
and fling themselves into the open arms of France, sure of dying in
the embrace.... In the six hundredth year of our Empire over Ireland,
have we any memorial of ancient kindness to refer to? any people, any
zeal, any country, on which we can depend? Have we any hope, but in
the winds of heaven and the tides of the sea? any prayer to prefer to
the Irish, but that they should forget and forgive their oppressors,
who, in the very moment that they are calling upon them for their
exertions, solemnly assure them that the oppression shall still

Letter VI. begins with one of those vivacious apologues in which Sydney
Smith excelled. Abraham Plymley has been talking of the concessions which
Roman Catholics hare already received, and their shameless ingratitude in
asking for more. To the cry of ingratitude Peter thus replies.--There is a
village, he says, in which, once a year, the inhabitants sit down to a
dinner provided at the common expense. A hundred years ago the inhabitants
of three of the streets seized the inhabitants of the fourth street, bound
them hand and foot, laid them on their backs, and compelled them to look on
while the majority were stuffing themselves with beef and beer--and this,
although they had contributed an equal quota to the expense. Next year the
same assault was perpetrated. It soon grew into a custom; and, as years
went on, the village came to look on the annual act of tyranny as the most
sacred of its institutions. Unfortunately, however, for the tyrannical
majority, the inhabitants of the persecuted street increased in numbers,
determination, and public spirit. They murmured, protested, and resisted,
till the oppressors, "more afraid of injustice, were now disposed to be
just." On the next occasion of the annual dinner, the victims were unbound.
The year after, they were allowed to sit upright. Then they got a bit of
bread and a glass of water. Finally, after a long series of small
concessions, they grew so bold as to ask that they might sit down at the
bottom of the table, and feast with their grander neighbours. Forthwith, a
general cry of shame and scandal.--

"Ten years ago, were you not laid upon your backs? Don't you remember
what a great thing you thought it to get a piece of bread? How
thankful you were for cheese-parings? Have you forgotten that
memorable aera, when the lord of the manor interfered to obtain for you
a slice of the public pudding? And now, with an audacity only equalled
by your ingratitude, you have the impudence to ask for knives and
forks, and to request, in terms too plain to be mistaken, that you may
sit down to table with the rest, and be indulged even with beef and
beer. There are not more than half a dozen dishes which we have
reserved for ourselves; the rest has been thrown open to you in the
utmost profusion; you have potatoes, and carrots, suet dumplings, sops
in the pan, and delicious toast-and-water, in incredible quantities.
Beef, mutton, lamb, pork, and veal are ours; and, if you were not the
most restless and dissatisfied of human beings, you would never think
of aspiring to enjoy them."

Is not this, says Peter, the very nonsense and the very insult which you
daily practise on the Roman Catholics? I, though I am an inhabitant of the
village and live in one of the three favoured streets, have retained some
sense of justice, and I most earnestly counsel these half-fed claimants to
persevere in their just demands, till they are admitted to their just share
of a dinner for which they pay as much as the others.

"And, if they see a little attenuated lawyer[50] squabbling at the
head of their opponents, let them desire him to empty his pockets, and
to pull out all the pieces of duck, fowl, and pudding which he has
filched from the public feasts, to carry home to his wife and

Before ending his letter, Peter has a fling at the Home Secretary, Lord
Hawkesbury, "the lesser of the two Jenkinsons."[51] Lord Hawkesbury has
said that "nothing is to be granted to the Catholics from fear." Why not,
asks Peter, if the thing demanded is just?

"The only true way to make the mass of mankind see the beauty of
justice is by showing them in pretty plain terms the consequences of
injustice. If any body of French troops land in Ireland, the whole
population of that country will rise against you to a man, and you
could not possibly survive such an event three years. Such, from the
bottom of my heart, do I believe to be the present state of that
country; and so little does it appear to me to be impolitic and
unstatesmanlike to concede anything to such a danger, that if the
Catholics, in addition to their present just demands, were to petition
for the perpetual removal of the said Lord Hawkesbury from his
Majesty's councils, I think the prayer of the petition should be
instantly complied with. Canning's crocodile tears should not move me;
the hoops of the Maids of Honour should not hide him. I would tear him
from the banisters of the Back Stairs, and plunge him in the fishy
fumes of the dirtiest of all his Cinque Ports."[52]

Letter VII. begins with a rebuke to brother Abraham for placing all his
hopes for the salvation of England in the "discretion" and "sound sense" of
Mr. Secretary Canning.--

"To call him a legislator, a reasoner, and the conductor of the
affairs of a great nation, seems to me as absurd as if a butterfly
were to teach bees to make honey. That he is an extraordinary writer
of small poetry, and a diner-out of the highest lustre, I do most
readily admit.... The Foreign Secretary is a gentleman--a respectable
as well as a highly agreeable man in private life; but you may as well
feed me with decayed potatoes as console me for the miseries of
Ireland by the resources of his 'sense' and his 'discretion.' It is
only the public situation which this gentleman holds that entitles me
or induces me to say so much about him. He is a fly in amber: nobody
cares about the fly; the only question is, How the devil did it get
there? Nor do I attack him from the love of glory, but from the love
of utility, as a burgomaster hunts a rat in a Dutch dyke, for fear it
should flood a province."

Under the rule of Canning and his colleagues, Ireland has become utterly

"The great mass of the Catholic population, upon the slightest
appearance of a French force in that country, would rise upon you to a
man. There is no loyalty among the Catholics: they detest you as their
worst oppressors, and they will continue to detest you till you remove
the cause of their hatred. It is in your power in six months' time to
produce a total revolution of opinions among these people.... At
present see what a dreadful state Ireland is in! The common toast
among the low Irish is, 'The Feast of the _Pass-over_.' Some
allusion to Bonaparte, in a play lately acted at Dublin, produced
thunders of applause from the pit and the galleries; and _a
politician should not be inattentive to the public feelings expressed
in theatres_. Mr. Perceval thinks he has disarmed the Irish. He has
no more disarmed the Irish than he has resigned a shilling of his own
public emoluments. An Irish peasant fills the barrel of his gun full
of tow dipped in oil, butters the lock, buries it in a bog, and allows
the Orange bloodhound to ransack his cottage at pleasure. Be just and
kind to the Irish, and you will indeed disarm them; rescue them from
the degraded servitude in which they are held by an handful of their
own countrymen; and you will add four millions of brave and
affectionate men to your strength."

But instead of these wise remedies, Mr. Secretary Canning only offers the
Irish people his incessant, unseasonable, and sometimes indecent jokes.--

"He jokes upon neutral flags and frauds, jokes upon Irish rebels,
jokes upon northern and western and southern foes, and gives himself
no trouble upon any subject.... And this is the Secretary whose
genius, in the estimation of brother Abraham, is to extinguish the
genius of Bonaparte. Pompey was killed by a slave, Goliath smitten by
a stripling; Pyrrhus died by the hand of a woman. Tremble, thou great
Gaul, from whose head an armed Minerva leaps forth in the hour of
danger; tremble, thou scourge of God, for a pleasant man is come out
against thee, and thou shalt be laid low by a joker of jokes."

Abraham comforts himself with his reflection that Bonaparte has no ships or
sailors. But, says Peter, there are quite enough remains of the navies of
France, Spain, Holland, and Denmark, for such a short excursion as would be
needed for the capture of Ireland. And Bonaparte can increase his forces
every day. With all Europe at his feet, he can get timber and stores and
men to any conceivable amount. "He is at present the despotic monarch of
above twenty thousand miles of sea-coast, and yet you suppose he cannot
procure sailors for the invasion of Ireland." Ireland is still the burden
of the song. Conciliate Ireland and all will be well. Tyrannize over her
and we are undone.

"If Ireland was friendly, we might equally set at defiance the talents
of Bonaparte and the blunders of his rival Mr. Canning: we could then
support the ruinous and silly bustle of our useless expeditions, and
the almost incredible ignorance of our commercial Orders in
Council.[53] Let the present administration give up but this one
point, and there is nothing which I would not consent to grant them.
Perceval should have full liberty to insult the tomb of Mr. Fox, and
to torment every eminent Dissenter in Great Britain. Lord Camden
should have large boxes of plums; Mr. Rose receive permission to
prefix to his name the appellation of Virtuous; and to the Viscount
Castlereagh a round sum of ready money shall be well and truly paid
into his hand.[54] Lastly, what remains to Mr. George Canning, but
that he ride up and down Pall Mall glorious upon a white horse, and
that they cry out before him, 'Thus shall it be done to the statesman
who hath written _The Needy Knife-Grinder_'?"

Letter VIII. begins with the statistics of Ireland, its area, population,
trade, manufactures, exports and imports. "Ireland has the greatest
possible facilities for carrying on commerce with the whole of Europe. It
contains, within a circuit of 750 miles, 66 secure harbours, and presents a
western frontier against Great Britain, reaching from the Firth of Clyde
north to the Bristol Channel south, and varying in distance from 20 to 100
miles; so that the subjugation of Ireland would compel us to guard with
ships and soldiers a new line of coast, certainly amounting, with all its
sinuosities, to more than 700 miles--an addition of polemics, in our
present state of hostility with all the world, which must highly gratify
the vigorists and give them an ample opportunity of displaying that foolish


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