Language didn’t just pour out of Gibbon or Macaulay like music did from Mozart or Schubert. They worked on it, polished it, and read it loud. They left us enduring works of art.
This simple proposition came back to me on re-reading the last volume of Macaulay’s History of England. The politics of England in the 18th century were deliciously corrupt, personal, and English. They offer a glorious mine for Macaulay to exploit for seams of gold.
He did not think much of a courtier called Sunderland.
In truth, his countrymen were unjust to him. For they thought he was not only an unprincipled and faithless politician, which he was, but a deadly enemy of the liberties of the nation, which he was not. What he wanted simply was to be safe, rich, and great. To these objects he had been faithful through all the vicissitudes of his life. For these objects he had passed from Church to Church and from faction to faction, had joined the most turbulent of oppositions without any zeal for freedom, and had served the most arbitrary of monarchs without any zeal for monarchy; had voted for the Exclusion Bill without being a Protestant, and had adored the Host without being a Papist; had sold his country at once to both the great parties which divided the Continent, had taken money from France, and had sent intelligence to Holland. As far however as he could be said to have any opinions, his opinions were Whiggish.
As with any of these great portraits by Gibbon or Macaulay, they immediately call to mind contemporary parallels. Was the son of the Earl any better?
His knowledge of ancient literature, and his skill in imitating the styles of the masters of Roman eloquence, were applauded by veteran scholars. The sedateness of his deportment and the apparent regularity of his life delighted austere moralists. He was known indeed to have one expensive taste, but it was a taste of the most respectable kind. He loved books and was bent on forming the most magnificent private library in England. While other heirs of noble houses were inspecting patterns of steinkirks and sword knots, dangling after actresses, or betting on fighting cocks, he was in pursuit of the Mentz editions of Tully’s Offices, of the Parmesan Statius, and of the inestimable Virgil of Zarottus.
A footnote shows that his lordship paid the massive amount of £46 for the Virgil of Zarottus. That sum could have got him a lot of attention from some unseemly houses in Covent Garden.
The ministers found that, on this occasion, neither their honest nor their dishonest supporters could be trusted.
The stiletto can go in fast.
Another was the late Speaker, Trevor, who had from the chair put the question whether he was or was not a rogue, and had been forced to pronounce that the Ayes had it.
Then back comes the Earl.
The whole enigma of his life, an enigma of which many unsatisfactory and some absurd explanations have been propounded, is at once solved if we consider him as a man insatiably greedy of wealth and power, and yet nervously apprehensive of danger. He rushed with ravenous eagerness at every bait which was offered to his cupidity. But any ominous shadow, any threatening murmur, sufficed to stop him in his full career and to make him change his course or bury himself in a hiding place…But his ambition and avarice would not suffer him to rest till he held a high and lucrative office, till he was regent of the kingdom. The consequence was, as might have been expected, a violent clamour; and that clamour he had not the spirit to face.
The gentry resented taxes.
Was it reasonable – such was the language of some scribblers – that an honest gentleman should pay a heavy land tax to support in idleness and luxury a set of fellows who requited him by seducing his dairy maids and shooting his partridges?
It’s hard to be more Tory than that. At another point, our author speaks of someone trying to make ‘what is, in the jargon of our time, called political capital.’ Then there was a First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer.
With all his ability, he had not the wisdom to avert, by suavity and moderation, that curse, the inseparable concomitant of prosperity and glory, which the ancients personified under the name of Nemesis. His head, strong for all the purposes of debate and arithmetical calculation, was weak against the intoxicating influence of success and fame. He became proud, even to insolence…..Great wealth, suddenly acquired, is not often enjoyed with moderation, dignity and good taste…He contrived, it was said, to be at once as rich as Crassus and as riotous as Mark Antony. His stud and his cellar were beyond all price. His very lacqueys turned up their noses at claret. He and his confederates were described as spending the immense sums of which they had plundered the public in banquets of four courses, such as Lucullus might have eaten in the hall of Apollo. A supper for twelve Whigs, enriched by jobs, grants, bribes, lucky purchases and lucky sales of stock, was cheap at eighty pounds.
Here is Paterson, a Scot who conned the Scots into investing in a hell hole at Panama called Darien.
To be seen walking with him in the High Street, to be honoured by him with a private interview of a quarter of an hour were enviable distinctions. He, after the fashion of all of the false prophets who have deluded themselves and others, drew new faith in his own lie from the credulity of his disciples. His countenance, his voice, his gestures, indicated boundless self-importance. When he appeared in public he looked…like Atlas conscious that a world was on his shoulders. But the airs which he gave himself only heightened the respect and admiration which he inspired….In truth, of all the ten thousand bubbles of which history has preserved the memory, none was ever more skilfully puffed into existence; none ever soared higher, or glittered more brilliantly; and none ever burst with a more lamentable explosion.
And since we speak of Trump and Johnson, someone objected that Parliament was flying in the King’s face.
To fly in the King’s face! Our business is to fly in the King’s face. We were sent here to fly in the King’s face.
We know all about the kind of mountebank who draws ‘new faith in his own lie from the credulity of his disciples’.
This is history as high theatre. The French have Michelet and Taine. The Germans have Ranke and Mommsen. But history as theatre is to England what opera is to Italy. They are all treasures of the world.