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Art. IV.—REFORMS AND REFORMERS. Sketches of Reforms and Reformers of Great Britain and
Ireland. By HENRY B. STANTON. New-York: John Wiley. 1849. Pp. 393.
This book possesses an interest and value which are by no means fully indicated by its title. It is in reality a comprehensive survey-in the main accurate and just—of nearly all the great social movements which have been commenced and carried forward in Great Britain since the beginning of the present century, or more properly since the period of the French Revolution. It embraces the reforms which have been accomplished alike in the Church, the State, and the condition of the people ; the abrogation of iniquitous laws and the breaking up of giant monopolies ; the triumphs which have been won for religious freedom, and the blows which have been struck for the rights of man. Around each of these reforms, as a radiant centre of interest, the author has gathered the portraits of the leading men—statesmen, clergymen, and philanthropists—who were engaged in originating or promoting them,-men who in their day were often denounced as enthusiasts and radicals, who were cast out of society as the foes of good breeding and social order, and who in many instances were even prosecuted and imprisoned as enemies of the State and its sovereign, because they unveiled the abuses of the government and demanded their correction, but who are now enshrined in the love and respect of the people, as the authors of great blessings to their country and their race.
In attempting a work embracing so wide a range of events, and so great diversity of characters, the author must have looked carefully through the history of the social and political struggles with which Great Britian and Ireland have been agitated during the last half century, for in no other way could he prepare himself to present an impartial estimate of the services which have been rendered to mankind by the long list of famous men whom he causes to pass in review before us. In doing this, he has been, we think. in the main, highly sucçessful, and has furnished to us in a briel and attractive form the results of a wide examination of the reforms and reformers whose history he has sketched. The book, however, as a piece of composition, is by no means free from faults both of style and of sentiment. Its diction is often ambitious and sometimes coarse and rude, and the sentiments which it embodies occasionally come in conflict with our notions of literary courtesy and refinement.
In writing a book like this, an author is always exposed to two opposite though kindred faults, to avoid either of which is a sure proof of a liberal spirit and a well balanced judgment. He is especially liable to be carried too far in his eulogiums of leading reformers, and, in the admiration he conceives for their public services, to ascribe to them private virtues which they did not possess. And in the opposite direction he is almost equally liable to identify the opponents of a reform with the existing institutions which they vindicate, and thus to hold hem up to the reprobation of mankind as foes to human progress, and destitute of every kindly sympathy for their race. Not only is he likely to fall into these errors from the impulses of his own feelings, but also from the partisan hues with which every source of information that he examines is sure to be colored. How opposite are the estimates which are formed by their own contemporaries, alike of the champions and the opponents of every great movement that is undertaken in society. All patriotism and wisdom and virtue are usually claimed for each of these classes by their friends and admirers, while all selfishness, folly, and weakness are charged upon them by their opponents and foes. There is scarcely a name mentioned in the volume before us, from Mr. Burke to Daniel O'Connell—from William Wilberforce to George Thompsonthat has not been made the subject of extravagant eulogiums on one side, and of equally extravagant denunciations on the other. Hence nothing oftentimes is more difficult than to ascertain the real merits of a reformer so as to present anything like a just and impartial estimate of his character. In doing this Mr. Stanton confesses that he has sometimes been obliged “ to reach conclusions much in the same manner as juries agree upon their verdicts—consult a dozen authorities, each one differing from all the others, get the sum total of the whole, divide it by twelve, and adopt the result.”
The sympathies of our author, however, are so plainly with the movement party in every question of English reform, as to leave us little room for doubt as to the direction in which this arithmetical process is most likely to prove erroneous. Every advocate of reform, whether in Church or State, we are quite ready to believe, has here received his full share of praise; and it is only when the leading characters of the opposite party are spoken of, that we discover any disposition to withhold the merits to which they are fairly entitled, or to ascribe to them odious qualities which they are not sure to have possessed. This tendency, which runs through many of Mr. Stanton's chapters, gives to his book a partisan character, from which we wish it were free. The fault, we confess, is a natural one, and in some degree, we suppose, almost unavoidable; yet it is one against which a man so well informed should have been constantly on his guard. The fact that it is so frequently and obviously displayed, leads us to apprehend that Mr. Stanton is himself wholly unaware of the tendency of his own sympathies. We most readily agree, for example, in his admiration of the talents and eloquence of Mr. Fox. We accord to him every praise for the services he rendered the cause of free principles in England, at a period when they were exposed to peculiar perils ; but we cannot, on this account, go to the opposite extreme, and denounce his opponent; Mr. Pitt, as a shallow statesman, a narrow-minded minister, and a bad man. Lord Brougham has devoted his vast powers to the accomplishment of some noble reforms, to which Mr. Canning in his day opposed the whole force of his genius and the whole power of the government of which he was a member; but it does not hence follow that Mr. Canning was a less accomplished scholar, a less humane man, or a less virtuous legislator than Lord Brougham.
Great changes in the social condition of a people are always accomplished by slow and difficult processes. Many a controversy must be waged almost to the very edge of violence, much wearisome toil and effort must be expended, and many an heroic leader and earnest-minded philanthropist must be sacrificed to the cause which he has espoused, before the glittering object of all his struggles can be attained by his fellow-men. Strife has hitherto been the very element of social progress. But we are by no means ready to admit that of the parties to this strife one has been always in the right and the other always in the wrong ; that the views and measures of the one are fitted to promote only the freedom and happiness of mankind, while those of the other tend invariably and exclusively to servitude and misery ; and still less that the advocates of one of these parties are all pure, patriotic, and benevolent, while the advocates of the opposite are all corrupt, ambitious, and selfish. Such is not the law of human character or of human affairs. Good and evil are universally blended in all that pertains to humanity, and true social progress and happiness are generally not the result of the endeavors of any single party or body of men, as distinguished from its opponents, but rather of the action and reaction of each upon the other, and of the common strife in which both are engaged. The whole history of England is but a continued illustration of this truth. It is one long record of the ceaseless struggle which has been going on from the days of the Normans, between the classes possessing power and the classes seeking for power in the State,-first between the monarch and the barons, then between the barons and the people, and at length between monarch and barons united on one side, and the masses of the people, now risen to importance and asserting their rights, on the other. The result has been the gradual abridgment of the prerogative of the monarch, and the gradual extension of the privileges of the people. But society, it is to be observed, has not taken precisely the direction for which either of these parties has been so resolutely contending. As in the parallelogram of the mechanical forces, the body acted upon does not pursue the line of either of the impulses which seek to control it, but travels on in a direction made necessary alike by both; so does society most frequently take a direction widely different from that which is marked out by any of those who aspire to be its leaders and directors.
The British Constitution may be said to have had three great epochs in its history, each of which gave a new character to the government and secured new liberties to the people. The first of these was the wresting by the barons of Magna Charta from King John in the thirteenth century; the second was the revolution of 1688, which took place four centuries later, and the third was the passage of the Reform Bill in 1832. The centuries which intervened between these epochs are marked only by incessant struggles between the power of the monarch on one side, and the privileges of the people on the other,—struggles, however, it should be remembered, in which the monarch was always yielding, and the people were always gaining additional securities for their rights. It is because of this feature of its history, that the march of English civilization has so admirably illustrated all the successive steps in the social advancement of a people. Along the perilous pathway by which it has gone forward, nearly every experiment has been tried, and nearly every great social question has been settled. Monarch after monarch has been engaged in continual struggles with a daring and liberty-loving people, and the result has been the progressive emancipation of society from the bondage of feudal times, and its entrance upon an ascending career of improvement and freedom.
The revolution of 1688, which overthrew the dynasty of the Stuarts and established the Protestant succession upon the throne of England, settled or confirmed most of the important principles of the British Constitution. As yet, however, these principles were known only as truths of the most general character; the applications of which they were capable were but feebly imagined, even by the most enthusiastic and farseeing of their asserters and advocates. They were but the germs from which the future tree was to spring, that was to bear the fruits of liberty and happiness to the humblest of the sons of England.
Of the later applications which have been made of these