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Chartism: By Thomas CARLYLE. London: James Fraser. 1840. The domestic condition of England at this juncture is likely to absorb the grave attention not only of our own government and population, but of all the governments and populations of Europe. A solemn problem is visibly in course of solution, although no man can accurately state what it is, or predicate its issues. The soil of England seems destined to be the scene of the next great Social Struggle, as the soil of France was of the last. We may be unwilling to acknowledge this, but it will force itself upon our reluctant admission; and when the storm shall be witnessed in the height of its fury, sweeping our golden fields and peaceful valleys like the hot and withering sirocco, we shall look back, the wisest amongst us, with awe, wondering, and smitten with bitter self-accusations, that we did not earlier discover and interpret the tempestuous signs in the heavens — nebulous, perhaps, but of most ominous import. In such a state of things the few who see farther than the many, and who have courage and honesty enough to tell us what they see, or fancy they see, in the gloomy prophecies of agitation, or in the brooding stillness of the masses labouring with inward convulsion, are entitled to a serious audience. Even if we reject their counsel in the end, we are bound to hear it, for their sakes, for our own sakes, and, above all, for the sake of Justice, — which, whether we respect it or not, will survive the perishing races of frail, contriving, doctrinal humanity, and, radiant with immortal truth, will shine in serene glory over the wrecks of constitutions and dynasties, creeds, orders, and the motley masks that from century to century have occupied and faded from the stage.
Mr. Carlyle has come forward to solve this dark enigma, in a small book which he emphatically designates “ Chartism.” We need not avow the admiration with which we regard the genius of the author of “ Sartor Resartus;” nor can anything which we shall say — and we shall say it as briefly as possible — of this book, abate in us our consciousness of the presence of a profound intelligence throughout every page of his labours, profound even when, in our judgment, it betrays wrong tendencies. But there are considerations paramount to the claims or the influence of the mightiest genius - there are truths to be enunciated, and fallacies to be laid bare, which only become more clear and imperative when we detect a powerful mind like Mr. Carlyle's seeking to explore them blindfolded by favourite theories, and perpetually checked in its progress by fears and misgivings. Whatever be the measure of our admiration of Mr. Carlyle, the measure of our duty to humanity is greater. We recognise in him a serious and subtle spirit working for the accomplishment of some remote good-indefinable, it is true,
but still in his sense a good. On the other hand we recognise a universal movement, heaving and groaning onwards, the existence of which he allows; but for the causes and end of which he gives us clouds and darkness. Can we hesitate between the book and the fact? Surely there must be a beginning and an ending — a past and a future, as there is a present? Is there a single event in history which generated itself, and which bequeathed no results? which rose up out of chaos, flickered and vanished, and left not a mark of its place behind ? Surely all this turbulence and uneasiness, this rick-burning and cattle-houghing, these trades' unions and half-armed confederacies, must have been produced by a pre-existing necessity of some sort, and must finally lead to some tangible, incontrovertible consequences. But what does Mr. Carlyle's book tell us about all these things ? Simply that they are, and that they ought not to be; and then goes on to give us a prescription for the malaria, leaving the corrupt atmosphere and fetid marshes that caused it, and that will cause it again and again after its immediate effects shall have been vanquished, just as he found them. This is not the philosophy of Chartism; it is not the philosophy of anything; it is not philosophy at all ; it is mere expediency, getting rid of an existing pressure, and consigning to another generation the higher, more difficult, and nobler labour of investigating and removing the primal source of the evil.
Mr. Carlyle's motto reveals a truth which he appears satisfied with having stated at the outset, and to which he never afterwards returns, although it obviously constitutes the very essence of the whole inquiry. “ It never smokes but there is fire." Granted, even had it been stated in the more cautious shape ." Where there is so much smoke there must be
who affect to disregard both the smoke and the fire have been compelled surlily to admit. Well — but what is this fire? Where does it lie smouldering and fusing? In the bowels of the earth, or the caverns of the sea ? Is it a material or a moonshine fire? How did it come? Where do its lurid flames point ? In what corner of the wind does it sit? Who feeds it? Of what is its terrible nutriment composed ? Is it a fire like to go out of itself? or is it a fire whose lambent and forked tongues, licking the empire round, threaten us, when they burst out through millions of crevices, to bury us in universal conflagration? Does Mr. Carlyle answer these questions, which his motto, and the avowed purpose of his book, inevitably suggest upon the title-page? No — he furnishes us with no reply: but carries us off into a maze of generalities in which we fairly lose sight altogether of the grand object which he openly invites us to examine. We ask what is this hidden fire from which the smoke that rolls
and darkens the horizon is emitted, and Mr. Carlyle refers us to the New Poor Law — to the finest peasantry in the world -- rights and mights — laisserfaire -- not laisser-faire — and parliamentary radicalism. The mournful reality still remains in darkness, for all the guidance Mr. Carlyle has vouchsafed to us. We are smirched and confounded on the brink of the crater, where our guide hovers, trembles, and stops short.
In the first place, this book does not tell us what Chartism is. The “ five points,” and the “ national petition, carted in waggons along the streets,” and the 66
cheap pikes,” may be all very witty and very contemptuous, perhaps unconsciously, in reference to the misery and discontent that have broken out into such irregular and hopeless manifestations; but they do not constitute Chartism. If, instead of making speeches at Birmingham, and electing delegates, and subscribing for Lovett and the “ Northern Star,” and flourishing broken sticks and rusty pistols at the Westgate of
Newport, the Chartists had taken a different course to make known their wants and their demands; if they had issued tracts, and placards, and lampoons in every village in the country, taken the ears of the streets with ballads, and the eyes of the shops with caricatures, the thing, Chartism, would have been still the same, although its outward signs would have been wholly different. We may ridicule the awkward squad of ten thousand men, who intended to seize the Bristol mail, to blow up the bridge, and burn the town of Newport, and who, at the very moment when the prize was in their hands, scampered like rabbits before twenty soldiers; we may hang Mr. Frost, and Mr. Williams, and Mr. Jones, and crush with potent arm every fresh indication of a like incomplete and frantic outbreak; but Chartism will still remain the same. It cannot be extinguished by firing through loop-holes or criminal informations.
What then is Chartism? It is no more than the cry of millions suffering under a diseased condition of society; and it is no less: the body politic is disordered, -- there is plethora in the head, and famine in the stomach. Disorganisation follows, — the circulation is thrown into alternate excitement and depression, - amputation will not cure this. The condition-of-England question, as Mr. Carlyle tells us, is the true question to consider, But what is this condition like? The statue of Nebuchadnezzar - an image of gold, with feet of clay!
Hear Mr. Carlyle on this question of the body of gold and the feet of elay,
“What are the rights, and what are the mights of the discontented working classes in England at this epoch? He were an Edipus, and deliverer from sad social pestilence, who could resolve us fully! For we may say beforehand, the struggle that divides the upper and lower in society over Europe, and more painfully and notably in England than elsewhere, this' too is a struggle which will end and acquit itself as all other struggles do and have done, by making the right clear and the might clear; not otherwise than by that.”
Now, if the Laisser-Faire doctrine be held anywhere, this is its proper interpretation. The struggle will adjust itself ! and right and might will be made clear, and so let them! But in order that this notion of right and might, as Mr. Carlyle promulgates it, may be thoroughly understood, we will take his exposition of it.
Conquest, indeed, is a fact often witnessed ; conquest, which seems mere wrong and force, everywhere asserts itself as a right among men. Yet, if we examine, we shall find that, in this world, no conquest could ever become permanent which did not withal show itself beneficial to the conquered as well as the conquerors. Mithridates, King of Pontus, come now to extremity, appealed to the patriotism of his people,' but, says the history, he had squeezed them, and fleeced, and plundered them, for long years ;' his requisitions, flying irregular, devastative, like the whirlwind, were less supportable than Roman strictness and method, regular, though never so rigorous ; he, therefore, appealed to their patriotism in vain. The Romans conquered Mithridates. The Romans, having conquered the world, held it conquered, because they could best govern the world ; the mass of men found it nowise pressing to revolt; their fancy might be afflicted more or less, but in their solid interests they were better off than before.”
So then, to this end comes the doctrine of Right and Might. The harassing oppressions of Mithridates were less supportable than Roman method, and the people embraced the foreign conqueror in preference to the domestic tyrant. They might fancy themselves afflicted, but they knew nothing about the matter; their solid interests were better cared for than before, the temptations to revolt were diminished, and they were worked into content by the force of the Roman method. In all this Mr. Carlyle discovers the consanguinity of Right and Might, the triumph of justice in the trium ph of the Strong Hand. The struggle adjusted itself
under the superior vigour and compact domination of the Romans. There was a choice of evils — for such it was, even in this disguise of eloquent sophistry — they chose the lesser. The Romans held their conquest, because they could govern best; and, because they held their conquest, Might became Right.
We will not assert that Mr. Carlyle means this; but this, and nothing else, is the meaning of what he has written. The divinity that doth hedge in successful Might is Right. Success is Right; to succeed and hold is the adjustment upon which he desires us to fix our eyes, in passive hope and abiding faith. “Of conquest,” he observes, “we may say, that it never yet went by brute force and compulsion; conquest of that kind does not endure.” This is the test, then, of the rights of a people the endurance of conquest; that alone establishes and sanctifies Right. No matter how it was achieved — by fraud — by bloodshed — by robbery
- has it endured? Then Might is Right. Mr. Carlyle thinks that this is not an argument on behalf of brute force. We think that no argument was ever more clear on that side of the question.
If the maintenance of power be the proof of the best government, what shall we say to the fall of the Roman empire? How did it fall? Why did it fall? Stringent as it was, methodical as it was, and brave and skilful as it was - it fell before the advance of a mightier intelligence. It crumbled to pieces from sheer inward decay. Here, then, was a new conquest. Was the new conquest less righteous than the old ? Did the Right which the Might of the Romans absorbed take flight from the prostrate Romans, and settle upon their masters? Did the soul of the sleeping Pollux take wings unto itself, and perch upon the laurelled helmet of Castor ?
But if this duration of conquest be the mark by which right is to be determined, then no right is more satisfactory than the right of England to mis-govern Ireland, throughout a term of five hundred years. The Irish may fancy themselves to be afflicted more or less; but they may rely upon it, infatuated self-deceivers, that in their solid interests they are better off than before.
And the right of Russia to govern Poland — of Austria to govern Italy : these rights are made out, by the same principle, beyond all question. Perhaps they are not yet quite old enough to come up to Mr. Carlyle's period of gestation, when the new-born right, according to his laws of nature, comes into the world from the womb of time. But there are untimely births that grow up from ricketty and unpromising infancy into iron manhood, and these are doubtless of the number.
It does not occur to Mr. Carlyle that the people may claim a right to govern themselves. Conquests from below do not enter into his views. The feet of clay must not struggle against the body of gold. There is no might there to be transfigured by victory into right. Yet, although he does not palpably fashion the mass of popular commotion into a figure so majestic, he has a soul too grand and comprehensive, wanting even as it is in sympathy, to be indifferent to the deep clamour, the convulsed energy of the people. Speaking of the question as it affects them, he says,
“ How inexpressibly useful were true insight into it; a genuine understanding by the upper classes of society what it is that the under classes intrinsically mean ; a clear interpretation of the thought which at heart torments these wild inarticulate souls, struggling there with inarticulate uproar, like dumb creatures in pain, unable to speak what is in them! Something they do mean, some true thing withal, in the centre of their confused hearts, - for they are hearts created by Heaven too: to the Heaven it is clear what thing — to us not clear. Would that it were! Perfect clearness on it were equivalent to remedy of it ; for, as is well said, all battle is misunderstanding: did the parties know one another the battle
would cense. No man at bottom means injustice; it is always from some obscure image of a right that he contends; an obscure image diffracted, exaggerated, in the wonderfullest way, by natural dimness and selfishness ; getting ten-fold more diffracted by exasperation of contest, till at length it becomes all but irrecognisable ; yet still the image of a right.”
Here is the recognition of a true thing struggled for by the people a true thing that nobody can understand! And here, too, we are told that no man means injustice! And we are told all this at a crisis when demands as clearly defined as light are urged upon
are urged upon the upper classes -- demands that are fortified by reason, by justice, and by the necessities for ever springing up out of them — to which the upper classes, coiling themselves up in their privileges, return a freezing negative. Yet there is no intelligibility in these wild inarticulate souls — no meaning of injustice in those who refuse to hearken to their wants ! It is by thus putting the case of the masses as the case of men moping and blindly thundering for something they do not understand themselves, that we are kept upon the dark side of truth, vindictive in passion, wrong in judgment, and cruel in action. Mr. Carlyle does not mean this - he cannot mean it. yet he utters it.
To accept the charter, with its headlong requisitions, as the true type of the wants of the multitude, is to confound the exasperation of the contest with its original cause, to take advantage of the popular wrong, and to perpetuate admitted grievances under the plea of averting contingent evils. The true wisdom, as it is the true equity, is to meet the complaints of the people – to discuss them- to remedy them. Let us face the clamour, and investigate it. Let us not hug ourselves in ermine, and stand behind our solid squares of bayonets, awaiting the approach of the disordered crowd, who, in the rage of defeated expectations and sparned prayers, afford us so many excuses for dealing with them according to law, when we might prevent all this uproar and gratuitous horror by dealing with them according to justice. The charter is the smoke our business is to quench the fire.
Mr. Carlyle indeed knows all this, and condemns heartily and wholly the passive mode of government; but there lies under his pleading such a suggestion as deprives it of all practical good.
“ Laisser-Faire has as good as done its part in a great many provinces ; in the province of the working classes, Laisser-Faire having passed its New Poor Law, has reached the suicidal point, and now, as felo-de-se, lies dying there, in torch-light meetings and such like; that, in brief, a government of the under classes by the upper, on a principle of let alone, is no longer possible in England in these days. This is the one inference inclusive of all. For there can be no acting or doing of any kind, till it be recognised that there is a thing to be done ; the thing once recognised, the doing in a thousand shapes becomes possible. The working classes cannot any longer go on without government, without being actually guided and governed ; England cannot subsist in peace until, by some means or other, wiser guidance and government for them is found.”
It is abundantly evident from this and other passages, that Mr. Carlyle is for a government of might, let him come by it how he may, in order to evolve the experiment of conversion already referred to. The working classes must be guided and governed; it is not enough that they are not to be let alone, but they must be guided and governed. Marry how? By a government of might - an active, stringent, regular, methodical Roman government, that will best know how to govern them, - a government of lawn sleeves and red tape, of muskets, rapiers, and cannons, church discipline and regulars; in a word, a Tory government. By what degrees we have come to this conclusion, those alone who read the book can fairly appreciate. The Laisser-Faire is the Whig administration - the strong power that is actually to govern the working classes, without understanding