Page images

Cobbett. Nature seems seldom to have bestowed the exact portion of irritability, which would make man a sturdy opponent to public wrong, and yet an amiable and unassuming companion, and gentle master of those whom he commands. The hatred of subordination, of the individual's own subordination to others; that is, not of theirs to him; is often mistaken for the love of liberty; but where there is every reason to believe the latter most sincere and fervent, it has too often been allayed by an impatience of any obstacle in the theories or conduct of others. We must very often take heroes and patriots, as well as horses, with all faults; glad at whatever good they may do in the world, admirers of the formidable energies they display, but not at all disposed to desire their daily companionship in place of the less daring, but more accommodating and gentle spirits who bless our quiet hours.

Another fault of Fletcher's, and as to the success of his political efforts a more serious one, is hinted at in the character just quoted, on which we must also suffer a verdict of guilty to be taken, and judgment to pass: and that is, his entertaining "fine spun notions of government," or, in plain terms, his republicanism. Not that it is any fault, whether it be folly is another question, to consider a republic the most perfect form of government; nor is such a speculation, if it be only a speculation, at all inconsistent with being a good and faithful subject under a monarchy, and even doing the state some service. Nor is it at all to be complained of, but rather to be praised, if in some great convulsion, when the foundations of society are broken up, and its elements mingled in chaotic confusion, such convictions should inspire an effort to re-arrange them in the supposed best of all possible modes. But for one born and living under a settled monarchy, professing allegiance to the government, and holding a public station of the highest importance, that of a legislator; and who, in virtue of that profession, is continually aiming to effect alterations in existing laws; for such an one to act and reason on principles peculiarly republican, and by argument or ridicule strive to bring monarchy into contempt, is something worse than injudicious, and must bring after it not only the failure of attempts at reform, which might otherwise have succeeded, but the disapprobation of every sound mind on the inconsistent reformer. Fletcher has exposed himself to this censure. Buchan tells the following anecdote of him: "Fletcher used to say, with Cromwell and Milton, that the trappings of a monarchy and a great aristoeracy would patch up a very clever little commonwealth." Being in company one day with the witty Dr. Pitcairn, the conversation turned on a person of learning, whose history was not distinctly known. "I knew the man well," said Fletcher, "he


was hereditary professor of divinity at Hamburgh." tary professor!" said Pitcairn, with a laugh of astonishment and derision. "Yes, doctor," replied Fletcher," hereditary professor of divinity. What think you of an hereditary king?" This is rather a specimen than evidence, of which the reader will find abundance, in some of the measures which he advocated; such as transferring the disposal of all offices, of the control of the army, &c. from the sovereign to the parliament; and in many of the reasonings by which these and other schemes were advocated, as in the "Conversation concerning a right regulation of governments for the common good of mankind," where he sarcastically demonstrates even limited hereditary monarchy to be " a mad kind of government."

We are, however, beginning at the wrong end, and commencing our sentence with the qualifying but, which should have come afterwards, when the laudatory clause had been fully expressed. This might not do in cotemporary criticism, but we retrospectives are privileged; and it may naturally happen, that in looking back we observe that first, at which the regular traveller by the road would arrive last. It is true, the journals of the day have an excuse for censure which we cannot plead, as it behoves them to notice whatever comes out, good, bad, or indifferent, while we can pick and cull from the stores of all ages. If an old book be not worth reading, it is not worth our while to tear it from its grave to review it: but still the best are not perfect, and our vituperations may afford a little consolation for the victims of modern critics, and pour balm in the wounds made by their lashes.

Fletcher's works consist of Speeches in the Scottish Parliament, in the years 1701 and 1703; Political Discourses on Government, with relation to militias," on the affairs of Scotland, on those of Spain, and "an account of a conversation concerning a right regulation of governments for the common good of mankind.”


So far as the claims of an orator to excellence in his art can be decided by printed speeches, those of Fletcher entitle him to considerable eminence. They are chiefly characterized by vehement reasoning. He was as argumentative as Fox, whose eloquence, it has been justly said, was his logic; and as fiery and impetuous as Lord Chatham. But he did not usually reason, like Fox, upon great principles; or, if he did, they were principles by no means universally received, and not less obnoxious to his opponents than the conclusions at which he aimed. Nor did he, like that illustrious man, breathe such a spirit of philanthropy into his opposition to power, as made hatred to the oppressor, if it appeared at all, only subordinate to, and necessarily flowing from, pity for the oppressed, and

benevolence to mankind in general. Fletcher seems rather to patronize the victim, because he hated the tyrant. His benevolence towards the many is more the effect than the cause of his animosity to the few. He is tremendously vituperative. Every sentence is an argument, and every argument an impeachment. His words are blows. Yet he was less formidable than Lord Chatham, for he wanted that continuous intensity of passion, and that regality of a domineering will, which clothed some of his effusions with the awful desolating splendour of a flood of burning lava. The one only attacks, the other commands and crushes. The one makes good hits at his antagonists, the other drives furiously over them. The whole of the "Speech on the state of the nation" is illustrative of Fletcher's power, and of the limits of that power; of his resemblance to our greatest orators, and of his distinctive inferiority. The following extract from his censure of the Partition-Treaty will shew as much of what we mean, as can well be done by so few sentences:

"The letter of this treaty tells us of preserving the peace of Europe by dismembering the Spanish monarchy; but the spirit throws it entire into the family of Bourbon, entails an endless war upon Christendom, breaks the balance which has preserved its liberty for two hundred years, and will consequently banish all remains of freedom, both civil and religious, from among men. This treaty, like an alarum bell, rung over all Europe: Pray God it may not prove to you a passing bell. Poor helpless Spain, rather than divide the child, chose to give it entire to the harlot, to whom it did not belong. And she has got it; for the Solomon who commanded to divide the child, did it not in order to do justice. Instead of the preservation of the peace of Europe, (for no great mischief was ever designed, but piety was still pretended) Europe must from this time be either in a posture of war, and so consumed by taxes; or in actual war, wasted by bloodshed and rapine, till she be forced to hold out her hands to the shackles, and submit to a worse condition. These are the glorious works of such governors as the world thinks they cannot be without; perhaps too truly: I mean those who are to execute God's judgement upon them."

There is more of allusion in this passage than Fletcher was accustomed to employ. We suppose it "laid in his way and he found it." What there is, however, is there for annoy ance, not for ornament. If he stoops, 'tis not to gather flowers to adorn himself, but nettles to sting others. A better specimen of his usual style is the conclusion of his proposal for a general arming of the people, as a sequel to his favourite bill for offering the crown, on the death of Queen Anne, with such conditions as would fully secure the independence and liberty of Scotland:

"Other nations, if they think they can trust standing armies, may by their means defend themselves against foreign enemies. But we, who have not wealth sufficient to pay such forces, should not, of all nations under heaven, be unarmed. For us then to continue without arms is to be directly in the condition of slaves: to be found unarmed in the event of her majesty's death, would be to have no manner of security for our liberty, property, or the independence of this kingdom. By being unarmed, we every day run the risk of our all, since we know not how soon that event may overtake us: to continue still unarmed, when by this very act now under deliberation we have put a case which by happening may separate us from England, would be the grossest of all follies. And if we do not provide for arming the kingdom in such an exigency, we shall become a jest and a proverb to the world."

The peroration of his speech on the Limitation Bill itself is in a higher strain; it closes some energetic argument by this appeal :

"If therefore either reason, honour, or conscience, have any influence upon us; if we have any regard either to ourselves or posterity; if there be any such thing as virtue, happiness, or reputation, in this world, or felicity in a future state, let me adjure you by all these not to draw upon your heads everlasting infamy, attended with the eternal reproaches and anguish of an evil conscience, by making yourselves and your posterity miserable."

It is only with the two great men just mentioned, that Fletcher can be brought into comparison. He has little in common with the other distinguished parliamentary orators of the last reign, to whom we look as models; with that race of giants, now extinct, who had no predecessors, and seem likely to have no successors. He had nothing of the consummate art, exquisite arrangement, and sonorous periods of Pitt; nor of the argumentative metaphor which Grattan poured forth, like a torrent leaping from rock to rock, and not flowing, but bounding to the end of its career; nor of the subtle analysis, profound speculation, and mingled refinement of thought and homeliness of illustration, which give such a zest to Windham's speeches; nor could his genius kindle up, like Burke's, into a sun radiant alike with truth and fancy, its beams glancing over heaven and earth, here playing on a planet, and there glittering in a dew-drop. Yet the absence of these powers was often more than compensated by the tone of sincerity, earnestness, and determination, in which he spoke. He never played, or seemed to play, either with his subject or upon his hearers. He went steadily to his object, and used the most direct, honourable, and efficient, means for the accomplishment of his purpose. He came into the field apparelled for battle, and

not for tilt or tournament. His speeches teach not the tricks, or even the graces, of oratory, but the principles of freedom and the facts of history. There are no episodes in them. You can make no elegant extracts from them, which any body may read and enjoy who neither knows nor cares about the events of that time and country, or of any other time and country. You may commence fine-passage hunting, but that chace is soon abandoned for a more interesting one; you plunge into the deadly Union conflict, and, at last, feel defeated and disgraced by the triumph of imbecility, corruption, and servility; and shut the book with execrations on the Hamiltons, Queensburys, Montroses, and Banffs, of the day. This is much the same effect as is produced by the orations of the great master, Demosthenes, whom we read at school with no great pleasure; and he was so very business-like, every thing was so much to the purpose, and a purpose in which we had little concern; there was such a lack of the adventitious ornament, the beautiful painting, and the imposing description, to which we had been used in Cicero. The thing was too good for us. reader who really enjoys the speeches of the Athenian demagogue will not be disappointed in those of the Scottish patriot. The Political Treatises in this volume are quite as good, in their way, as the speeches, and display a mind thoroughly imbued with historical and classical literature, ardently attached to the cause of liberty, and honourably devoted to its promotion. Fletcher well deserves Thomson's praise of Sidney; he, too, was


"By ancient learning, to the enlighten'd love
Of ancient freedom, warm'd."

The philosopher of Malmsbury never made a greater blunder than when he translated Thucydides, in order to disgust the English people with the republican form of government. He was deceived as to the impression, by his own constitutional cowardice. He reckoned on blowing out the flame of faction, and actually gave undesigned aid towards fanning it into rebellion. To men of sterner stuff, the contests which terrified him were a scene of pleasurable excitement. Slaves, unless nature has formed them, and art trained them well, to be cowardly and contented slaves, should never read the Classics. Not the historians and orators of antiquity, at least; no, not even in castrated editions. They are full of dangerous matter. Nor is the love of liberty which they engender always exactly of that sort, which the rational friend of his country and of his species will regard with complacency. It is too apt to fix itself on forms, which, after all, are of comparatively little moment; to disregard the moral character of means; to attempt that by

« PreviousContinue »