Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Critical Introduction by J. H. Millar
Henry Peter, Lord Brougham (1778–1868)
[Henry Peter Brougham was born in 1778, and was educated at the High School and the University of Edinburgh. He passed advocate in 1800, and helped to found the Edinburgh Review, of which he is alleged to have once written a whole number. Eighty articles, at all events, in the first twenty issues came from his pen, and for many years he was a frequent and valuable (though latterly a somewhat troublesome and unwelcome) contributor to its pages. Desirous of a wider field for his restless ambition, he settled in London in 1805, and was called to the bar at Lincoln’s Inn three years later. Though he never enjoyed the full confidence of his party-leaders, his career in the House of Commons, which lasted, with a short interval, from 1810 to 1831, proved him to be by far the most eloquent and energetic member of the Opposition, while exceptional success at the bar and popularity in the country were assured by his brilliant advocacy of Queen Caroline’s cause in 1820. Upon the accession of the Whigs to power in 1831, Brougham was made Lord Chancellor; but not even his prodigious zeal, activity, and eloquence could atone for the extravagance of his behaviour in public (which seemed almost to argue a disordered intellect), or for his intolerable selfishness and disloyalty as a colleague; and Lord Melbourne, on returning to office in 1835, gladly dispensed with his services, to Brougham’s unbounded and undisguised vexation. Henceforth, while he occasionally coquetted with the Conservatives and frequently attacked his own allies, he ceased to be a considerable force in politics. He continued, however, to assist the upper House in the discharge of its judicial functions, and to dabble in “science,” for which he had always had a predilection. The latter years of his life, which terminated in 1868, were much occupied with “The National Association for the Promotion of Social Science” (of which he was the parent), just as a portion of his busy middle age had been devoted to “The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge.” His collected works include several volumes of Speeches, a selection from his contributions to the Edinburgh, and a series of Sketches of British Statesmen. He left behind him an Autobiography, which is by no means trustworthy.]  1
FEW eminent men have paid so heavily in posthumous reputation for any failing as Brougham for a jealous and insatiable vanity. His name—apart from the useful vehicle which bears it—conjures up almost no associations that are not ludicrous and grotesque; and as the fame of his achievements as a legislator—of his services to “liberty,” education, and a variety of other “causes”—is tainted by the ever-present recollection of his feverish and overwhelming egotism, so his renown as a man of letters has suffered irretrievable damage from the versatility of his gifts. It were vain to look to this champion of progress for any substantial contribution to political philosophy, to physical science, or to literary criticism. Hasty and ill-considered judgments, rash and superficial generalisations, these, together with the commonplace and high-sounding maxims dear to shallow and confident minds, are the chief legacy of one who, to borrow Rogers’s enumeration, combined in his own person the characters of Solon, Lycurgus, Demosthenes, Archimedes, Sir Isaac Newton, Lord Chesterfield, and a great many more.  2
  That Brougham’s speeches contain much eloquence of a high order it is impossible to deny. True, they lack delicacy and charm; there are few subtle strokes, few memorable cadences, few surprising effects such as Chalmers, for example, could compass by the artful introduction of a single sonorous epithet. But they are all good “fighting” speeches, admirably adapted to the purpose in hand; eminently copious, animated, and vigorous; their happiest moments being probably those when vigour, still at its highest, has not yet been merged in passion. The peroration of the speech on Law Reform, for example, though it doubtless falls short of the best models, has surely a fine ring: “How much nobler will be the sovereign’s boast when he shall have it to say that he found law dear and left it cheap; found it a sealed book, left it a living letter; found it the patrimony of the rich, left it the inheritance of the poor; found it the two-edged sword of craft and oppression, left it the staff of honesty and the shield of innocence.” On the other hand, there is often manifest a strong tendency to extravagance, as, for instance, in the passage on the “immortal Pitt” in his speech at the Liverpool election: “Immortal in the miseries of his devoted country! Immortal in the wounds of her bleeding liberties! Immortal in the cruel wars which spring from his cold, miscalculating ambition! Immortal in the triumphs of our enemies and the ruin of our allies, the costly purchase of so much blood and treasure! Immortal in the afflictions of England and the humiliation of her friends,” etc. This is the frenzied raving of a maniac, not the inspired utterance of an orator; not hyperbole merely, but hysteria.  3
  The composition of Brougham’s written works is less careful and less laboured than that of his speeches. He is fond of employing antithesis; but he never attains to the dignity or impressiveness of his arch-enemy Macaulay, while he falls equally short of the neatness and vivacity of Jeffrey. He was, indeed, capable of writing thus of the charges brought by Junius against Lord Mansfield: “They show upon what kind of grounds the fabric of a great man’s professional fame, as well as the purity of his moral character, were assailed by the unprincipled violence of party at the instigation of their ignorance, skulking behind a signature made famous by epigrammatic language and the boldness of being venturesome in the person of a printer who gained by allowing dastardly slander to act through him with a vicarious courage.” But such a monstrous sentence is an extreme instance of his slovenliness and prolixity, though in another aspect it is highly characteristic, for Brougham was clearly thinking of another “great man,” the fabric of whose “professional fame,” if not the purity of whose moral character, he conceived to have been unjustly assailed by “the unprincipled violence of party.” Both the writings and the speeches, it should be added, are, from time to time, pleasantly relieved by a sardonic cast of humour, akin to, but much less brutal and more delicate than, Macaulay’s. A peculiarly favourable specimen of this quality will be found below, and another may be sought in that passage of the speech for the defendant in the Durham Clergy Libel case which treats of the visit of George IV. to Scotland in 1822.  4
  Upon the whole, if Brougham’s style is not marked by any conspicuous excellence, neither is it defaced by any very gross or shocking faults; if it has little to gratify or delight, it has as little to disgust or annoy a correct taste. His best work is probably contained in the Sketches of such men as Mansfield, Ellenborough, Pitt, Fox, and Windham, which are a repository of interesting information agreeably and unaffectedly imparted.  5

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