Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Critical Introduction by J. Bonar
Sir James Mackintosh (1765–1832)
[James Mackintosh, born near Inverness (1765), son of a Highland Captain who served in the Seven Years’ War, educated at Fortrose and at Aberdeen University (1780–4), was a precocious child, and in boyhood thought poetic. In 1784 he went to Edinburgh, where he studied medicine, harangued the Speculative Society with Emmett and others, and got his diploma as doctor. He went to London in 1788, where he married, became a lawyer, and wrote Whig pamphlets. None of his writings excited much notice before the famous reply to Burke’s Reflections (Vindiciæ Gallicæ, 1791), written in the then quiet village of Ealing. The Letter to Pitt followed in 1792. The supposed “conversion” of Mackintosh to Burke’s view of the Revolution was, as Burke himself allowed, “none at all,” but the two men became personal friends. In 1797 he lost his wife, but married again in 1798. In 1799 he delivered at Lincoln’s Inn his Lectures on the Law of Nature and Nations. On the Peace of Amiens he defended Jean Peltier for libel on the First Consul, February 1803. He was then earning £1200 a year at the Bar, then thought a great sum. In 1804 he became Recorder of Bombay, returning again to England in 1812. He entered Parliament for Nairn in 1813, and divided his time between politics and literature. In 1818 he became Professor of Law and History at the East India College, Haileybury. He sat for Knaresborough from 1819 to his death, and devoted himself especially to the Reform of the Penal Laws. The first parts of his History of England were published 1830, 1831. The “Dissertation” (for the Encycl. Britannica) on the “Progress of Ethical Philosophy,” appeared in 1830. He died in London, 1832.]  1
HAZLITT (in the Spirit of the Age) speaks of Mackintosh as “more a man of wonderful and variable talent, than a man of commanding intellect,” and evidently thinks, as did Macaulay (Essay on Mackintosh), that he would have been more at home in a professor’s chair, than in parliament and the law courts. John Mill disliked his “verbiage.” Sydney Smith thought him given to indiscriminate praise. But he was a man deeply loved and admired. Horner never conversed with him without “a mixed consciousness of inferiority and capability”; he made others feel their own powers as well as impressed them with his. His reading was wide and miscellaneous, though in literature he clung to Bacon and Locke, Milton and Gray, with special fondness. As it is with many others whose calling is to be speakers, his writings read too often like printed orations; there are more words than a reader needs, though not more than a hearer would need, for due understanding of the meaning.  2
  He won recognition early, as a defender of the Revolution of 1789. He was much moved by the Reign of Terror, and spoke so sharply of his old views and friends, that many counted him lost to the Whig cause, to say nothing of the Radical. But it was not so. He gradually re-occupied his old positions. In his letter to Conversation Sharp from Bombay 1804, he expressly recants his recantation (Life, i. 128 seq.)  3
  His historical works (Causes of the English Revolution, etc.) have something of Macaulay’s brilliancy; but they are fragments. Macaulay has left us his opinion on them and on their author in one of his early essays. His political speeches cannot rank with his juridical, so far as we have full reports of either. His defence of Jean Peltier, though Peltier was convicted, is a masterpiece; and, like William Hone’s defence of himself, it owes its value largely to its learning, which confronts the present with the past. There is also present in it the eloquence of the advocate who knows that juries are not always to be moved by mere appeals to their reason.  4
  The Vindiciæ Gallicæ, like Paine’s Rights of Man, has shown its merits by surviving almost alone, out of a host of answers to Burke’s Reflections. In style it is a contrast to the Discourse on the Law of Nature and Nations, the first of a series of lectures, in which Mackintosh signalized his temporary departure from his old opinions. Here all is passion, and it must be said, all is generality; the force of the Vindiciæ Gallicæ had lain in its masterly treatment of specific points. These lectures went too far, he himself allows, in censure of men like Godwin; and Godwin at least was soon restored to favour. There is a friendly notice by Mackintosh, in the Edinburgh Review, October 1815, of his book on the Nephews of Milton.  5
  About none of his books have opinions differed more widely than about his “Dissertation on the Progress of Ethical Philosophy.” It was certainly more complete in its own range than Dugald Stewart’s “Dissertation,” a work of a larger scope, written for an earlier edition of the same Encyclopædia Britannica. Dugald Stewart though a moral philosopher had not done full justice to the ethics of his predecessors, if indeed he had meted out fit measure to their metaphysics; and Mackintosh was able to continue the history further down than Stewart. The complaints that he is full of prejudice against Utilitarians, and that his style is bad, were pressed chiefly by an opponent (James Mill) who wrote unreadably, and was possessed with a strong bias. The same opponent says that the work of Mackintosh is like a series of articles in a magazine, which the author hung together like beads on a string, and then called a history of philosophy.  6
  Later generations of philosophers have tempered the acrimony of Mill’s verdict, while upholding many of his corrections in detail. Mackintosh, though not of Bentham’s school, can hardly be called an opponent of Utilitarianism. Bentham, he says, treated ethics too juridically. Ethical theorists must distinguish (1) the question concerning the existence of a moral faculty, immediately approving or disapproving certain acts; (2) the question concerning the quality of such acts themselves; (3) the question whether the faculty is derivative or ultimate. Now Mackintosh does not hold the faculty to be irreducible and ultimate, though he holds that moral sentiments relate always to the “state of the will,” and that the moral judgment is immediate; the qualities useful to ourselves, can, he thinks, by association be raised to the rank of virtues. The coincidence of virtue with utility may become perfect.  7
  The “Dissertation” is not faultless either in matter or style. The position of Kant for example, could hardly be properly understood from it; nor do we learn much when we are told that the system of Hobbes was like a “palace of ice gradually undermined by the central warmth of human feeling, before it was thawed into muddy water by the sunshine of true philosophy.” Mackintosh could use the language of common life when he chose. The question whether a simple representative legislature is better than a constitution of mutual control, is (he says in the Vind. Gall.) simply the question “whether the vigilance of the master, or the squabbles of the servants, are the best security for faithful service.” A little more of this plainness of speech would have enhanced the value of his writings; but formed habits were too strong for him.  8
  As a rule he preferred the stilted style of the peroration Sidney Smith invented for him: “It is impossible to conclude these observations without expressing the obligations I am under to a person in a much more humble scene of life—I mean, sir, the hackney coachman by whom I have been driven to this meeting. To pass safely through the streets of a crowded metropolis, must require on the part of the driver no common assemblage of qualities. He must have caution without timidity, activity without precipitation, and courage without rashness; he must have a clear perception of his object, and a dexterous use of his means. I can safely say of the individual in question that, for a moderate reward, he has displayed unwearied skill; and to him I shall never forget that I owe unfractured integrity of limb, exemption from pain, and perhaps prolongation of existence. Nor can I pass over the encouraging cheerfulness with which I was received by the waiter, nor the useful blaze of light communicated by the link-boys, as I descended from the carriage. It was with no common pleasure that I remarked in these men not the mercenary bustle of venial service, but the genuine effusions of untutored benevolence; not the rapacity of subordinate agency, but the alacrity of humble friendship. What may not be said of a country where all the little accidents of life bring forth the hidden qualities of the heart, where her vehicles are driven, her streets illumined, and her bells answered, by men teeming with all the refinements of civilized life? “I cannot conclude, sir, without thanking you for the very clear and distinct manner in which you have announced the proposition on which we are to vote. It is but common justice to add that public assemblies rarely witness articulation so perfect, language so select, and a manner so eminently remarkable for everything that is kind, impartial, and just” (Sydney Smith, Memoirs and Letters, vol. i. 390, termination of a speech by Mackintosh).  9
  Yet Sydney Smith would have been the first to allow that there was always something in his friend’s words that was beyond caricature.  10

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