Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
John Pym
By Goldwin Smith (1823–1910)
From ‘Three English Statesmen’

PYM had been second only to Sir John Eliot as a leader of the patriot party in the reign of James. He was one of the twelve deputies of the Commons when James cried, with insight as well as spleen, “Set twal chairs: here be twal kings coming.” He had stood among the foremost of those “evil-tempered spirits” who protested that the liberties of Parliament were not the favors of the Crown, but the birthright of Englishmen; and who for so doing were imprisoned without law. He had resolved, as he said, that he would rather suffer for speaking the truth, than the truth should suffer for want of his speaking. His greatness had increased in the struggle against Charles I. He had been one of the chief managers of the impeachment of Buckingham; and for that service to public justice he had again suffered a glorious imprisonment. He had accused Manwaring; he had raised a voice of power against the Romanizing intrigues of Laud. In those days he and Strafford were dear friends, and fellow-soldiers in the same cause. But when the death of Buckingham left the place of First Minister vacant, Strafford sought an interview with Pym at Greenwich; and when they met, began to talk against dangerous courses, and to hint at advantageous overtures to be made by the court. Pym cut him short: “You need not use all this art to tell me that you have a mind to leave us. But remember what I tell you,—you are going to be undone. And remember also that though you leave us, I will never leave you while your head is upon your shoulders!” Such at least was the story current in the succeeding age, of the last interview between the Great Champion of Freedom and the Great Apostate.  1
  Pym was a Somersetshire gentleman of good family; and it was from good families—such families at least as do not produce Jacobins—that most of the leaders of this revolution sprang. I note it, not to claim for principle the patronage of birth and wealth, but to show how strong that principle must have been which could thus move birth and wealth away from their natural bias. It is still true, not in the ascetic but in the moral sense, that it is hard for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven; and when we see rich men entering into the kingdom of heaven, hazarding the enjoyment of wealth for the sake of principle, we may know that it is no common age. Oxford was the place of Pym’s education; and there he was distinguished not only by solid acquirements, but by elegant accomplishments, so that an Oxford poet calls him the favorite of Apollo. High culture is now rather in disgrace in some quarters; and not without a color of reason, as unbracing the sinews of action, and destroying sympathy with the people. Nevertheless, the universities produced the great statesmen and the great warriors of the Commonwealth. If the Oxford of Pym, of Hampden, and of Blake, the Oxford of Wycliffe, the Oxford where in still earlier times those principles were nursed which gave us the Great Charter and the House of Commons—if this Oxford, I say, now seems by her political bearing to dishonor learning, and by an ignoble choice does a wrong to the nation which Lancashire is called upon to redress,—believe me, it is not the university which thus offends, but a power alien to the university and alien to learning, to which the university is, and unless you rescue her, will continue to be, a slave.  2
  It is another point of difference between the English and the French revolutions, that the leaders of the English Revolution were as a rule good husbands and fathers, in whom domestic affection was the root of public virtue. Pym, after being for some time in public life, married, and after his marriage lived six years in retirement; a part of training as necessary as action to the depth of character and the power of sustained thought which are the elements of greatness. At the end of the six years his wife died, and he took no other wife but his country.  3
  There were many elements in the patriot party, united at first, afterward severed from each other by the fierce winnowing-fan of the struggle, and marking by their successive ascendency the changing phases of the Revolution: Constitutional Monarchists, aristocratic Republicans, Republicans thorough-going, Protestant Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Independents, and in the abyss beneath them all the Anabaptists, the Fifth Monarchy men, and the Levelers. Pym was a friend of constitutional monarchy in politics, a Protestant Episcopalian in religion; against a despot, but for a king; against the tyranny and political power of the bishops, but satisfied with that form of church government. He was no fanatic and no ascetic. He was genial, social, even convivial. His enemies held him up to the hatred of the sectaries as a man of pleasure. As the statesman and orator of the less extreme party, and of the first period of the Revolution, he is the English counterpart of Mirabeau, so far as a Christian patriot can be the counterpart of a Voltairean debauchee.  4
  Nor is he altogether unlike Mirabeau in the style of his eloquence; our better appreciation of which, as well as our better knowledge of Pym and of this the heroic age of our history in general, we owe to the patriotic and truly noble diligence of Mr. John Forster, from whose researches no small portion of my materials for this lecture is derived. Pym’s speeches of course are seventeenth-century speeches: stately in diction, somewhat like homilies in their divisions, full of learning, full of Scripture (which then, be it remembered, was a fresh spring of new thought); full of philosophic passages which might have come from the pen of Hooker or of Bacon. But they sometimes strike the great strokes for which Mirabeau was famous. Buckingham had pleaded, to the charge of enriching himself by the sale of honors and offices, that so far from having enriched himself he was £100,000 in debt. “If this be true,” replied Pym, “how can we hope to satisfy his immense prodigality; if false, how can we hope to satisfy his covetousness?” In the debate on the Petition of Right, when Secretary Cooke desired in the name of the King to know whether they would take the King’s word for the observance of their liberties or not, “there was silence for a good space”: none liking to reject the King’s word, all knowing what that word was worth. The silence was broken by Pym, who rose and said, “We have his Majesty’s coronation oath to maintain the laws of England: what need we then to take his word?” And the secretary desperately pressing his point, and asking what foreigners would think if the people of England refused to trust their King’s word, Pym rejoined, “Truly, Mr. Secretary, I am of the same opinion that I was, that the King’s oath is as powerful as his word.” In the same debate the courtiers prayed the House to leave entire his Majesty’s sovereign power: a Stuart phrase, meaning the power of the king, when he deemed it expedient, to break the law. “I am not able,” was Pym’s reply, “to speak to this question. I know not what it is. All our petition is for the laws of England; and this power seems to be another power distinct from the power of the law. I know how to add sovereign to the King’s person, but not to his power. We cannot leave to him a sovereign power, for we never were possessed of it.”  5
  The English Revolution was a revolution of principle, but of principle couched in precedent. What the philosophic salon was to the French leaders of opinion, that the historical and antiquarian library of Sir Robert Cotton was to the English. And of the group of illustrious men who gathered in that library, none had been a deeper student of its treasures than Pym. His speeches and State papers are the proof.  6
  When the Parliament had met, Pym was the first to rise. We know his appearance from his portrait: a portly form, which a court waiting-woman called that of an ox; a forehead so high that lampooners compared it to a shuttle; the dress of a gentleman of the time,—for not to the cavaliers alone belonged that picturesque costume and those pointed beards which furnish the real explanation of the fact that all women are Tories. Into the expectant and wavering, though ardent, minds of the inexperienced assembly he poured, with the authority of a veteran chief, a speech which at once fixed their thoughts, and possessed them with their mission. It was a broad, complete, and earnest, though undeclamatory, statement of the abuses which they had come to reform. For reform, though for root-and-branch reform, not for revolution, the Short Parliament came; and Charles might even now have made his peace with his people. But Charles did not yet see the truth: the truth could never pierce through the divinity that hedged round the king. The Commons insisted that redress of grievances should go before supply. In a moment of madness, or what is the same thing, of compliance with the counsels of Laud, Charles dissolved the Parliament, imprisoned several of its members, and published his reasons in a proclamation full of despotic doctrine. The friends of the Crown were sad, its enemies very joyful. Now, to the eye of history, begins to rise that scaffold before Whitehall.  7
  Once more Charles and Strafford tried their desperate arms against the Scotch; and once more their soldiers refused to fight. Pym and Hampden, meanwhile, sure of the issue, were preparing their party and the nation for the decisive struggle. Their headquarters were at Pym’s house, in Gray’s Inn Lane; but meetings were held also at the houses of leaders in the country, especially for correspondence with the Scotch, with whom these patriot traitors were undoubtedly in league. A private press was actively at work. Pym was not only the orator of his party, but its soul and centre; he knew how not only to propagate his opinions with words of power, but to organize the means of victory. And now Charles, in extremity, turned to the Middle Ages for one expedient more, and called a Great Council of Peers, according to Plantagenet precedents, at York. Pym flew at once to York, caused a petition for a Parliament to be signed by the peers of his party there, and backed it with petitions from the people, one of them signed by ten thousand citizens of London. This first great wielder of public opinion in England was the inventor of organized agitation by petition. The King surrendered, and called a Parliament. Pym and Hampden rode over the country, urging the constituencies to do their duty. The constituencies did their duty as perhaps they had never done it before and have never done it since. They sent up the noblest body of men that ever sat in the councils of a nation. The force of the agitation triumphed for the moment, as it did again in 1832, over all those defects in the system of representation which prevail over the public interest and the public sentiment in ordinary times. The Long Parliament met, while round it the tide of national feeling swelled and surged, the long-pent-up voices of national resentment broke forth. It met not for reform, but for revolution. The King did not ride to it in state: he slunk to it in his private barge, like a vanquished and a doomed man.  8
  Charles had called to him Strafford. The earl knew his danger; but the King had pledged to him the royal word that not a hair of his head should be touched. He came foiled, broken by disease, but still resolute; prepared to act on the aggressive, perhaps to arraign the leaders of the Commons for treasonable correspondence with the Scotch. But he had to deal, in his friend and coadjutor of former days, with no mere rhetorician, but with a man of action as sagacious and as intrepid as himself. Pym at once struck a blow which proved him a master of revolution. Announcing to the Commons that he had weighty matter to impart, he moved that the doors should be closed. When they were opened he carried up to the Lords the impeachment of the Earl of Strafford. The earl came down to the House of Lords that day with his brow of imperial gloom, his impetuous step, his tones and gestures of command: but scarcely had he entered the House when he found that power had departed from him; and the terrible grand vizier of government by prerogative went away a fallen man, none unbonneting to him in whose presence an hour before no man would have stood covered. The speech by which Pym swept the House on to this bold move, so that, as Clarendon says, “not one man was found to stop the torrent,” is known only from Clarendon’s outline. But that outline shows how the speaker filled the thoughts of his hearers with a picture of the tyranny, before he named its chief author, the Earl of Strafford; and how he blended with the elements of indignation some lighter passages of the earl’s vanity and amours, to mingle indignation with contempt and to banish fear.  9
  Through the report of the Scotch Commissioner Baillie, we see the great trial, to which that of Warren Hastings was a parallel in splendor, but no parallel in interest: Westminster Hall filled with the Peers—the Commons—the foreign nobility, come to learn if they could a lesson in English politics—the ladies of quality, whose hearts (and we can pardon them) were all with the great criminal who made so gallant and skillful a fight for life, and of whom it was said that like Ulysses he had not beauty, but he had the eloquence which moved a goddess to love. Among the mass of the audience the interest, intense at first, flagged as the immense process went on; and eating, drinking, loud talking, filled the intervals of the trial. But there was one whose interest did not flag. The royal throne was set for the King in his place; but the King was not there. He was with his queen in a private gallery, the latticework of which, in his eagerness to hear, he broke through with his own hands. And there he heard, among other things, these words of Pym: “If the histories of Eastern countries be pursued, whose princes order their affairs according to the mischievous principles of the Earl of Strafford, loose and absolved from all rules of government, they will be found to be frequent in combustions, full of massacres and of the tragical ends of princes.”  10
  I need not make selections from a speech so well known as that of Pym on the trial of Strafford. But hear one or two answers to fallacies which are not quite dead yet. To the charge of arbitrary government in Ireland, Strafford had pleaded that the Irish were a conquered nation. “They were a conquered nation,” cries Pym. “There cannot be a word more pregnant or fruitful in treason than that word is. There are few nations in the world that have not been conquered, and no doubt but the conqueror may give what law he pleases to those that are conquered; but if the succeeding pacts and agreements do not limit and restrain that right, what people can be secure? England hath been conquered, and Wales hath been conquered; and by this reason will be in little better case than Ireland. If the king by the right of a conqueror gives laws to his people, shall not the people, by the same reason, be restored to the right of the conquered to recover their liberty if they can?” Strafford had alleged good intentions as an excuse for his evil counsels. “Sometimes, my lords,” says Pym, “good and evil, truth and falsehood, lie so near together that they are hard to be distinguished. Matters hurtful and dangerous may be accompanied with such circumstances as may make them appear useful and convenient. But where the matters propounded are evil in their own nature, such as the matters are wherewith the Earl of Strafford is charged, as to break public faith and to subvert laws and government, they can never be justified by any intentions, how good soever they be pretended.” Again, to the plea that it was a time of great danger and necessity, Pym replies:—“If there were any necessity, it was of his own making: he, by his evil counsel, had brought the King into a necessity; and by no rules of justice can be allowed to gain this advantage by his own fault, as to make that a ground of his justification which is a great part of his offense.”  11
  Once, we are told, while Pym was speaking, his eyes met those of Strafford; and the speaker grew confused, lost the thread of his discourse, broke down beneath the haggard glance of his old friend. Let us never glorify revolution!  12

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