JOHN WILSON CROKER was a conspicuous man during a long course of years in politics and literature. He was widely known as Secretary to the Admiralty — which office he held for one-and-twenty years; as a Member of Parliament for twenty-five years; as an industrious and accomplished author; and, above all, perhaps, as the wickedest of reviewers, — that is, as the author of the foul and false political articles in the Quarterly Review, which stand out as the disgrace of the periodical literature of our time. His natural abilities, his capacity and inclination for toil, the mingled violence and causticity of his temper, and his entire unscrupulousness in matters both of feeling and of statement, combined to make him a remarkable, if not a very loveable personage, and a useful though not very honorable member of a political party.
He was the son of the Surveyor-General of Ireland, and was born in that Connaught which was then the "hell" of the empire. "To Hell or Connaught," was still the imprecation of the day when Croker was born that is, in 1780. He was always called an Irishman; and very properly, as Galway was his native place; but he was of English descent. As for temperament, we do not know that either England or Ireland would be very anxious to claim him: and he certainly was sui generis — remarkably independent of the influences which largely affect the characters of most men. He was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, and was called to the bar in 1802. His first publication, "Familiar Epistles to F. E. Jones, Esq.," shows that his proneness to sarcasm existed early; but the higher qualities which once made him the hope of the Tory party were then so much more vigorous than at a later time, that the expectations excited by the outset of his public life were justifiable. It was in 1807 that he entered Parliament, as Member for Downpatrick; and within two years he was Secretary to the Admiralty. He had by that time given high proof of his ability in his celebrated pamphlet on the "Past and Present State of Ireland." The authorship was for some time uncertain. Because it was candid and painfully faithful, the Edinburgh Review, so early as 1813, could not believe it to be his; while, on the other hand, there was the wonder that the man who so wrote about Ireland should be so speedily invited to office by the Government under Perceval. That Irish pamphlet may be now regarded as perhaps the most honorable achievement of Mr. Croker's long life of authorship.
Just before this he had joined with Mr. Canning, Walter Scott, George Ellis, Mr. Morritt, and others, in setting up the Quarterly Review, the first number of which appeared in the spring of 1809. The Edinburgh Review had then existed seven years; and while obnoxious to the Tory party for its politics, it was not less so to the general public for the reckless ferocity of some of its criticism in those its early days. If the Quarterly proposed to rebuke this sin by example, it was rather curious that Mr. Croker should be its most extensive and constant contributor for forty years — seeing that he carried the license of anonymous criticism to the last extreme. Before he had done his work in that department, he had earned for himself — purchased by hard facts — the following character, calmly uttered by one of the first men of the time [author's note: Macaulay]: — "Croker is a man who would go a hundred miles through sleet and snow, on the top of a coach, in a December night, to search a parish register, for the sake of showing that a man is illegitimate, or a woman older than she says she is." He had actually gone down into the country to find the register of Fanny Burney's baptism, and revelled in the exposure of a misstatement of her age; and the other half of the charge was understood to have been earned in the same way. He did not begin his Quarterly reviewing with the same virulence which he manifested in his later years. That malignant ulcer of the mind, engendered by political disappointment, at length absorbed his better qualities. It is necessary to speak thus frankly of the temper of the man, because his statements must in justice be discredited; and because justice requires that the due discrimination be made between the honorable and generous-minded men who ennoble the function of criticism by the spirit they throw into it, and one who, like Croker, employed it at last for the gratification of his own morbid inclination to inflict pain. The propensity was so strong in Croker's case, that we find him unable to resist it even in regard to his old and affectionate friend Walter Scott, and at a time when that old friend was sinking in adversity and disease. He reviewed in the London Courier Scott's "Malagrowther Letters," in 1826, in a way which called forth the delicate and touching rebuke contained in Scott's letter to him, dated March 19th of that year, — a rebuke remembered long after the trespass that occasioned it was disregarded as a piece of "Croker's malignity." The latest instance this sort of controversy called forth by Mr. Croker's public vituperation of his oldest and dearest friends, was a series of letters that passed between him and Lord John Russell, after the publication of Moore's "Diaries and Correspondence." Up to the last his victims refused believe, till compelled, that the articles had proceeded from his pen — well as they knew his spirit of reviewing. When he had been staying at Drayton Manor, not long before Sir Robert Peel's death, had been not only hospitality entertained but kindly ministered to under his infirmities of deafness and bad health, and went home to cut up his host in a political article for the forthcoming Quarterly — his fellow-guests at Drayton refused as long as possible to believe the article to be his; and in the same way, as Lord John Russell informed him, Mrs. Moore would not along time credit the fact that the review of the poet's Life was his, saying she had always understood Mr. Croker to be her husband's friend. It was in the Quarlerly that the disappointed politician vented his embittered feelings, as indeed he himself avowed. He declared, when Lord Grey came into office, that he did not consider his pension worth three months' purchase; that he should therefore lay by while he had it, and make his income by "tomahawking" liberal authors in the Quarterly. He did it, not only by writing articles upon them, but by interpolating other people's articles with his own sarcasms and slanders, so as to compel the compel the real reviewers, in repeated instances, to demand the republication of their articles in a genuine state and a separate form.
When he entered Parliament, he was an admirable debater — ready, acute, bold, well furnished with information, and not yet so dangerously reckless as to make him feared by his own party. It is rather strange now to find his name foremost in the list of parliamentary orators in the books of foreigners visiting England after the Peace. He was listened to by the House as an inferior kind of Disraeli, for he amusement afforded by his sarcasm; and foreigners mistook this manifestation of the old English bull-baiting spirit for an evidence of the parliamentary weight of the satirist; and a House of Commons that enjoys that sort of sport deserves the French commentary — the imputation of being led by a Croker. There were occasions, however, on which he appeared to advantage on other grounds than his sarcastic wit. It should be remembered that it was he who, in 1821, before Catholic Emancipation could be supposed near at hand, proposed to enable the Crown to make a suitable provision for the Catholic clergy. Lord Castlereagh opposed the motion, which was necessarily withdrawn; but Mr. Croker declared that he considered the principle safe, and should bring forward the measure till it should be adopted. He was steady to the object, and in 1825 actually obtained a majority upon it in the Commons; and there is no question of his earnestness in desiring a measure of considerable relief to the consciences and liberties of the Catholic body.
He held his ground with the chiefs of his own party by other qualities than his official ability. His command of detail was remarkable; and so were his industry and his sagacity within a small range. His zeal for party interests was also great — a zeal shown in his eagerness to fill up places with party adherents, from the laureateship (which he procured for Southey) to the lowest office that could be filled an electioneering agent; but he was also a most acceptable political gossip. It was this which made him a frequent guest at the Regent's table, and an inimitable acquaintance at critical seasons of ministerial change, when such men as he revel in the incidents of the day, and in the manifestation of such human vices and weaknesses as come out, together with noble virtues, in the conflict of personal interests. The congenial spirit of the Beacon newspaper, which made such a noise in 1822, made him the proper recipient of Scott's confidence on the matter; and to him therefore Scott addressed his painful explanations, as they stand in the Life. It is probable that the intercourse between him and Scott, though not without an occasional ruffle, was about the most cordial that the survivor ever enjoyed. Scott's real geniality and politic obtuseness to offence enabled him to pear more than most men would: and, in their literary relations, he contrived to show himself the debtor. He avowed that his "Tales of a Grandfather" were suggested and modelled by Croker's "Stories from the History of England;" and he was aided in his "Life of Napoleon" by Croker's loans of masses of papers. He met Cabinet Ministers, by the half-dozen at a time, at the Secretary's table; and received from him reports of handsome sayings of the Regent about him. The cordiality could not, on Croker's side, withstand the temptation to insult a friend through the press, as he showed at the very time by his remarks on Malagrowther; but on Scott's side it was hearty. When the political changes of 1827 were going forward, his first thought seems to have been for Croker. "I fear Croker will shake," he wrote, "and heartily sorry I should feel for that." The shaking, however, only shook Croker more firmly into his place and function. In 1828 he became a Privy Councillor; and he retained his Admiralty office till 1830. It was the Reform Bill that destroyed him politically. It need not have done so. There was no more reason for it in his case than in that of any of his comrades; but he willed political suicide. He declared that he would never sit in a reformed House of Commons; and he never did. He expected revolution; and he thought it prudent to retire while he could yet save life and fortune. His view is shown by his mournful account in the House of the spectacle of a Montmorenci rising in the French Constituent Assembly, to propose the extinction of feudal rights and dignities, such as his ancestors had earned and been ennobled by; and he let fall no word to show that he recognized any grandeur in the act. He thought that pitiable which to others appears the crown of the nobleness of the Montmorencis. He proposed to grant nothing to any popular demand, because something might at length be demanded which it would be impossible to grant; and before the shadows of the possible evils which he conjured up, he retired from public life, leaving its actual difficulties to be dealt with by men of a higher courage and a more disinterested patriotism. His Political action, for the rest of his life, consisted merely in the articles he put forth in the Quarterly Review, — articles which (to say nothing of their temper) show such feebleness of insight, such a total incapacity to comprehend the spirit and needs of the time, and such utter recklessness about truth of both statement and principle, that elderly readers are puzzled to account for the expectations they once had of the writer. It was the heart element that was amiss. A good heart has wonderful efficacy in making moderate talent available. Where heart is absent, the most brilliant abilities fail, as is said in such cases, ''unaccountably." Where heart is not absent, but is not good, the consequences are yet more obvious; the faculties waste and decline, and the life sinks to nothing before death comes to close the scene. It is impossible to avoid such reflections as these, while contrasting the strength and goodness of Croker's early work on Ireland with his latest judgments on public affairs in the Quarterly Review, and his correspondence with Lord John Russell on the business of the "Moore's Diaries," It may be observed, by the way, how such a spirit as his stirs up the dregs of other people's tempers. Lord John Russell's note, in allusion Mr. Croker, in ''Moore's Life," appears to be unnecessary; he was moved to it by seeing Mrs. Moore stung by the review; and he met speedy retribution. Pain was inflicted all round; and Croker was the cause of it all.
He was the author, editor, and translator of various works, the chief of which is his edition of "Boswell's Johnson," a book on which he spent much labor, and which was regarded with high and trustful favor till Mr. Macaulay overthrew its reputation for accuracy by an exposure of a singular series of mistakes, attributable to indolence, carelessness, or ignorance. That review (which is republished among Macaulay's ''Essays") destroyed such reputation for scholarship as Mr. Croker had previously enjoyed, and a good deal impaired that of his industry. His other works of bulk are the "Suffolk Papers," the "Military Events of the French Revolution of 1850," a translation of "Bassompierre's Embassy to England," the "Letters of Lady Hervey," and ''Lord Hervey's Memoirs of the Reign of George II." Mr. Croker was an intimate of the late Lord Hertford; and his social footing was not improved by the choice of such friendships, and the revelations made on the trial of Lord Hertford's valet. In brief; his best place was his desk at the Admiralty; his best action was in his office; and the most painful part of his life was the latter part, amidst an ignoble social reputation, and the political odium attached to him by Mr. Disraeli's delineation of him in "Coningsby." The virulent reviewer found in his old age the truth of the Eastern proverb — "Curses are like chickens; they always come home to roost." He tried to send them abroad again — tried his utmost severity in attacks in the Quarterly on Disraeli's Budget. But it was too late: and the painter of the portrait of Rigby remained master of that field in which the completest victory is the least enviable.
Looking round for something pleasanter on which to rest the eye in the career of the unhappy old man who has just departed, we may dwell on the good-will with which he was regarded by such personal friends as never were, and never could be, implicated with public affairs, never tickled his passions, never vexed his prejudices, and could honestly feel and express gratitude and respect toward him. There are some who believe him to have been an "amiable man in private life;" and there must have been substantial ground for an estimate so opposite that which generally prevailed. Again, we may point out that his name stands honorably on our new maps and globes. He was Secretary to the Admiralty during the earlier of the Polar Expeditions of this century; and it is understood that the most active and efficient assistance was always given by him in the work of Polar discovery. Long alter political unscrupulousness and rancor are forgotten, those higher landmarks of his voyage of life will remain, and tell a future generation, to whom he will be otherwise unknown, that there was one of his name to whom our great Navigators felt grateful for assistance in the noble service they rendered to their country and all future time.