Memoirs of the Life of the Right Honourable Sir James Mackintosh. Edited by his Son, Robert James Mackintosh, Esq. 2 vols. 8vo. London, 1835.
The most remarkable feature, we think, in the literature of the present day is the great and increasing proportion which biography, and particularly autobiography, appears to bear to the general mass of publications; and we cannot divest ourselves of a strong suspicion that this disproportion arises from circumstances which are indicative of some degree of deterioration in the public taste, and of abasement in the literary character of our times. Not that we deem lightly of the merit of a good biography — on the contrary, our doubts are founded on the very opposite opinion. Our readers need hardly be reminded how often we have characterized biography, when adequately executed, as one of the most delightful species of reading, and certainly not one of the least difficult styles of composition; — but "corruptio optimi pessima" — and there is nothing more easy and more worthless than a biography in the modern fashion. The eminence of the person — the splendour or utility of his or her life — the information it may convey, or the lesson it may inculcate, are by no means — as they used formerly to be — essential considerations in the choice of a subject. It would be extrajudicial (if we may use the expression) and therefore invidious, to mention particular instances — but our own library tables, and the shelves of every circulating library, are filled with the lives of second or third rate persons to whom the honours of a special biography have been voted, either by those who deem it the readiest field from which a little temporary harvest might be gathered, or by the more pardonable partiality of private affection or friendship. Panegyrics, which would formerly have occupied a few lapidary lines on a tablet in the parish church, are now expanded into the greater but we fear less durable dignity of two or three volumes octavo.
Each widow asks it for the best of men;
it is claimed for promising boys deceased in their nonage, and interesting girls in their teens; and whenever a man of any kind of notoriety — actor, author, painter, parson — happens to die, the London publishers find that there are two or three candidate biographers running a race for precedency; and a man's life has, within these few years, been actually announced before his body was deposited in the grave. Indeed what Arbuthnot so pleasantly said of Curl's avidity after the "Letters of Persons lately deceased," may, with equal truth, be said of modern biography, — "It is a new terror of death," — for although these productions are generally meant to be very complimentary, the more frequent result is to leave their victim a smaller man — if the case be susceptible of diminution — than they found him. Some men — and these are not the most unreasonable class of biographers — cannot afford to leave themselves as a legacy to surviving pens, and, like convicts in Newgate, they sell their own bodies before death — very justly thinking that if an honest penny is to be made out of them, they have the best right to the profit. Sometimes this desire of profit is a little ennobled by the "brave thirst of praise," and in those cases cupidity and vanity, like Beaumont and Fletcher, produce works in which the separate shares of the joint contributors cannot be distinguished.
In many cases — "minima pars ipse sui" — the nominal hero is far from being the most important personage of the work. He may have been a worthy gentleman, who had twaddled through life without having said or done any one thing worth recording; but that shall not prevent his biography or even his autobiography from being announced as "a useful and instructive work, and a great acquisition to the historical literature of the age" — because, though he has done nothing, he has been related to or connected with those who have. The whole circle of his acquaintance is brought into play, and this immediately lets in the whole course of contemporary history. We could instance one ingenious person who happened to be a member of parliament — where he never spoke — but he heard Pitt, Fox, Canning, and Castlereagh, and from his recollections of their speeches (assisted by Woodfall's Debates), and his criticisms on their manners and measures (a little helped by the Annual Register), we were favoured with a not unentertaining autobiographical "History of the Life and Times of Solomon Sapient, Esq., some time M.P. for the Borough of Boretown in the County of Slipslop." In short, what with increasing the quantity of the article and deteriorating the quality, we fear it must be confessed that at this moment biography is perhaps the very lowest of all the classes of literature; it has become a mere manufacture, which seems in a great measure to have superseded that of novels — much to the damage of the light reader as well as the graver — the biographical romance being, for the most part, infinitely inferior in point of interest, and not very much superior in veracity.
This, after all, may do no other harm than that of increasing the multitude of worthless books with which we are overloaded; but there are some still more serious objections to this system of extemporaneous and contemporaneous biography, to which even the best works of the class are liable. The principal of these (with which, indeed, all the others are connected) is the almost inevitable sacrifice of historical truth to personal feelings.
Whether a man writes his own life or that of some dear friend lately deceased, it is evident that there must be such a favourable colour spread over the picture that its fidelity must be rather worse than dubious — for even in a court of law the evidence of a party can only be admitted in the rare case in which it shall be against himself: unfavourable or discreditable circumstances are generally passed over in silence, or if they should be of too much notoriety to be wholly unnoticed, they are so covered by the veil of partiality as hardly to be recognized. We have on our table Memoirs of Robespierre, said to have been written by his sister, (but really by a "faiseur" in her name,) in which the leading feature of his character is said to have been the most sensitive humanity and an almost morbid aversion to the shedding of blood. To crimes — at least to such as those of Robespierre — there is no great danger that the indignation of the reader should he mitigated by the partiality of a biographer; but there are many minor frailties of a man's character which ought injustice to be told, but which one would be unwilling to drag back to public notice while his better qualities are still fresh and fragrant in the memory and affection of his family and acquaintance.
But the grave has scarcely been closed over such a man, when the amiable partiality, or the calculating prudence, of his friends puts forth a Life, in which these questionable topics are either altogether omitted or kindly misrepresented. If any one — roused by what he thinks undeserved praise — should be so fearless a lover of truth as to endeavour to set the matter in its true point of view, he would have against him not merely the clamours and complaints of the surviving family, but even the good-natured sympathy of the public — who would say, "It is all very true — but it was long ago, 'tis now forgotten — why revive it? — and, after all, the rest of his life was so respectable and amiable!" On the other hand, if no notice be taken of such circumstances, the uncontradicted panegyric will be hereafter taken for undeniable truth; and other persons, whose conduct towards the individual might have been guided by a knowledge of such circumstances, will pass down to posterity with the reproach of having been negligent, or ungrateful, or envious — when, if the truth were known, they would appear perhaps to have acted with indulgence, delicacy, and honour. The motto of our northern contemporary truly says, "Judex damnatur cum nocens absolvitur" — but, not the judge alone — for, what is worse, the plaintiff and the witness suffer the punishment which the offender escapes.
Nor is it with regard to the principal subject that contemporaneous biography, by a man's own or friendly hands, is unsatisfactory; many, and in some instances almost all, of the secondary characters in the drama of his life are still upon the stage if the writer should possess good-nature and delicacy, these persons will probably be treated with insipid or exaggerated complaisance — justly enough in one respect, because being brought involuntarily before the public as mere subordinates to the principal figure, it would be cruel to treat them otherwise than civilly, and the keeping of the picture forbids their being treated with more than civility: but, on the other hand, if the pen happens to be caustic, and the hero of the book has had much dealings with mankind, it is almost impossible that there should not supervene a great deal of prejudice, and consequent misrepresentation; so that, what between cautious good breeding on the one hand, and rivalry and scandal on the other, the secondary characters of a contemporaneous biography are in general still less justly delineated than the hero himself: and, upon the whole, we feel corroborated in our doubts whether the very best of this species of biography can be considered in any higher light than a romance of real life — a picture, of which the principal figure must be considerably flattered, and everything else sacrificed to its prominence and effect.
These considerations — on a popular and thriving, but we think abused branch of literature — are suggested rather by the general nature than the individual details of the work whose title stands at the head of our article. Sir James Mackintosh was a very amiable and a very able man, and the book now before us is highly interesting in its matter, and, on the whole, highly respectable in its style and spirit. As a composition, it is as much superior to the common class of biographies to which we have alluded, as its subject was to theirs; but truth obliges us to state, that it is not (indeed, how could it be?) — exempt from some of those drawbacks which we have noticed as incident to a publication of this contemporaneous nature. It gives an — in some not trivial respects — imperfect account of Sir James himself — an unsatisfactory one of his political principles and associates — and it must be read, we think, rather, like any other gossiping diary, for amusement and literary instruction — than consulted as an adequate authority either as to the life of Sir James Mackintosh himself, or, for the history of the times in which he lived. These more serious matters must, if wanted, be sought elsewhere: here, they are to be traced only in hints and allusions, tinged by the pious reverence and partiality of the accomplished editor.
The work is composed of three distinct classes of materials, woven together; — fragments of Journals kept, and a few private letters written, by Sir James himself — a dozen long, we will not say tedious, panegyrics — "testimonia clarorum virorum" — in the shape of letters to the editor from some of Sir James's early friends and eminent contemporaries, and a scanty connecting narrative and commentary by the editor himself. The much larger and most valuable part of these are the Journals; though even they contain little more than memoranda of his literary and judicial opinions for a very few years. He evidently contemplated a regular autobiography, but had completed only the first twenty years of his life, 1765-1784, and this sketch occupies the first thirty pages of this work. From that period to 1800 is continued in a narrative by the editor, exceedingly meagre of facts, and which, though it comprises sixteen years in less than a hundred pages, is eked out by extracts from the "Vindiciae Gallicae." The history of the next five years, up to his arrival at Bombay, is very imperfectly told in half-a-dozen private letters. During the residence at Bombay, and up to the return to England in 1812, the journals and private letters are copious; but from that period, all the most distinguished and important part of Mackintosh's life, his whole senatorial and official existence, is slurred over in a few pages of the scantiest narrative, interspersed, however, with some fragments of Journal. These latter fragments will be found exceedingly interesting — but they are few. "Mackintosh," says the editor, "wanted perseverance to complete his autobiography." Who, indeed, except Dangeau and Pepys, ever had the patience to journalize for a series of years? Mackintosh was naturally indolent, and it would really be surprising if he had succeeded in executing a species of task which we believe to be the very strongest test of dogged diligence. Indeed, the Journal seems to have been prosecuted only when external circumstances left him little choice of occupation. When on board ship or in ill health, the Journal thrives; but, unfortunately for us, this renders it copious in the inverse ratio of its interest. The incidents on board the good ship "Caroline" are given with accuracy and abundance, while the anecdotes of Holland House are rare and dry — the no life of a sultry and empty house at Bombay is faithfully recorded, but we have no register of the still hotter atmosphere of Brookes's. There is, however, another reason for the irregularity of the Journals, which it is but justice to the amiability of Sir James's private life to notice — the greater part, if not all, of these diaries were written for Lady Mackintosh's information after she had been obliged by ill health to return to England sooner than prudential and official reasons allowed her husband to do so — and after his return, during his occasional absences from her. The two years of the first separation occupy alone one third of the whole work: — and when we add that these were the two most listless and eventless years of Mackintosh's whole life, it will be safely concluded that there are left but little room and narrow verge to trace his busier and more important days. Nor can we with truth say that the journals kept for Lady Mackintosh's information are in all respects — at least, as they now appear — what might have been expected — there is little "epanchement," little of the natural overflow of familiar confidence; the greater portion consists of criticism and commentaries on the books he has happened to read, and though he is always kind and even affectionate, somehow the journal seems rather addressed to his correspondent's head than her heart. It is rather the kind of critical lecture which Cadenus might have prepared for the improvement of Vanessa's mind, than the full fond familiar all-telling "Journal to Stella." The editor's delicacy, no doubt, has induced him to suppress not only all such effusions of conjugal confidence, but also what constitutes the chief charm of a diary — all private anecdotes and personal history of individuals — and he is quite right in having done so. But this is only another reason against these premature publications — it would have been better to have waited till all could be told, and when the world might have seen Mackintosh as he really was. We think his memory would — we are sure the public must — have gained by it. A narrative, however honest and true, may by omissions and selections be so garbled as to produce all the effect of falsehood. We by no means wish to insinuate that this is the case in the present instance — but we have a strong impression, amounting indeed to certainty, that punctilious reverence for the writer, and cautious delicacy towards surviving friends, have rendered this work considerably different in tone and spirit from what it must have been, had Mackintosh been fearlessly allowed to have told all his own story, and in his own way. A life thus compiled and fashioned cannot command implicit confidence, and the good taste and moderation of the editor only serve to render his absolute fidelity more problematical.
We shall now endeavour to condense from these materials, such as they are, the principal events of Sir James Mackintosh's life, interspersed with some extracts from his own pen characteristic of his mind, principles, and manners. He was born, as we have said, in 1765. His father was "Captain John Mackintosh, who was the representative of an ancient family which had for two centuries possessed a small estate called Killachie, which Sir James inherited, but was obliged in after life to sell." His mother was Marjory M'Gillivray, who, though of a less eminent clan, appears to have had better immediate connexions than her husband: to her personal merits Sir James bears affectionate testimony, while he passes over in suspicious silence the life, deeds, and death of his father. It is remarkable that all autobiographers that we recollect (except Lord Byron) are abundant in praise of their mothers. This arises, we suppose, from two causes: first, because women are intrinsically more amiable, more attaching, than even the best and gentlest of men; — but chiefly perhaps because they are the first objects of instinctive affection — the earliest ideas are the strongest and most lasting — the care and tenderness of the mother occupy without rivalry the young mind; which, when it begins to take notice of the father, finds his image commingled with the restraint of discipline, the irksomeness of study, and, in fact, all the "disagreeables" of early life. The father is our master and our judge, and sometimes our executioner — the mother our confidant, our advocate, our consoler. Byron's case is probably an exception only in terms — he knew but one parent, and the alternations of fondness and severity which arose from her peculiar position — assisted, no doubt, by the natural waywardness of the boy and some congenial irregularity of her own temper — deprived him, by a double misfortune, of the affection which happier children feel towards an indulgent mother, and of the respect which they involuntarily pay to a judicious father. Mackintosh accounts for the intensity of the reciprocal tenderness of his mother rather differently — the circumstances of the family were narrow, and "his mother loved him," he says, "with that fondness which we are naturally disposed to cherish for the companions of our poverty." We a little doubt that poverty quickens natural affection; and from a pregnant hint "that his mother was not happy" (p. 3) we should — if obliged to look beyond the instinct of maternal tenderness — rather suppose that a community in sufferings more poignant than mere poverty might have concentrated in a peculiar degree the affection of the mother on her sympathizing boy.
At ten years old he was sent to school, where, as every other autobiographer does, and, as we suppose, every one else is inclined to do, he complains of how little he acquired. A complaint so universal cannot apply to any particular school, or any individual boy, and those who, upon similar testimonies, decry our great public schools, ought in fairness to see whether every man, wherever educated, does not tell the same story. It was but the other day that we heard one of the greatest, the most gifted, and the most accomplished men of the age — a great statesman and an admirable scholar — lamenting over the lost opportunities of his education; yet he had been from his earliest youth remarkable for a combination of genius and diligence, which, in the opinion of every one but himself, has been crowned with the most brilliant results. The truth is, we are too apt to forget that the young mind can no more do the work of maturity than the young body; and a man of general acquirements — conscious of how little he knows compared with the wide range of knowledge, and how imperfectly, compared with those who follow a single pursuit — is apt to do injustice to himself and his instructors. The mind that learns little at school might have been broken down under an attempt to carry more; and we incline to concur in the spirit of the opinion with which Mackintosh's old nurse moderated the elation of his friends at his precocious talents — "Wait awhile; its no aye that wise bairns mak wise men!" Many and many a man, we firmly believe, has been over-educated into dullness.
At school, however, he seems to have learned something which it were better he had been untaught — he fell in with a freethinking usher. "I became," he says, in consequence of the turn this man's disquisitions gave his mind, "a warm advocate for free-will; and before I was fourteen I was probably the boldest heretic in the country" (p. 6). How far these heretical opinions went, and how long they lasted, we are not told by the editor — but we have good reason to believe that, if not transient, they were at least not enduring. In his own published writings, Mackintosh speaks, whenever he alludes to sacred subjects, in a tone of reverence; and if we do not find in them any distinct avowal of his own Christian conviction, it is, his personal acquaintances do not need to be told, because no occasion for such a profession of faith seemed to present itself. We regret the silence of the editor on this important topic — but, here as in many other points, we must not forget that, able and intelligent as he obviously is, he must be a very young man, and a wholly inexperienced author.
In 1799 Mrs. Mackintosh left her son to rejoin "his father, then in camp near Plymouth, and soon accompanied him to Gibraltar, where she died;" and where, thirty years afterwards, Sir James with pious care erected a monument to her memory.
He remained at school till October, 1780. He had, he says, been latterly deputed by the master to teach — "what very little I knew to the younger boys. I went and came, read and lounged, as I pleased. I could very imperfectly construe a small part of Virgil, Horace, and Sallust. There my progress at school ended. Whatever I have done beyond has been since added by my own irregular reading. But no subsequent circumstance could make up for that invaluable habit of vigorous and methodical industry which the indulgence and irregularity of my school life prevented me from acquiring, and of which I have painfully felt the want in every part of my life." — vol. i. pp. 7, 8.
The four years subsequent to 1780 were passed, the winters at the college of Aberdeen, the vacations with his grandmother; and as here, according to his own very probable account, his political and literary character received its first impulse, we shall make a copious extract:—
"I fell under the tuition of Dr. Dunbar, author of 'Essays on the History of Mankind,' &c.; and under his care I remained till I left college. He taught mathematics, natural and moral philosophy, in succession. His mathematical and physical knowledge was scanty, which may perhaps have contributed to the scantiness of mine. In moral and political speculation he rather declaimed than communicated (as he ought) elementary instruction. He was, indeed, totally wanting in the precision and calmness necessary for this last office. But he felt, and in his declamation inspired an ardour which, perhaps, raised some of his pupils above the vulgar; and which might even be more important than positive knowledge. He was a worthy and liberal-minded man, and a very active opponent of the American war. In spring, 1782, when the news arrived of the dismissal of Lord North, he met me in the street, and told me, in his pompous way, 'Well,' Mr. M., 'I congratulate you — the Augean stable is cleansed.' I trace to his example some declamatory propensities in myself, which I have taste enough in my sober moments to disapprove; but I shall ever be grateful to his memory for having contributed to breathe into my mind a strong spirit of liberty, which, of all moral sentiments, in my opinion, tends most to swell the heart with an animating and delightful consciousness of our own dignity; which again inspires moral heroism, and creates the exquisite enjoyments of self-honour and self-reverence." — vol. i. p. 12.
It is no slight proof of the strength of early prejudices that so acute a dialectician as Mackintosh should be found expatiating in such vague commonplaces about the spirit of liberty, when he had just before very justly characterized the person who had inoculated him with that enthusiasm as an empty and pompous declaimer, with scanty knowledge of what he ought to have known, and who seems to have talked politics to his pupils because he was incapable of instructing them in that which it was his duty to teach.
"We had among us some English dissenters, who were educated for the ecclesiastical offices of their sect. Robert Hall, now a dissenting clergyman at Cambridge, was of this number. He then displayed the same acuteness and brilliancy, the same extraordinary vigour both of understanding and imagination, which have since distinguished him. His society and conversation had a great influence on my mind. Our controversies were almost unceasing. We lived in the same house, and we were both very disputatious. He led sue to the perusal of Jonathan Edwards's book on Free-Will, which Dr. Priestley had pointed out before. I am sorry that I never yet react the other works of that most extraordinary man, who, in a metaphysical age or country, would certainly have been deemed as much the boast of America as his great countryman Franklin. We formed a little debating society, in which one of the subjects of dispute was, I remember, the duration of future punishments. Hall defended the rigid, and I the more lenient opinion. During one winter, we met at five o'clock in the morning to read Greek, in the apartments of Mr. Wynne, a nephew of Lord Newburgh, who had the good-nature to rise at that unusual hour for the mere purpose of regaling us with coffee. Hall read Plato, and I went through Herodotus. Our academical instruction has left very few traces on my mind." — vol. i. p. 14.
But Mackintosh was now destined to take lessons from a tutor still more indiscreet than Dr. Dunbar. In 1782, he fell in love with a Miss S—, of I—, and, exchanging Herodotus for the ladies who give their names to his books, became a poet in her praise, and wooed her in prose and rhyme till she returned his passion; for three or four years this amour was the principal object of his thoughts, and all his anxiety was to obtain such a moderate competency as would justify matrimony. His first ambition did not soar beyond a professorship at Aberdeen — to which, encouraged, we suppose, by Dr. Dunbar's successful practice, he does not seem to have dreamt that ignorance and utter incapacity could be any obstacle: however, this design was gradually abandoned; and our readers will, we think, smile at the alternative which he was willing to embrace as a substitute for the professorship:—
"In spring, 1784, I finally quitted college, with little regular and exact knowledge, but with considerable activity of mind and boundless literary ambitions.
The world was all before me,
and I had to choose my profession. My own inclination was towards the Scotch bar; but my father's fortune was thought too small for me to venture on so uncertain a pursuit. To a relation from London, then in the Highlands, I expressed my wish to be a bookseller in the capital, conceiving that no paradise could surpass the life spent amongst books, and diversified by the society of men of genius. My cousin, 'a son of earth,' knew no difference between a bookseller and a tallow-chandler, except in the amount of annual profit. He astonished me by the information that a creditable bookseller, like any other considerable dealer, required a capital, which I had no means of commanding; and that he seldom was at leisure to peruse any book but his ledger. It is needless to say, that his account of the matter was pretty just; but I now think that a well-educated man, of moderate fortune, would probably find the life of a bookseller in London very agreeable. Our deliberations terminated in the choice of physic, and I set out for Edinburgh, to begin my studies, in October, 1784. In the mean time, I am ashamed to confess that my youthful passion had insensibly declined, and during this last absence was nearly extinguished. The young lady afterwards married a physician at Inverness, and is now, I hope, the happy as well as respectable mother of a large family." — vol. i. pp. 20, 21.
At Edinburgh he studied medicine, after the manner congenial to his indolent and speculative disposition. He seems to have pursued his practical and substantial studies very loosely, but to have embarked in the polemics of medical theories with great zeal. These led him to, first, a medical, and subsequently, a general, Debating Society, where he indulged, and probably improved, his oratorical talents.
"In three months after my arrival in Edinburgh, before I could have distinguished bark from James's powder, or a pleurisy from a dropsy in the chamber of a sick patient, I discussed with the utmost fluency and confidence the most difficult questions in the science of medicine. We mimicked, or rather felt, all the passions of an administration and opposition; and we debated the cure of a dysentery with as much factious violence as if our subject had been the rights of a people or the fate of an empire. Any subject of division is, indeed, sufficient food for the sectarian and factious propensities of human nature." — p. 25.
The pleasantry, candour, and good sense of this confession is characteristic of Mackintosh; but not less characteristic is the inconsistency with which he in a moment forgets that the practice of such presumption and effrontery might have an injurious effect on the youthful mind, inadequately compensated by an increased fluency of words or a readier knack at disputation.
"These debates might, no doubt, be laughed at by a spectator; but if he could look through the ludicrous exterior, he might see that they led to serious and excellent consequences. The exercise of the understanding was the same, on whatever subjects, or in whatever manner it was employed. Such debates were the only public examinations in which favour could have no place, and which never could degenerate into mere formality; they must always be severe and always just.
"I was soon admitted a member of the Speculative Society, which had general literature and science for its objects. It had been founded about twenty years before, and during that period numbered among its members all the distinguished youth of Scotland, as well as many foreigners attracted to Edinburgh by the medical schools.
"When I became a member, the leaders were Charles Hope, now Lord Justice Clerk [now the venerated Lord President], John Wilde, afterwards professor of civil law, and who has now, alas! survived his own fertile and richly-endowed mind; Malcolm Laing the historian; Baron [the afterwards well known Benjamin] Constant de Rebecque, a Swiss of singular manners and powerful talents, and who made a transient appearance in the tempestuous atmosphere of the French Revolution; Adam Gillies, a brother of the historian, and a lawyer in great practice at Edinburgh [now Lord Gillies]; Lewis Grant, eldest son of Sir James Grant, then a youth of great promise, and afterwards member of parliament for the county of Elgin, now in the most hopeless state of mental derangement; and Thomas Addis Emmett, who soon after quitted physic for law, and became distinguished at the Irish bar. He was a member of the secret directory of United Irishmen. In 1801, when I last visited Scotland, he was a state prisoner in Fort George. He is now a barrister at New York." — pp. 25-27.
At this period closes Sir James's own sketch of his early life, which we have the more copiously extracted because it is his own, and because we think it indicates the bent of his mind, and shows the vague and inconsiderate manner in which he originally imbibed those principles, which he professed, not without some injury to the community, in the early part of his public life, but which, much to his honour, he seems in his latter years to have very much modified, if not wholly abjured.
With such a knowledge of the medical art as this course of study might be supposed to give, he took his Doctor's degree in the autumn of 1787; and "in the beginning of the spring of 1788" (p. 41), Doctor Mackintosh made his first appearance in London. And now occurred a circumstance, which — if we are correct in our development of what appears to be the studied confusion of the editor's dates — is indicative of an inconceivable degree of precipitation — he married. We know not what the editor may consider as the "beginning of Spring," when Mackintosh arrived in London and took up his abode at the house of a Mr. Fraser; but we find (p. 50) that he was married on the 18th of February, of the same year, to Miss Catherine Stuart, a young lady whom he first met in Mr. Fraser's society. Is it to conceal or palliate this extravagant haste that the editor's narrative interposes, between the arrival and the marriage, an ample account of Mackintosh's early London life — his too convivial dissipation — his discursive studies — his political excitements — and even an attempt to get out to Russia as a practising physician? This last event is dated in June, 1788; and we cannot guess — except on the supposition which we have hinted — why it, and all the other particulars we have quoted, should precede by several pages the statement of the marriage, which, if our reading of the dates be correct, must have preceded them all.
But though the marriage was hasty as to time, and imprudent in other circumstances, it was, as far as depended on the parties themselves, a happy one. Mrs. Mackintosh appears to have been an amiable and excellent woman. She bore him three daughters, but died in childbirth, in April, 1797; and the following extract from a beautiful and most characteristic letter of Mackintosh's, on this melancholy occasion, will do her higher and more lasting honour than one of his friend Parr's absurd and pedantic Latin epitaphs, which parodies Cicero on a Christian monument in the church of St. Clement Danes:—
"Allow me in justice to her memory to tell you what she was, and what I owed her. I was guided in my choice only by the blind affection of my youth. I found an intelligent companion and a tender friend — a prudent monitress, the most faithful of wives, and a mother as tender as children ever had the misfortune to lose. I met a woman who, by the tender management of my weaknesses, gradually corrected the most pernicious of them. She became prudent from affection; and though of the most generous nature, she was taught economy and frugality by her love for me. During the most critical period of my life, she preserved order in my affairs, from the care of which she relieved me. She gently reclaimed me from dissipation; she propped my weak and irresolute nature; she urged my indolence to all the exertions that have been useful or creditable to me; and she was perpetually at hand to admonish my heedlessness and improvidence. To her I owe whatever I am — to her whatever I shall be. In her solicitude for my interest, she never for a moment forgot my feelings or my character. * * I lost her, alas (the choice of my youth, and the partner of my misfortunes) at a moment when I had the prospect of her sharing my better days." — pp. 96, 97.
But we must return to an earlier period. Mrs. Mackintosh's brothers were both, we are told, connected with the press, and, we believe, on the side of Opposition. It is probable that this may have been an additional incentive to Mackintosh's predisposition to Whig politics, though we do not find any note of his having been employed by those gentlemen; nor, strange enough to say, is there any other information given of the means by which Mackintosh existed during the first years of his abode in London, than may be gathered from the following anecdote:—
"The following autumn (1789) was occupied by a tour, in company with his wife, through the Low Countries to Brussels, and a residence there of some duration, during which — while he acquired an uncommon facility in the use of the French tongue — he at the same time obtained some insight into the causes and chances of success in the struggle which was then going on between the Emperor Joseph and his refractory subjects in the Netherlands. This knowledge he turned to account on his return to London, towards the end of the year, by contributing most of the articles on the affairs of Belgium and France to the 'Oracle' newspaper, conducted at that time by Mr. John Bell, with whom an engagement had been made by a mutual friend for 'Doctor' Mackintosh — a title which is said to have had some influence in the bargain, as conveying a favourable impression of the dignity of the new ally. This species of writing, not requiring continued application, appears to have fallen in with his desultory habits, and he laboured in his new vocation of 'superintending the foreign news,' with great industry. 'One week (we are told,) being paid in proportion to the quantity, his due was ten guineas;' at which John Bell, a liberal man, was rather confounded, exclaiming, 'No paper can stand this!' After this unfortunate explosion of industry, the exuberance of his sallies in the cause of Belgium and French freedom was repressed by a fixed salary, which he continued from his property, and augmented ease of his circumstances, allowed him more to consult his own inclination, as to the mode in which his talents and industry should be employed." — pp. 53, 54.
There is reason to fear (and it would have been no disgrace, but the contrary, if the editor had told it) that, at this period, Mackintosh must have suffered considerable pecuniary difficulty; and it is but justice to his literary character to state, that he seems never to have been, till his Indian appointment, sufficiently at ease in that respect, to be in any degree master of his studies and occupation.
It may even be doubted, indeed, whether the habits of the man as to matters of worldly business did not, among other, we will not say graver consequences, entail upon him even at much later periods something of the same interrupting or diverting inconvenience. His friend, Mr. Sidney Smith, thus writes to the editor of these memoirs:—
"Curran, the Master of the Rolls, said to Mr. Grattan, 'You would be the greatest man of your age, Grattan, if you would buy a few yards of red tape, and tie up your bills and papers.' This was the fault or the misfortune of your excellent father; he never knew the use of red tape, and was utterly unfit for the common business of life. That a guinea represented a quantity of shillings, and that it would barter for a quantity of cloth, he was well aware; but the accurate number of the baser coin, or the just measurement of the manufactured article, to which he was entitled for his gold, he could never learn, and it was impossible to teach him. Hence his life was often an example of the ancient and melancholy struggle of genius with the difficulties of existence."
But we must go back to Doctor Mackintosh. He made several ineffectual attempts to establish himself as a physician at Bath, at Salisbury, at Weymouth. The pupil of Dr. Dunbar who knew more about Lord North than Boerhaave, and the debater on medical theories, who could not distinguish bark from James's powders or a pleurisy from a dropsy, — was never, notwithstanding the incomprehensible chances of the medical profession, likely to attract much confidence.
At last, in 1790, came the tide in his affairs, which, when taken at the ebb, led on to reputation, and at last to fortune. Mr. Burke's "Reflections on the French Revolution" appeared: Mackintosh, probably predisposed by the principles of Dr. Dunbar — sharpened by poverty , and incited by a just confidence in his own powers, and a natural desire of distinction, published, in reply (April, 1791), his Vindiciae Gallicae. The literary merit of this work was very considerable in itself, and its reputation was from some auxiliary circumstances still greater. The splendid orb of Burke's genius illuminated the opposition of the satellite.
Iste tulit pretium jam nunc certaminis hujus,
Quo cum victus erit, mecum certasse feretur.
The very contest was a distinction in the eyes of the world, while the Jacobin adversaries of Burke extolled and exaggerated the powers of their new champion with all the zeal of party.
As to the principles of the work we need only quote Mackintosh's own calmer judgment. When — very soon — the horrors of the French Revolution had accomplished all the prophecies of Burke, and drowned in a deluge of fire and blood all the splendid hopes and eloquent sophistries of the Vindiciae Gallicae — Mackintosh, who we really believe was not, from the first, very sincere in the principles which his work appeared to advocate, abandoned them altogether with a mixture of personal disappointment and conscientious candor, which he describes very forcibly: and when in a few years more he undertook to deliver lectures on English law, he took that public occasion to confess that a considerable modification of his political principles had taken place. This avowal was received by the Jacobin party with loud indignation; which was greatly inflamed by Mackintosh's subsequent acceptance of a place from a Tory minister. The more violent branded him as an apostate — Parr, who on the appearance of the Vindiciae Gallicae, had, with all the fervour of faction, adopted him as a kind of political godson, now turned short round and marked his indignation by the bitterest sarcasm. It is said that at their last meeting the conversation happened to turn on O'Quigley, an Irish priest, who was hanged for high treason; and Mackintosh having expressed a very unfavourable opinion of him, Parr said "He might have been worse." "How so?" asked Mackintosh. "Why, Jemmy," rejoined Parr, "he was an Irishman, — he might have been a Scotchman; he was a priest, — he might have been a lawyer; he was a traitor, — he might have been an apostate." The editor might have recorded this clever sally without any disparagement to his father's memory, — for the two first charges, however witty in the speaker, were no imputation against their object, and the latter could only have been offensive if Mackintosh were insincere in his conversion — which no one can now believe. The silence of the editor gives more venom to this pleasantry than it before possessed. It is certain, however, that Mackintosh became the object of the enmity of most of his former friends — and even the good-natured Fox himself was estranged from, and never, we believe, reconciled to his wavering disciple. Sore from these imputations — which, however unjust, are intolerable when envenomed by the rancour of party — Mackintosh addressed, in Dec. 1804, a long explanatory letter to the amiable and accomplished Mr. Richard Sharp (whose recent loss the literary world regrets), an old friend and a zealous Whig, with the intention, no doubt, that he should use it as a means of reconciliation with the Party. This letter, though it is substantially a sufficient vindication of Mackintosh's vacillations, is marked with the indecision of his mind, and we may add, the narrowness, in some respects, of his views. It is pitched in too low and apologetical a tone. It is an argumentative appeal for indulgence, rather than the indignant refutation of calumny and injustice — and, indeed, it seems to us, characteristic of the principle of his whole life. Feeling few things very deeply, adopting nothing very implicitly, finding, like Sir Roger de Coverley, that much might be said on both sides, he would willingly have resided on the frontiers of both parties, and enjoyed, on a kind of neutral ground, the friendship, or at least the society, of the adverse leaders. But this letter is curious in another point of view, as evidence of the blind and irrational tyranny of party, which could render it necessary for such a man as Mackintosh to enter into a defence of his personal honour, and of his fitness for the society of gentlemen, because, forsooth, he thought somewhat differently of the French Revolution in 1790 and in 1795, and hesitated to continue the hopes and confidence he had placed in Bailly and Lafayette, to Marat and Robespierre! Mackintosh's foresight may be impugned in this respect: Mr. Burke had warned him that the Constituent Assembly was pregnant with the National Convention, and that the fifth and sixth of October, 1789, were the certain preludes to the second and third of September, 1792: Mackintosh may, we repeat, be censured for blindness and prejudice in having disregarded Mr. Burke's prophetic reasonings — but surely not for apostacy — when the face of things had changed to the very contrary of what he had wished, hoped, and promised. Of this letter (which our limits do not allow us to give in extenso), we shall condense a few passages. Of the Vindiciae Gallicae, and of the gradual change of his opinions, he says, with a truth and force which we think exceedingly touching as well as convincing—
"Filled with enthusiasm, in very early youth, by the promise of a better order of society, I most unwarily ventured on publication, when my judgment and taste were equally immature.... But in the changing state of human affairs, the man who is constant to his opinions will be sometimes thought inconstant to his politics.... Those only who had irrevocably attached their early hopes, their little reputation, which they might he pardoned for exaggerating, and even, as they conceived, their moral character, to the success or failure of the French Revolution, can conceive the succession of feelings, most of them very painful, which agitated my mind during its progress. They alone knew my feelings from whom no sentiments of mine could be concealed. The witnesses of my emotion on the murder of General Dillon — on the 10th of August — on the massacre of the prisons — on the death of the king — are now no more. But the memory of what it is no hyperbole to call my sufferings, is at this instant fresh." — pp. 130, 131.
But in the midst of this apology, it is curious to see him confessing that he feels himself again wavering, and laying grounds for the future defence of future oscillation—
"At this moment, it is true, I suppose myself in a better position for impartiality. I therefore take it upon me to rejudge my past judgments. But can I be quite certain that the establishment of monarchical despotism in France, and the horrible effects of tyranny and imposture around me in this country, may not have driven my understanding once more to a point a little on the democratic side of the centre? I own I rather suspect myself of this; and though I labour to correct the deviation, and am convinced that it is much less than ever it was before, yet I am so sensible of the difficulty of discerning the middle point in politics, and of the still greater difficulty of resting near it, in the midst of so many disturbing powers, that I cannot but feel some distrust of my present judgment, and some disposition not to refuse to my own past errors that toleration, which I never withheld from those other men." — pp. 133, 134.
The editor does not tell us what effect this letter produced — from his silence as well as from the nature of the letter itself, we conclude that it could not have had the desired effect, nor have produced in the Party much confidence in the implicit devotion of so argumentative and balancing a mind.
It was about this period that Mackintosh wrote in his copy of Lord Bacon's works the following note, which sufficiently attests the sincerity at this period of his anti-revolutionary conversion.
"Jus naturae et gentium diligentius tractaturus, omne quod in Verulamio ad jurisprudentiam universalem spectat relegit J. M. apud Broadstairs in agro Rutupiano Cantiae, anno salutis humanae 1798, late tum flagrante, per Europae felices quondam populos, misero fatahlique bello, in quo nefarii et scelestissimi latrones infando consilio, aperte et audacter, virtutem, libertatem, Dei Immortalis cultum, mores et instituta majorum, hanc denique pulcherrime et sapientissime constitutam rempublicam la befactare, et penitus evertere conantur." — p. 115.
"James Mackintosh, when about to study with greater diligence the law of nature and of nations, reperused all those parts of Bacon which relate to general jurisprudence, at Broadstairs in the Isle of Thanet — the year of human salvation, 1798 — when the once happy nations of Europe are suffering under a wide wasting, miserable, and fatal war, in which the most nefarious rogues and villains are — advisedly — openly — and audaciously, endeavouring to shake, and eventually to entirely overthrow — virtue — liberty — the worship of God — the manners and institutions of our forefathers — and, in short, this, our most wisely and most beautifully constituted frame of government and society." — p. 115.
When copying these last words, in honour of Mackintosh's honest patriotism at the moment he wrote them, we cannot repress a feeling of wonder, and, we will confess, of sorrow and shame, that he who in this passage, and in many others more deliberate and most decisive in his lectures and other publications, had praised "the institutions of our forefathers, and this our most wisely and beautifully constituted frame of government and society," should have voted and spoken — however reluctantly and feebly — in favour of the Reform Bill.
But we must hot anticipate. It is pleasing to reflect that even in the heat of controversy Mackintosh never forgot his respect and admiration for Mr. Burke — and, when the contest had subsided, Burke on some overture from Mackintosh invited him to Beaconsheld, where he passed the last Christmas (1797) of Burke's life; when, to use the happy phrase of Lord Sidmouth — the most disinterested and effective friend Mackintosh ever made — "he renounced his early errors and received absolution." There can be no doubt that this personal acquaintance with Mr. Burke tended still farther to reclaim Mackintosh from his first political principles, and to create additional distrust amidst the zealots of his party.
Having, as we have stated, failed to establish himself in medical practice, and being obliged to depend for a livelihood mainly on his literary abilities, Mackintosh resolved to abandon physic for law, and was called to the bar in 1795. He appears, from this account, to have had a greater share of success in his practice at the bar than we had before heard of. There is a long and very interesting letter (without a date, but written avowedly at the editor's request for this work) from Mr. Basil Montague, by whose advice Mackintosh removed from the Home to the Norfolk Circuit, giving all account of the origin of their acquaintance, and some anecdotes of their circuit campaigns, which we wish we had room to insert, for it is not only amusing in itself but affords a very favourable and, we have no doubt, just view of Mackintosh's feelings and prospects at this period.
While he was creeping on in business and towards affluence, the prosecution of Peltier for libel on Buonaparte gave him (Feb. 1802) the double opportunity of publicly abjuring everything like Jacobinism, and of exhibiting his forensic talents on a great stage and with distinguished success. Mackintosh had long entertained a wish to obtain an Indian judgeship, — his reputation now justified such an appointment, and although this celebrated speech had been made against a government prosecution, Lord Sidmouth (then Mr. Addington), with his characteristic liberality and good nature, took advantage of a vacancy in the Recordership of Bombay to procure the appointment of Mackintosh to that office. The editor states that for this ministerial favour his father was mainly indebted to the mediation of Mr. Canning and the Lord Chief Commissioner Adam. We fear the introduction of these two names has been suggested with some view of justifying Mackintosh's acceptance of even a judicial office from a Tory minister, — but this was unnecessary, — and the editor has been, we are satisfied, misinformed as to the fact. Canning we know was, and Adam we can well believe may have been, useful to Mackintosh on other occasions, — but at this period they were both, and Canning particularly, in violent opposition to Mr. Addington — and we think we have the best authority for saying that in this matter neither Adam nor Canning had the slightest share, — the favour was asked by Mackintosh without intermediation, and granted by the minister without condition. That on accepting this favour Mackintosh did not derogate from any just claims that party could have on him is proved by a complimentary letter to him from Erskine, the Whig leader of the bar, immediately after the Peltier speech, by which it appears that Mackintosh had, previous to that event, aspired to a colonial judgeship, to his acceptance of which Erskine saw no other objection than that it was now beneath his talents and deserts. To India, however, early in 1804, he proceeded, having first received the honour of knighthood, accompanied by his second wife (Miss Allen, of Cressilly, in Pembrokeshire, whom he had married in 1798), and three daughters by his former and two by his latter marriage. It would be unjust to Mackintosh not to extract a passage from a letter which, about this time, Mr. Horner addressed to a common friend:—
"Give my respects to Sir James and Lady Mackintosh when you see them. I never pretended to express to either of them my sense of the great kindness they have shown me since I came to London, because I could not express it adequately. I shall ever feel it with gratitude, if I am good for anything. To Mackintosh, indeed, my obligations are of a far higher order than those even of the kindest hospitality: he has been an intellectual master to me, and has enlarged my prospects into the wide regions of moral speculation, more than any other tutor I have ever had in the art of thinking; I cannot even except Dugald Stewart, to whom I once thought I owed more than I could ever receive from another. Had Mackintosh remained in England, I should have possessed, ten years hence, powers and views which now are beyond my reach. I never felt his conversation but I felt a mixed consciousness, as it were, of inferiority and capability; and I have now and then flattered myself with the feeling, as if it promised that I might make something of myself. I cannot think of all this without being melancholy; 'ostendent tantum fata, neque ultra.'" — vol. i. p. 199.
This extract is doubly pleasing, — it does equal credit to two highly gifted and amiable persons; and, although Mr. Horner was at this period a very young man, his testimony is valuable as to the intellectual merits of Mackintosh's conversation, and the good nature with which he ever encouraged talents in others. The trite and inapplicable quotation with which Mr. Homer concludes was to be too soon less inappropriately repeated on his own untimely death.
Mackintosh's life, or rather his sickly vegetation, at Bombay is, as we have said, very fully told in a series of private letters and journals, which, nevertheless, contain little more than some notes of tours made in the interior, and some remarks on the works which he happened to read, and on the new publications which the India ships conveyed to him from Europe. Many of the latter are highly interesting, — as specimens of a just and candid style of criticism — indeed they are more than enough to make this a book of solid and permanent value — but they have little relation to Mackintosh's own actual Life. Mackintosh went to India — "multa et preclara minans" — of legal, philosophical, and historical works, which should occupy and fructify his official leisure; but an indolent man can never have leisure — and the climate of Bombay would have been enough to subdue a more active disposition than his; he seems to have done little more than read carelessly and ramblingly, — and his greatest exertions (of course out of his judicial duties) were commentaries on what he read. We are tempted to give our readers a few specimens — though the best of them are too long to be extracted "in extenso," and too closely reasoned to allow of abridgment:—
"My works (we find him confessing to Mr. Sharp,) are, alas! still projects. What shall I say for myself? My petty avocations, too minute for description, and too fugitive for recollection, are yet effectual interruptions of meditation. They are, I admit, partly the pretext. All I have to say is, that they are also partly the cause of my inactivity. I cannot say with Gray, that my time is spent in that kind of learned leisure, which has self-improvement and self-gratification for its object. Learned he might justly call his leisure. To that epithet I have no pretensions; but I must add, that frequent compunction disturbs my gratification; and the same indolence, or the same business which prevents me from working for others, hinders me from improving myself." — pp. 288, 289.
"I read at Mr. Wood's Madame de Genlis's 'Maintenon,' and I think it, perhaps, her best work. Madame de Maintenon is a heroine after her own heart. She is as virtuous as the fear of shame and hell could make her. A prudent regard to interest can go no farther. She was the perfect model of a reasonable and respectable Christian epicurean; and she was by nature more amiable than her system would have made her. The observations on courts are, I think, quite unrivalled. They just reach the highest point of refinement compatible with solidity." — vol. ii. pp. 8, 9.
This idea he afterwards expanded very happily in an article in the Edinburgh Review, vol. xliv. p. 420.
"'I perform my promise of giving you some account of what I have been reading in Hogarth. I do not think it quite justice to say that he was a great comic genius. It is more true that he was a great master of the tragedy and comedy of low life. His pictures have terrific and pathetic circumstances, and even scenes: he was a Lillo as well as a Fielding. His sphere, which was English low life, was contracted indeed, compared to that of Shakspeare, who ranged through human nature in all times, countries, ranks, and forms; but he resembled Shakspeare in the versatility of talent, which could be either tragic or comic; and in a propensity, natural to such a talent, to blend tragic with comic circumstances.'" — vol. ii. pp. 41, 42.
"The Empress Elizabeth, of Russia, during the war with Sweden, commanded the Hetman, or chief of the Cossacks, to come to court on his way to the array in Finland. 'If the emperor, your father,' said the Hetman, 'had takers my advice, your majesty would not now have been annoyed by the Swedes.' 'What was your advice?' answered the empress. 'To put the nobility to death, and transplant the people into Russia,' calmly replied the Cossack. 'But that,' the empress observed, 'would be rather barbarous.' 'I do not see that,' said he; 'they are all dead now, and they would only have been dead if my advice had been taken.' This is a sort of Cossack philosophy. It has a barbarous originality which strikes me." — Ibid. p. 51.
We must make room for Mackintosh's account (April 1808) of his impressions on the first perusal of "Corinne." The extract is long; but we wish to give at least one full and thoroughly characteristic specimen:—
"It is, as has been said, a tour in Italy, mixed with a novel. The tour is full of picture and feeling, and of observations on national character, so refined, that scarcely any one else could have made them, and not very many will comprehend or feel them. What an admirable French character is D'Erfeuil! so free from exaggeration, that the French critics say the author, notwithstanding her prejudices, has made him better than her favourite Oswald. Nothing could more strongly prove the fidelity of her picture, and the lowness of their moral standard. She paints Ancona, and, above all, Rome, in the liveliest colours. She alone seems to feel that she inhabited the eternal city. It must be owned that there is some repetition, or at least monotony, in her reflections on the monuments of antiquity. The sentiment inspired by one is so like that produced by another, that she ought to have contented herself with fewer strokes, and to have given specimens rather than an enumeration. The attempt to vary them must display more ingenuity than genius. It leads to a littleness of manner, destructive of gravity and tenderness.
"In the character of Corinne, Madame de Stael draws an imaginary self — what she is, what she had the power of being, and what she can easily imagine that she might have become. Purity, which her sentiments and principles teach her to love; talents and accomplishments, which her energetic genius might easily have acquired; uncommon scenes and incidents fitted for her extraordinary mind; and even beauty, which her fancy contemplates so constantly that she can scarcely suppose it to be foreign to herself, and which, in the enthusiasm of invention, she bestows on this adorned as well as improved self — these seem to be the materials out of which she has formed Corinne, and the mode in which she has reconciled it to her knowledge of her own character.
"13th — Second and third volumes of Corinne. I swallow Corinne slowly, that I may taste every drop. I prolong my enjoyment, and really dread the termination. Other travellers had told us of the absence of public amusements at Rome, and of the want of conversation among an indolent nobility; but, before Madame de Stael no one has considered this as the profound tranquillity and death-like silence, which the feelings require in a place, where we go to meditate on the great events of which it was once the scene, in a magnificent museum of the monuments of ancient times.
"How she ennobles the most common scenes! — a sermon on the quarter-deck of a ship of war!
"She admires the English, among whom she could not endure to live: and sighs for the society of Paris, whom she despises!
"15th — Fourth and fifth volumes of Corinne. Farewell Corinne! powerful and extraordinary book; full of faults so obvious as not to be worth enumerating; but of which a single sentence has excited more feeling, and exercised more reason, than the most faultless models of elegance.
"To animadvert on the defects of the story is lost labour. It is a slight vehicle of idea and sentiment. The whole object of an incident is obtained when it serves as a pretext for a reflection or an impassioned word. Yet even here there are scenes which show what she could have done if she had been at leisure from thought. The prayer of the two sisters at their father's tomb, the opposition of their characters, is capable of great interest if it had been well laboured. The grand defect is the want of repose — too much and too ingenious reflection — too uniform an ardour of feeling. The understanding is fatigued — the heart ceases to feel.
"The minute philosophy of passion and character has so much been the object of my pursuit that I love it even in excess. But I must own that it has one material inconvenience: the observations founded upon it may be true in some instances, without being generally so. Of the small and numerous springs which are the subject of observation, some may be most powerful at one time, others at another. There is constantly a disposition to generalise, which is always in danger of being wrong. It may be safe to assert that a subtle ramification of feeling is natural; but it is always unsafe to deny that an equally subtle ramification of the same feeling, in an opposite direction, may not be equally natural.
"There are, sometimes, as much truth and exactness in Madame de Stael's descriptions as in those of most cold observers. Her picture of stagnation, mediocrity, and dulness — of torpor, animated only by envy — of mental superiority, dreaded and hated without even being comprehended — and of intellect, gradually extinguished by the azotic atmosphere of stupidity — is so true! The unjust estimate of England, which this Northumbrian picture might have occasioned, how admirably is it corrected by the observation of Oswald, and even of poor Corinne, on their second journeys! and how, by a few reflections in the last journey to Italy, does this singular woman reduce to the level of truth the exaggerated praise bestowed by her first enthusiasm on the Italians!
"How general is the tendency of these times towards religious sentiment! Madame de Stael may not, perhaps, ever be able calmly to believe the dogmas of any sect. She seems prepared, by turns, to adopt the feelings of all sects. Twenty years ago the state of opinion seemed to indicate an almost total destruction of religion in Europe. Ten years ago the state of political events appeared to show a more advanced stage in the progress towards such a destruction. The reaction has begun everywhere." — p. 405-409.
Elsewhere, on reading some journals of the missionaries, he says:—
"It is impossible, I think, to look into the interior of any religious sect, without thinking better of it. I ought, indeed, to confine myself to those of Christian Europe; but, with that limitation, it seems to me that the remark is true — whether I look at the Jansenists of Port Royal, or the Quakers in Clarkson, or the Methodists in these journals. All these sects, which appear dangerous or ridiculous at a distance, assume a much more amiable character on neater inspection. They all inculcate pure virtue, and practise mutual kindness; and they exert great force of reason in rescuing their doctrines from the absurd or pernicious consequences which naturally flow from them. Much of this arises from the general nature of religious principle; much, also, from the genius of the Gospel — morality, so meek and affectionate, that it can soften barbarians, and warm even sophists themselves." — pp. 54, 55.
This last is one of the many passages, to which we have before alluded, which, notwithstanding some looseness in the expression, give us the gratification of believing that Mackintosh was, even from what may be called an early period of his life, in conviction as well as feeling, a CHRISTIAN.
"Oct. 16, 1810. — The Eclipse brings news of the death of Windham. He was a man of very high order, spoiled by faults apparently small: he had acuteness, wit, variety of knowledge, and fertility of illustration, in a degree probably superior to any man now alive. He had not the least approach to meanness. On the contrary, he was distinguished by honour and loftiness of sentiment. But he was an indiscreet debater, who sacrificed his interest as a statesman to his momentary feelings as an orator. For the sake of a new subtlety or a forcible phrase he was content to utter what loaded him with permanent unpopularity: his logical propensity led him always to extreme consequences; and he expressed his opinions so strongly, that they seemed to furnish the most striking examples of political inconsistency — though, if prudence had limited his logic and mitigated his expressions, they would have been acknowledged to be no more than those views of different sides of an object, which, in the changes of politics, must present themselves to the mind of a statesman. Singular as it may sound, he often opposed novelties from a love of paradox. Had Windham possessed discretion in debate, or Sheridan in conduct, they might have ruled their age." — pp. 59, 60, 61.
This is only a phrase. The verbal indiscretions of Windham, and the moral indiscretions of Sheridan, were essential parts of their respective characters. Without them there could have been no Windham nor Sheridan; and it is a mere rhetorical flourish to say that either of them — least of all men poor Sheridan — could ever have ruled the age. It was Mackintosh's own indiscretion to mix too often hyperbole with history.
We must now extract what appears to us, as sensible and, in spite of a few too rhetorical turns, on the whole as beautiful a letter as ever was penned, on perhaps the most delicate of all possible subjects: it is one addressed by Sir James to his early friend Hall, on that extraordinary man's recovery from a first access of insanity. We shall not weaken it by any commentary:—
"Bombay, 18th February, 1808.
My dear Hall, — It is now some time since I received yours of the 20th of July, 1806, from Leicester, and I assure you that I do not think myself in the least entitled to that praise of disinterestedness which you bestow on me, for wishing to correspond with you. The strength of your genius would, in all common circumstances, have made you a most desirable correspondent; and the circumstances which now limit your mental excursions give to your correspondence attractions of a very peculiar nature. Both the subject and the tone of our letters are probably almost unexampled. I have trusted enough to speak of what perhaps no friend ever dared to touch before; and you justify my confidence by contemplating, with calm superiority, that from which the firmest men have recoiled. That the mind of a good man may approach independence of external things, is a truth which no one ever doubted, who was worthy to understand; but you perhaps afford the first example of the moral nature looking on the understanding itself as something that is only the first of its instruments. I cannot think of this without a secret elevation of soul, not unattended, I hope, with improvement. You are perhaps the first who has reached this superiority. With so fine an understanding, you have the humility to consider its disturbance as a blessing, as far as it improves your moral system. The same principles, however, lead you to keep every instrument of duty and usefulness in repair; and the same habits of feeling will afford you the best chance of doing so.
"We are all accustomed to contemplate with pleasure the suspension of the ordinary operations of the understanding in sleep, and to be even amused by its nightly wanderings from its course in dreams. From the commanding eminence which you have gained, you will gradually familiarise your mind to consider its other aberrations as only more rare than sleep or dreams; and in process of time they will cease to appear to you much more horrible. You will thus be delivered from that constant dread which so often brings on the very evil dreaded; and which, as it clouds the whole of human life, is itself a greater calamity than any temporary disease. Some dread of this sort darkened the days of Johnson; and the fears of Rousseau seem to have constantly realised themselves. But whoever has brought himself to consider a disease of the brain as differing only in degree from a disease of the lungs, has robbed it of that mysterious horror which forms its chief malignity. If he were to do this by undervaluing intellect, he would indeed gain only a low quiet at the expense of mental dignity. But you do it by feeling the superiority of a moral nature over intellect itself. All your unhappiness has arisen from your love and pursuit of excellence. Disappointed in the pursuit of union with real or supposed excellence of a limited sort, you sought refuge in the contemplation of the Supreme Excellence. But, by the conflict of both, your mind was torn in pieces; and even your most powerful understanding was unable to resist the force of your still more powerful moral feelings.
"The remedy is prescribed by the plainest maxims of duty. You must act: inactive contemplation is a dangerous condition for minds of profound moral sensibility. We are not to dream away our lives in the contemplation of distant or imaginary perfection. We are to act in an imperfect and corrupt world; and we must only contemplate perfection enough to ennoble our natures, but not to make us dissatisfied and disgusted with those faint approaches to that perfection which it would be the nature of a brute or a demon to despise. It is for this reason that I exhort you to literary activity. It is not as the road of ambition, but of duty, and as the means of usefulness and the resource against disease. It is an exercise necessary to your own health, and by which you directly serve others. If I were to advise any new study, it would be that of anatomy, physiology, and medicine; as, besides their useful occupation, they would naturally lead to that cool view of all diseases which disarms them of their blackest terrors. Though I should advise these studies and that of chemistry, I am so far from counselling an entire divorce from your ancient contemptations, that I venture to recommend to you the spiritual Letters of Fenelon. I even entreat you to read and re-read them.
"I shall also take the liberty of earnestly recommending to you to consult Dr. Beddoes, in the most unreserved manner, on every part of your case, and to he implicitly guided by his counsels in every part of your ordinary conduct. I have more confidence in him than in all the other physicians in England; and I am not ignorant on the subject of medicine. Total abstinence from fermented liquor is obviously necessary; and I should think it best to relinquish coffee and tea, which liquors I think you sometimes drank to excess.
"May you, my dear friend, who have so much of the genius of Tasso and Cowper, in future escape their misfortunes — the calamities incident to tender sensibility, to grand enthusiasm, to sublime genius, and to intense exertion of intellect." — vol. i. pp. 368-370.
We conclude with an extract which has some relation to Mackintosh personally, and contains a short defence of his change of opinion on the French Revolution—
"Finished at my leisure hours 'The Diary of a Lover of Literature,' by Green of Ipswich. It is a ramble among hooks and men, all of them so much my old acquaintances, that I almost feel as if I were reading a journal of my own. Returning back to 1798 and 1800 seems like coming back to a pre-existent state. Criticisms on my own books, pamphlets, on articles in reviews written by me, and accounts of conversations with me, must to myself be interesting. This Diary has a singular mixture of good and bad judgments. It is most wonderful that a man capable of writing some parts of it should have seriously compared Dalrymple to Tacitus, and adopted Johnson's stupid prejudices against Gray. His style is too much 'made up;' it has no air of being thrown off at the moment. Here and there I am struck by one of Green's quaint felicities. The plan seems to have been suggested, and the manner much influenced by Gibbon's Journal, which had just appeared. I am more dissatisfied than flattered by his having recorded my conversations. He has by this means published one more proof of the various states of political feeling successively produced in my mind by the French revolution. This will be regarded as a new proof of my inconsistency in the judgment of the vulgar. A degree of wisdom is certainly conceivable, which would have reached principles and habits of feeling so comprehensive as to have adapted themselves to every succeeding convulsion without change, and of course without excess; but probably no man in Europe had attained this exalted perfection I am far indeed beneath the imaginary sage, but I humbly hope that I am just as far above the vaunted consistency of the unthinking and unfeeling vulgar." — vol. ii. pp. 147, 148.
Mackintosh's judgment on his friend Green's Diary seems to us a not inaccurate description of, and criticism on, a considerable portion of his own Journals, — though, as we need scarcely add, Mackintosh often intersperses passages of original thinking and metaphysical speculation, of a height to which honest Green never aspired.
In February, 1810, Lady Mackintosh's health obliged her to return to England. Mackintosh, though himself by no means well, remained, from considerations of pecuniary prudence, at Bombay, judging and journalizing. At last, on the 5th November, 1811, he himself embarked on his return to England, probably not sooner than was necessary for the preservation of his life. He amused the tedium of his voyage home by writing his Journal — this portion of which alone occupies one hundred pages, amusingly enough as literary gossip, but certainly very disproportionately on the Life of Mackintosh, — and by writing the characters of some eminent men, clearly intended to be afterwards interwoven into his long projected, long postponed, and finally, in his very last year, imperfectly executed History of England. They are all well, and we must add, impartially written — some of them are brilliant by the turns of phrases and sentences, but there is little originality of judgment, and no novelty of anecdote — they may be admirable as academical theses — but they add no more to the history of the individuals or of their country, than his sketches of Hogarth or Madame de Maintenon; — they prove, what he himself hints somewhere in the course of his Journal, and upon which we shall say a word hereafter, that his talent was rather declamatory than historical.
On his arrival in England, he found his early and useful friend, and his candid and able official antagonist, Mr. Perceval, prime minister. Mr. Perceval had, as is stated in a letter from Mr. Scarlett (now Lord Abinger) to the editor, given Mackintosh at the very outset of his career some countenance and assistance.
"Mr. Mackintosh, being called to the bar, was proposed as a candidate in a debating society of which I was a member. The society was then confined to banisters and members of parliament, and reckoned amongst its members several individuals who have since figured in eminent stations. — Mr. Perceval, Lord Bexley, Mr. Richard Ryder, Mr. Sturges Bourne, Lord Tenterden, Lord Lyndhurst, and others who, if fortune had been equally favourable to their pretensions, might perhaps have been as conspicuous he majority of our little society consisted of the supporters of the war and of the government. I trembled for the fate of Mr. Mackintosh, till I found in Mr. Perceval an equal admiration of his work [the Vindiciae], and an equal desire with my own to receive him into our society. His influence was employed to canvass for him, and we had the satisfaction to carry his election, and shortly after to form an acquaintance with him."
And when, subsequently, Mackintosh solicited the use of Lincoln's-Inn Hall to deliver his lectures, Lord Abinger states—
"There again he was encountered by political prejudice; difficulties were suggested, and objections urged, of a formal nature, against such an appropriation of the hall; but the real objection was, the apprehension of the doctrines he might teach. Mr. Perceval once more became his friend, and used his influence with such of the benchers as were known to him, to set them right, and subdue their scruples."
Mr. Perceval had conducted the prosecution against Peltier, as attorney-general — but with that generous and high-minded man Mackintosh's zeal for his client and the superior brilliancy of his appearance on that occasion, could only serve to increase his early regard; and on Mackintosh's return to England, Mr. Perceval lost no time in showing his value for Mackintosh's character, and his estimate of his abilities, for we are told that the latter had not been a fortnight in London before he received from Mr. Perceval the offer of a seat in parliament, and, by implication at least, of a share in the administration:—
"May 12th, 1812. — I was," says Sir James, in his Journal, "at Richmond last week for three days, for quiet and the recovery of strength. I there received a note from Perceval desiring an interview, which took place at twelve o'clock on Friday, the 8th, at Downing Street. He began in a very civil and rather kind manner, with saying, that, besides his wish to see me, he had another object in the appointment, which was to offer me a seat in parliament, either vacated or about to he so, which had placed at his disposal. He said that he did not wish to take me by surprise, and would allow me any time that I desired. He added all the usual compliments and insinuations of future advancement. I promised an answer in four or five days — not that I hesitated, for it had long been my fixed determination not to go into public life on any terms inconsistent with the principles of liberty, which are now higher in my mind than they were twenty years ago; but I wished to have an opportunity of sending a written answer, to prevent misconstructions.
"I was preparing to send it on Tuesday evening, 11th May, when, about seven o'clock, Josiah Wedgwood came into the parlour of our house, in New Norfolk Street, with information that, about five, Perceval had been shot through the heart by one Bellingham, a bankrupt ship-broker in Liverpool, who had formerly been confined for lunacy in Russia." — pp. 246, 247.
Mackintosh's letter of refusal, founded on his opinion of the necessity of an immediate repeal of the catholic disabilities, Mr. Perceval never received; and is, we must observe, a little inconsistent with his readiness to have joined Mr. Canning, who, fifteen years later, flatly refused to pledge himself to anything like an immediate repeal; though it is equally fair to admit that having always supported — as Mr. Perceval had always opposed — the principle of ultimate concession, he was nearer Mackintosh's sentiments. In the negociations which followed Mr. Perceval's death, the editor rather hints than states, that first by Lords Grey and Grenville, and subsequently by Lord Wellesley and Mr. Canning, Sir James was designated for a seat at the Board of Control: — the first proposition naturally failed by the failure of Lords Grey and Grenville themselves; the second, we are given to understand, Mackintosh rejected at once, because none of the leaders of his party (though he at the same time disclaimed having any party-connexions) were to be in the Cabinet. All these — to Mackintosh's personal character and prospects — most important transactions are slurred over in one page of very indistinct narrative; and a further proposition from Lord Liverpool's administration is again rather hinted than stated in the following enigmatical passage—
"This determination [not to accept office] was tried by other tests shortly after the return of the old ministry to power, under the new leadership of Lord Liverpool. A presiding love of moderation in politics, and an inclination to consider principles rather than persons, had the effect, in their tendency to abstract him from party views, of suggesting offers and solicitations on the part of government, which a better knowledge of a character occasionally misrepresented by too facile manners, would have saved. Mentioning one of these latter occasions to his son-in-law, at Bagdad, he says, 'It would take too much time to state my reasons for this rejection of offers so advantageous; they are, at any rate, disinterested. I have chosen my part, with an assurance that it will never give me power or influence.'" — p. 250.
We know not to what the editor here alludes — we have never heard that Lord Liverpool had made any offer of political office to Mackintosh; and we could well have spared a few pages of Mackintosh's criticisms on the miscellaneous literature which his leisure loved to devour — to have made room for some more intelligible account of those really important incidents in Mackintosh's life. However, it seems certain that his refusal of Mr. Perceval's offer procured him — through the unsolicited mediation of another old bar friend (Lord Abinger) — the offer of a seat for the county of Nairn, where, it appears, Lord Cawdor, who now belonged to the Whigs, had a nominating influence, — an influence, indeed, so decisive, that another gentleman was put as a "locum tenens" into the seat till Sir James Mackintosh had performed some species of legal quarantine, which was a necessary preliminary to his election for a Scotch county.
Of his success in parliament, and of the style of his eloquence, we certainly do not think quite so highly as the editor and those personal friends whose testimony he has adopted. Lord Abinger says,—
"He soon took a leading part in the debates of the House of Commons; and it is enough to say that he lost nothing of his reputation by his performances there. If, however, I may be allowed to express an opinion on that subject, I should say that the House of Commons was not the theatre where the happiest efforts of his eloquence could either be made or appreciated.... The mildness of his temper, the correctness of his judgment, the abundance of his knowledge, and the perfection of his taste, all combined to make him averse to the pursuit of applause, either by inflicting pain upon others, or by sacrificing truth and good feeling to the coarse appetite of the vulgar. I cannot be denied that, whenever the nature of the subject and the disposition of the House were favourable to his qualities as a speaker, he exhibited specimens of eloquence that were of the highest order, and. elicited the most unqualified applause." — pp. 288, 289.
Now we must say that we think Lord Abinger's friendly partiality carried him too far when he characterized any of Mackintosh's efforts in parliament as being of "the highest order of eloquence." They seem tons to have been ingenious, well arranged, well reasoned, with a general correctness and occasional felicity of expression; — and the humane and philanthropical objects to which they were often devoted inspired kindred minds with more respect than any displays of mere oratory could have done — but his speeches, as speeches, were not, in our humble judgment, of the highest order of anything, and least of all of that elevating power, that mental magnetism, generally called eloquence. Mr. Sydney Smith's testimony is more precise, and we think nearer the mark:—
"A high merit in Sir James was his real and unaffected philanthropy. HE did not make the improvement of the great mass of mankind an engine of popularity, and a stepping-stone to power, but he had a genuine love for human happiness. Whatever might assuage the angry passions, and arrange the conflicting interests of nations — whatever could promote peace, increase knowledge, extend commerce, diminish crime, and encourage industry — whatever could exalt human character, and could enlarge human understanding — struck at once at the heart of your father, and roused all his faculties. I have seen him in a moment when this spirit came upon him — like a great ship of war — cut his cable, and spread his enormous canvas, and launch into a wide sea of reasoning eloquence....
"But still his style of speaking in Parliament was certainly more academic than forensic; it was not sufficiently short and quick for a busy and impatient assembly. He often spoke over the heads of his hearers — was too much in advance of feeling for their sympathies, and of reasoning for their comprehension. He began too much at the beginning, and went too much to the right and left of the question, making rather a lecture or a dissertation than a speech. His voice was bad and nasal; and though nobody was in reality more sincere, he seemed not only not to feel, but hardly to think what he was saying."
It is not unamusing to observe the distinctive styles of these two friends of Mackintosh, and how widely they differ in manner, aye and in substance, on the same point. Lord Abinger, like an advocate, eulogizes his client in hyperbole; Mr. Smith, like a practised critic, balances "the good and evil," as he calls it, with something like the impartiality of a judge. In all the editor's own share in these volumes, and in all the testamentary contributions which he has collected, there is not a single passage which gives the slightest idea of the individuality of Mackintosh's speaking, except these honest touches of Mr. Sydney Smith; and yet who — not having heard him — could have had any adequate notion of Mackintosh's style, who had not been told of the harsh and nasal tone, and of the unimpressive and rhetorical manner?
And here we must enter our protest against the extension and abuse of this new fashion of biography, where an editor solicits eulogies from the surviving acquaintance of his hero, and under the shelter of their good-nature, publishes a series of puffs, that the fondest and foolishest son would never have dared to print on his own responsibility. We can forgive this practice in such cases as the recent life of Crabbe, and this of Mackintosh, where the inquiry of the editors was really a search after information concerning periods and circumstances to which they had no other access. But good cases make bad precedents; and even in the present instance the practice has been pushed too far. The anecdotes communicated by Mr. Montague, the facts recorded by Lord Abinger, and the manners sketched by Mr. Sydney Smith, are all illustrative of Mackintosh's life; yet even they lose something of their effect from the superabundant carving and gilding of the frame in which the portraits are exhibited. But what can be said for such vague generalities as have been drawn from the good-natured complaisance of Lord Jeffrey — without anecdotes, without facts, without features — a school thesis — a "panada panegyric." "I nunc," we might say to poor Mackintosh,
—I nunc, curre per Indos,
Ut pueris placeas, et declamatio fias.
It may amuse others to find Lord Jeffrey so employed — to see that great wholesale dealer in oil of vitriol reduced to draw out pennyworths of treacle. But it is an awful prospect for persons of our craft; and we therefore, while we are still, as we hope, in possession of our faculties, do enter our most strenuous protest against this system of soliciting from men that which they cannot decline without offence, and can hardly ever perform with credit.
But after all, the truest test of Mackintosh's parliamentary success — or, as he himself too modestly calls it, his failure — is the opinion not only of the House of Commons and the country, but of his party themselves; who, although they praised, and perhaps not over-praised, particular orations, felt that he exhibited neither a ready knack of debate, nor those bursts of enthusiasm which decide hesitating minds, and — even when they fail to convince — elevate and awe a popular assembly. Accordingly, it on experience appeared to all, as it had long before done to his own modest good sense, that he wanted some of the most important qualities of a practical politician; and he accepted, in 1818, the professorship of law in the East India College at Hayleybury; a situation which, if he had possessed anything like the parliamentary talents attributed to him by Lord Abinger, or even as much as Mr. Smith's more moderate standard indicates, it would have been an insult to offer. This miscalculation of Mackintosh's real place in the House of Commons has led his personal friends into some not entirely well-founded complaints of the neglect with which he was treated by his Party. After a long night, a dawn of political power beamed on the Whigs, by Mr. Canning's accession to the office of first minister in 1827. The refusal of the leading Tories to take part in his administration obliged him to have recourse to the more moderate of the Opposition: both on that occasion, and on the subsequent and wider change which, fatally for the constitution of England, brought Lord Grey to the head of affairs, it is plain, from the whole tone of this work and from various innuendoes scattered throughout, that Mackintosh, or at least his personal friends for him, felt highly dissatisfied with the neglect with which he was treated by the heads of the Whig party.
"It is no part," says Lord Abinger, "of the present subject to enter into a history of the negociation that took place between Mr. Canning and some of the Whig party at that time. But I can state, upon my own knowledge, the surprise and the concern Mr. Canning expressed, that the name of Sir James Mackintosh was not amongst the list of those who were proposed to form a coalition with him; he had certainly thought him, not in merit only, but in estimation, one of the foremost of his party, and he was aware of the sacrifices he had made to it. Shortly afterwards, his Majesty was pleased to admit him of his Privy Council. Upon the last change of administration, when a new ministry was formed by a coalition of individuals of all the different parties in the State, but under the influence of Lord Grey, a subordinate place in the Board of Control was the reward of his long life of merit and exclusion. The difficulty of distributing office amongst so many expectants must be the consolation to his friends, for this apparently inadequate station for one so eminent, and who had lost so much by his adherence to party. To those who are not in the secret, it must he matter at least of surprise, that neither parliamentary experience, nor a well-earned reputation, nor long-tried devotion, nor the habits of business [?], were so much in request as to find their way into any but a comparatively insignificant place at a Board, at the head of which, Sir James Mackintosh, rather than abandon his party, had in other times declined to preside. Such is the caprice of fortune, or the wantonness of power, in the distribution of favours! There is a certain degree of merit which is more convenient for reward than the highest. Caligula made his horse a consul, to show the absoluteness of his authority. Perhaps it is something of the same feeling which actuates persons and ministers in the honours they bestow."
This is, we think, a little too broadly stated. It may be true that neither in the arrangement with Mr. Canning, nor at the formation of the Grey Ministry in 1830, was Sir James Mackintosh rated by the distributors of place quite so high as his personal friends, or even the public, might have expected; and it is very probable that some amiable points in Mackintosh's character may have contributed to this apparent injustice. It was not, we believe, his nature — it certainly was not his habit — to be a vehement party man. A party man should be, we fear, a good hater. Now Mackintosh was candid towards his opponents in public, and in private lived with them on easy terns of mutual civility, and, in some cases, of friendship. Party admits of no divided allegiance — and although, as Lord Abinger and the editor assiduously inculcate, Mackintosh was true to his party in substantials, we can easily believe that his philosophical moderation did not satisfy the zealots, and his social tolerance offended the bigots of his party. It is, therefore, by no means surprising that he should not have been an object of their enthusiasm. And here we must again observe that Mr. Sydney Smith comes nearer to the true state of the case than the other panegyrists:—
"Sufficient justice has not been done to his political integrity. He was not rich — was from the northern part of the island — possessed great facility of temper — and had therefore every excuse for political lubricity — which that vice (more common in those days than I hope it will ever be again) could possibly require. Invited by every party upon his arrival from India, he remained stedfast to his old friends the Whigs, whose admission to office, or enjoyment of political power, would at that period have been considered as the most visionary of all human speculations; yet, during his lifetime, everybody seemed more ready to have forgiven the tergiversation of which he was not guilty, than to admire the actual firmness he had displayed. With all this, he never made the slightest efforts to advance his interests with his political friends, never mentioned his sacrifices nor his services, expressed no resentment at neglect, and was therefore pushed into such situations as fall to the lot of the feeble and delicate in a crowd.
"If he had been arrogant and grasping; if he had been faithless and false; if he had been always eager to strangle infant genius in its cradle; always ready to betray and to blacken those with whom he sat at meat; he would have passed many men, who, in the course of his long life, have passed him; — but, without selling his soul for pottage, if he only had had a little more prudence for the promotion of his interest, and more of angry passions for the punishment of those detractors who envied his fame and presumed upon his sweetness; if he had been more aware of his powers, and of that space which nature intended him to occupy; he would have acted a great part in life, and remained a character in history."
Our readers will be at no loss to discover at least one of the persons whom Mr. Smith had in his eye when he was sketching the unamiable contrast to Mackintosh which we have distinguished by italics. "Non nostrum est tantas componere lites;" but as to Mackintosh, it is certain that, however loved, admired, and respected he may have been by his friends, he did not possess that kind of influence with them which can alone obtain a large share in the spoils of a political victory. But there is also another reason, which Mackintosh's personal friends have wholly overlooked, but which, even with Whigs, when called to the practical administration of affairs, must have had some little weight — Mackintosh's talents were not of the official kind: "ex quovis ligno non fit Mercurius." Mercury filled the most ministerial office in the whole mythology; and the proverb seems to imply that the qualities necessary to make a good practical minister were rarer than some others of greater elevation and splendour. Mackintosh, too, let it be remembered, was forty-seven when he came into Parliament, and up to that period knew little of business, and nothing of the practical management of public affairs. His parliamentary efforts were chiefly theoretic, and he took little pains to acquaint himself with the small but necessary details of public life; and when, at last, the opportunity of office arose, it found him in the sixty-second year of a life of indolent habits, speculative studies, and desultory and variable pursuits. Had he, in 1812, accepted Mr. Perceval's offer, he might, possibly, have become a man of business and debate, and have eventually been adequate for the highest offices of the state. In 1827, and, still more, in 1830, it was perhaps too late; and we cannot, therefore, altogether concur in the disappointment and vexatious which his friends, his family, and himself seem to have felt at what they consider only in the light of ingratitude to great services and a neglect of great abilities. We say altogether; because, although we never expected that Mackintosh should be elevated at once to the great and guiding offices of the state, yet it will not be denied that his claims, his character, and his powers, fitted him for something better than the empty title of a privy councillor in Nov. 1827, or than the almost-sinecure salary of the India Board in 1830. He should have been placed in one of those secondary, yet independent departments, commonly called Privy Councillors' Offices — Treasurer of the Navy, Paymaster, Master of the Mint, &c., which were bestowed — as Lord Abinger says Caligula made his horse a consul — on such "weak masters" as Mr. Poulett Thomson and Lord John Russell. Nay, when we look at the composition of Lord Grey's Cabinet, we cannot but think that Mackintosh had superior claims in every way, but particularly in intellect and public reputation, to many who were admitted into that feeble but fatal conclave. Mackintosh's conduct in the House of Commons, on the Reform Bill, is, in our (perhaps not unprejudiced) opinion, a blot on his consistency and public character, — but we cannot believe that he would, in the calm and conscientious consideration which, if he had been in the Cabinet, he must have given to the subject, have brought himself to assent to a measure, which was in its principle diametrically opposite to all the views of the practical constitution which he had so often, so solemnly, and so publicly avowed and taught. With a generous and sensitive mind it is one thing to defend and make common cause with its friends and party when they are embarked in a violent contest, however imprudently or unjustly provoked; it is another to create and excite, by deliberate counsels, such a contest. Mackintosh, like many others, was induced by an erroneous sense of political and personal honour to take his part in the battle; but we sincerely doubt whether he would have originally consented to commence those fatal hostilities. If we be right in this supposition, we have additional reason — for his sake and ours — to lament that he was not of that Cabinet.
Mackintosh's modest, moderate, and hesitating speech, delivered on the 4th of July, 1831, on the second reading (afterwards corrected and published by himself), is almost the only speech which attempted to reconcile the principle of reform with any period of that practiced constitution, which the supporters of the bill affected to admire, and which, with astonishing effrontery, they professed only to restore. But Mackintosh was obliged by his position to play the sophist; and the greater part of his speech referred to matters antecedent to our Revolution of 1688 — and, therefore, as regarded the existing practice of the constitution, perfectly antediluvian. The only point of present weight and importance he touched, was rather the abuse, than the abstract demerit, of nomination — overlooking the fact, that the bill was to sweep away many practical advantages of nomination, for the purpose of remedying what he admitted to be in some respects only a speculative mischief; and while he spoke with great hesitation of the probable advantages of the measure, he expatiated on the danger which would then attend its rejection — forgetting, again, that it was his friends, as Lord John Russell distinctly avowed, who had created that danger, by provoking an excitement which did not previously exist. But our more substantial quarrel with the speech is, that, in its principles, it, by implication and inference, contradicted the no doubt sincere convictions of all Mackintosh's better days. Let its hear what he himself wrote and stated in his celebrated Introductory Lecture in 1797, and, in substance, often reiterated in his later works:—
"The best security which human wisdom can devise seems to be the distribution of political authority among different individuals and bodies, with separate interests and separate characters, corresponding to the variety of classes of which civil society is composed, each interested to guard their own order from oppression by the rest; each also interested to prevent any of the others from seizing an exclusive, and therefore despotic power; and all having a common interest to co-operate in carrying on the ordinary and necessary administration of government.... Human wisdom cannot form such a constitution by one act, for human wisdom cannot create the materials of which it is composed. The attempt, always ineffectual, to change by violence the ancient habits of man, and the established order of society, so as to fit them absolutely for a new scheme of government, flows from the most presumptuous ignorance, requires the support of the most ferocious tyranny, and leads to consequences which its authors can never foresee; generally, indeed, to institutions the most opposite to those of which they profess to seek the establishment. Such a constitution can only be formed by the wise imitation of "the great innovator, Time, which, indeed, innovateth greatly, but quietly, and by degrees scarcely to be perceived."
"I shall attempt to exhibit this most complicated machine [the old constitution] as our history and our laws show it in action; and not as some celebrated writers have most imperfectly represented it, who have torn out a few of its more simple springs, and putting them together, miscal them the British Constitution. Philosophers of great an merited reputation have told us that it consisted of certain portions of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy; names which are, in truth, very little applicable, and which, if they were, would as little give an idea of this government as an account of the weight of bone, of flesh, and of blood, in a human body, would be a picture of a living man.
"I shall labour, above all things, to avoid that which appears to me to have been the constant source of political error; I mean the attempt to give an air of system, of simplicity, and of rigorous demonstration, to subjects which do not admit it. The only means by which this could be done was by referring to a few simple causes, what, in truth, arose from immense and intricate combinations, and successions of causes. The consequence was very obvious. The system of the theorist, disencumbered from all regard to the real nature of things, easily assumed an air of speciousness. It required little dexterity to make his argument appear conclusive. But all men agreed that it was utterly inapplicable to human affairs. The theorist railed at the folly of the world, instead of confessing his own; and the men of practice unjustly blamed philosophy instead of condemning the sophist. The causes which the politician has to consider are, above all others, multiplied, mutable, minute, subtle, and, if I may so speak, evanescent; perpetually changing their form, and varying their combinations; losing their nature while they keep their name; exhibiting the most different consequences in the endless variety of men and nations on whom they operate; in one degree of strength producing the most signal benefit; and under a slight variation of circumstances, the most tremendous mischiefs. They admit, indeed, of being reduced to theory; but to a theory formed on the most extensive views, of the most comprehensive and flexible principles, to embrace all their varieties, and to fit all their rapid transmigrations; a theory of which the most fundamental maxim is, distrust in itself, and deference for practical prudence."
Let it be recollected that when that lecture was promulgated, Parliamentary Reform was the stalking-horse of the revolutionists, and that against it were directed all Sir James's unanswerable arguments for "the distribution of political power among different individuals and bodies," and against a sudden change in established institutions, — against a "recurrence to the first principles of representation" — against any attempt to strike off at a heat "any new system" — and, above all, against the "endeavour to reduce human affairs to a system of uniformity and abstract plausibility, which cannot fail to produce the most tremendous mischiefs." Everybody who heard these lectures — everybody who has read them — understood the whole tenor and force of such passages to be applied to projects of Parliamentary Reform, infinitely more sober, less systematic, and less destructive of existing institutions, than that which Mackintosh was, by mere party attachment unhappily led to support.
But it was not in generals merely that he professed his dislike to Parliamentary Reform. We find him in his Journal (vol. ii. p. 2) pronouncing a panegyric on an article of the Edinburgh Review on this subject, in which, as if by a spirit of prophecy, the Reform Bill is denounced as "the greatest calamity that could be inflicted upon us":—
"It is perfectly obvious, that if the House of Commons, with its absolute power over the supplies, and its connexion with the physical force of the nation, were to be composed entirely of the representatives of the yeomanry of the counties and the tradesmen of the burghs, and were to be actuated solely by the feelings and interests which are peculiar to that class of men, IT WOULD INFALLIBLY CONVERT THE GOVERNMENT INTO A MERE DEMOCRACY, and speedily sweep away the incumbrance of Lords and Commons, who could not exist at all therefore, if they had not an influence in this assembly.... We have no great indulgence for those notions of reform, which seem to be uppermost in the minds of some of its warmest supporters; and we should consider such a change in the constitution of that House, as Sir Francis Burdett and Mr. Cobbett appear to think essential to its purity as by far the greatest calamity which could be inflicted upon us by our own hands." — (Edin. Rev. Vol. xiv., No, xxviii., pp. 300-302) — with a great deal more equally just, and, alas! equally prophetic. It is impossible to believe that Mackintosh was sincere in his approbation of a bill which thus overthrew all his own views of the balance of the constitution: — and his silence (except in, we believe, the single instance of the vague and irrelevant declamation of the 4th of July), and his visible (and in private not concealed) uneasiness at the turn things were taking, satisfy us that though he had the honourable weakness of adhering to his political friends, his judgment — was not deceived as to the danger, nor his feelings reconciled to the expediency of the tremendous experiments to which he had become an involuntary and we fairly believe reluctant party.
He closed his career on the 30th of May, 1832, expressing to the last his regret at having performed so little of what he thought he might have done for his own fame, but having, we hope and believe, no other reproach to make to a life not merely blameless, but exemplary in all moral respects.
In summing up Mackintosh's character, we have little more to do than to recapitulate the observations which the several circumstances of his life have already elicited. The first impression which he excited in society was generally, we have heard, unfavourable; his countenance, until age and illness had refined and softened its expression, was certainly not engaging; his voice was peculiarly harsh, guttural, and grating. When he first came to London, he was, it is said, exceedingly uncouth, and one of his early acquaintance in the Debating Society remembers that he accompanied an almost unintelligible dialect with the most ungainly gestures. These defects were of course much softened by time and good company, but were never wholly obliterated, and it was well they were not; for — as many objects of taste which are disagreeable at first acquire by use a pleasant relish — so Mackintosh's peculiarities gave, on better acquaintance, a peculiar zest and originality to his conversation. His personal manners were, we thought, never very good; there was an odd mixture of the obsequious and abrupt, which we fancy to be almost peculiar to Scotchmen of talent who have not had early advantages of good company. It is, perhaps, compounded of the national caution and the individual spirit; but it always makes an annoying discord, in which the lower is certainly, in our ears, the more disagreeable tone.
We are not quite sure that his mind had not something of an analogous defect, something like alternate rashness and timidity — haste and indecision; his impulses were strong, but his reasoning powers were stronger; and we doubt whether he ever embraced, however warmly, any opinion, out of his confidence in which he did not very soon argue himself. His process was like what often happens on a water-party; he entered the boat with inconsiderate alacrity, but very soon became qualmish, and wished himself ashore again. This made him, in succession, the advocate and antagonist of Jacobinism — the adversary and admirer of Mr. Burke — the follower, but hardly the friend, of Mr. Fox. He himself states, without any sign of dissent, that Lord Castlereagh once said to him, of his parliamentary conduct — "You think right, but you vote wrong." — (ii. 355.)
His practice shows that he rated the obligation of party-attachment very high, but the principles on which it might be founded very low. He was, moreover, with all his talents and acquirements, one of the most naturally modest men we ever met, and Modesty is one of the parents of Moderation, and rarely allies itself with the family of Fortune. We are convinced that this union in Mackintosh's mind and temper, of candour, nonchalance and humility, was one of the causes, perhaps the chief, which kept his political fortune and character in a corresponding state of mediocrity; had his impressions been more durable, and his self-confidence bolder — his reason less subtile, and his temper less philosophical — he would have been a more eminent, and what the world would have called, a greater man: but he would neither have been so amiable, nor, we believe, on the whole so happy. One-half of the old precept he certainly adopted — he "lived with his enemies as if they were one day to become his friends;" but no one can suspect him of having practised the still more prudential, but less amiable, alternative. His heart was tender, and his disposition in the highest degree placable. Mr. Sydney Smith says, forcibly, and with more justice than forcible sayings usually have had, "the gall-bladder was omitted in his composition," and certainly never was there a party-man a more acceptable member of general society.—
He steered through life with politics refined;
With Pulteney voted, and with Walpole dined.
Of such men, conversation is naturally the forte, and Mackintosh's was very delightful. If he had had a Boswell, we should have said of him what Burke said to him of Johnson, that "he was greater in Boswell's work than his own." Mr. Sydney Smith has, here again, set down some traits, which every one that knew the man must recognize. He says of Sir James—
"Till subdued by age and illness, his conversation was more brilliant and instructive than that of any human being I ever had the good fortune to be acquainted with. His memory (vast and prodigious as it was) he so managed as to make it a source of pleasure and instruction, rather than that dreadful engine of colloquial oppression into which it is sometimes erected. He remembered things, words, thoughts, dates, and everything that was wanted. His language was beautiful, and might have gone from the fireside to the press; but though his ideas were always clothed in beautiful language, the clothes were sometimes too big for the body, and common thoughts were dressed in better and longer apparel than they deserved....
"His good-nature and candour betrayed him into a morbid habit of eulogising everybody — a habit which destroyed the value of commendations, that might have been to the young (if more sparingly distributed) a reward of virtue and a motive to exertion. Occasionally he took fits of an opposite nature; and I have seen him abating and dissolving pompous gentlemen with the most successful ridicule....
"I think (though perhaps some of his friends may not agree with me in this opinion) that he was an acute judge of character, and of the good as well as evil in character. He was, in truth, with the appearance of distraction and of one occupied with other things, a very minute observer of human nature; and I have seen him analyse, to the very springs of the heart, men who had not the most distant suspicion of the sharpness of his vision, nor a belief that he could read anything but books....
"Sir James had not only humour, but he had wit also; at least, new and sudden relations of ideas flashed across his mind in reasoning, and produced the same effect as wit, and would have been called wit, if a sense of their utility and importance had not often overpowered the admiration of novelty, and entitled them to the higher name of wisdom. Then the great thoughts and fine sayings of the great men of all ages were intimately present to his recollection, and came out, dazzling and delighting, in his conversation. Justness of thinking was a strong feature in his understanding: he had a head in which nonsense and error could hardly vegetate....
"Though easily warmed by great schemes of benevolence and human improvement, his manner was cold to individuals. There was an apparent want of heartiness and cordiality. It seemed as if he had more affection for the species than for the ingredients of which it was composed. He was in reality very hospitable, and so fond of company that he was hardly happy out of it; but he did not receive his friends with that honest joy which warms more than dinner or wine."
Such are some of the observations of a bold and dexterous anatomizer of minds and manners. He has touched on points beyond the sphere of our own remark — but we presume we can offend no one by quoting what he has written. In general society, Mackintosh's conversation, though we will not call it "the most brilliant" or "the most instructive" we ever heard, was undoubtedly a splendid exhibition. It teemed with information and anecdote, with a sprinkling of that kind of dialectic wit which plays with thoughts rather than images, and now and then a good broad dash of natural and national humour. It had one slight drawback; it was, at least in mixed company, apt to have some appearance of preparation and effort; he seemed too much to remember that he had a character to maintain, and perhaps the literary subjects which employed so much of his studious hours in distinguishing and refining may have tended to give an air of elaboration, even to his table-talk. This elaboration, however, was probably involuntary, because, although few men were more learned, his learning never overloaded his conversation — like the dignity of a high bred man, it was always present, but never obtrusive.
This appearance of elaboration, slightly observable in his conversation, was more prominent, and still more excusable, in his public speaking. No orator, we suppose, however naturally gifted, has ever sustained a high flight without taking preparatory pains; but of oratory, above all others, "ars est celare artem." In Mackintosh, the preparation was too obvious. An appearance of effort is an insuperable bar to effect, and audiences are, very unjustly, disinclined to believe that a speaker feels what he says if they suspect film of having before thought of what he is to say. This, we believe, was the principal cause of that want of conviction — that air of insincerity to which Mr. Sydney Smith alludes, as derogating from the force of Mackintosh's oratory. Certainly no man ever spoke so well with so little weight. We know not whether or no it will support the foregoing theory, but we have heard that the two best speeches Mackintosh ever made were both short impromptus. One, on the purchase of the Burney Library, he himself mentions with a satisfaction which he seems to have rarely felt at any of his attempts; the other, of which we know not whether any trace is to be found, was on some subject connected with the architectural embellishments of London. Of both of these, high encomiums have reached us, as having been perfect in their little way; and it is probable; for they were subjects on which Mackintosh had, no doubt, thought much — his head was stored with the matter, while the suddenness of the occasion relieved him from the real trammels, as well as the injurious suspicion, of verbal preparation.
As a writer, he will ever be highly esteemed by a chosen few — but he is, we fear we must admit, not likely to sustain an extensive popularity with posterity; and such, indeed, must necessarily be the fate of every idealogical writer, who, treating of human affairs, prefers to deal with thoughts rather than things. The most wearisome if not the most useless, in our opinion, of all God's creatures is what is now-a-days called a philosophical historian, the best of whose productions is like bad turtle-soup, in which selected scraps of the real animal are sparingly dispersed in an ocean of home-made gravy — "rari nantes in gurgite vasto." Yet such a dish it was for manly years the monomania of Mackintosh to cook. He, we believe, saw in his latter days through that delusion, as he did through so many others; and modestly confesses that he found "his talent was rather declamatory than historical;" but we suspect that he did himself, in this instance, some injustice, and did not attribute the defect altogether to the right cause. It was the style of his studies rather, perhaps, than that of his pen that he found on revision too "declamatory." After dreaming all his life about a philosophical history of England, he, in his very last years, lowered his ambition to the humble task of preparing an abridgment for Lardner's Cyclopaedia, in which he did not wholly discard the philosophical style of writing history, and frequently suspends his narrative to make sometimes profound, but more often, trivial observations, which Hume used to condense into a single epithet. But even this abridgment he brought down only to the Reformation. He also left a few chapters of a History of the Revolution of 1688, (which we noticed in a former Number); but this, notwithstanding all that we hear of his diligence in seeking for information and of the large harvest produced by his search, contains, we believe, nothing new, and might, we think, be more truly called an attempt to reconcile the principles of the Whigs of 1830 with those of 1688. We have, also, of his a Life of Sir Thomas More, which is really such turtle-soup as we have before described, where the facts of the old biographies float about in a tureen of Mackintosh; — the gravy, we admit, is well made, and on the whole it is very palatable — we, however, are of Sir William Curtis's school, and still prefer what he used to call the turtle "dressed clean."
We are inclined to rate as highly as any of his works, a short account of the writers on the Philosophy of the Human Mind, with a summary of their various theories; which was prepared for, and, we suppose, appeared in, a late Supplement to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. We have it, however, in a separate shape; it is small in volume, and has we believe attracted very little notice; but it appears, as far as it is lawful for us to judge of such mysteries, to be done with taste, discrimination, and, as far as the subject would admit, that ease and perspicuity which flow from the complete mastery of a congenial subject. The account of David Hume, in particular, struck us, not merely as excellent, but as the best specimen of Mackintosh's peculiar talents.
A reprint of this work, with some of Sir James's admirable articles in the "Edinburgh Review," and we must not omit to add his elegant and pathetic sketch of Mr. Canning's character, originally published in one of the Annuals — will ere long, we hope, be undertaken by the present editor.
The day will no doubt come when his Journals may be published without mutilation or reserve; and we are inclined to believe — rather however from our knowledge of the man than from the cautious selections given in these volumes — that they will preserve some faint idea of Mackintosh's conversation and social qualities; which, after all, were his chief distinction among his contemporaries. It is to the Journals of the London life, from 1812 downward, that we particularly allude. We shall never see them — for although we are convinced, as well from the specimens we have, as from the habitual shyness and reserve of the man, that even to his wife Mackintosh would rarely speak out with entire freedom, yet it is hardly possible but that there must be too much of personal observation to permit their unreserved publication till the existing generation shall have passed away. They will also have, we cannot doubt, the frequent fault of partiality, and occasionally of prejudice; because, though Mackintosh, as we have said, was exceedingly candid, courteous, and cautious in his intercourse with society, it does not follow that his secret pen was always so discreet, either in praise or blame; and it is absolutely impossible that he should have lived so long in the atmosphere of party without being, occasionally at least, inflamed by its heat, and infected by its miasma. Nor can a diary written to amuse an absent friend be without some spice of satire and scandal. In the few extracts given of the later Journal, we see sufficient indication (if we needed any evidence of what is so natural as to be inevitable) of these deviations from impartial truth, as when — to give only two examples — he talks of his "abhorrence of the Alien Bill" — a measure identically as necessary and as just as Sir James's right to shut and open the door of his own house in New Norfolk Street; and when — in the fervour of kindness with which Lord Holland's personal amiability inspires all his friends — Mackintosh is so transported as to declare, that "in the highest attributes of an orator's genius, he (Lord Holland) excels not only Brougham, but — Canning!"
We notice these prejudices and partialities thus slightly because we could not go deeper without giving pain; we notice them at all, because, if we did not thus enter our caveat, it might be alleged hereafter, when the Journals shall come to be fully published, that even we had not ventured to breathe a doubt of their accuracy and impartiality. We, therefore, here register — not a doubt, but a conviction (which even now we have abundant materials to justify) — that Mackintosh's judgment of the men, measures, and manners of his day — though probably in the main moderate and just — must still be read with those wholesome suspicions and that prudent scepticism, from whose scrutiny no man — and, above all, no man who has taken any share in the political parties of his time — ever has been or ought to be exempt.
In conclusion, we have no difficulty in saying, that this is, though not a good Life of this eminent man, a most interesting and entertaining collection of Mackintoshiana and that, amidst the necessary defects of a filial editor, it is impossible not to admire the modest but manly tone and spirit, and unaffected good taste, of Mr. Robert Mackintosh's own connecting narrative.
The book includes two likenesses of Sir James — one from a portrait by Lawrence, painted in his thirty-eighth year; the other after a bust by Mr. Barlowe, done when he had reached the age of sixty-six: to the fidelity of this last representation of a mild and thoughtful good man we can bear witness.