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GEORGE CANNING (1770-1827)
ANNING'S distinction as a wit was due to his contributions to
the “ Anti-Jacobin,” a famous series of political satires, issued
weekly, which some eminent critics consider one of the wittiest books in the language. Canning's best known contribution to it is “ The Needy Knife-grinder,” one of his happiest efforts. As a broadminded legislator he is best known through his able administration of the office of Secretary for Foreign Affairs, in the Castlereagh Cabinet, from 1822 to 1827. Under him Great Britain stood out against the * Holy Alliance” of the despots of Europe and favored the American “ Monroe Doctrine"; the independence of the South American Republics was recognized; Catholic emancipation was aided, and other important reform and diplomatic movements were carried out.
Canning, entering Parliament in 1794, won a reputation in 1798 by his speeches against the slave-trade and the effort to make peace with the French Directory. He was an earnest supporter of Pitt in his hostility to Napoleon, and a member of his cabinet and of the succeeding Portland cabinet, in which he planned the seizure of the Danish fleet, which did so much to check the schemes of Napoleon. His oratory was marked by acuteness, wit and picturesque expression, and as a debater he was very forcible.
IN REPOSE YET IN READINESS [In Canning's address at Plymouth in 1823, when presented with the freedom of the town, occurs the happy comparison of a fleet at rest yet ready for action to a nation in repose, which has been admired as his happiest oratorical hit. We give that part of his speech which includes this comparison.]
Our ultimate object must be the peace of the world. That object may sometimes be best attained by prompt exertions; sometitaes by abstinence from interposition in contests which we cannot prevent. It is upon
these principles that, as has been most truly observed by my worthy friend, it did not appear to the government of this country to be necessary. that Great Britain should mingle in the recent contest between France, and Spain.
Your worthy Recorder has accurately classed the persons who would have driven us into that contest. There were undoubtedly among them those who desired to plunge this country into the difficulties of war, partly from the hope that those difficulties would overwhelm the administration ; but it would be most unjust not to admit that there were others who were actuated by nobler principles and more generous feelings, who would have rushed forward at once from the sense of indignation at aggression, and who deemed that no act of injustice could be perpetuated from one end of the universe to the other but that the sword of Great Britain should leap from its scabbard to avenge it. But as it is the province of law to control the excess even of laudable passions and propensities in individuals, so it is the duty of Government to restrain within due bounds the ebullition of national sentiment and to regulate the course and direction of impulses which it cannot blame. Is there any one among the latter class of persons described by my honorable friend (for to the former I have nothing to say) who continues to doubt whether the Government did wisely in declining to obey the precipitate enthusiasm which prevailed at the commencement of the contest in Spain? Is there anybody who does not now think that it was the office of the Government to examine more closely all the various bearings of so complicated a question ; to consider whether they were called upon to assist a united nation, or to plunge themselves into the internal feuds by which that nation was divided ; to aid in repelling a foreign invader, or to take part in a civil war? Is there any man who does not now see what would have been the extent of burdens that would have been cast upon this country? Is there any one who does not acknowledge that under such circumstances the enterprise would have been one to be characterized only by a term borrowed from that part of the Spanish literature with which we are most familiar-Quixotic; an enterprise romantic in its origin, and thankless in the end ?
But while we thus control even our feelings by our duty, let it not be said that we cultivate peace either because we fear, or because we are unprepared for, war; on the contrary, if eight months ago the Government did not hesitate to proclaim that the country was prepared for war, if war should be unfortunately necessary, every month of peace that has since passed has but made us so much the more capable of exertion. The resources created by peace are means of war. In cherishing those resources, we but accumulate those means. Our present repose is no
SYDNEY SMITH (1771-1845)
HE fact that he was in holy orders was not enough to check
Sydney Smith's irresistible tendency to wit and humor, which
broke out on every occasion, and some of his amusing sayings seem destined to remain among the bright small-coin of the world for ages to come. He could be serious enough, indeed, when need demanded, but it was no easy matter for him to talk long without some witticism cropping out. A friend of Jeffreys and Brougham, he joined with them in the enterprise of publishing the Endinburgh Review, of which he was the first editor, and to which he contributed for years. Among his contributions to the cause of reform was his anonymous work entitled, “ Letters on the Subject of the Catholics to My Brother Abraham, by Peter Plymley.” This had a very large circulation, and greatly promoted the cause of Catholic emancipation. In fact, Smith was a man of large and liberal mind, and not one to be governed by partisan prejudice.
THE OPPONENTS OF REFORM [Smith was not alone a wit and essayist, and a famous conversationalist, but he was an orator as well, and this not only in the pulpit, but on secular subjects. His finest effort in this direction was his famous address at Taunton on the Reform Bill, October 12, 1831. This is especially notable for the inimitable Mrs. Partington illustration, which stands among the world's finest examples of the humorous anecdote.]
MR. BAILIFF : I have spoken so often on this subject, that I am sure both you and the gentlernen here present will be obliged to me for saying but little, and that favor I anı as willing to confer as you can be to receive it. I feel most deeply the event which has taken place, because, by putting the two houses of Parliament in collision with each other, it will impede the public business and diminish the public prosperity. I feel it as a churchman, because I cannot but blush to see so many dignitaries of
more a proof of inability to act, than the state of inertness and inactivity in which I have seen those mighty masses that float in the waters above your town is a proof that they are devoid of strength and incapable of being fitted out for action. You well know, gentlemen, how soon one of those stupendous masses, now reposing on their shadows in perfect stillness,-how soon, upon any call of patriotism or of necessity, it would assume the likeness of an animated thing, instinct with life and motion,how soon it would ruffle, as it were, its swelling plumage, -how quickly it would put forth all its beauty and its bravery, collect its scattered elements of strength, and awaken its dormant thunder. Such as is one of these magnificent machines when springing from inaction into a display of its might, such is England herself—while apparently passive and motionless, she silently concentrates the power to be put forth on an adequate occasion. But God forbid that that occasion should arise! After a war sustained for nearly a quarter of a century—sometimes single-handed, and with all Europe arrayed at times against her or at her side-England needs a period of tranquillity, and may enjoy it without fear of misconstruction. Long may we be enabled, gentlemen, to improve the blessings of our present situation, to cultivate the arts of peace, to give to commerce, now reviving, greater extension and new spheres of employment, and to confirm the prosperity now generally diffused throughout this island. Of the blessing of peace, gentlemen, I trust that this borough, with which I have now the honor and happiness of being associated, will receive an ample share. I trust the time is not far distant when that noble structure of which, as I learn from your Recorder, the box with which you have honored me, through his hands, formed a part, that gigantic barrier against the fury of the waves that roll into your harbor, will protect a commercial marine not less considerable in its kind than the warlike marine of which your port has been long so distinguished an asylum, when the town of Plymouth will participate in the commercial prosperity as largely as it has hitherto done in the naval glories of England.