« PreviousContinue »
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 3: 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 gentlemen 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
the Church arrayed against the wishes and happiness of the people. I feel it more than all, because I believe it will sow the seed of deadly hatred between the aristocracy and the great mass of the people. The loss of the bill I do not feel, and for the best of all possible reasons—because I have not the slightest idea that it is lost. I have no more doubt, before the expiration of the winter, that this bill will pass, than I have that the annual tax bills will pass; and greater certainty than this no man can have, for Franklin tells us there are but two things certain in this world-death and taxes. As for the possibility of the House of Lords preventing ere long a reform of Parliament, I hold it to be the most absurd notion that ever entered into human imagination.
I do not mean to be disrespectful, but the attempt of the lords to stop the progress of reform reminds me very forcibly of the great storm of Sidmouth, and of the conduct of the excellent Mrs. Partington on that occasion. In the winter of 1824, there set in a great flood upon that town; the tide rose to an incredible height; the waves rushed in upon the houses, and everything was threatened with destruction. In the midst of this sublime and terrible storm, Dame Partington, who lived upon the beach, was seen at the door of her house with
mop and pattens, trundling her mop, squeezing out the sea-water, and vigorously pushing away the Atlantic Ocean. The Atlantic was roused. Mrs. Partington's spirit was up; but I need not tell you that the contest was unequal. The Atlantic Ocean beat Mrs. Partington. She was excellent at a slop or a puddle, but she should not have meddled with a tempest. Gentlemen, be at your ease—be quiet and steady. You will beat Mrs. Partington.
They tell you, gentlemen, in the debates by which we have been lately occupied, that the bill is not justified by experience. I do not think this true, but if it were true, nations are sometimes compelled to act without experience for their guide, and to trust to their own sagacity for the anticipation of consequences. The instances where this country has been compelled thus to act have been so eminently successful, that I see no cause for fear, even if we were acting in the manner imputed to us by our enemies. What precedents and what experience were there at the Reformation, when the country, with one unanimous effort, pushed out the pope and his grasping and ambitious clergy? What experience, when, at the Revolution, we drove away our ancient race of kings, and chose another family more congenial to our free principles ? And yet to those two events, contrary to experience, and unguided by precedents, we owe all our domestic happiness and civil and religious freedom and having got rid of corrupt priests and despotic kings by our sense and our courage, are we now to be intimidated by the awful danger of extinguishing
boroughmongers, and shaking from our necks the ignominious yoke which their baseness has imposed upon us !
Go on, they say, as you have done for these hundred years last past. I answer, it is impossible--five hundred people now write and read where one hundred wrote and read fifty years ago. The iniquities and the enormities of the borough system are now known to the meanest of the people. You have a different sort of men to deal with : you must change because the beings whom you govern are changed. After all, and to be short, I must say that it has always appeared to me to be the most absolute nonsense that we cannot be a great or a rich and happy nation without suffering ourselves to be bought and sold every five years like a pack of negro slaves. I hope I am not a very rash man, but I would launch boldly into this experiment without any fear of consequences, and I believe there is not a man here present who would not cheerfully embark with me. As to the enemies of the bill, who pretend to be reformers, I know them, I believe, better than you do, and I earnestly caution you against them. You will have no more of refoệm than they are compelled to grant, you will have no reform at all, if they can avoid it ; you will be hurried into a war to turn your attention from reform. They do not understand you ; they will not believe in the improvement you have made ; they think the English of the present day are as the English of the times of Queen Anne or George I. They know no more of the present state of their own country than of the state of the Esquimaux Indians. Gentlemen, I view the ignorance of the present state of the country with the most serious concern, and I believe they will one day or another waken into conviction with horror and dismay.
[The iniquitous borough system of England, which had no excuse but custom and antiquity for its absurdities, was further satirized by Smith in the following ludicrous comparison.]
They tell you, gentlemen, that you have grown rich and powerful with these rotten boroughs, and that it would be madness to part with them, or to alter a constitution which had produced such happy effects. There happens, gentlemen, to live near my parsonage a laboring man of very superior character and understanding to his fellow-laborers, and who has made such good use of that superiority that he has saved what is—for his station in life-a very considerable sum of money, and if his existence is extended to the common period he will die rich. It happens, however, that he is—and long has been-troubled with violent stomachic pains, for which he has hitherto obtained no relief, and which really are the bane and torment of his life. Now, if my excellent laborer were to send for a physician and to consult him respecting this malady, would it not be very
singular language if our doctor were to say to him : “My good friend, you surely will not be so rash as to attempt to get rid of these pains in your stomach. Have you not grown rich with these pains in your stomach? Have you not risen under them from poverty to prosperity? Has not your situation since you were first attacked been improving every year? You surely will not be so foolish and so indiscreet as to part with the pains in your stomach ?” Why, what would be the answer of the rustic to this nonsensical monition? “ Monster of rhubarb," he would say, “I am not rich in consequence of the pains in my stomach, but in spite of the pains in my stomach; and I should have been ten times richer, and fifty times happier, if I had never had any pains in my stomach at all.” Gentlemen, these rotten boroughs are your pains in the stomach.
TAXES THE PRICE OF GLORY [There is another pithy example of Smith's amusing way of presenting serious truths which has been quoted a thousand times, and is likely to be quoted many thousand times more. Here is one of its thousand presentations to the reading public.]
John Bull can inform Jonathan what are the inevitable consequences of being too fond of glory !—Taxes ! Taxes upon every article which enters into the mouth, or covers the back, or is placed under the foot ; taxes upon everything which it is pleasant to see, hear, feel, smell or taste; taxes upon warmth, light and locomotion ; taxes on everything on earth, and the waters under the earth ; on everything that comes from abroad, or is grown at home ;'taxes on the raw material ; taxes on every fresh value that is added to it by the industry of men ; taxes on the sauce which pampers man's appetite, and the drug which restores him to health ; on the ermine which decorates the judge, and the rope which hangs the criminal ; on the poor man's salt, and the rich man's spice ;Von the brass nails of the coffin, and the ribbons of the bride ;-at bed or board, couchant or levant, we must pay.
The schoolboy whips his taxed top; the beardless youth manages his taxed horse, with a taxed bridle, on a taxed road; and the dying Englishman, pouring his medicine, which has paid seven per cent. into a spoon that has paid fifteen per cent., flings himself back upon his chintz bed, which has paid twenty-two per cent., makes his will on an eight-pound stamp, and expires in the arms of an apothecary, who has paid a license of a hundred pounds for the privilege of putting him to death. His whole property is then immediately taxed from two to ten per cent. Besides the probate, large fees are demanded for burying him in the chancel ; his virtues are handed down to posterity on taxed marble ; and he is then gathered to his fathers,—to be taxed no more.