« VorigeDoorgaan »
ART. I.-Sir Robert Peel. From his Private Papers. Edited for his Trustees by CHARLES STUART PARKER, sometime M.P. for the County and for the City of Perth, and late Fellow of University College, Oxford. With a chapter on his Life and Character by his Grandson, the Hon. GEORGE PEEL. Vols. ii. and iii. London: 1899.
EARLY half a century has passed since a lamentable accident brought to a premature close the life and career of the illustrious statesman who is the subject of this article. In the interval, we have been gradually accumulating the means of correctly appreciating his policy and his character. The short Memoirs which he himself prepared for publication, to justify his own conduct in 1829 and 1846, have been amply illustrated by the Diaries of Mr. Greville and the Correspondence of Mr. Croker. The admirable study of the statesman which M. Guizot published in 1856 has been succeeded in our own time by the monographs of Lord Dalling, Mr. Thursfield, and Mr. Justin McCarthy; and, finally, Mr. Parker has completed the task of editing the voluminous correspondence which the statesman left behind him. With these ample materials the British people have, at last, the opportunity of defining the precise place which Sir Robert Peel should occupy in their estimate of the men who have governed England; they can approach the subject free from the passions and prejudices which Peel excited in his lifetime; and they may determine whether Mr. Disraeli was right in saying that Peel was the greatest member of Parliament that ever 'lived; ' or whether Mr. Gladstone had grounds for his more generous tribute: Taken all round, Peel was the greatest 'man I ever knew.'
VOL. CLXXXIX. NO. CCCLXXXVIII.
Before, however, attempting to make our own contribu tion to this estimate, we must discharge a reviewer's task by acknowledging the taste and skill with which Mr. George Peel has composed his biographical chapter on his grandfather, and the modesty, judgement, and accuracy which Mr. Parker has displayed throughout his work. He has selected enough of the important correspondence which has been entrusted to him to fully illustrate the minister's opinions and policy; he has had the good sense to leave the documents, which he publishes, to speak for themselves; and he has merely appended to them sufficient notes or commentaries of his own to make his story connected and intelligible. We have, in fact, only one complaint to make against Mr. Parker. We think that he might have published before 1899 the concluding volumes of a work whose first instalment he gave us in 1891. In an age, however, when accuracy and research are too frequently sacrificed to speed, a good deal may be said for an author who is contented to devote eight years to a task which the modern book-maker would compress into two.
He did, at
Robert Peel, the son of the first baronet, was born on February 5, 1788. His father, at the time of his birth, is said to have fallen on his knees and vowed in thankfulness that he would give his child to his country.' any rate, his best to make his prayer effectual. Chatham, he educated his boy for public life. Lord Chatham, in the case of Mr. Pitt, himself directed his son's studies, Sir Robert, perhaps more wisely, preferred to avail himself of the advantages of a great public school and of a great English university. At Harrow the future minister displayed the capacity for taking infinite pains which characterised him throughout his whole career. Lord Byron, who was his contemporary, said of him: As a schoolboy out of school, I was always in scrapes, and he never; in school he always knew his lesson and I rarely; and Mr. Bowen, in his admirable Harrow songs, has preserved the school tradition
'Peel stood, steadily stood,
Just by the name in the carven wood,
Pages out of Demosthenes."
At Oxford we have his brother's authority for saying that 'he read eighteen hours a day;' and this study was rewarded by a brilliant degree. For, in the autumn of 1808, while he was still under age, he took a double first.' The
degree was the more remarkable because the examination had only just been divided into the two schools of classics and mathematics, and Peel was the first Oxford man who obtained a first in each school.
Immersed in the studies which had thus gained him distinction both at Harrow and at Oxford, Peel had necessarily no leisure to examine for himself the great political problems with which it was his lot in later life to grapple. Living at home, at school, and at college in a Conservative atmosphere, he probably accepted his political creed with as little hesitation as he subscribed his name to the Thirtynine Articles. In 1808, indeed, few men had sufficient courage or independence to adopt other opinions. The events which had succeeded the French Revolution had been too startling and too recent to permit of a dispassionate examination of political problems. Statesmen like Burke and Mackintosh, poets like Wordsworth and Southey, had been frightened by the excesses which had occurred in France into a panic dread of change at home; while the incidents of a great war distracted attention from home politics, and made even Liberals doubt whether the crisis of a supreme struggle was an appropriate moment for domestic reforms.
Birth and training had thus made Peel a Conservative (for the modern name, which the party acquired under his own guidance, expresses the facts more clearly than the older title Tory); the course of events abroad had strengthened his Conservatism; and, when he entered the House of Commons in the spring of 1809, he had never found leisure to examine, with any care, the wisdom or unwisdom of the main articles of the political creed which he had inherited. In the spring of 1810 he was selected to second the Address, and the skill with which he executed this duty procured for him in the following autumn the under-secretaryship of the Colonial Department. This post he exchanged in 1812-on the reconstruction of the ministry under Lord Liverpool-for the more important office of chief secretary of Ireland.
The six years during which Peel occupied the chief secretaryship brought him many anxieties. The chief secretary, in those days, was not merely responsible for the peace of a distracted country; he was also the dispenser of patronage under a corrupt system of government.
'He was beset with importunities for posts as gaugers, hearth-money collectors, revenue clerks, stamp distributors, &c., not chiefly from the
candidates themselves, but in larger numbers from persons of position and rank, recommending the applicants, either from family reasons, or more frequently to oblige constituents and electioneering agents. Another class of suitors solicited for themselves, or for their relatives and friends, preferment in the Church, livings, deaneries, bishoprics. Others sought the power, or even claimed it as a right, to appoint the sheriff for their respective counties, a matter of great consequence. Others, again, preferred bequests for peerages, for steps in the peerage, or for Government support in the election of representative peers.' How importunate a suitor could be on such occasions may be inferred from the correspondence between Peel and Mr. Croker, which Mr. Parker published eight years ago in his earlier volume. In contesting Down, in 1812, Mr. Croker incurred debts of gratitude, which, as a matter of con'science, for six years he never ceased imploring the Chief 'Secretary to help him to discharge.'
It is to Peel's credit that he did his best to check this system of corruption, which he evidently both hated and disapproved. It is equally to his credit that he endeavoured to carry on the work of his office without favour and partiality, and that he strove to strengthen and improve the machinery of administration. My constant object in Ireland,' so he himself said, was a fair administration of the laws as they 'exist, and I challenge the country to produce any instance ' in which, while I held office, an impartial administration of those laws was denied.' Ireland owes to him the reorganisation, or rather the creation, of her Constabulary force; it owes also to him the recollection that one great English minister-throughout his six years of officeusually relied on the ordinary law; and that, when the Habeas Corpus Act was suspended in Great Britain in 1817, Peel was able to announce to Parliament that he required no exceptional legislation, but was prepared to reduce the military force.
On one subject, indeed, Peel failed to probe the wound from which Ireland was suffering. The country was torn by faction; Catholics and Orangemen were arrayed against each other; and Peel, whose opposition to Catholic emancipation had already procured him the nickname of 'Orange Peel,' was much more anxious to keep the peace than to devise a remedy for the disease. There is no evidence that, during his years in Ireland, he ever set himself the task of seriously considering whether his whole attitude towards the Catholics was not founded on a faulty basis. Ireland, so he thought, was united by an inviolable compact to Great Britain; it was an essential article of that contract that the