Imaginary Conversations and Poems, by Walter Savage Landor

Bishop Shipley and Benjamin Franklin

Shipley. There are very few men, even in the bushes and the wilderness, who delight in the commission of cruelty; but nearly all, throughout the earth, are censurable for the admission. When we see a blow struck, we go on and think no more about it: yet every blow aimed at the most distant of our fellow-creatures, is sure to come back, some time or other, to our families and descendants. He who lights a fire in one quarter is ignorant to what other the winds may carry it, and whether what is kindled in the wood may not break out again in the cornfield.

Franklin. If we could restrain but one generation from deeds of violence, the foundation for a new and a more graceful edifice of society would not only have been laid, but would have been consolidated.

Shipley. We already are horrified at the bare mention of religious wars; we should then be horrified at the mention of political. Why should they who, when they are affronted or offended, abstain from inflicting blows, some from a sense of decorousness and others from a sense of religion, be forward to instigate the infliction of ten thousand, all irremediable, all murderous? Every chief magistrate should be arbitrator and umpire in all differences between any two, forbidding war. Much would be added to the dignity of the most powerful king by rendering him an efficient member of such a grand Amphictyonic council. Unhappily they are persuaded in childhood that a reign is made glorious by a successful war. What schoolmaster ever taught a boy to question it? or indeed any point of political morality, or any incredible thing in history? Caesar and Alexander are uniformly clement: Themistocles died by a draught of bull’s blood: Portia by swallowing red-hot pieces of charcoal.

Franklin. Certainly no woman or man could perform either of these feats. In my opinion it lies beyond a doubt that Portia suffocated herself by the fumes of charcoal; and that the Athenian, whose stomach must have been formed on the model of other stomachs, and must therefore have rejected a much less quantity of blood than would have poisoned him, died by some chemical preparation, of which a bull’s blood might, or might not, have been part. Schoolmasters who thus betray their trust, ought to be scourged by their scholars, like him of their profession who underwent the just indignation of the Roman Consul. You shut up those who are infected with the plague; why do you lay no coercion on those who are incurably possessed by the legion devil of carnage? When a creature is of intellect so perverted that he can discern no difference between a review and a battle, between the animating bugle and the dying groan, it were expedient to remove him, as quietly as may be, from his devastation of God’s earth and his usurpation of God’s authority. Compassion points out the cell for him at the bottom of the hospital, and listens to hear the key turned in the ward: until then the house is insecure.

Shipley. God grant our rulers wisdom, and our brethren peace!

Franklin. Here are but indifferent specimens and tokens. Those fellows throw stones pretty well: if they practise much longer, they will hit us: let me entreat you, my lord, to leave me here. So long as the good people were contented with hooting and shouting at us, no great harm was either done or apprehended: but now they are beginning to throw stones, perhaps they may prove themselves more dexterous in action than their rulers have done latterly in council.

Shipley. Take care, Doctor Franklin! That was very near being the philosopher’s stone.

Franklin. Let me pick it up, then, and send it to London by the diligence. But I am afraid your ministers, and the nation at large, are as little in the way of wealth as of wisdom, in the experiment they are making.

Shipley. While I was attending to you, William had started. Look! he has reached them: they are listening to him. Believe me, he has all the courage of an Englishman and of a Christian; and, if the stoutest of them force him to throw off his new black coat, the blusterer would soon think it better to have listened to less polemical doctrine.

Franklin. Meantime a few of the town boys are come nearer, and begin to grow troublesome. I am sorry to requite your hospitality with such hard fare.

Shipley. True, these young bakers make their bread very gritty, but we must partake of it together so long as you are with us.

Franklin. Be pleased, my lord, to give us grace; our repast is over; this is my boat.

Shipley. We will accompany you as far as to the ship. Thank God! we are now upon the water, and all safe. Give me your hand, my good Doctor Franklin! and although you have failed in the object of your mission, yet the intention will authorize me to say, in the holy words of our Divine Redeemer, Blessed are the peacemakers!

Franklin. My dear lord! if God ever blessed a man at the intercession of another, I may reasonably and confidently hope in such a benediction. Never did one arise from a warmer, a tenderer, or a purer heart.

Shipley. Infatuation! that England should sacrifice to her king so many thousands of her bravest men, and ruin so many thousands of her most industrious, in a vain attempt to destroy the very principles on which her strength and her glory are founded! The weakest prince that ever sat upon a throne, and the most needy and sordid Parliament that ever pandered to distempered power, are thrusting our blindfold nation from the pinnacle of prosperity.

Franklin. I believe your king (from this moment it is permitted me to call him ours no longer) to be as honest and as wise a man as any of those about him: but unhappily he can see no difference between a review and a battle. Such are the optics of most kings and rulers. His Parliament, in both Houses, acts upon calculation. There is hardly a family, in either, that does not anticipate the clear profit of several thousands a year, to itself and its connexions. Appointments to regiments and frigates raise the price of papers; and forfeited estates fly confusedly about, and darken the air from the Thames to the Atlantic.

Shipley. It is lamentable to think that war, bringing with it every species of human misery, should become a commercial speculation. Bad enough when it arises from revenge; another word for honour.

Franklin. A strange one indeed! but not more strange than fifty others that come under the same title. Wherever there is nothing of religion, nothing of reason, nothing of truth, we come at once to honour; and here we draw the sword, dispense with what little of civilization we ever pretended to, and murder or get murdered, as may happen. But these ceremonials both begin and end with an appeal to God, who, before we appealed to Him, plainly told us we should do no such thing, and that He would punish us most severely if we did. And yet, my lord, even the gentlemen upon your bench turn a deaf ear to Him on these occasions: nay, they go further; they pray to Him for success in that which He has forbidden so strictly, and when they have broken His commandment, thank Him. Upon seeing these mockeries and impieties age after age repeated, I have asked myself whether the depositaries and expounders of religion have really any whatever of their own; or rather, like the lawyers, whether they do not defend professionally a cause that otherwise does not interest them in the least. Surely, if these holy men really believed in a just retributive God, they would never dare to utter the word war, without horror and deprecation.

Shipley. Let us attribute to infirmity what we must else attribute to wickedness.

Franklin. Willingly would I: but children are whipped severely for inobservance of things less evident, for disobedience of commands less audible and less awful. I am loath to attribute cruelty to your order: men so entirely at their ease have seldom any. Certain I am that several of the bishops would not have patted Cain upon the back while he was about to kill Abel; and my wonder is that the very same holy men encourage their brothers in England to kill their brothers in America; not one, not two nor three, but thousands, many thousands.

Shipley. I am grieved at the blindness with which God has afflicted us for our sins. These unhappy men are little aware what combustibles they are storing under the Church, and how soon they may explode. Even the wisest do not reflect on the most important and the most certain of things; which is, that every act of inhumanity and injustice goes far beyond what is apparent at the time of its commission; that these, and all other things, have their consequences; and that the consequences are infinite and eternal. If this one truth alone could be deeply impressed upon the hearts of men, it would regenerate the whole human race.

Franklin. In regard to politics, I am not quite certain whether a politician may not be too far-sighted: but I am quite certain that, if it be a fault, it is one into which few have fallen. The policy of the Romans in the time of the republic, seems to have been prospective. Some of the Dutch also, and of the Venetians, used the telescope. But in monarchies the prince, not the people, is consulted by the minister of the day; and what pleases the weakest supersedes what is approved by the wisest.

Shipley. We have had great statesmen: Burleigh, Cromwell, Marlborough, Somers: and whatever may have been in the eyes of a moralist the vices of Walpole, none ever understood more perfectly, or pursued more steadily, the direct and palpable interests of the country. Since his administration, our affairs have never been managed by men of business; and it was more than could have been expected that, in our war against the French in Canada, the appointment fell on an able commander.

Franklin. Such an anomaly is unlikely to recur. You have in the English Parliament (I speak of both Houses) only two great men; only two considerate and clear-sighted politicians; Chatham and Burke. Three or four can say clever things; several have sonorous voices; many vibrate sharp comminations from the embrasures of portentously slit sleeves; and there are those to be found who deliver their oracles out of wigs as worshipful as the curls of Jupiter, however they may be grumbled at by the flour-mills they have laid under such heavy contribution; yet nearly all of all parties want alike the sagacity to discover that in striking America you shake Europe; that kings will come out of the war either to be victims or to be despots; and that within a quarter of a century they will be hunted down like vermin by the most servile nations, or slain in their palaces by their own courtiers. In a peace of twenty years you might have paid off the greater part of your National Debt, indeed as much of it as it would be expedient to discharge, and you would have left your old enemy France labouring and writhing under the intolerable and increasing weight of hers. This is the only way in which you can ever quite subdue her; and in this you subdue her without a blow, without a menace, and without a wrong. As matters now stand, you are calling her from attending to the corruptions of her court, and inviting her from bankruptcy to glory.

Shipley. I see not how bankruptcy can be averted by the expenditure of war.

Franklin. It cannot. But war and glory are the same thing to France, and she sings as shrilly and as gaily after a beating as before. With a subsidy to a less amount than she has lately been accustomed to squander in six weeks, and with no more troops than would garrison a single fortress, she will enable us to set you at defiance, and to do you a heavier injury in two campaigns than she has been able to do in two centuries, although your king was in her pay against you. She will instantly be our ally, and soon our scholar. Afterward she will sell her crown jewels and her church jewels, which cover the whole kingdom, and will derive unnatural strength from her vices and her profligacy. You ought to have conciliated us as your ally, and to have had no other, excepting Holland and Denmark. England could never have, unless by her own folly, more than one enemy. Only one is near enough to strike her; and that one is down. All her wars for six hundred years have not done this; and the first trumpet will untrance her. You leave your house open to incendiaries while you are running after a refractory child. Had you laid down the rod, the child would have come back. And because he runs away from the rod, you take up the poker. Seriously, what means do you possess of enforcing your unjust claims and insolent authority? Never since the Norman Conquest had you an army so utterly inefficient, or generals so notoriously unskilful: no, not even in the reign of that venal traitor, that French stipendiary, the second Charles. Those were yet living who had fought bravely for his father, and those also who had vanquished him: and Victory still hovered over the mast that had borne the banners of our Commonwealth: ours, ours, my lord! the word is the right word here.

Shipley. I am depressed in spirit, and can sympathize but little in your exultation. All the crimes of Nero and Caligula are less afflicting to humanity, and consequently we may suppose will bring down on the offenders a less severe retribution, than an unnecessary and unjust war. And yet the authors and abettors of this most grievous among our earthly calamities, the enactors and applauders (on how vast a theatre!) of the first and greatest crime committed upon earth, are quiet complacent creatures, jovial at dinner, hearty at breakfast, and refreshed with sleep! Nay, the prime movers in it are called most religious and most gracious; and the hand that signs in cold blood the death-warrant of nations, is kissed by the kind-hearted, and confers distinction upon the brave! The prolongation of a life that shortens so many others, is prayed for by the conscientious and the pious! Learning is inquisitive in the research of phrases to celebrate him who has conferred such blessings, and the eagle of genius holds the thunderbolt by his throne! Philosophy, O my friend, has hitherto done little for the social state; and Religion has nearly all her work to do! She too hath but recently washed her hands from blood, and stands neutrally by, yes, worse than neutrally, while others shed it. I am convinced that no day of my life will be so censured by my own clergy, as this, the day on which the last hopes of peace have abandoned us, and the only true minister of it is pelted from our shores. Farewell, until better times! may the next generation be wiser! and wiser it surely will be, for the lessons of Calamity are far more impressive than those which repudiated Wisdom would have taught.

Franklin. Folly hath often the same results as Wisdom: but Wisdom would not engage in her schoolroom so expensive an assistant as Calamity. There are, however, some noisy and unruly children whom she alone has the method of rendering tame and tractable: perhaps it may be by setting them to their tasks both sore and supperless. The ship is getting under weigh. Adieu once more, my most reverend and noble friend! Before me in imagination do I see America, beautiful as Leda in her infant smiles, when her father Jove first raised her from the earth; and behind me I leave England, hollow, unsubstantial, and broken, as the shell she burst from.

Shipley. O worst of miseries, when it is impiety to pray that our country may be successful. Farewell! may every good attend you! with as little of evil to endure or to inflict, as national sins can expect from the Almighty.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38