The American Senator, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter XXIV

The Senator’s second Letter

In the mean time our friend the Senator, up in London, was much distracted in his mind, finding no one to sympathise with him in his efforts, conscious of his own rectitude of purpose, always brave against others, and yet with a sad doubt in his own mind whether it could be possible that he should always be right and everybody around him wrong.

Coming away from Mr. Mainwaring’s dinner he had almost quarrelled with John Morton, or rather John Morton had altogether quarrelled with him. On their way back from Dillsborough to Bragton the minister elect to Patagonia had told him, in so many words, that he had misbehaved himself at the clergyman’s house. “Did I say anything that was untrue?” asked the Senator —“Was I inaccurate in my statements? If so no man alive will be more ready to recall what he has said and to ask for pardon.” Mr. Morton endeavoured to explain to him that it was not his statements which were at fault so much as the opinions based on them and the language in which those opinions were given. But the Senator could not be made to understand that a man had not a right to his opinions, and a right also to the use of forcible language as long as he abstained from personalities. “It was extremely personal — all that you said about the purchase of livings,” said Morton. “How was I to know that?” rejoined the Senator. “When in private society I inveigh against pickpockets I cannot imagine, sir, that there should be a pickpocket in the company.” As the Senator said this he was grieving in his heart at the trouble he had occasioned, and was almost repenting the duties he had imposed on himself; but, yet, his voice was bellicose and antagonistic. The conversation was carried on till Morton found himself constrained to say that though he entertained great personal respect for his guest he could not go with him again into society. He was ill at the time — though neither he himself knew it nor the Senator. On the next morning Mr. Gotobed returned to London without seeing his host, and before the day was over Mr. Nupper was at Morton’s bedside. He was already suffering from gastric fever.

The Senator was in truth unhappy as he returned to town. The intimacy between him and the late Secretary of Legation at his capital had arisen from a mutual understanding between them that each was to be allowed to see the faults and to admire the virtues of their two countries, and that conversation between them was to be based on the mutual system. But nobody can, in truth, endure to be told of shortcomings — either on his own part or on that of his country. He himself can abuse himself, or his country; but he cannot endure it from alien lips. Mr. Gotobed had hardly said a word about England which Morton himself might not have said — but such words coming from an American had been too much even for the guarded temper of an unprejudiced and phlegmatic Englishman. The Senator as he returned alone to London understood something of this — and when a few days later he heard that the friend who had quarrelled with him was ill, he was discontented with himself and sore at heart.

But he had his task to perform, and he meant to perform it to the best of his ability. In his own country he had heard vehement abuse of the old land from the lips of politicians, and had found at the same time almost on all sides great social admiration for the people so abused. He had observed that every Englishman of distinction was received in the States as a demigod, and that some who were not very great in their own land had been converted into heroes in his. English books were read there; English laws were obeyed there; English habits were cultivated, often at the expense of American comfort. And yet it was the fashion among orators to speak of the English as a worn-out, stupid and enslaved people. He was a thoughtful man and all this had perplexed him; — so that he had obtained leave from his State and from Congress to be absent during a part of a short Session, and had come over determined to learn as much as he could. Everything he heard and almost everything he saw offended him at some point. And, yet in the midst of it all, he was conscious that he was surrounded by people who claimed and made good their claims to superiority. What was a lord, let him be ever so rich and have ever so many titles? And yet, even with such a popinjay as Lord Rufford, he himself felt the lordship. When that old farmer at the hunt breakfast had removed himself and his belongings to the other side of the table the Senator, though aware of the justice of his cause, had been keenly alive to the rebuke. He had expressed himself very boldly at the rector’s house at Dillsborough, and had been certain that not a word of real argument had been possible in answer to him. But yet he left the house with a feeling almost of shame, which had grown into real penitence before he reached Bragton. He knew that he had already been condemned by Englishmen as ill-mannered, ill-conditioned and absurd. He was as much alive as any man to the inward distress of heart which such a conviction brings with it to all sensitive minds. And yet he had his purpose and would follow it out. He was already hard at work on the lecture which he meant to deliver somewhere in London before he went back to his home duties, and had made it known to the world at large that he meant to say some sharp things of the country he was visiting.

Soon after his return to town he was present at the opening of Parliament, Mr. Mounser Green of the Foreign Office having seen that he was properly accommodated with a seat. Then he went down to the election of a member of Parliament in the little borough of Quinborough. It was unfortunate for Great Britain, which was on its trial, and unpleasant also for the poor Senator who had appointed himself judge, that such a seat should have fallen vacant at that moment. Quinborough was a little town of 3,000 inhabitants clustering round the gates of a great Whig Marquis, which had been spared — who can say why? — at the first Reform Bill, and having but one member had come out scatheless from the second. Quinborough still returned its one member with something less than 500 constituents, and in spite of household suffrage and the ballot had always returned the member favoured by the Marquis. This nobleman, driven no doubt by his conscience to make some return to the country for the favour shown to his family, had always sent to Parliament some useful and distinguished man who without such patronage might have been unable to serve his country. On the present occasion a friend of the people — so called — an unlettered demagogue such as is in England in truth distasteful to all classes, had taken himself down to Quinborough as a candidate in opposition to the nobleman’s nominee. He had been backed by all the sympathies of the American Senator who knew nothing of him or his unfitness, and nothing whatever of the patriotism of the Marquis. But he did know what was the population and what the constituency of Liverpool, and also what were those of Quinborough. He supposed that he knew what was the theory of representation in England, and he understood correctly that hitherto the member for Quinborough had been the nominee of that great lord. These things were horrid to him. There was to his thinking a fiction — more than fiction, a falseness — about all this which not only would but ought to bring the country prostrate to the dust. When the working-man’s candidate, whose political programme consisted of a general disbelief in all religions, received — by ballot! — only nine votes from those 500 voters, the Senator declared to himself that the country must be rotten to the core. It was not only that Britons were slaves — but that they “hugged their chains.” To the gentleman who assured him that the Right Honble. —— would make a much better member of Parliament than Tom Bobster the plasterer from Shoreditch he in vain tried to prove that the respective merits of the two men had nothing to do with the question. It had been the duty of those 500 voters to show to the world that in the exercise of a privilege entrusted to them for the public service they had not been under the dictation of their rich neighbour. Instead of doing so they had, almost unanimously, grovelled in the dust at their rich neighbour’s feet. “There are but one or two such places left in all England,” said the gentleman. “But those one or two,” answered the Senator, “were wilfully left there by the Parliament which represented the whole nation.”

Then, quite early in the Session, immediately after the voting of the address, a motion had been made by the Government of the day for introducing household suffrage into the counties. No one knew the labour to which the Senator subjected himself in order that he might master all these peculiarities — that he might learn how men became members of Parliament and how they ceased to be so, in what degree the House of Commons was made up of different elements, how it came to pass, that though there was a House of Lords, so many lords sat in the lower chamber. All those matters which to ordinary educated Englishmen are almost as common as the breath of their nostrils, had been to him matter of long and serious study. And as the intent student, who has zealously buried himself for a week among commentaries and notes, feels himself qualified to question Porson and to Be-Bentley Bentley, so did our Senator believe, while still he was groping among the rudiments, that he had all our political intricacies at his fingers’ ends. When he heard the arguments used for a difference of suffrage in the towns and counties, and found that even they who were proposing the change were not ready absolutely to assimilate the two and still held that rural ascendency — feudalism as he called it — should maintain itself by barring a fraction of the House of Commons from the votes of the majority, he pronounced the whole thing to be a sham. The intention was, he said, to delude the people. “It is all coming,” said the gentleman who was accustomed to argue with him in those days. He spoke in a sad vein, which was in itself distressing to the Senator. “Why should you be in such a hurry?” The Senator suggested that if the country delayed much longer this imperative task of putting its house in order, the roof would have fallen in before the repairs were done. Then he found that this gentleman too, avoided his company, and declined to sit with him any more in the Gallery of the House of Commons.

Added to all this was a private rankling, sore in regard to Goarly and Bearside. He had now learned nearly all the truth about Goarly, and had learned also that Bearside had known the whole when he had last visited that eminent lawyer’s office. Goarly had deserted his supporters and had turned evidence against Scrobby, his partner in iniquity. That Goarly was a rascal the Senator had acknowledged. So far the general opinion down in Rufford had been correct. But he could get nobody to see — or at any rate could get nobody to acknowledge — that the rascality of Goarly had had nothing to do with the question as he had taken it up. The man’s right to his own land — his right to be protected from pheasants and foxes, from horses and hounds — was not lessened by the fact that he was a poor ignorant squalid dishonest wretch. Mr. Gotobed had now received a bill from Bearside for £42 7s. 9d. for costs in the case, leaving after the deduction of £15 already paid a sum of £27 7s. 9d. stated to be still due. And this was accompanied by an intimation that as he, Mr. Gotobed, was a foreigner soon about to leave the country, Mr. Bearside must request that his claim might be settled quite at once. No one could be less likely than our Senator to leave a foreign country without paying his bills. He had quarrelled with Morton — who also at this time was too ill to have given him much assistance. Though he had become acquainted with half Dillsborough, there was nobody there to whom he could apply. Thus he was driven to employ a London attorney, and the London attorney told him that he had better pay Bearside; — the Senator remembering at the time that he would also have to pay the London attorney for his advice. He gave this second lawyer authority to conclude the matter, and at last Bearside accepted 20 pounds. When the London attorney refused to take anything for his trouble, the Senator felt such conduct almost as an additional grievance. In his existing frame of mind he would sooner have expended a few more dollars than be driven to think well of anything connected with English law.

It was immediately after he had handed over the money in liquidation of Bearside’s claim that he sat down to write a further letter to his friend and correspondent Josiah Scroome. His letter was not written in the best of tempers; but still, through it all, there was a desire to be just, and an anxiety to abstain from the use of hard phrases. The letter was as follows; —

Fenton’s Hotel, St. James’ Street, London, Feb. 12, 187-.

My Dear Sir,

Since I last wrote I have had much to trouble me and little perhaps to compensate me for my trouble. I told you, I think, in one of my former letters that wherever I went I found myself able to say what I pleased as to the peculiarities of this very peculiar people. I am not now going to contradict what I said then. Wherever I go I do speak out, and my eyes are still in my head and my head is on my shoulders. But I have to acknowledge to myself that I give offence. Mr. Morton, whom you knew at the British Embassy in Washington — and who I fear is now very ill — parted from me, when last I saw him, in anger because of certain opinions I had expressed in a clergyman’s house, not as being ill-founded but as being antagonistic to the clergyman himself. This I feel to be unreasonable. And in the neighbourhood of Mr. Morton’s house, I have encountered the ill will of a great many, not for having spoken untruth, for that I have never heard alleged, but because I have not been reticent in describing the things which I have seen.

I told you, I think, that I had returned to Mr. Morton’s neighbourhood with the view of defending an oppressed man against the power of the lord who was oppressing him. Unfortunately for me the lord, though a scapegrace, spends his money freely and is a hospitable kindly-hearted honest fellow; whereas the injured victim has turned out to be a wretched scoundrel. Scoundrel though he is, he has still been ill used; and the lord, though good-natured, has been a tyrant. But the poor wretch has thrown me over and sold himself to the other side and I have been held up to ignominy by all the provincial newspapers. I have also had to pay through the nose 175 dollars for my quixotism — a sum which I cannot very well afford. This money I have lost solely with the view of defending the weak, but nobody with whom I have discussed the matter seems to recognise the purity of my object. I am only reminded that I have put myself into the same boat with a rascal.

I feel from day to day how thoroughly I could have enjoyed a sojourn in this country if I had come here without any line of duty laid down for myself. Could I have swum with the stream and have said yes or no as yes or no were expected, I might have revelled in generous hospitality. Nothing can be pleasanter than the houses here if you will only be as idle as the owners of them. But when once you show them that you have an object, they become afraid of you. And industry — in such houses as I now speak of, is a crime. You are there to glide through the day luxuriously in the house — or to rush through it impetuously on horseback or with a gun if you be a sportsman. Sometimes, when I have asked questions about the most material institutions of the country, I have felt that I was looked upon with absolute loathing. This is disagreeable.

And yet I find it more easy in this country to sympathise with the rich than with the poor. I do not here describe my own actual sympathies, but only the easiness with which they might be evoked. The rich are at any rate pleasant. The poor are very much the reverse. There is no backbone of mutiny in them against the oppression to which they are subjected; but only the whining of a dog that knows itself to be a slave and pleads with his soft paw for tenderness from his master; or the futile growlings of the caged tiger who paces up and down before his bars and has long ago forgotten to attempt to break them. They are a long-suffering race, who only now and then feel themselves stirred up to contest a point against their masters on the basis of starvation. ‘We. won’t work but on such and such terms, and, if we cannot get them, we will lie down and die.’ That I take it is the real argument of a strike. But they never do lie down and die. If one in every parish, one in every county, would do so, then the agricultural labourers of the country might live almost as well as the farmers’ pigs.

I was present the other day at the opening of Parliament. It was a very grand ceremony, though the Queen did not find herself well enough to do her duty in person. But the grandeur was everything. A royal programme was read from the foot of the throne, of which even I knew all the details beforehand, having read them in the newspapers. Two opening speeches were then made by two young lords — not after all so very young — which sounded like lessons recited by schoolboys. There was no touch of eloquence — no approach to it. It was clear that either of them would have been afraid to attempt the idiosyncrasy of passionate expression. But they were exquisitely dressed and had learned their lessons to a marvel. The flutter of the ladies’ dresses, and the presence of the peers, and the historic ornamentation of the house were all very pleasant; but they reminded me of a last year’s nut, of which the outside appearance has been mellowed and improved by time — but the fruit inside has withered away and become tasteless.

Since that I have been much interested with an attempt — a further morsel of cobbling, which is being done to improve the representation of the people. Though it be but cobbling, if it be in the right direction one is glad of it. I do not know how far you may have studied the theories and system of the British House of Commons, but, for myself, I must own that it was not till the other day that I was aware that, though it acts together as one whole, it is formed of two distinct parts. The one part is sent thither from the towns by household suffrage; and, this, which may be said to be the healthier of the two as coming more directly from the people, is nevertheless disfigured by a multitude of anomalies. Population hardly bears upon the question. A town with 15,000 inhabitants has two members — whereas another with 400,000 has only three, and another with 50,000 has one. But there is worse disorder than this. In the happy little village of Portarlington 200 constituents choose a member among them, or have one chosen for them by their careful lord; whereas in the great city of London something like 25,000 registered electors only send four to Parliament. With this the country is presumed to be satisfied. But in the counties, which by a different system send up the other part of the House, there exists still a heavy property qualification for voting. There is, apparent to all, a necessity for change here; — but the change proposed is simply a reduction of the qualification, so that the rural labourer, whose class is probably the largest, as it is the poorest, in the country — is still disfranchised, and will remain so, unless it be his chance to live within the arbitrary line of some so-called borough. For these boroughs, you must know, are sometimes strictly confined to the aggregations of houses which constitute the town, but sometimes stretch out their arms so as to include rural districts. The divisions I am assured were made to suit the aspirations of political magnates when the first Reform Bill was passed! What is to be expected of a country in which such absurdities are loved and sheltered?

I am still determined to express my views on these matters before I leave England, and am with great labour preparing a lecture on the subject. I am assured that I shall not be debarred from my utterances because that which I say is unpopular. I am told that as long as I do not touch Her Majesty or Her Majesty’s family, or the Christian religion — which is only the second Holy of Holies — I may say anything. Good taste would save me from the former offence, and my own convictions from the latter. But my friend who so informs me doubts whether many will come to hear me. He tells me that the serious American is not popular here, whereas the joker is much run after. Of that I must take my chance. In all this I am endeavouring to do a duty — feeling every day more strongly my own inadequacy. Were I to follow my own wishes I should return by the next steamer to my duties at home.

Believe me to be,
Dear Sir,
With much sincerity,
Yours truly,
Elias Gotobed.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:43