The American Senator, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter XXIV

The Senator’s Lecture. — No. II

“If I see a man hungry in the street,” said the Senator, instigated by the question asked him at the end of the last chapter, “and give him a bit of bread, I don’t do it for my own sake but for his.” Up to this time the Britishers around him on the platform and those in the benches near to him, had received what he said with a good grace. The allusion to Lord Lambswool had not been pleasant to them, but it had not been worse than they had expected. But now they were displeased. They did not like being told that they were taking a bit of bread from him in their own political destitution. They did not like that he, an individual, should presume that he had prayer to offer to them as a nation. And yet, had they argued it out in their own minds, they would have seen that the Senator’s metaphor was appropriate. His purpose in being there was to give advice, and theirs in coming to listen to it. But it was unfortunate. “When I ventured to come before you here, I made all this my business,” continued the Senator. Then he paused and glanced round the hall with a defiant look. “And now about your House of Lords,” he went on. “I have not much to say about the House of Lords, because if I understand rightly the feeling of this country it is already condemned.” “No such thing.” “Who told you that?” “You know nothing about it” These and other words of curt denial came from the distant corners, and a slight murmur of disapprobation was heard even from the seats on the platform. Then Lord Drummond got up and begged that there might be silence. Mr. Gotobed had come there to tell them his views — and as they had come there expressly to listen to him, they could not without impropriety interrupt him. “That such will be the feeling of the country before long,” continued the Senator, “I think no one can doubt who has learned how to look to the signs of the times in such matters. Is it possible that the theory of an hereditary legislature can be defended with reason? For a legislature you want the best and wisest of your people.” “You don’t get them in America,” said a voice which was beginning to be recognised. “We try at any rate,” said the Senator. “Now is it possible that an accident of birth should give you excellence and wisdom? What is the result? Not a tenth of your hereditary legislators assemble in the beautiful hall that you have built for them. And of that tenth the greater half consists of counsellors of state who have been placed there in order that the business of the country may not be brought to a standstill. Your hereditary chamber is a fiction supplemented by the element of election, the election resting generally in the very bosom of the House of Commons.” On this subject, although he had promised to be short, he said much more, which was received for the most part in silence. But when he ended by telling them that they could have no right to call themselves a free people till every legislator in the country was elected by the votes of the people, another murmur was heard through the hall.

“I told you,” said he waxing more and more energetic, as he felt the opposition which he was bound to overcome, “that what I had to say to you would not be pleasant. If you cannot endure to hear me, let us break up and go away. In that case I must tell my friends at home that the tender ears of a British audience cannot bear rough words from American lips. And yet if you think of it we have borne rough words from you and have borne them with good-humour.” Again he paused, but as none rose from their seats he went on, “Proceeding from hereditary legislature I come to hereditary property. It is natural that a man should wish to give to his children after his death the property which he has enjoyed during their life. But let me ask any man here who has not been born an eldest son himself, whether it is natural that he should wish to give it all to one son. Would any man think of doing so, by the light of his own reason — out of his own head as we say? Would any man be so unjust to those who are equal in his love, where he not constrained by law, and by custom more iron-handed even than the law?” The Senator had here made a mistake very common with Americans, and a great many voices were on him at once. “What law?” “There is no law.” “You know nothing about it” “Go back and learn.”

“What!” cried the Senator coming forward to the extreme verge of the platform and putting down his foot as though there were strength enough in his leg to crush them all; “Will any one have the hardihood to tell me that property in this country is not affected by primogeniture?” “Go back and learn the law.” “I know the law perhaps better than most of you. Do you mean to assert that my Lord Lambswool can leave his land to whom he pleases? I tell you that he has no more than a life-interest in it, and that his son will only have the same.” Then an eager Briton on the platform got up and whispered to the Senator for a few minutes, during which the murmuring was continued. “My friend reminds me,” said the Senator, “that the matter is one of custom rather than law; and I am obliged to him. But the custom which is damnable and cruel, is backed by law which is equally so. If I have land I can not only give it all to my eldest son, but I can assure the right of primogeniture to his son, though he be not yet born. No one I think will deny that there must be a special law to enable me to commit an injustice so unnatural as that.”

“Hence it comes that you still suffer under an aristocracy almost as dominant, and in its essence as irrational, as that which created feudalism.” The gentlemen collected on the platform looked at each other and smiled, perhaps failing to catch the exact meaning of the Senator’s words. “A lord here has a power, as a lord, which he cannot himself fathom and of which he daily makes an unconscious but most deleterious use. He is brought up to think it natural that he should be a tyrant. The proclivities of his order are generous, and as a rule he gives more than he takes. But he is as injurious in the one process as in the other. Your ordinary Briton in his dealing with a lord expects payment in some shape for every repetition of the absurd title; — and payment is made. The titled aristocrat pays dearer for his horse, dearer for his coat, dearer for his servant than other people. But in return he exacts much which no other person can get. Knowing his own magnanimity he expects that his word shall not be questioned. If I may be allowed I will tell a little story as to one of the most generous men I have had the happiness of meeting in this country, which will explain my meaning.”

Then, without mentioning names he told the story of Lord Rufford, Goarly, and Scrobby, in such a way as partly to redeem himself with his audience. He acknowledged how absolutely he had been himself befooled, and how he had been done out of his money by misplaced sympathy. He made Mrs. Goarly’s goose immortal, and in imitating the indignation of Runce the farmer and Bean the gamekeeper showed that he was master of considerable humour. But he brought it all round at last to his own purpose, and ended this episode of his lecture by his view of the absurdity and illegality of British hunting. “I can talk about it to you,” he said, “and you will know whether I am speaking the truth. But when I get home among my own people, and repeat my lecture there, as I shall do — with some little additions as to the good things I have found here from which your ears may be spared — I shall omit this story as I know it will be impossible to make my countrymen believe that a hundred harum-scarum tomboys may ride at their pleasure over every man’s land, destroying crops and trampling down fences, going, if their vermin leads them there, with reckless violence into the sweet domestic garden of your country residences; and that no one can either stop them or punish them! An American will believe much about the wonderful ways of his British cousin, but no American will be got to believe that till he sees it.”

“I find,” said he, “that this irrationality, as I have ventured to call it, runs through all your professions. We will take the Church as being the highest at any rate in its objects.” Then he recapitulated all those arguments against our mode of dispensing church patronage with which the reader is already familiar if he has attended to the Senator’s earlier words as given in this chronicle. “In other lines of business there is, even here in England, some attempt made to get the man best suited for the work he has to do. If any one wants a domestic servant he sets about the work of getting a proper person in a very determined manner indeed. But for the care — or, as you call it, the cure — of his soul, he has to put up with the man who has bought the right to minister to his wants; or with him whose father wants a means of living for his younger son — the elder being destined to swallow all the family property; or with him who has become sick of drinking his wine in an Oxford college; — or with him, again, who has pleaded his cause successfully with a bishop’s daughter.” It is not often that the British public is angered by abuse of the Church, and this part of the lecture was allowed to pass without strong marks of disapprobation.

“I have been at some trouble,” he continued, “to learn the very complex rules by which your army is now regulated, and those by which it was regulated a very short time since. Unhappily for me I have found it in a state of transition, and nothing is so difficult to a stranger’s comprehension as a transition state of affairs. But this I can see plainly; that every improvement which is made is received by those whom it most concerns with a horror which amounts almost to madness. So lovely to the ancient British, well-born, feudal instinct is a state of unreason, that the very absence of any principle endears to it institutions which no one can attempt to support by argument. Had such a thing not existed as the right to purchase military promotion, would any satirist have been listened to who had suggested it as a possible outcome of British irrationality? Think what it carries with it! The man who has proved himself fit to serve his country by serving it in twenty foreign fields, who has bled for his country and perhaps preserved his country, shall rot in obscurity because he has no money to buy promotion, whereas the young dandy who has done no more than glitter along the pavements with his sword and spurs shall have the command of men; — because he has so many thousand dollars in his pocket”

“Buncombe,” shouted the inimical voice.

“But is it Buncombe?” asked the intrepid Senator. “Will any one who knows what he is talking about say that I am describing a state of things which did not exist yesterday? I will acknowledge that this has been rectified — tho’ I see symptoms of relapse. A fault that has been mended is a fault no longer. But what I speak of now is the disruption of all concord in your army caused by the reform which has forced itself upon you. All loyalty has gone; all that love of his profession which should be the breath of a soldier’s nostrils. A fine body of fighting heroes is broken-hearted, not because injury has been done to them or to any of them, but because the system had become peculiarly British by reason of its special absurdity, and therefore peculiarly dear.”

“Buncombe,” again said the voice, and the word was now repeated by a dozen voices.

“Let any one show me that it is Buncombe. If I say what is untrue, do with me what you please. If I am ignorant, set me right and laugh at me. But if what I say is true, then your interruption is surely a sign of imbecility. I say that the change was forced upon you by the feeling of the people, but that its very expediency has demoralized the army, because the army was irrational. And how is it with the navy? What am I to believe when I hear so many conflicting statements among yourselves?” During this last appeal, however, the noise at the back of the hall had become so violent, that the Senator was hardly able to make his voice heard by those immediately around him. He himself did not quail for a moment, going on with his gestures, and setting down his foot as though he were still confident in his purpose of overcoming all opposition. He had not much above half done yet. There were the lawyers before him, and the Civil Service, and the railways, and the commerce of the country, and the labouring classes. But Lord Drummond and others near him were becoming terrified, thinking that something worse might occur unless an end was put to the proceedings. Then a superintendent of police came in and whispered to his Lordship. A crowd was collecting itself in Piccadilly and St. James Street, and perhaps the Senator had better be withdrawn. The officer did not think that he could safely answer for the consequences if this were carried on for a quarter of an hour longer. Then Lord Drummond having meditated for a moment, touched the Senator’s arm and suggested a withdrawal into a side room for a minute. “Mr. Gotobed,” he said, “a little feeling has been excited and we had better put an end to this for the present.”

“Put an end to it?”

“I am afraid we must. The police are becoming alarmed.”

“Oh, of course; you know best. In our country a man is allowed to express himself unless he utters either blasphemy or calumny. But I am in your hands and of course you must do as you please.” Then he sat down in a corner, and wiped his brows. Lord Drummond returned to the hall, and there endeavoured to explain that the lecture was over for that night. The row was so great that it did not matter much what he said, but the people soon understood that the American Senator was not to appear before them again.

It was not much after nine o’clock when the Senator reached his hotel, Lord Drummond having accompanied him thither in a cab. “Good night, Mr. Gotobed,” said his Lordship. “I cannot tell you how much I respect both your purpose and your courage; — but I don’t know how far it is wise for a man to tell any other man, much less a nation, of all his faults.”

“You English tell us of ours pretty often,” said the Senator.

When he found himself alone he thought of it all, giving himself no special credit for what he had done, acknowledging to himself that he had often chosen his words badly and expressed himself imperfectly, but declaring to himself through it all that the want of reason among Britishers was so great, that no one ought to treat them as wholly responsible beings.

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