|1811.||Born at Greenbank, Rochdale, November 16.|
|1827.||Leaves school. Enters his father’s mill.|
|1839.||Marries Elizabeth Priestman (died 1841).|
|1841.||Joins Cobden in constitutional agitation for Repeal of Corn Laws.|
|1843.||Enters Parliament as Member for Durham.|
|1846.||Corn Laws repealed.|
|1847.||Marries Margaret Leatham (died 1878).|
|1847.||Member for Manchester.|
|1854-5.||Opposes Crimean War.|
|1857.||Unseated for Manchester. Member for Birmingham.|
|1861.||Supports the North in American Civil War.|
|1868.||President of Board of Trade in Gladstone’s first Government.|
|1870.||Second long illness.|
|1880.||Chancellor of Duchy of Lancaster in Gladstone’s second Government.|
|1882.||Resigns office over bombardment of Alexandria.|
|1886.||Opposes Gladstone’s first Home Rule Bill.|
|1889.||Dies at Rochdale, March 29.|
The word ‘tribune’ comes to us from the early days of the Roman Republic; and even in Rome the tribunate was unlike all other magistracies. The holder had no outward signs of office, no satellites to execute his commands, no definite department to administer like the consul or the praetor. It was his first function to protest on behalf of the poorer citizens against the violent exercise of authority, and, on certain occasions, to thwart the action of other magistrates. He was to be the champion of the weak and helpless against the privileged orders; and his power depended on his courage, his eloquence, and the prestige of his office. England has no office of the sort in her constitutional armoury; but the word ‘tribune’ expresses, better than any other title, the position occupied in our political life by many of the men who have been the conspicuous champions of liberty, and few would contest the claim of John Bright to a foremost place among them. He, too, stood forth to vindicate the rights of the plebs; he, too, resisted the will of governments; and in no common measure did he give evidence, through forty years of public life, of the possession of the highest eloquence and the highest courage.
His early life gave little promise of a great career. He was born in 1811, the son of Jacob Bright, of Rochdale, who had risen by his own efforts to the ownership of a small cotton-mill in Lancashire, a man of simple benevolence and genuine piety, and a member of the Society of Friends — a society more familiar to us under the name of Quakers, though this name is not employed by them in speaking of themselves.
The boy left home early, and between the ages of eight and fifteen he was successively a pupil at five Quaker schools in the north of England. Here he enjoyed little comfort, and none of the aristocratic seclusion in which most statesmen have been reared at Eton and Harrow. He rubbed shoulders with boys of various degrees of rank and wealth, and learnt to be simple, true, and serious-minded; but he was in no way remarkable at this age. We hear little of his recreations, and still less of his reading; the school which pleased him most and did him most good was the one which he attended last, lying among the moors on the borders of Lancashire and Yorkshire. In the river Hodder he learnt to swim; still more he learnt to fish, and it was fishing which remained his favourite outdoor pastime throughout his life.
When school-days were over — at the age of fifteen — there was no question of the University: a rigorous life awaited him and he began at once to work in his father’s business. The mill stood close beside his father’s house at Greenbank near Rochdale, some ten miles northward from Manchester, and had been built in 1809 by Jacob Bright, out of a capital lent to him by two members of the Society of Friends. Here he received bales of new cotton by canal or from carriers, span it in his mill, and gave out the warp and weft thus manufactured to handloom weavers, whom he paid by the piece to weave it in the weaving chamber at the top of their own houses. He then sold the fully manufactured article in Manchester or elsewhere. In such surroundings, many a clever boy has developed into a hard-headed prosperous business man; material interests have cased in his soul, and he has been content to limit his thoughts to buying and selling, to the affairs of his factory and his town, and he has heard no call to other fields of work. But John Bright’s education in books and in life was only just beginning, and though it may be regrettable that he missed the leisured freedom of university life, we must own that he really made good the loss by his own effort (and that without neglecting the work of the mill), and thereby did much to strengthen the independence of his character.
In the mill he was the earliest riser, and often spent hours before breakfast at his books. History and poetry were his favourite reading, and periodicals dealing with social and political questions; his taste was severe and had the happiest effect in chastening his oratorical style. To him, as to the earnest Puritans of the seventeenth century, the Bible and Milton were a peculiar joy; no other stories were so moving, no other music so thrilling to the ear. In his family there was no want of good talk. His mother, who died in 1830, was a woman of great gifts, who helped largely in developing the minds of her children. After her death John continued to live with his sisters, who were clever and original in mind, becoming the leader in the home circle, where views were freely exchanged on the questions of the day.
The Society of Friends was adverse to political discussion, as interfering with the religious life. But the Brights could not be kept from such a field of interest; and during these years theirs, like many other quiet homes, was stirred by the excitement roused by the fortunes of the Reform Bill.
The mill, too, did much to educate him. In the Rochdale factory there was no marked separation as at Manchester between rich and poor. Master and men lived side by side, knew one another’s family history and fortunes, and fraternized over their joys and sorrows. Even in those days of backward education ‘Old Jacob’ made himself responsible for the schooling of his workmen’s children; his son, too, made personal friends among those working under him and kept them throughout his life. Outside the mill Rochdale offered opportunities which he readily took. In 1833 he became one of the founders and first president of a debating society, and he began early to address Bible meetings and to lecture on temperance in his native town, moved by no conscious idea of learning to speak in public, but by the simple desire to be useful in good work. In such holidays as he took he was eager to travel abroad and to learn more of the outside world, and before he started at the age of twenty-four on his longest travels (a nine months’ journey to Palestine and the eastern Mediterranean) he had, by individual effort, fitted himself to hold his own with the best students of the universities in width of outlook and capacity for mastering a subject. Like them, he had his limitations and his prejudices; but however we may admire wide toleration in itself, depth and intensity of feeling are often of more value to a man in enabling him to influence his fellows.
The year of Queen Victoria’s accession may be counted a landmark in the life of this great Victorian. Then for the first time he met Richard Cobden, who was destined to extend his labours and to share his glory; and in the following year he began to co-operate actively in the Free Trade cause, attending meetings in the Rochdale district and gradually developing his power of speaking. It was about this time that he came to know his first wife, Elizabeth Priestman, of the Society of Friends, in Newcastle-on-Tyne, a woman of refined nature and rare gifts, whom he was to marry in 1839 and to lose in 1841. Then it was that he built the house ‘One Ash’, facing the same common as the house in which he was born. Here he lived many years, and here he died in the fullness of time, a Lancashire man, content to dwell among his own people, in his native town, and to forgo the grandeur of a country house. It was from here that he was called in the decisive hour of his life to take part in a national work with which his name will ever be associated. At the moment when Bright was prostrated with grief at his wife’s death Cobden appeared on the scene and made his historic appeal. He urged his friend to put aside his private grief, to remember the miseries of so many other homes, miseries due directly to the Corn Laws, to put his shoulder to the wheel, and never to rest till they were repealed.
Cobden had been less happy than Bright in his schooling. His father’s misfortune led to his spending five years at a Yorkshire school of the worst type, and seven more as clerk in the warehouse of an unsympathetic uncle. Like Bright, he had early to take the lead in his own family; also, like Bright, he had to educate himself; but he had a far harder struggle, and the enterprise which he showed in commerce in early manhood would have left him the possessor of a vast fortune, had he not preferred to devote his energies to public causes. The two men were by nature well suited to complement one another. If Cobden was the more ingenious in explaining an argument, Bright was more forcible in asserting a principle. If Cobden could, above all other men, convince the intellects of his hearers, Bright could, as few other speakers, kindle their spirits for a fray. His figure on a platform was striking. His manly expressive face, with broad brow, straight nose, and square chin, was essentially English in type. Though in the course of his political career he discarded the distinctive Quaker dress, he never discarded the Quaker simplicity. His costume was plain, his style of speaking severe, his bearing dignified and restrained. Only when his indignation was kindled at injustice was he swept far away from the calmness of Quaker tradition.
The Corn Laws were a sequel to the Napoleonic wars and to the insecurity of foreign trade which these caused. While war lasted it had inflated prices, and brought to English growers of corn a period of extraordinary prosperity. When peace came, to escape from a sudden fall in prices, the landed proprietors, who formed a majority of the House of Commons, had fixed by Act of Parliament the conditions under which corn might be imported from abroad. This measure was to perpetuate by law, in time of peace, the artificial conditions from which the people had unavoidably suffered by the accident of war. The legislators paid no heed to the growth of population, which was enormous, or to the distress of the working classes, who needed time to adjust themselves to the rapid changes in industry. Even the middle classes suffered, and the poor could only meet such trouble by ‘clemming’ or self-starvation. A noble duke, speaking in all good faith, advised them to ‘try a pinch of curry powder in hot water’, as making the pangs of hunger less intolerable. He met with little thanks for his advice from the sufferers, who demanded a radical cure. Parliament as a whole showed few signs of wishing to probe the question more deeply, and shut its eyes to the evidence of distress, whether shown in peaceful petitions or in disorderly riots. Many of the members were personally humane men and good landlords; but there were no powerful newspapers to enlighten them, and they knew little of the state of the manufacturing districts.
The cause had now found its appropriate champions. We in this day are familiar with appeals to the great mass of the people: we know the story of Midlothian campaigns and Belfast reviews; we hear the distant thunder from Liverpool, Manchester, or Birmingham, when the great men of Parliament go down from London to thrill vast audiences in the provincial towns. But the agitation of the Anti-Corn-Law League was a new thing. It was initiated by men unknown outside the Manchester district; few of the thousands to whom it was directed possessed the vote; and yet it wrought one of the greatest changes of the nineteenth century, a change of which the influence is perhaps not yet spent. In this campaign, Cobden and Bright were, without doubt, the leading spirits.
The movement filled five years of Bright’s life. His hopes and fears might alternate — at one moment he was stirred to exultation over success, at another to regrets at the break-up of his home life, at another to bitter complaints and hatred of the landed interest — but his exertions never relaxed. As he was so often absent, the business at Rochdale had to be entrusted to his brother. Whenever he could be there, Bright was at his home with his little motherless daughter; but his efforts on the platform were more and more appreciated each year, and the campaign made heavy demands upon him.
At the opening of the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, on the site of the ‘Peterloo’ riots, he won a signal triumph. The vast audience was enthusiastic: several of them also were discriminating in their praise. One lady said that the chief charm of Mr. Bright was in the simplicity of his manner, the total absence of anything like showing off; another that she should never attend another meeting if he were announced to speak, as she could not bear the excitement. Simplicity and profound emotion were the secrets of his influence. The London Opera House saw similar scenes once a month, from 1843 till the end of the struggle. Villages and towns, and all classes of society, were instructed in the principles of the League and induced to help forward the cause. Not only did the wealthy factory owner, conscious as he was of the loss which the high price of food inflicted on the manufacturing interest, contribute his thousands; the factory hand too contributed his mite to further the welfare of his class. Even farmers were led to take a new view of the needs of agriculture, and the country labourer was made to see that his advantage lay in the success of the League. It was a farm-hand who put the matter in a nutshell at one of the meetings: ‘I be protected,’ he said, ‘and I be starving.’
In 1843 Bright joined his leader in Parliament as member for Durham city, though his Quaker relatives disapproved of the idea that one of their society should so far enter the world and take part in its conflicts. In the House of Commons he met with scant popularity but with general respect. He was no mob orator of the conventional type. The simplicity and good taste of his speeches satisfied the best judges. He expressed sentiments hateful to his hearers in such a way that they might dislike the speech, but could not despise the speaker. Even when he boldly attacked the Game Laws in an assembly of landowners, the House listened to him respectfully, and the spokesman of the Government thanked him for the tone and temper of his speech, admitting that he had made out a strong case. But it was in the country and on the platform that the chief efforts of Cobden and Bright were made, and their chief successes won.
In 1845 they had an unexpected but most influential ally. Nature herself took a hand in the game. From 1842 to 1844 the bad effects of the Corn Laws were mitigated by good harvests and by the wise measures of Peel in freeing trade from various restrictions. But in 1845 first the corn, and then the potato crop, failed calamitously. Peel’s conscience had been uneasy for years: he had been studying economics, and his conclusions did not square with the orthodox Tory creed. So when the Whig leader, Lord John Russell, ventured to express himself openly for Free Trade in his famous Edinburgh letter of November 28, Peel at last saw some chance of converting his party. It has already been told in this book how at length he succeeded in his aims, how he broke up his party but saved the country, and how in the hour of mingled triumph and defeat he generously gave to Cobden the chief credit for success. Whigs and Tories might taunt one another with desertion of principles, or might claim that their respective leaders collaborated at the end; certainly the question would never have been put before the Cabinet or the House of Commons as a Government measure but for the untiring efforts of the two Tribunes. History can show few greater triumphs of Government by moral suasion and the art of speech. Throughout, violence had been eschewed, even though men were starving, and appeals had been made solely to the justice and expediency of their case. Nothing illustrates better the sincerity and disinterestedness of John Bright than his conduct in these last decisive months. The tide was flowing with him; the opposition was reduced to a shadow. He might have enjoyed the luxury of applause from Radicals, Whigs, and the more advanced Tories, and won easy victories over a hostile minority. But the cause was now in the safe hands of Peel, whose honesty they respected and whose generalship they trusted; so Cobden and Bright were content to stand aside and watch. Instead of carping at his tardy conversion, Bright wrote in generous praise of Peel’s speech: ‘I never listened’, he said, ‘to any human being speaking in public with so much delight.’ His heart was in the cause and not in his own advancement. When he did rise to speak, it was to vindicate Peel’s honour and his statesmanship.
A few months later this honourable alliance came to an abrupt end. Bright was forced, by the same incorruptible sense of right and by the absence of all respect of persons, to oppose Peel in the crisis of his fate. The Government brought in an Irish Coercion Bill, which was naturally opposed by the Whigs. The Protectionist Tories saw their chance of taking revenge on Peel for repealing the Corn Laws and made common cause with their enemies; and from very different motives, Bright went into the same lobby. His conscience forbade him to support any coercive measure. No Prime Minister could please him as much as Peel; but no surrender, no mere evasion of responsibilities was possible in the case of a measure of which he disapproved. So firm was the bed-rock of principle on which Bright’s political conduct was based; and it was to this uncompromising sincerity above all that he owed the triumphs of his oratory.
His method as an orator is full of interest.20 In his youth he had begun by writing out and learning his speeches in full; but, before he quitted Rochdale for a wider theatre, he had discarded this rather mechanical method, and trusted more freely to his growing powers. He still made careful preparation for his speeches. He tells us how he often composed them in bed, as Carlyle’s ‘rugged Brindley’ wrestled in bed with the difficulties of his canal-schemes, the silence and the dim light favouring the birth of ideas. He prepared words as well as ideas; but he only committed to memory enough to be a guide to him in marking the order and development of his thoughts, and filled up the original outline according to the inspiration of the moment. A few sentences, where the balance of words was carefully studied; a few figures of speech, where his imagination had taken flight into the realm of poetry; a few notable illustrations from history or contemporary politics, with details of names and figures — these would be found among the notes which he wrote on detached slips of paper and dropped successively into his hat as each milestone was attained. As compared with his illustrious rival Gladstone, he was very sparing of gesture, depending partly on facial expression, still more on the modulations of his voice, to give life to the words which he uttered. His reading had formed his diction, his constant speaking had taught him readiness, and his study of great questions at close quarters and his meditation on them supplied him with the facts and the conclusions which he wished to put forward; but the fire which kindled this material to white heat was the passion for great principles which glowed in his heart. He himself in 1868, in returning thanks for the gift of the Freedom of the City of Edinburgh, quoted with obvious sincerity a sentence from his favourite Milton: ‘True eloquence I find to be none but the serious and hearty love of Truth.’
Bright’s public life was in the main a tale of devotion to two great causes, the Repeal of the Corn Laws, consummated in 1846, and the extension of the Franchise, which was not realized till twenty years later. But he found time to examine other questions and to utter shrewd opinions on the government of India and of Ireland, and to influence English sentiment on the Crimean War and the War of Secession in the United States. In advance of his time, he wished to develop cotton-growing in India and so to prevent the great industry of his own district being dependent on America alone. He attacked the existing board of directors and preferred immediate control by the Crown; and, while wishing to preserve the Viceroy’s supremacy over the whole, he spoke in favour of admitting Indians to a larger share in the government of the various provinces. Many of the best judges of to-day are now working towards the same end, but at the time he met with little support. It is interesting to find that both on India and on Ireland similar views were put forward by men so different as John Bright and Benjamin Disraeli. Mr. Trevelyan has preserved the memory of several episodes in which they were connected with one another and of attempts which Disraeli made to win Bright’s support and co-operation. Bright could cultivate friendships with politicians of very different schools without being induced to deviate by a hair’s breadth from the cause which his principles dictated, and he could treat his friends, at times, with refreshing frankness. When Disraeli warmly admired one of his greatest speeches and expressed the wish that he himself could emulate it, the outspoken Quaker replied: ‘Well, you might have made it, if you had been honest.’
It was the young Disraeli who, as early as 1846, had attributed the Irish troubles to ‘a starving population, an absentee aristocracy, and an alien church’. It was Bright who never hesitated, when opportunity arose, to work for the Disestablishment of the Church in Ireland and for the security of Irish tenants in their holdings. A succession of measures, carried by Liberals and Conservatives from Gladstone to George Wyndham, have made us familiar with the idea of land purchase in Ireland; but Bright had been there as early as 1849 and had learnt for himself. Though at the end of his life he was a stubborn opponent of Gladstone’s Home Rule Bill, he had long ago won the gratitude of Ireland as no other Englishman of his day, and his name has been preserved there in affectionate remembrance.
In 1854, the year of the Crimean War, Bright reached the zenith of his oratorical power, and at the same time touched the nadir of his popularity. Public opinion was setting strongly against Russia. In stemming the tide of war the so-called ‘Manchester school’ had a difficult task, and was severely criticized. The idea of the ‘balance of power’ made little appeal to Bright; and as a Quaker he was reluctant to see England interfering in a quarrel which did not seem to concern her. The satirists indeed scoffed unfairly at the doctrine of ‘Peace at any price’; for Bright was content to put aside the principle and to argue the case on pure political expediency. But his attacks on the wars of the last century were too often couched in an offensive tone with personal references to the peerages won in them, and he spoke at times too bitterly of the diplomatic profession and especially of our ambassador at Constantinople. Nothing shows so clearly the danger of the imperfect education which was forced on Bright by necessity, and which he had done so much to remedy, as his attitude to foreign and imperial politics. In his home he had too readily imbibed the crude notion that our Empire existed to provide careers for the needy cadets of aristocratic families, and that our foreign policy was inspired by self-seeking officials who cared little for moral principles or for the lives of their fellow countrymen. A few months spent with Lord Canning at Calcutta, or with the Lawrences at Lahore, frequent intercourse with men of the calibre of Lord Lyons or Lord Cromer, would have enlightened him on the subject and prevented him from uttering the unwarranted imputations which he did. Yet in his great parliamentary speeches of 1854 he rose high above all pettiness and made a deep impression on a hostile house. Damaging though his speech of December 22 was to the Government, no minister attempted to reply. Palmerston, Russell, and Gladstone, with all their power, were unequal to the task. Disraeli told Bright that a few more such speeches ‘would break up the Government’; and Delane, the famous editor of The Times, wrote that ‘Cobden and Bright would be our ministers but for their principle of peace at any price’.
But Bright was not thinking of office or of breaking up Governments: he was thinking of the practical end in view. His next great speech was on February 23, 1855, when a faint hope of peace appeared. It was most conciliatory in tone, and was a solemn appeal to Palmerston to use his influence in ending the war. This was known as ‘the Angel of Death’ speech, from a famous passage which occurs in it. At the end he was ‘overloaded with compliments’, but the minister, who was hampered by Russian intrigues with Napoleon, seemed deaf to all appeals, and Bright again returned to the attack. Till the last days of the war, he continued to raise his voice on behalf of peace; but his exertions had told on his strength, and for the greater part of two years he had to abandon public life and devote himself to recovering his health.
Six years later he was to prove that ‘peace at any price’ was no fair description of his attitude. The Southern States of America seceded on the question of State rights and the institution of slavery, and the Federal Government declared war on them as rebels. This time it was not a war for the balance of power, but one fought to vindicate a moral principle, and Bright was strongly in favour of fighting it to a finish. For different reasons most of our countrymen favoured the South, but he appealed for British sympathy for the other side, on the ground that no true Briton could abet slavery. He was the most prominent supporter of the North, for long the only prominent one, but he gradually made converts and did much to wipe away the reproach which attached to the name of Englishmen in America, when the North triumphed in the end. The war ended in 1865 with the surrender of General Lee at Appomattox, and Bright wrote in his journal, ‘This great triumph of the Republic is the event of our age’.
But long before 1865 the question of Reform and of the extension of the franchise had been revived. Gladstone might speak in favour of the principle in 1864; Russell might introduce a Reform Bill in 1866; a year later Disraeli might ‘dish the Whigs’; and Whig and Tory might wrangle over the question who were the friends of the ‘working man’, but Bright had made his position clear to his friends in 1846. He began a popular movement in 1849 and for the next fifteen years of his life it was the object dearest to his heart. He was not afraid to walk alone. When his old fellow worker, Cobden, refused his aid, on the ground that he was not convinced of the need for extending the franchise, Bright himself assumed the lead and bore the brunt of the battle. Till 1865 his main obstacle was Palmerston, who since he took the helm in the worst days of the Crimean War and conducted the ship of State into harbour, occupied an impregnable position. Palmerston was dear to ‘the man in the street’, shared his prejudices and understood his humours; and nothing could make him into a serious Democrat or reformer. Even after Palmerston’s death, Bright’s chief opponent was to be found in the Whig ranks, in Robert Lowe, who was a master of parliamentary eloquence and who managed, in 1866, to wreck Lord John Russell’s Reform Bill in the House. But Bright had his revenge in the country. Such meetings as ensued in the great provincial towns had not been seen for twenty years: the middle class and the artisans were fused as in the great Repeal struggle of 1846. At Glasgow as many as 150,000 men paraded outside the town, and no hall could contain the thousands who wished to hear the great Tribune. He claimed that eighty-four per cent. of his countrymen were still excluded from the vote, and he bluntly asserted that the existing House of Commons did not represent ‘the intelligence and the justice of the nation, but the prejudices, the privileges, and the selfishness, of a class’.
But however blind many of this class might still be to the signs of the times, they found an astute leader in Disraeli, who had few principles and could trim his sails to any wind. The Tory Reform Bill, which he put forward in February 1867, came out a very different Bill in July, after discussion in the Cabinet, which led to the resignation of three ministers, and after debates in the House of Commons, where it was roughly handled. The principle of household suffrage was conceded, and another million voters were added to the electorate. Disraeli had made a greater change of front than any which he could attribute to Peel, and that without conviction, for reasons of party expediency. The real triumph belonged to Bright. ‘The Bill adopted’, he writes, ‘is the precise franchise I recommended in 1858.’ He had not only roused the country by his platform speeches, he had carefully watched the Bill in all its stages through the House, and gradually transformed it till it satisfied the aspirations of the people. He had been content to work with Disraeli so long as he could further the cause of Reform; and he only quarrelled with that statesman finally when, in 1878, he revived the anti-Russian policy of Palmerston.
During this strenuous time his domestic life was happy and tranquil. After the death of his first wife he had remained a widower for six years, and in 1847 he had married Margaret Leatham, who bore him seven children and shared his joys and sorrows in no ordinary measure for thirty years. Whenever politics took him away from his Rochdale home, he wrote constantly to her, and his letters throw most valuable light on his inmost feelings. She died in 1878, and after this his life was pitched in a different key. The outer world might suppose that high political office was crowning his career, but his enthusiasm and his power were ebbing and his physical health failed him more than once. He was as affectionate to his children, as friendly to his neighbours, as true to his principles; but the old fire was gone.
The outward events of his life from 1867 to 1889 must be passed over lightly. Against his own wishes he was persuaded by Gladstone to join the Cabinet in 1868 and again in 1880. His name was a tower of strength to the Government with the newly-enfranchised electors, but he himself had little taste for the routine of office. At Birmingham, for which he had sat since 1857, he compared himself to the Shunammite woman who refused the offer of advancement at court, and replied to the prophet, ‘I dwell among mine own people’. But events were too strong for him: he was drawn first to Westminster to share in the government of the country, and then to Osborne to visit the Queen. Both the Queen and he were nervous at the prospect, but the interview passed off happily.21 Family affections and sorrows were a bond between them, and he talked to her with his usual frankness and simplicity. Even the difficult question of costume was settled by a compromise, and the usual gold-braided livery was replaced by a sober suit of black. Ministerial work in London might have proved irksome to him; but his colleagues in the Cabinet were indulgent, and no excessive demands were made upon his strength. It was recognized that Bright was no longer in the fighting line. In 1870 he was incapacitated by a second long illness, and he had little share in the measures carried through Parliament for Irish land purchase and national education.
His official career was finally closed in 1882, when the bombardment of Alexandria seemed to open a new and aggressive chapter in our Eastern policy. Bright was true to his old principles and resigned office.
He severed himself still more from the official Liberals in 1886, when he refused to follow Gladstone into the Home Rule camp. He disliked the methods of Parnell, the obstruction in Parliament, and the campaign of lawlessness in Ireland. His own victories had not been won so, and he had a great respect for the traditions of the House. He also believed that the Home Rule Bill would vitally weaken the unity of the realm. But no personal bitterness entered into his relations with his old colleagues: he did not attack Gladstone, as he had attacked Palmerston in 1855. From his death-bed he sent a cordial message to his old chief, and received an answer full of high courtesy and affection.
His illness lasted several months. From the autumn of 1888 he lay at One Ash, weak but not suffering acutely; and on March 27, 1889, he quietly passed away. His old friend Cobden had preceded him more than twenty years, having died in 1865, and had been buried at his birthplace in Sussex, where he had made himself a peaceful home in later life. Bright proved himself equally faithful to the home of his earliest years. He was laid to rest in the small burying-ground in front of the Friends’ meeting-house where he had worshipped as a child. In his long career he had served noble causes, and scaled the heights of fame, and the crowds at his funeral testified to the love which his neighbours bore him. He had never willingly been absent for long from his native town. His life, compared with that of Disraeli or Gladstone, seems almost bleak in its simplicity, varied as it was by so few excursions into other fields. But two strong passions enriched it with warmth and glow, his family affections and his zeal for the common good. These filled his heart, and he was content that it should be so.
Type of the wise who soar but never roam,
True to the kindred points of Heaven and Home.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05