Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Political Nicknames.

Political calumny is said to have been reduced into an art, like that of logic, by the Jesuits. This itself may be a political calumny! A powerful body, who themselves had practised the artifices of calumniators, may, in their turn, often have been calumniated. The passage in question was drawn out of one of the classical authors used in their colleges. Busembaum, a German Jesuit, had composed, in duodecimo, a “Medulla Theologiæ moralis,” where, among other casuistical propositions, there was found lurking in this old Jesuit’s “marrow” one which favoured regicide and assassination! Fifty editions of the book had passed unnoticed; till a new one appearing at the critical moment of Damien’s attempt, the duodecimo of the old scholastic Jesuit, which had now been amplified by its commentators into two folios, was considered not merely ridiculous, but dangerous. It was burnt at Toulouse, in 1757, by order of the parliament, and condemned at Paris. An Italian Jesuit published an “apology” for this theory of assassination, and the same flames devoured it! Whether Busembaum deserved the honour bestowed on his ingenuity, the reader may judge by the passage itself.

“Whoever would ruin a person, or a government, must begin this operation by spreading calumnies, to defame the person or the government; for unquestionably the calumniator will always find a great number of persons inclined to believe him, or to side with him; it therefore follows, that whenever the object of such calumnies is once lowered in credit by such means, he will soon lose the reputation and power founded on that credit, and sink under the permanent and vindictive attacks of the calumniator.” This is the politics of Satan — the evil principle which regulates so many things in this world. The enemies of the Jesuits have formed a list of great names who had become the victims of such atrocious Machiavelism.1

This has been one of the arts practised by all political parties. Their first weak invention is to attach to a new faction a contemptible or an opprobrious nickname. In the history of the revolutions of Europe, whenever a new party has at length established its independence, the original denomination which had been fixed on them, marked by the passions of the party which bestowed it, strangely contrasts with the state of the party finally established!

The first revolutionists of Holland incurred the contemptuous name of “Les Gueux,” or the Beggars. The Duchess of Parma inquiring about them, the Count of Barlamont scornfully described them to be of this class; and it was flattery of the great which gave the name currency. The Hollanders accepted the name as much in defiance as with indignation, and acted up to it. Instead of brooches in their hats, they wore little wooden platters, such as beggars used, and foxes’ tails instead of feathers. On the targets of some of these Gueux they inscribed “Rather Turkish than Popish!” and had the print of a cock crowing, out of whose mouth was a label, Vive les Gueux par tout le monde! which was everywhere set up, and was the favourite sign of their inns. The Protestants in France, after a variety of nicknames to render them contemptible — such as Christodins, because they would only talk about Christ, similar to our Puritans; and Parpaillots, or Parpirolles, a small base coin, which was odiously applied to them — at length settled in the well-known term of Huguenots, which probably was derived, as the Dictionnaire de Trévoux suggests, from their hiding themselves in secret places, and appearing at night, like King Hugon, the great hobgoblin of France. It appears that the term has been preserved by an earthen vessel without feet, used in cookery, which served the Huguenots on meagre days to dress their meat, and to avoid observation; a curious instance, where a thing still in use proves the obscure circumstance of its origin.

The atrocious insurrection, called La Jacquerie, was a term which originated in cruel derision. When John of France was a prisoner in England, his kingdom appears to have been desolated by its wretched nobles, who, in the indulgence of their passions, set no limits to their luxury and their extortion. They despoiled their peasantry without mercy, and when these complained, and even reproached this tyrannical nobility with having forsaken their sovereign, they were told that Jacque bon homme must pay for all. But Jack good-man came forward in person — a leader appeared under this fatal name, and the peasants revolting in madness, and being joined by all the cut-throats and thieves of Paris, at once pronounced condemnation on every gentleman in France! Froissart has the horrid narrative; twelve thousand of these Jacques bon hommes expiated their crimes; but the Jacquerie, who had received their first appellation in derision, assumed it as their nom de guerre.

In the spirited Memoirs of the Duke of Guise, written by himself, of his enterprise against the kingdom of Naples, we find a curious account of this political art of marking people by odious nicknames. “Gennaro and Vicenzo,” says the duke, “cherished underhand that aversion the rascality had for the better sort of citizens and civiller people, who, by the insolencies they suffered from these, not unjustly hated them. The better class inhabiting the suburbs of the Virgin were called black cloaks, and the ordinary sort of people took the name of lazars, both in French and English an old word for leprous beggar, and hence the lazaroni of Naples.” We can easily conceive the evil eye of a lazar when he encountered a black cloak! The Duke adds —“Just as, at the beginning of the revolution, the revolters in Flanders formerly took that of beggars; those of Guienne, that of eaters; those of Normandy that of bare-feet; and of Beausse and Soulogne, of wooden-pattens.” In the late French revolution, we observed the extremes indulged by both parties chiefly concerned in revolution — the wealthy and the poor! The rich, who, in derision, called their humble fellow-citizens by the contemptuous term of sans-culottes, provoked a reacting injustice from the populace, who, as a dreadful return for only a slight, rendered the innocent term of aristocrate a signal for plunder or slaughter!

It is a curious fact that the French verb fronder, as well the noun frondeur, are used to describe those who condemn the measures of government; and more extensively, designates any hyperbolical and malignant criticism, or any sort of condemnation. These words have only been introduced into the language since the intrigues of Cardinal de Retz succeeded in raising a faction against Cardinal Mazarin, known in French history by the nickname of the Frondeurs, or the Slingers. It originated in pleasantry, although it became the password for insurrection in France, and the odious name of a faction. A wit observed, that the parliament were like those school-boys, who fling their stones in the pits of Paris, and as soon as they see the Lieutenant Civil, run away; but are sure to collect again directly he disappears. The comparison was lively, and formed the burthen of songs; and afterwards, when affairs were settled between the king and the parliament, it was more particularly applied to the faction of Cardinal de Retz, who still held out. “We encouraged the application,” says de Retz; “for we observed that the distinction of a name heated the minds of people; and one evening we resolved to wear hat-strings in the form of slings. A hatter, who might be trusted with the secret, made a great number as a new fashion, and which were worn by many who did not understand the joke; we ourselves were the last to adopt them, that the invention might not appear to have come from us. The effect of this trifle was immense; every fashionable article was now to assume the shape of a sling; bread, hats, gloves, handkerchiefs, fans, &c.; and we ourselves became more in fashion by this folly, than by what was essential.” This revolutionary term was never forgotten by the French, a circumstance which might have been considered as prognostic of that after-revolution, which de Retz had the imagination to project, but not the daring to establish. We see, however, this great politician, confessing the advantages his party derived by encouraging the application of a by-name, which served “to heat the minds of people.”

It is a curious circumstance that I should have to recount in this chapter on “Political Nicknames” a familiar term with all lovers of art, that of Silhouette! This is well understood as a black profile; but it is more extraordinary that a term so universally adopted should not be found in any dictionary, either in that of L’Académie, or in Todd’s, and has not even been preserved, where it is quite indispensable, in Millin’s Dictionnaire des Beaux-Arts! It is little suspected that this innocent term originated in a political nickname! Silhouette was a minister of state in France in 1759; that period was a critical one; the treasury was in an exhausted condition, and Silhouette, a very honest man, who would hold no intercourse with financiers or loan-mongers, could contrive no other expedient to prevent a national bankruptcy, than excessive economy and interminable reform! Paris was not the metropolis, any more than London, where a Plato or a Zeno could long be minister of state without incurring all the ridicule of the wretched wits! At first they pretended to take his advice, merely to laugh at him:— they cut their coats shorter, and wore them without sleeves; they turned their gold snuff-boxes into rough wooden ones; and the new-fashioned portraits were now only profiles of a face, traced by a black pencil on the shadow cast by a candle on white paper! All the fashions assumed an air of niggardly economy, till poor Silhouette was driven into retirement, with all his projects of savings and reforms; but he left his name to describe the most economical sort of portrait, and one as melancholy as his own fate!

This political artifice of appropriating cant terms, or odious nicknames, could not fail to flourish among a people so perpetually divided by contending interests as ourselves; every party with us have had their watchword, which has served either to congregate themselves, or to set on the ban-dogs of one faction to worry and tear those of another. We practised it early, and we find it still prospering! The Puritan of Elizabeth’s reign survives to this hour; the trying difficulties which that wise sovereign had to overcome in settling the national religion, found no sympathy in either of the great divisions of her people; she retained as much of the catholic rites as might be decorous in the new religion, and sought to unite, and not to separate, her children. John Knox, in the spirit of charity, declared, that “she was neither gude protestant, nor yet resolute papist; let the world judge quilk is the third.”

A jealous party arose, who were for reforming the reformation. In their attempt at more than human purity, they obtained the nickname of Puritans; and from their fastidiousness about very small matters, Precisians; these Drayton characterises as persons that for a painted glass window would pull down the whole church. At that early period these nicknames were soon used in an odious sense; for Warner, a poet in the reign of Elizabeth, says —

If hypocrites why puritaines we term be asked, in breese,

’Tis but an ironised terme; good-fellow so spels theese!

Honest Fuller, who knew that many good men were among these Puritans, wished to decline the term altogether, under the less offensive one of Non-conformists. But the fierce and the fiery of this party, in Charles the First’s time had been too obtrusive not to fully merit the ironical appellative; and the peaceful expedient of our moderator dropped away with the page in which it was written. The people have frequently expressed their own notions of different parliaments by some apt nickname. In Richard the Second’s time, to express their dislike of the extraordinary and irregular proceedings of the lords against the sovereign, as well as their sanguinary measures, they called it “The wonder-working and the unmerciful parliament.” In Edward the Third’s reign, when the Black Prince was yet living, the parliament, for having pursued with severity the party of the Duke of Lancaster, was so popular, that the people distinguished it as the good parliament. In Henry the Third’s time, the parliament opposing the king, was called “Parliamentum insanum,” the mad parliament, because the lords came armed to insist on the confirmation of the great charter. A Scottish parliament, from its perpetual shiftings from place to place was ludicrously nicknamed the running parliament; in the same spirit we had our long parliament. The nickname of Pensioner parliament stuck to the House of Commons which sate nearly eighteen years without dissolution, under Charles the Second; and others have borne satirical or laudatory epithets. So true it is, as old Holingshed observed, “The common people will manie times give such bie names as seemeth best liking to themselves.” It would be a curious speculation to discover the sources of the popular feeling; influenced by delusion, or impelled by good sense!

The exterminating political nickname of malignant darkened the nation through the civil wars: it was a proscription — and a list of good and bad lords was read by the leaders of the first tumults. Of all these inventions, this diabolical one was most adapted to exasperate the animosities of the people, so often duped by names. I have never detected the active man of faction who first hit on this odious brand for persons, but the period when the word changed its ordinary meaning was early; Charles, in 1642, retorts on the parliamentarians the opprobrious distinction, as “The true malignant party which has contrived and countenanced those barbarous tumults.” And the royalists pleaded for themselves, that the hateful designation was ill applied to them: “for by malignity you denote,” said they, “activity in doing evil, whereas we have always been on the suffering side in our persons, credits, and estates;” but the parliamentarians, “grinning a ghastly smile,” would reply, that “the royalists would have been malignant had they proved successful.” The truth is, that malignancy meant with both parties any opposition of opinion. At the same period the offensive distinctions of roundheads and cavaliers supplied the people with party names, who were already provided with so many religious as well as civil causes of quarrel; the cropt heads of the sullen sectaries and the people, were the origin of the derisory nickname; the splendid elegance and the romantic spirit of the royalists long awed the rabble, who in their mockery could brand them by no other appellation than one in which their bearers gloried. In the distracted times of early revolution, any nickname, however vague, will fully answer a purpose, although neither those who are blackened by the odium, nor those who cast it, can define the hateful appellative. When the term of delinquents came into vogue, it expressed a degree and species of guilt, says Hume, not exactly known or ascertained. It served, however, the end of those revolutionists who had coined it, by involving any person in, or colouring any action by, delinquency; and many of the nobility and gentry were, without any questions being asked, suddenly discovered to have committed the crime of delinquency! Whether honest Fuller be facetious or grave on this period of nicknaming parties I will not decide; but, when he tells us that there was another word which was introduced into our nation at this time, I think at least that the whole passage is an admirable commentary on this party vocabulary. “Contemporary with malignants is the word plunder, which some make of Latin original, from planum dare, to level, to plane all to nothing! Others of Dutch extraction, as if it were to plume, or pluck the feathers of a bird to the bare skin.2 Sure I am we first heard of it in the Swedish wars; and if the name and thing be sent back from whence it came few English eyes would weep thereat.” All England had wept at the introduction of the word. The rump was the filthy nickname of an odious faction — the history of this famous appellation, which was at first one of horror, till it afterwards became one of derision and contempt, must be referred to another place. The rump became a perpetual whetstone for the loyal wits,3 till at length its former admirers, the rabble themselves, in town and country, vied with each other in “burning rumps” of beef, which were hung by chains on a gallows with a bonfire underneath, and proved how the people, like children, come at length to make a plaything of that which was once their bugbear.

Charles the Second, during the short holiday of the restoration — all holidays seem short! — and when he and the people were in good humour, granted anything to every one — the mode of “Petitions” got at length very inconvenient, and the king in council declared that this petitioning was “A method set on foot by ill men to promote discontents among the people,” and enjoined his loving subjects not to subscribe them. The petitioners, however, persisted — when a new party rose to express their abhorrence of petitioning; both parties nicknamed each other the petitioners and the abhorrers! Their day was short, but fierce; the petitioners, however weak in their cognomen, were far the bolder of the two, for the commons were with them, and the abhorrers had expressed by their term rather the strength of their inclinations than of their numbers. Charles the Second said to a petitioner from Taunton, “How dare you deliver me such a paper?” “Sir,” replied the petitioner from Taunton, “my name is Dare!” A saucy reply, for which he was tried, fined, and imprisoned; when lo! the commons petitioned again to release the petitioner! “The very name,” says Hume, “by which each party denominated its antagonists discovers the virulence and rancour which prevailed; for besides petitioner and abhorrer, this year is remarkable for being the epoch of the well-known epithets of whig and tory.” These silly terms of reproach, whig and tory, are still preserved among us, as if the palladium of British liberty was guarded by these exotic names, for they are not English, which the parties so invidiously bestow on each other. They are ludicrous enough in their origin. The friends of the court and the advocates of lineal succession were, by the republican party, branded with the title of tories, which was the name of certain Irish robbers;4 while the court party in return could find no other revenge than by appropriating to the covenanters and the republicans of that class the name of the Scotch beverage of sour milk, whose virtue they considered so expressive of their dispositions, and which is called whigg. So ridiculous in their origin were these pernicious nicknames, which long excited feuds and quarrels in domestic life, and may still be said to divide into two great parties this land of political freedom. But nothing becomes obsolete in political factions, and the meaner and more scandalous the name affixed by one party to another the more it becomes not only their rallying cry or their password, but even constitutes their glory. Thus the Hollanders long prided themselves on the humiliating nickname of “Les Gueux:” the protestants of France on the scornful one of the Huguenots; the non-conformists in England on the mockery of the puritan; and all parties have perpetuated their anger by their inglorious names. Swift was well aware of this truth in political history: “each party,” says that sagacious observer, “grows proud of that appellation which their adversaries at first intended as a reproach; of this sort were the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, Huguenots and Cavaliers.

Nor has it been only by nicknaming each other by derisory or opprobrious terms that parties have been marked, but they have also worn a livery, and practised distinctive manners. What sufferings did not Italy endure for a long series of years under those fatal party-names of the Guelphs and the Ghibellines; alternately the victors and the vanquished, the beautiful land of Italy drank the blood of her children. Italy, like Greece, opens a moving picture of the hatreds and jealousies of small republics; her Bianchi and her Neri, her Guelphs and her Ghibellines! In Bologna, two great families once shook that city with their divisions; the Pepoli adopted the French interests; the Maluezzi the Spanish. It was incurring some danger to walk the streets of Bologna, for the Pepoli wore their feathers on the right side of their caps, and the Maluezzi on the left. Such was the party-hatred of the two great Italian factions, that they carried their rancour even into their domestic habits; at table the Guelphs placed their knives and spoons longwise, and the Ghibellines across; the one cut their bread across, the other longwise. Even in cutting an orange they could not agree; for the Guelph cut his orange horizontally, and the Ghibelline downwards. Children were taught these artifices of faction — their hatreds became traditional, and thus the Italians perpetuated the full benefits of their party-spirit from generation to generation.5

Men in private life go down to their graves with some unlucky name, not received in baptism, but more descriptive and picturesque; and even ministers of state have winced at a political christening. Malagrida the Jesuit and Jemmy Twitcher were nicknames which made one of our ministers odious, and another contemptible.6 The Earl of Godolphin caught such fire at that of Volpone, that it drove him into the opposite party, for the vindictive purpose of obtaining the impolitical prosecution of Sacheverell, who, in his famous sermon, had first applied it to the earl, and unluckily it had stuck to him.

“Faction,” says Lord Orford, “is as capricious as fortune; wrongs, oppression, the zeal of real patriots, or the genius of false ones, may sometimes be employed for years in kindling substantial opposition to authority; in other seasons the impulse of a moment, a ballad, a nickname, a fashion can throw a city into a tumult, and shake the foundations of a state.”

Such is a slight history of the human passions in politics! We might despair in thus discovering that wisdom and patriotism so frequently originate in this turbid source of party; but we are consoled when we reflect that the most important political principles are immutable: and that they are those which even the spirit of party must learn to reverence.

1 See Recueil Chronologique et Analytique de tout ce qui a fait en Portugal la Société de Jesus. Vol. ii. sect. 406.

2 Plunder, observed Mr. Douce, is pure Dutch or Flemish — Plunderen, from Plunder, which means property of any kind. May tells us it was brought by those officers who had returned from the wars of the Netherlands.

3 One of the best collections of political songs written during the great Civil War, is entitled “The Rump,” and has a curious frontispiece representing the mob burning rumps as described above.

4 The “History of the Tories and Rapparees” was a popular Irish chapbook a few years ago, and devoted to the daring acts of these marauders.

5 These curious particulars I found in a manuscript.

6 Lord Shelburne was named “Malagrida,” and Lord Sandwich was “Jemmy Twitcher;” a name derived from the chief of Macheath’s gang in the Beggar’s Opera.

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