Printer-friendly versionSend by email
The Collected Letters of Robert Southey Part 4: 1810-1815

2632. Robert Southey to Josiah Conder, 5 July 1815 ⁠* 

Keswick, July 5, 1815.

You ask me upon what grounds I apprehend that all established institutions are in danger. The stream of events seems to have set against them, and, in the depth and sincerity of my heart, I fear that, at no very distant time, they will all be swept away.

You are not old enough to remember the morning of the French Revolution, and the delirious effect it produced upon generous and inexperienced minds. Did you ever inhale the nitrous oxide? [1]  We seemed to be living in such an atmosphere. The republicans and levellers (or, in one word, the Jacobins) of that day consisted of the best and worst members of society. There were the daring and the desperate, the profligate and the atheist; but there were also those who would have offered up their lives like martyrs, and who gave proof of their sincerity by trampling all worldly interests under foot. The Government went mad in an opposite direction, and plunged the country into a war, of which the third act is only just begun! From that error (in my coolest and most unbiassed judgment) I believe the chief calamities of Europe are to be dated. They had the mob with them, who were then anti-Jacobins to a man; and what the spirit of anti-Jacobinism is was shown by the Emperor’s treatment of Lafayette, [2]  and by the Birmingham rioters. [3] 

In those days I was a Jacobin, and so was almost every man whom I knew, who had any claims to my love or respect. But you would hardly believe how small a minority we were. I am old enough, and have been diligent enough, to have acquired the groundwork of historical knowledge, without which any political principles must be referred to inclination rather than judgment; and the last twenty-five years have added much to the great book of experience. The Jacobins now are so numerous, that in the lower classes I believe they are greatly the majority. Where there was one reader in those classes then, there are twenty now. There were not half a dozen opposition newspapers then; there are scarcely as many now that are not Jacobinical. And when the half-learned address themselves to the ignorant, their misrepresentations, their mistakes, their malice, and their blunders are all received as gospel. Upon this subject I said something in the Quarterly, which, mutilated as it was, will explain what I would now say more fully than I can express myself. [4]  The populace are at this time decidedly Jacobinical. Our friend Neville can tell you how perfectly well they understand the art of finance; and you have lately seen in London, as well as in the Luddite countries, that they are well skilled in the art of insurrection. [5]  The question is – is there time for the education which the populace at last are beginning to receive to produce its effect, before the prevailing levelling principles bring about a revolution in this country? I hope so, but verily I think there is not.

I am inclined to believe that no doctrines have ever obtained a wide and influential belief, without some foundation in truth. Most heresies, for instance, are founded upon a strong perception of some particular truth or tenet, which possesses the mind, to the exclusion of others not less important in themselves. The evils of the existing state of society are but too obvious – every man may perceive them; but every man does not know that, in the present condition of the human race, we have only a choice of evils, and that if reform be not gradual it brings with it worse evils than those which it removes. Inequality, in the extent to which it prevails among us, is an evil; I know not how a man of cultivated intellect and feelings can contemplate the difference between himself and a hackney-coachman without shuddering. There are evils inseparable from a monarchical system; but, gracious God! what are the evils which would overwhelm us, if we were to attempt to change it! Our Church Establishment has its evils. You and I should not agree as to what those evils are; my conception of them is such as to exclude me from the clerical profession. But I am fully convinced of the utility of an Establishment; and though, if I were to form one for a colony, it would differ materially from our own, I dare not wish an alteration which would entail upon us ages of religious anarchy, and perhaps of civil war.

Let me save time by referring you, on this subject, to the Ed. Ann. Register, vol. iv. p. 138. [6]  There you may see what dangers (in my opinion) assail one part of our complicated system. The monarchy has to contend, not only with the spirit of the times, but with other causes which it is enough to hint at. The science of finance I do not pretend to understand; this, however, is apparent, that it rests upon public credit for its basis, and I know that if the bullionists in 1811 had carried the question in Parliament, it would have been utterly impossible to have carried on the war. [7] 

The world has its intellectual as well as its physical plagues. Religious intolerance has been the endemic in one age, the lust of conquest in another; in this it is the spirit of revolution. The mind of the populace is revolutionized in England. As soon as the army is so, all is over. A great statesman might fail in averting the danger; but where are we to look for a great one? This country never sustained a greater loss than in Percival, who had two of the great essentials – sound moral principles and undaunted courage. I have filled my sheet, and yet very imperfectly expressed what I would say. I have a book of Gregoire’s to review (“Hist. des Sectes”), [8]  in which I will bring in your pamphlet; [9]  and I owe your Review a paper, which I will pay whenever I can command time. [10]  Accord with it I do not, neither do I with the Quarterly in many things; but it is enough if I be consistent with myself, and so I cast my bread upon the waters. The review of “Roderick” is from a friendly hand – indeed, I know it is Montgomery’s; but it is singularly erroneous. How could he read so inattentively as to imagine that Siverian had married Roderick’s mother? or complain that there was too much of costume in a poem, the subject of which laboured under the grievous defect of literally having none? And upon what Christian principles, except those of the Socinians, can he object to my addressing the mother of Christ, as “Holiest Mary, maid and mother?” [11]  There is something so divine in the belief, it is so exactly what one would wish it to be, that I confess this fitness inclines me to believe it more than any evidence for the authenticity of those parts in Matthew and Luke which the Socinians dispute. [12]  I would say more, and upon other topics, if there were room.


Notes

* MS: MS untraced; text is taken from Eustace R. Conder, Josiah Conder: A Memoir (London, 1857)
Previously published: Eustace R. Conder, Josiah Conder: A Memoir (London, 1857), pp. 175–178. BACK

[1] In 1799 Southey had participated in Humphry Davy’s experiments with nitrous oxide at the Pneumatic Institution, Bristol. BACK

[2] Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette (1757–1834) was a hero of the American War of Independence and early supporter of the French Revolution. He left France in 1792 and was imprisoned by Prussia and then Austria 1792–1797. The ‘Emperor’ responsible for his imprisonment was Francis II (1768–1835; Holy Roman Emperor 1792–1806; Emperor of Austria 1804–1835). BACK

[3] The Birmingham riots of 14–16 July 1791 had seen a loyalist mob burn down the house and library of the Unitarian theologian and natural philosopher Joseph Priestley (1733–1804; DNB). BACK

[4] Southey’s article on ‘the Poor’, Quarterly Review, 8 (December 1812), 319–356. BACK

[5] London had been the site of a number of recent popular demonstrations, especially against the Corn Laws in March 1815. The Luddites smashed textile machinery that they saw as a threat to employment and wages. The movement was based in the East Midlands, Lancashire and Yorkshire. BACK

[6] Edinburgh Annual Register for 1811, 4.1 (1813), 138, summarised Southey’s concerns about the forces ranged against the Church of England and the dangers of Catholic Emancipation. BACK

[7] During the war against France, British paper money was not convertible into gold. A determined attempt was made in 1810–1811 to restore the link between the currency and gold bullion, but it was defeated in the House of Commons, see Edinburgh Annual Register for 1811, 4.1 (1813), 103–114. BACK

[8] Henri Gregoire (1750–1831), Histoire des Sectes Religieuses (1810), reviewed by Southey in Quarterly Review, 28 (October 1822), 1–46. BACK

[9] Possibly a 28-page pamphlet published by Conder, French Protestants: Resolutions and statements relative to the persecution of the French Protestants extracted from the proceedings of Protestant dissenting ministers of the three denominations (1815). It was not referred to in Southey’s review. BACK

[10] Southey did not contribute to the Eclectic Review. BACK

[11] James Montgomery’s review of Roderick, the Last of the Goths (1814), Eclectic Review, 3 (April 1815), 352–368; Southey especially defends himself against comments on pp. 365 (Siverian’s marriage), 366 (Virgin Mary) and 362 (proliferation of costume). The phrase ‘Holiest Mary, Maid and Mother’ appears at Roderick, the Last of the Goths (1814), Book 17, line 1. BACK

[12] Matthew 1: 18 and Luke 1: 34–35: key Biblical passages on the Virgin Birth. BACK

Published @ RC

August 2013