SIR GEORGE STEPHEN'S ANTI-SLIVERY EEC 0 LL EC TI ON
IT appears that when Mrs. Stowe was in England she requested Sir George Stephen to furnish her with a "narrative of the aboli- tion of slavery in the British Colonies," with a view to publication in America ; and Sir George promised, anticipating not 'more than a few hours' work." What Mrs. Stowe wished for, or what Sir George originally intended, we do not know. This book is a series of personal recollections, by a keen and not a very tender observer of the characters and conduct of some of the leading Abolitionists and their doings, from the time when the writer was admitted as an innocent child to private discussions on poli- tics, that seem to have been peculiarly distinguished by the wis- dom of the serpent, up to the period when Abolition was finally wrung from the fears and ignorance of the Reform Ministry. The greater part of the reminiscences, however, refer to the last de- cade of the agitation; and it appears that one object of the writer-is to rescue from neglect if not oblivion the men who, as he says, really carried the question. These were not the people whom the world has ignorantly supposed : not Clarkson, who broached
• Anti-Slavery Recollections : in a Series of Letters, addressed to Mrs. Beecher Stowe, written by Sir George Stephen, at her request. Published by Hatchard.
the subject, and Wilberforce, whose connexion and position ena- bled it at first to gain a favourable hearing ; not Remaly, whose character threw a halo over it, nor Brougham, whose eloquence excited the nation, nor poets, from Cowper to James Montgomery, whose strains penetrating the heart and dwelling in the memory became a very part of the rising generation ; nor Buxton, with his slow labour and dogged pertinacity. These, and some others, it is admitted, the poets being excepted, did a good deal in the way of preparation ; but they were too fine and finicking for actual work. They were Members and Whigs loath to press Ministers; perhaps they had some compunctious visiting as to plunging men of their own rank into sudden ruin; possibly they had some scruples as to the justice of depriving any class of men of their substance ac- quired with the national sanction (for compensation was scouted by the " whole hog" Abolitionists); a few might hesitate as to the permanent benefit upon the Negroes themselves, and doubt whe- ther an act of Parliament could change the nature of men and of society. Young and philanthropic England threw all such things overboard, as well as their old leaders. Zachary Macaulay quietly left them, in disapproval if not disgust. Even Buxton was annoyed and at times coolly superseded, for he was not tho- roughly up to the mark. The men who actually carried Emanci- pation are two Quakers of the name of Cooper, and, though he does not quite say so, young George Stephen. The letters to Mrs. Stowe are written in a frank, bold, almost reckless style; so reckless, indeed, that it may be doubted whether the book can answer its ostensible purpose of assisting the Eman- cipation cause in America. The earlier and more gentlemanly part of the time was distinguished by what the writer calls "back- stairs" management, not to say intrigue, and other arts, which, however necessary in this world of mixed motives and frail mor- tals, do not look quite respectable in naked narrative. When the ready and "willing to make themselves useful" gentry put aside the old Abolitionists, they carried on business by unscrupulous tricks, audacious falsehoods, and a theatrical manner of advertise- ment and display, that .might have rendered an " equestrian" manager, according to his moral nature, envious or ashamed. Neither did they scruple to play upon the grossest ignorance, and to glory in it. This story does not rise beyond platform humour or wit, but it is significant against the tellers.
"One curious instance of the working of this system occurred in Lincoln- shire ; it used to be quoted with great delight by Buxton, and is worth men- tioning as an illustration of the effective working of these visiting sub-com- mittees. I think it was Sir William Ingleby who was canvassing a newly- created voter in the Fens. Be you a candidate for Lords or Commons? ' asked the unsophisticated elector. For the Commons to be sure, my friend; there are no elections for the Lords!' ' Well, Sir William, I know nothing about that ; but which votes against slavery ? Lords or Commons he shall have my vote, and not the King if he don't.'"
We do not know what the "down South" may think of this, or the Abolitionists of the North; but we believe that neither Sir George Stephen nor any Abolitionist of this country would wil- lingly have trusted the very slightest practical matter in which they were interested to the judgment of this elector of the Fens.
Whatever may be thought of the purpose of this book, it will be found very amusing, and indeed instructive. The reader is carried behind the scenes both of Parliamentary management forty years ago, and of popular agitation about the time of the Reform Bill. Ile will see the rather dirty means that piety and purity resort to in order to compass their ends, and be tempted to ex- claim, with Rajah Brooke when urging his "dear Jack" to some similar proceedings, " What a world it is in detail!" He will meet with anecdotes of historical or traditional names, and many portraits of men more or less distinguished in philanthropic agita- tion, done by an artist of no mean power, but whose eye is keener in perceiving and his hand firmer in limning blemishes than beau- ties. Here is part of Wilberforce.
"He had his defects, and though others have veiled them, I shall not. A man's excellence, especially when a public man, cannot be appreciated apart from his failings, as the primary colours lose their brilliancy when deprived of contrast with their complementary tints.
"His essential fault was that of busy indolence : he worked out nothing for himself; he was destitute of system, and desultory in his habits ; he de- pended on others for information, and laid himself open to misguidance ; he was too fond of an animated dictionary ; he required an intellectual walking- stick. From this habit sprung another failing of no trifling importance in a public man—he was indecisive ; he wanted the confidence which he might have justly placed in his own judgment. It was a common saying of him, so common that you must have beard it, that you might safely predicate his vote, for it was certain to be opposed to his speech. The only other weak point to which I will refer was singular in a man of his refinement—he loved the small gossip of political life, and, politically educated in the tone of the last century, felt, perhaps unconsciously, too much deferential regard for rank and power, irrespective, not of the morality, but of the sterling worth of their possessors.
"In a man of less strength of principle than Wilberforce, these faults, though venial, would have impeded all his utility, even if they had not re- duced him to the level of the common herd; but he possessed qualities that neutralized their tendency."
There is much more of it, but the panegyric is elaborated into almost flatness compared with the opening traits. There is a por- trait of Buxton even more elaborated and less effective. In fact, Wilberforce had touched off his dear friend in a short sentence, and with a touch of the French malice, which seems to have been operative occasionally among the professors of philanthropy, that left little more to be done. " Buxton is like one of his own dray- horses, strong, sleek, and slow."
The conspicuous proceedings of Mr. Sturge of late are well enough accounted for in this character of him, however much his friends may be surprised at finding it where it is.
"In fact, Joseph Sturge was so headstrong in his peculiar notions of right
and wroug, that for a time he involved many of the party, and myself ea- peTially, in a painful dilemma.
When a Secret Committee of the House met to take evidence on the working of the apprenticeship system, it was arranged between Buxton on the one side and Gladstone on the other, that Mr. Burge and myself should be admitted as their respective legal advisers, but on condition that we should pledge our word of honour not to publish a syllable of the evidence before the Committee made their report. Sturge, who had gone with Mr. J. J. Gurney and Mr. Scobell to the West Indies on purpose to obtain evidence on the subject, (a noble effort of benevolence,) was a most important witness, and was examined at great length. The next day, or within a day or two, there appeared in the daily papers a full report of his evidence. At the next meeting of the Committee, the Chairman of course complained of this disclosure and appealed to every Member to say on his honour whether he had sent the report. All denied it; and then they asked Burge and my- self: we gave the same denial ; and Burge, happily, had in his pocket, still sealed with the official seal, his packet of the proceedings of the former day. I had not mine in my pocket, though I had it at home with the seal still unbroken. I pledged myself to produce it; but I could see that suspicion hovered about me : it placed me in the most awkward position, which Bux- ton could scarcely relieve by his assurances of my trustworthiness. At their
next meeting, however, I produced all my official packets with every seal unbroken ; and confidence was at once restored, though the problem still re- mained of who was the traitor ? ' I determined to sift it to the bottom; and at last discovered that Sturge, who gave in his statement in writing, had made a copy of it before he was examined, and had sent this copy to the press, considering himself in no way bound to obey the injunctions of the Committee to secrecy ! nor could I ever make him clearly understand the cruelty of subjecting myself and others to such unworthy suspicions. Such eccentric principles, however well-meaning. were not likely to obtain for him any influential position among the old Abolitionists."
The author's able, excellent, and influential father, is introduced on several occasions, with truthful fearlessness and good taste. This anecdote, though in connexion with Mr. Stephen, is chiefly characteristic of Lord Eldon.
"Mr. Perceval felt that compensation was due to Mr. Stephen for the ser- vices he had rendered as well as for the professional sacrifice he had made. A Mastership in Chancery was vacant, and he requested Lord Eldon to give him the appointment, to discharge a debt of gratitude for which the whole Cabinet were in some sense responsible. It was refused ; and Mr. Perceval, somewhat nettled at the refusal, offered to Mr. Stephen the post of Attorney- General. Mr. Stephen declined this offer, as his professional practice in this country had been too much confined to a particular field, to allow him, with satisfaction to himself, to undertake the duties of such an office ; and then, not only Mr. Perceral, but some of his colleagues, renewed their ap- plication to the Chancellor, in a tone that admitted of no refusal. The Mastership was conceded after more than a year's hesitation, and Mr. Ste- phen was appointed.
"But the appointment led to more cancellarian disgust. On entering his new office, Mr. Stephen gradually discovered a host of abuses, all tending to the injury of suitors, but of a nature that could not be removed except by the fiat of the Chancellor. Mr. Stephen called his attention to them in vain, till at last he menaced an exposure of them in the House. Then, and not till then, Lord Eldon reluctantly yielded, and so authorized the first step in Chancery Reform. It was but a small step, but to effect even that, when Lord Eldon held the Great Seal, was almost a miracle."
If the following piece of modest assurance had been told of a mountebank and his merryandrew, or been introduced into a farce with some Jeremy Didcller for the hero, it would have been well enough. Had it occurred with O'Connell in a rollicking and glee- ful mood, it might have done to laugh at. In a body somewhat ostentatiously arrogating to themselves all claims to "truth and justice, religion and piety," it goes considerably beyond a joke, or even a pious fraud. It may be said that the party did not origi- nate the placards, which appeared in the "brickbat-and-bludgeon" days of the Times newspaper; • but they were aiding and abetting. There has been something not very unlike the practice at Man- chester and Birmingham lately : who is the traitor now P
"On this occasion' Buxton in his speech adverted to certain placards that had been posted about the Metropolis ; earnestly disclaiming all connexion
with them on the part of the Anti-Slavery Society. He was well warranted in this disclaimer; for I was not then, and am not now, ashamed of acknow- ledging that / wrote them all. They were villanous productions, and al-
most as incendiary and seditious as the leading articles in the Times' on Reform, which appeared about the same time; but I see no reason why trea- son should be published on one subject and not on another, when both were equally good. Indeed, of the two, I eared more for Emancipation than Re- form, and think it deserved the preference. The history of the placards was simply this. The West Indian body began the strife by defacing the walls of London with pro-slavery matter • and I own, with shame, that this aid in agitation had quite escaped me: I at once saw the advantage of it, as groups were collected round them, spelling them out, though they were a class that probably never opened a book once in a year. I started off to Bagster, the printer's, wrote two or three in the shop, and directed him to have them posted, the same evening, over every West Indian placard that was visible : this, as I anticipated, led to retaliation ; and I kept a regular supply in hand, and a little army of bill-stickers, who entered heartily into the fun of the thing, and contrived to follow the West Indian bill-stickers unperceived, and veil over all their bills before morning. I had only two allies ; Mr. Crisp, and a most stanch Anti-Slavery man, then Mr. Bagster's reader, but long since established as a publisher himself, Mr. Pardon. The language of the placards excited Lord Grey's displeasure, and somebody came to the printer's, alleging that his Lordship sent him to demand the au- thor's name. They might as well have inquired for Junius; they would have got nothing from a single man in the office, had they put them all to the torture. So the fun went on ; and I presume Lord Grey remonstrated with Buxton, for he was very sore about them, and told me he should re- pudiate them at an Anti-Slavery meeting at Devonshire House, where I too was asked to attend. But I was determined to be even with him.
"'And now, my friends,' he began, 'about these placards. I cannot qualify my language in speaking of them : we are not reduced to such dis- graceful weapons as these ; our weapons are reason, principle, duty ; I will not stoop to arm myself from the armoury of the incendiary,' &c., and a great deal more to the same purpose. After an hour or so my turn came ; and, to Buxton's amazement, for he fully expected me to vindicate them, I took my cue from him, and adopted the same vein, only in much more inflated style. " I go much farther than my honourable friend ; I denounce not only the placards but the author too. I wish I could discover him. I would hold him up to your abhorrence: but he dare not intrude here; he dare not ex- hibit his incendiary features in such a peaceful right-principled assembly as this ! he dare not face the withering indignation of my honourable friend,'— and here I turned towards Buxton, and looked him full in the face. It was too much even for Buxton's gravity : he burst into fits of laughter ; and the meeting, consisting chiefly of young Friends, had been laughing heartily at every pause, and adding loud applause to their laughter ; in defiance of repeated mementoes from Mr. S. Gurney, the chairman, that such expres- 'done of sympathy were forbidden by their rules; for there was not one in the room who did not know, as well as myself, that I was the offender. 'You have fairly done me,' said Buxton, after the meeting."