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WHEN first I went into the Church, I had a curacy in the middle of Salisbury Plain. The Squire of the parish took a fancy to me, and requested me to go with his son to reside at the University of Weimar; before we could get there, Germany became the seat of war, and in stress of politics we put into Edinburgh, where I remained five years. The principles of the French Revolution were then fully afloat, and it is impossible to conceive a more violent and agitated state of society. Among the first persons with whom I became acquainted were, Lord Jeffrey, Lord Murray (late Lord Advocate for Scotland), and Lord Brougham; all of them maintaining opinions upon political subjects a little too liberal for the dynasty of Dundas, then exercising supreme power over the northern division of the island.
One day we happened to meet in the eighth or ninth story or flat in Buccleugh-place, the elevated residence of the then Mr. Jeffrey. I proposed that we should set up a Review; this was acceded to with acclamation. I was appointed Editor, and remained long enough in Edinburgh to edit the first number of the Edinburgh Review. The motto I proposed for the Review was,
“ Tenui musam meditamur avena."
But this was too near the truth to be admitted, and so we took our present grave motto from Publius Syrus, of whom none of us had, I am sure, ever read a single line; and so began what has since turned out to be a very important and able journal. When I left Edinburgh, it fell into the stronger hands of Lord Jeffrey and Lord Brougham, and reached the highest point of popularity and success. I contributed from England many articles, which I have been foolish enough to collect, and publish with some other tracts written by me.
To appreciate the value of the Edinburgh Review, the state of England at the period when that journal began should be had in remembrance. The Catholics were not emancipated — the Corporation and Test Acts were unrepealed — the Game Laws were horribly oppressive — Steel Traps and Spring Guns were set all over the country — Prisoners tried for their Lives could have no Counsel – Lord Eldon and the Court of Chancery pressed heavily upon mankind — Libel was punished by the most cruel and vindictive imprisonments — the principles of Political Economy were little understood the Law of Debt and of Conspiracy were upon the worst possible footing — the enormous wickedness of the Slave Trade was tolerated — a thousand evils were in existence, which the talents of good and able men have since lessened or removed ; and these effects have been not a little assisted by the honest boldness of the Edinburgh Review.
I see very little in my Reviews to alter or repent of: I always endeavoured to fight against evil; and what I thought evil then, I think evil now. I am heartily glad that all our disqualifying laws for religious opinions are abolished, and I see nothing in such measures but unmixed good and real increase of strength to our Establishment.
The idea of danger from the extension of the Catholic religion in England I utterly deride. The Catholic faith is a misfortune to the world, but those whose faith it conscientiously is, are quite right in professing it boldly, and in promoting it by all means which the law allows. A physician does not say, 'You will be well as soon as the bile is got rid of;' but he says, 'You will not be well until after the bile is got rid of. He knows, after the cause of the malady is removed, that morbid habits are to be changed, weakness to be supported, organs to be called back to their proper exercise, subordinate maladies to be watched, secondary and vicarious symptoms to be studied. The physician is a wise man — but the anserous politician insists, after 200 years of persecution, and ten of emancipation, that Catholic Ireland should be as quiet as Edmonton or Tooting.
Not only are just laws wanted for Catholic Ireland, but the just administration of just laws; such as they have in general experienced under the Whig government: and this system steadily persevered in will, after a lapse of time and O'Connell, quiet, conciliate, and civilise that long-injured and irritable people.
I have printed in this Collection the Letters of Peter Plymley. The Government of that day took great pains to find out the author; all that they could find was, that they were brought to Mr. Budd, the publisher, by the Earl of Lauderdale. Somehow or another, it came to be conjectured that I was that author: I have always denied it; but finding that I deny it in vain, I have thought it might be as well to include the Letters in this Collection: they had an immense circulation at the time, and I think above 20,000 copies were sold.
From the beginning of the century (about which time the Review began) to the death of Lord Liverpool, was an awful period for those who had the misfortune to entertain liberal opinions, and who were too honest to sell them for the ermine of the judge, or the lawn of the prelate: - a long and hopeless career in your profession, the chuckling grin of noodles, the sarcastic leer of the genuine political rogue-prebendaries, deans, and bishops made over your head — reverend renegadoes advanced to the highest dignities of the Church for helping to rivet the fetters of Catholic and Protestant Dissenters, and no more chance of a Whig administration than of a thaw in Zembla — these were the penalties exacted for liberality of opinion at that period; and not only was there no pay, but there were many stripes. It is always considered as a piece of impertinence in England, if a man of less than two or three thousand a year has any opinions at all upon important subjects; and in addition he was sure at that time to be assailed
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with all the Billingsgate of the French Revolution Jacobin, Leveller, Atheist, Deist, Socinian, Incendiary, Regicide, were the gentlest appellations used ; and the man who breathed a syllable against the senseless bigotry of the two Georges, or hinted at the abominable tyranny and persecution exercised upon Catholic Ireland, was shunned as unfit for the relations of social life. Not a murmur against any abuse was permitted; to say a word against the suitorcide delays of the Court of Chancery, or the cruel punishments of the Game Laws, or against any abuse which a rich man inflicted, or a poor man suffered, was treason against the Plousiocracy, and was bitterly and steadily resented. Lord Grey had not then taken off the bearing-rein from the English people, as Sir Francis Head has now done from horses.
To set on foot such a Journal in such times, to contribute towards it for many years, to bear patiently the reproach and poverty which it caused, and to look back and see that I have nothing to retract, and no intemperance and violence to reproach myself with, is a career of life which I must think to be extremely fortunate. Strange and ludicrous are the changes in human affairs. The Tories are now on the treadmill, and the well-paid Whigs are riding in chariots: with many faces, however, looking out of the windows, (including that of our Prime Minister,) which I never remember to have seen in the days of the poverty and depression of Whiggism. Liberality is now a lucrative business. Whoever has any institution to destroy, may consider himself as a commissioner, and his fortune as made; and to my utter and never-ending astonishment, I, an old Edinburgh Reviewer, find myself fighting, in the year 1839, against the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London, for the existence of the National Church.
SYDNEY SMITH. June, 1839.
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