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An essay by James Runciman

Public And Private Morality: Past And Present

Title:     Public And Private Morality: Past And Present
Author: James Runciman [More Titles by Runciman]

Certain enterprising persons have contributed of late years to make English newspapers somewhat unpleasant reading, and mournful men are given to moaning over the growth of national corruption. So persistent have the mournful folk been, that many good simple people are in a state of grievous alarm, for they are persuaded that the nation is bound towards the pit of Doom. When doleful men and women cry out concerning abstract evils, it is always best to meet them with hard facts, and I therefore propose to show that we ought really to be very grateful for the undoubted advance of the nation toward righteousness. Hideous blots there are--ugly cankers amid our civilisation--but we grow better year by year, and the general movement is towards honesty, helpfulness, goodness, purity. Whenever any croaker begins speaking about the golden age that is gone, I advise my readers to try a system of cross-examination. Ask the sorrowful man to fix the precise period of the golden age, and pin him to direct and definite statements. Was it when labourers in East Anglia lived like hogs around the houses of their lords? Was it when the starving and utterly wretched thousands marched on London under Tyler and John Ball? Was it when the press-gangs kidnapped good citizens in broad daylight? Was it when a score of burning ricks might be seen in a night by one observer? Was it when imbecile rulers had set all the world against us--when the French threatened Ireland, and the maddened, hunger-bitten sailors were in wild rebellion, and the Funds were not considered as safe for investors? The croaker is always securely indefinite, and a strict, vigorous series of questions reduces him to rage and impotence.

Now let us go back, say, one hundred and twenty years, and let us see how the sovereign, the legislators, the aristocracy, and the people fared then; the facts may perchance be instructive. The King had resolved to be absolute, and his main energies were devoted to bribing Parliament. With his own royal hand he was not ashamed to write, enclosing what he called "gold pills," which were to be used in corrupting his subjects. He was a most moral, industrious, cleanly man in private life; yet when the Duke of Grafton, his Prime Minister, appeared near the royal box of the theatre, accompanied by a woman of disreputable character, his Majesty made no sign. He was satisfied if he could keep the mighty Burke, the high-souled Rockingham, the brilliant Charles James Fox, out of his counsels, and he did not care at all about the morals or the general behaviour of his Ministers. About a quarter of a million was spent by the Crown in buying votes and organising corruption, and King George III. was never ashamed to appear before his Parliament in the character of an insolvent debtor when he needed money to sap the morals of his people. A movement in the direction of purity began even in George III.'s own lifetime; he was obliged to be cautious, and he ended by coming under the iron domination of William Pitt. Thus, instead of being remembered as the dangerous, obstinate, purblind man who made Parliament a sink of foulness, and who lost America, he is mentioned as a comfortable simple gentleman of the farmer sort. Before we can half understand the vast purification that has been wrought, we must study the history of the reign from 1765 to 1784, and then we may feel happy as we compare our gentle, beneficent Sovereign with the unscrupulous blunderer who fought the Colonists and all but lost the Empire.

Then consider the Ministers who carried out the Sovereign's behest. There was "Jemmy Twitcher," as Lord Sandwich was called. This man was so utterly bad, that in later life he never cared to conceal his infamies, because he knew that his character could not possibly be worse blackened. Sandwich belonged to the unspeakable Medmenham Abbey set. The lovely ruin had been bought and renovated by a gang of rakes, who converted it into an abode of drunkenness and grossness; they defaced the sacred trees and the grey walls with inscriptions which the indignation of a purer age has caused to be removed; they carried on nightly revels which no historian could describe, and in their wicked buffoonery mocked the Creator with burlesque religious rites. Such an unholy place would be pulled down by the mob nowadays, and the gang of debauchees would figure in the police-court; but in those "good old times" the Prime Minister and the Secretary to the Admiralty were merry members of a crew that disgraced humanity. Just six weeks after Lord Sandwich had joined the Medmenham Abbey gang, he put himself forward for election to the High Stewardship of Cambridge University. Here was a pretty position! The man had been thus described by a poet--

"Too infamous to have a friend,
Too bad for bad men to commend
Or good to name; beneath whose weight
Earth groans; who hath been spared by fate
Only to show on mercy's plan
How far and long God bears with man"--

and this superb piece of truculence was received with applause by all that was upright and noble in England. This indescribable villain presented himself as worthy to preside over the place where the flower of English youth were educated. A pleasing example he offered to young and ardent souls! Worst of all, he was elected. He adroitly gained the votes of country clergymen; he begged his friends to solicit the votes of their private chaplains; he dodged and manoeuvred until he gained his position. One voter came from a lunatic asylum, another was brought from the Isle of Man, others were bribed in lavish fashion--and Sandwich presided over Cambridge. The students rose in a body and walked out when he came among them; but that mattered little to the brazen fellow. To complete the ghastly comedy, it happened that four years later the Chancellorship fell vacant, and the Duke of Grafton, who was only second to "Jemmy Twitcher" in wickedness, was chosen for the high office.

Now I ask plainly, "Can the croakers declare that England was better under Grafton and 'Jemmy Twitcher' than she now is?" It is nonsense! The crew of bacchanals and blackguards who then flaunted in high places would not now be tolerated for a day. I look on our governing class now, [1] and I may safely declare that not more than one Cabinet Minister during the past twenty years has been regarded as otherwise than stainless in character. What is the meaning of this transformation? It means that good, pure women have gained their rightful influence, that men have grown purer, and that the elevation of the general body of society has been reflected in the character of the men chosen to rule. Vice is all too powerful, and the dark corners of our cities are awful to see; but the worst of the "fast" men in modern England are not so bad as were the governors of a mighty empire when George III. was king.

[Footnote 1: 1886.]

If we look at the society that diced and drank and squandered health and fortune in the times which we mention, we are more than ever struck with the advance made. It is a literal fact that the correspondence of the young men mainly refers to drink and gaming, the correspondence of the middle-aged men to gout. There were few of the educated classes who reached middle age, and a country squire was reckoned quite a remarkable person if he could still walk and ride when he attained to fifty years. The quiet, steady middle-class certainly lived more temperately; but the intemperance of the aristocracy was indescribable. The leader of the House of Lords imbibed until six every morning, was carried to bed, and came down about two in the afternoon; two noblemen declared that they drank a gallon and a half of Champagne and Burgundy at one sitting; in some coffee-houses it was the custom, when the night's drinking ended, for the company to burn their wigs. Some of Horace Walpole's letters prove plainly enough that great gentlemen conducted themselves occasionally very much as wild seamen would do in Shadwell or the Highway. What would be thought if Lord Salisbury reeled into the House in a totally drunken condition? The imagination cannot conceive the situation, and the fact that the very thought is laughable shows how much we have improved in essentials. In bygone days, a man who became a Minister proceeded to secure his own fortune; then he provided for all his relatives, his hangers-on, his very jockeys and footmen. One lord held eight sinecure offices, and was besides colonel of two regiments. A Chancellor of the Exchequer cleared four hundred thousand on a new loan, and the bulk of this large sum remained in his own pocket, for he had but few associates to bribe. When patrols were set to guard the Treasury at night, an epigram ran--

"From the night till the morning 'tis true all is right;
But who will secure it from morning till night?"

There was a perfect carnival of robbery and corruption, and the people paid for all. Money gathered by public corruption was squandered in private debauchery, while a sullen and helpless nation looked on. Think of the change! A Minister now toils during seventeen hours per day, and receives less than a successful barrister. He must give up all the ordinary pleasures of life; and, in recompense for the sacrifice, he can claim but little patronage. By most of the men in office the work is undertaken on purely patriotic grounds; so that a duke with a quarter of a million per year is content to labour like an attorney's clerk.

If we think about the ladies of the old days, we are more than ever driven to reflection. It is impossible to imagine a more insensate collection of gamblers than the women of Horace Walpole's society. Well-bred harpies won and lost fortunes, and the vice became a raging pest. A young politician could not further his own prospects better than by letting some high-born dame win his money; if the youth won the lady's money, then a discreet forgetfulness of the debt was profitable to him. The rattle of dice and the shuffle of cards sounded wherever two or three fashionable persons were gathered together; men and women quarrelled, and society became a mere jumble of people who suspected and hated and thought to rob each other. It is horrible, even at this distance of time, to think of those rapacious beings who forgot literature, art, friendship, and family affection for the sake of high play. One weary, witty debauchee said, "Play wastes time, health, money, and friendship;" yet he went on pitting his skill against that of unsexed women and polished rogues.

The morality of the fair gamblers was more than loose. It was taken for granted in the whole set that every female member of it must inevitably be divorced, if the catastrophe had not occurred already; and one man asked Walpole, "Who's your proctor?" just as he would have asked, "Who's your tailor?" An unspeakable society--a hollow, heartless, callous, wicked brood. Compare that crew of furious money-grabbers with our modern gentlemen and ladies! We have our faults--crime and vice flourish; but, from the Court down to the simplest middle-class society in our provincial towns, the spread of seemliness and purity is distinctly marked. Some insatiable grumblers will have it that our girls and women are deteriorating, and we are informed that the taste for objectionable literature is keener than it used to be. It is a distinct libel. No one save a historian would now read the corrupting works of Mrs. Aphra Behn; and yet it is a fact that those novels were read aloud among companies of ladies. A man winces now if he is obliged to turn to them; the girls in the "good old times" heard them with never a blush. Wherever we turn we find the same steady advance. Can any creature be more dainty, more sweet, more pure, than the ordinary English girl of our day? Will any one bring evidence to show that the girls of the last century, or of any other, were superior to our own maidens? No evidence has been produced from literature, from journals, from family correspondence, and I am pretty certain that no evidence exists. Practically speaking, the complaints of the decline of morality are merely uttered as a mode of showing the talker's own superiority.

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James Runciman's essay: Public And Private Morality: Past And Present