Friday, 23 November 2012

William Hazlitt: "I would like to live to see the downfall of the Bourbons"

William Hazlitt (1778-1830) essayist, romantic and political radical

Hazlitt is little read nowadays, but there has in the past decade or so been a revival of interest in him, particularly among those on the intellectual left. One recent writer, Duncan Wu, has described him as the first modern man and Tom Paulin gave him the accolade of "Liberty's Brightest Star" (1)

One would not guess from reading most encomiums about Hazlitt that Napoleon had no greater supporter in England, not even Lady Holland.

Whilst Lady Holland devoted much time, money, energy and influence in an endeavour to improve Napoleon's comfort on St Helena, Hazlitt, demonised by the Tory press, short of money, like all radicals facing the prospect of imprisonment or deportation in the years of popular discontent and state repression after Waterloo, devoted much of the last years of his life to the writing of a multi volume biography of his hero, a work described later by his dutiful son as "my father's last, largest, and upon the whole, greatest work." (2)

Hazlitt came from a middle class, rationalist, dissenting background. His father was an Irish Unitarian Minister, a fearless radical and a strong supporter of American freedom who had taken his family to spend four years in America after the War of Independence. Hazlitt's mother, Grace Loftus came, like Tom Paine, from an East Anglian dissenting family. Like all dissenters Hazlitt was barred from entering Oxford or Cambridge, but like many received a far superior education in a unitarian academy. Tom Paulin situates Hazlitt firmly in this radical tradition,

the Hazlitts were what were known as 'Real Whigs'. Intellectually, they were the descendants of the Commonwealthmen who briefly made England a republic in the middle of the 17th century. They are in a line of descent from Milton, Harrington and Algernon Sidney, and they carry proudly the scars of the battles those men fought (3)

It is no surprise to find that many brought up in this dissenting tradition, like Lord Lever later on, were prone to have a more favourable view of Cromwell and Napoleon than the Tory historians whose different prejudices have shaped our understanding. For Hazlitt like other radicals such as Henry Hunt and Cobbett, the choice was clear, Napoleon for all his faults was the only force standing between the "legitimate kings" and their ancient prey, mankind. In a letter to a publisher Hazlitt declared

I thought all the world agreed with me at present that Bonaparte was better than the Bourbons, or that a tyrant was better than tyranny." (4)

Napoleon's return from Elba was to Hazlitt

a blow in the face of tyranny and hypocrisy, the noblest that ever was struck. (5)
The plea that the French, in siding with Bonaparte, would prefer war and despotism to peace and liberty is a singular one.(6)
and Napoleon's trimphal march on Paris in 1815 was
.. the greatest instance ever known of the power created by one man over opinion .. it was one man armed with the rights of a people against those who had robbed them of all natural rights, and gave them leave to breathe by charter .. Buonaparte seemed from his first landing to bestride the country like a Colossus, for in him rose up once more the prostrate might and majesty of man, and the Bourbons like toads or spiders, got out of the way of the huge shadow of the Child Roland of the Revolution. (7)

After this Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo could be seen only as a great disaster for mankind and for the cause of liberty. The restoration of the Bourbons and the Divine Right of Kings was an abomination, and Hazlitt and fellow radicals could not see how it could be described as anything else. (8)

In one of his essays Hazlitt outlined what he believed a true just peace would look like: an independent Poland, opposition to the subjugation of Norway by Sweden, immediate abolition of the slave trade, Austrian relinquishment of "unjust aggrandisement in Italy", "Saxony should not share a fate similar to Poland", and concessions should be made by England regarding her exclusive claims of maritime supremacy, "found to be rather galling to the feelings of other nations." (9)

Like other radicals Hazlitt regarded the imprisonment of Napoleon after Waterloo as a stain on English history and the English character.

It is peculiar to the English to consider their enemies as self-convicted criminals(10)

Hazlitt saw this as revenge by those whose only merit was "being born to power" on all those who would challenge them.

The next thing (had not Sir Hudson answered the purpose equally well) to have caged Bonaparte with a baboon to 'mow and chatter at him;' or to have had him up to the hallberts not pulling off his hat to the governor or his aide-de-camp; and there are people to be found who would have approved of this treatment mightily.(11)

So, having completed his major work on his hero Napoleon, having witnessed the fall of the hated Bourbons in the July Revolution, but fearing that things would as in 1815 "go back again", Hazlitt died in Soho on 18th September 1830, his last words apparently being, "Well, I've had a happy life." (12)
1. Tom Paulin, "Liberty's Brightest Star",The Guardian 6 June 1998
2. Preface to The Life of Napoleon, dated May 1st 1852.
3. Paulin, Guardian, 6 June 1998. Also Tom Paulin, William Hazlitt's Radical Style (Faber 1998)
4. Augustine Birrell, William Hazlitt, (1902, reprinted 1970)
5. Life of Napoleon Vol IV p.100 Vol IV Second Edition.
6. Life of Napoleon Vol IV p. 101
7. Life of Napoleon Vol IV p.119
8. Christopher Salvesen, "A Master of Regret" in William Hazlitt ed. Harold Bloom, (NY 1986)
9. Political Essays 1818 by William Hazlitt, pp 74-5. Interestingly he called for the abolition of the slave trade, but not of slavery itself.
10. William Hazlitt, Life Of Napoleon, Vol IV p. 249
11. Life of Napoleon Vol IV p.264
12. Birrell pp 219-220


Koosie said...

Hey! I enjoyed that. Most informative. All I really knew of Hazlitt was that Michael Foot was a fan. Thaaaanks!

John Tyrrell said...

Glad you liked it. Michael Foot of course came from a prominent west country Liberal nonconformist family for whom the struggles of the English Civil War were still relevant!

Hels said...

Fantastic post and very relevant to my current thinking. Thank you.

I immediately agreed with a few important elements. eg all dissenters Hazlitt was barred from entering Oxford or Cambridge, but like many Hazlitt received a far superior education in a Unitarian academy. So Hazlitt was firmly in this radical tradition.

What is fascinating to me is that many brought up in this dissenting tradition were prone to have a more favourable view of Cromwell and Napoleon. For the radical Hazlitt, the choice might have been clear. But for me it is not. Napoleon might have started out as the only force standing between the "legitimate kings" and ordinary humans but did that continue through his reign?

I suspect the radical tradition was based on revolutionary ideology, not necessarily practice. Same for Cromwell.

John Tyrrell said...

Hi Hels,

interesting that you have got on to this, and to Cromwell. Worth perhaps having another look at Lord Lever, not a radical, but from the same Nonconformist tradition.

In reply to your question I think the Radicals could have asked you what other force did they have against legitimacy, other than Napoleon, "for all his faults".