V. Who's to Blame?

(Addressed to the Editor of THE CATHOLIC STANDARD. By Catholicus.)

Letter 1. The British Constitution on its Trial

{306} SIR,—I have been much shocked, as I suppose has been the case with most of your readers, at the weekly extracts you have made from the correspondents of the daily prints, descriptive of the state of the British army in the Crimea; and a conviction has been steadily growing, or rather has been formed, in my mind, which the running comments of the Press continually strengthen, that we must go very deep indeed to get at the root of the evil, which lies, not in the men in authority, nor in systems of administration simply in themselves, but in nothing short of the British Constitution itself. I do not expect I shall get others to agree with me in this conclusion at once; I do not ask you, Mr. Editor, to assent to it, but to be patient with me, if in order to do justice to my own ideas on the subject, I ask for a long hearing—if I even ask to be diffuse, roundabout, discursive, nay, perhaps, prosy, in support of what, at first sight, readers may call my paradox,—for I have no chance of establishing it in any other way. {307}

Nor have I embraced it with any satisfaction to my feelings,  certainly not to my Catholic feelings. Indeed, I have a decided view that Catholicism is safer and more free under a Constitutional regime, such as our own, than under any other. I have no wish for "reforms"; and should be sorry to create in the minds of your readers any sentiment favourable either to democracy or to absolutism. I have no liking for the tyranny whether of autocrat or mob; no taste for being whirled off to Siberia, or tarred and feathered in the far West, by the enemies of my religion. May I live and die under the mild sway of a polity which certainly represses and dilutes the blind fanaticism of a certain portion of my countrymen,—a fanaticism which, except for it, would sweep us off these broad lands, and lodge us, with little delay or compunction, in the German Sea! Still, we cannot alter facts; and, if the British Constitution is admirably adapted for peace, but not for war, which is the proposition I shall support, and which seems dawning on the public mind, there is a lesson contained in that circumstance which demands our attention. The lesson is this—that we were not wise to go to war, if we could possibly have avoided it, at a time when, by a lucky accident, the Duke of Wellington had gained for the nation a military prestige which it had little chance of preserving; and the sooner we know our capabilities and our true mission among the nations of the earth, and get back into a state of peace, in which we are really and truly great, the better for us.

It is not that I am doubting the heroic bravery and fortitude of the British soldier. I am not speaking of the individual soldier, whose great qualities I revere and marvel at, and whom I have been following with my anxieties and prayers ever since he set out on his foreign {308} campaign. I am as little concerned here with the valour of our soldiers, as with the bigotry of our middle class; with the heights of Inkerman, as with the depths of Exeter Hall. I am to speak of our Constitution and of Constitutional Government; and I say that this said Constitutional Government of ours shows to extreme advantage in a state of peace, but not so in a state of war; and that it cannot be otherwise from the nature of things. Surely it is not paradoxical to say as much as this; for no one in this world can secure all things at once, but in every human work there is a maximum of good, short of the best possible. The wonder and the paradox rather would be, if the institutions of England were equally admirable for all contingencies, for war as well as for peace. Certainly martial law and constitutional freedom, the soldier's bayonet and the staff of the policeman, belong to antagonistic classes of ideas, and are not likely to co-operate happily with each other.

Nor, again, do I therefore say that we must never go to war, or that we shall always get the worst off, if we do. I only mean, it is not our strong point. I suppose, if we had no fowling-pieces, we might still manage, like Philoctetes, to knock off our game with bow and arrows. There are always ways of doing things, where there is the will. I am not denying that, with great exertion, we are able to hoist up our complex Constitution, to ease it into position, and fire it off with uncommon effect; but to do so is a most inconvenient, expensive, tedious process; it takes much time, much money, many men, and many lives. We ought in consequence to think twice before we set it to work for a purpose for which it was never made; and this I think we did not do a year ago. We hardly thought once about the matter. With intense self-conceit, we despised our foe. {309} We treated him as we treated the Pope four years before, and we have caught it. The Times put out feelers, this time last year, as to the possibility of the British Lion being persuaded into a more good-humoured, as well as a more prudent course; but that sagacious journal was soon obliged to draw them in again, and to swim down the stream with the boldest. For the said Lion was bent on puffing the Muscovite into space with the mere breath of his growl; and it did not occur to him at the moment, that perhaps it was his own wisdom, and not the Muscovite's merely, to let well alone, and to live upon the capital which a great military genius had made for him in the last war. And so, without reflection, the Lion did what, I am firmly persuaded, neither the Duke nor Sir Robert Peel would have let him do, had they been alive. He believed those counsellors who had the madness to tell him that it was a little war which he was beginning, and he stood rampant forthwith both in the Baltic and in the Black Sea.

But there is a further view of the matter, and it suggests another unpleasant consideration. No one likes to use a cumbrous, clumsy instrument; and, if at war we are, and with institutions not fitted for war, it is just possible we may alter our institutions, under the immediate pressure, in order to make them work easier for the object of war; and then what becomes of King, Lords, and Commons? There are abundant symptoms, on all sides of us, of the presence of a strong temptation to some such temerarious proceeding. Any one, then, who, like myself, is thankful that he is born under the British Constitution,—any Catholic who dreads the knout and the tar-barrel, will, for that very reason, look with great jealousy on a state of things which not only doubles prices and taxes, but which may bring about a sudden {310} infringement and an irreparable injury of that remarkable polity, which the world never saw before, or elsewhere, and which it is so pleasant to live under. I do not mean to say that anything serious will be sensibly experienced in our time, at least in the time of those who are gliding rapidly along to the evening of life; but it would be no consolation to me to be told that the Constitution will last my day, if I know that the next generation, whom I am watching as they come into active life, would fall under a form of government less favourable to the Church. And I do not think that the Catholics of England, who have shown no little exultation at the war, would gain much by rescuing Turkey from the Russo-Greeks, if, after planting Protestant Liberalism there instead, they found on looking homeward that despotism or democracy had mounted in these islands on the ruins of the aristocracy.

However, it is not my business to prophesy, but to attempt to lay down principles, which I hope to be allowed to do in my next letter.

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