2096. Robert Southey to John Rickman, 18 May 1812

2096. Robert Southey to John Rickman, 18 May 1812 ⁠* 

Monday. May 18. 1812.

My dear Rickman

The fate of poor Perceval has made me quite unhappy ever since I heard of it, not merely from the shock & the private misery which it is impossible to put out of mind, but from the whole train of evils to which this is but the beginning. [1]  I would fain have believed the report that Mr Abbott  [2]  was to take his place in the H. of Commons, – because if he could have found tongue, I knew where whatever <else> might have been wanting was to be found. But it was not likely that he should quit a better situation for one of so much anxiety & labour.

Wellesley & Canning I doubt not ratted upon the Cath. question because they expected the Prince upon that ground would eject Perceval & then they should have a better chance than the Early Friends. If they come in, as I fear they will, we may have the war carried on, but we shall have Catholick concessions, – after which the Church property is not worth seven years purchase. They will sell the tythes, – the next step will be to put up the Establishment xxx situation <to sale> in the way of contracts, the minds of the people (which God knows need no farther poison,) will then be totally unsettled, – & the ship will part from her last cable, on a lee shore xx in the height of the storm. [3] 

At this moment the Army is the single plank between us & destruction, & no I believe the only thing doubtful is whether we shall a military despotism before we go thro the horrors of a Bellum servile, [4]  – or after it. This I am certain of, that nothing but an immediate suspension of the liberty of debate & the liberty of the press can preserve us. Were I minister I would instantly suspend the Habeas Corpus, [5]  & have x every Jacobine Journalist confined, so that it should not be possible for them to continue their treasonable vocation. There they should stay till it would be safe to let them out, which it might be in some seven years. I would clear the Gallery whenever one of the agitators rose to speak: & if the speech were printed I would teach him his p that his privilege of attempting to excite rebellion did not extend beyond the walls of Parliament; – that he might talk treason to those walls as long as he pleased, – but that if he printed it <treason>, he was then amenable to the vengeance of his country.

I did not forget the main question about reading. – One month suffices for a xxxx xxxxxx dozen or a score pair of ears in the p tap rooms & pot houses, where Cobbett & Hunt [6]  are read as the Evangelists of the populace. There is no way of securing the people against this sort of poison but by the old receipt of Mithridates, [7]  – dieting them from their childhood with antidotes, & making them as ready to die for their church & state as the Spaniards. We are beginning to attempt this when it is xxx too late. A judicial xx fatuity seems to have fallen been sent among us, – we have one set of op Romanists, Sectarians of every kind <description>, your Liberality-men, & your Philosophers of every kind, & of every degree of folly & emptiness, are united for the blessed purpose of plucking up old principles by the roots, – each with <for> their own separate ends, but all sure of meeting with the same end if they are successful. We who see this xx danger have no power to prevent it, & they who have the power cannot be made to see it. – I think sometimes that it is not without good reason that I take so especial an interest in the affairs of Spain, – that country may be free when I shall no longer be able to live in this open to me & my children when we shall no longer be able to live in this.

This is a melancholy strain. We must however work the ship till she sinks, & a vigorous minister xx might take advantage of the feelings of the sound part of the country at this moment, & the avowal which the Burdettites have made – for strong measures of prevention & vengeance. The greatest immediate danger it is from the army, – if the Burdettites had not xxxx luckily xxxx so often insulted & abused them, that damnable business of flogging would at this moment turn the scale. [8]  I am desirous that means should be taken of winning their attachment, – the best way of securing their obedience, – by the institution of honorary rewards; & increase of pay with length of service, & certain provision after a certain number of years. By such measures they might be xxxx secured, – I would give the poor gratuitous education in parochial schools, – a boon which all among them who care for their children, would rightly estimate, – & if the work of coercion kept pace with that of conciliation we might hold on till our battle in Spain f ended in the ruin of overthrow of the enemy. But alas where is the Dictator who has cour is to save the Commonwealth?

Perceval had a character which was worth as much as his talents. The only statesman who has this advantage in any approaching degree is Ld Sidmouth, [9]  but he wants those abilities which in P. seemd always to grow according to the measure of the occasion. Yet he would be the best head of a ministry for the weight which his good intentions would give him. Vansittart would do for Ch. of Exc. [10]  If there were any other efficient minister in the Commons. There is Sir J. Mackintosh [11]  to be <upon sale,> but whose <would be> tongue & talents <brain xxxxxx> may be worth taking xxxx xxxxxx the drawback of xxxx all the rest – the carcase is in bad odour, but the tongue & the brains might be worth a high price.

I am going to write upon the French Revolution for the Q. R. [12]  a well-timed subject, – the evil is that it is writing to those readers only who are in the main of the same way of thinking. Our contemporaries read not for <in> xxxxx <hope> of being instructed, but to have their own opinions flattered. – xxx if you cannot <you> persuade some body to run the risque of being murdered for closing the gallery when Burdett speaks? Your county member Fuller would be an exceedingly proper subject, – xxxxxx he does not want courage, & has a sort of mob credit <with the mob> x for his fluent honesty! [13]  If they should murder him you know the gallery would of course be closed for ever more, & he would become the Decius of our Parliament history. [14] 

I want to furnish your Lobby with a statue of Perceval, & have sent Bedford to Herries in hope that it may be attempted. [15] 

I am in great odour at Cadiz. The (Zaragozan) Countess of Bureta [16]  has written me a letter. – Thank the Capitaneus for me. I have not heart at this time to reply to him about his klinkers [17]  & vowels & bowels as I should wish.



* Address: To/ John Rickman Esqr
Endorsement: RS/ 18 May/ 1812
MS: Huntington Library, RS 186. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), III, pp. 341–344 [in part]. BACK

[1] Perceval was assassinated on 11 May 1812. BACK

[2] See Southey to Grosvenor Charles Bedford, 14-[15] May 1812, Letter 2094. BACK

[3] Perceval’s death produced some uncertainty about his successor and the Cabinet’s attitude to Catholic Emancipation. Robert Banks Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool (1770–1828; Prime Minister 1812–1827; DNB), was finally confirmed as Prime Minister on 8 June 1812. His Cabinet did not include either Wellesley or Canning and took a ‘neutral’ attitude on Catholic Emancipation. BACK

[4] i.e. a slave war. BACK

[5] The long-standing legal principle that anyone imprisoned must be brought to trial. BACK

[6] The radical Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt (1773–1835; DNB). BACK

[7] Mithridates VI, King of Pontus (132–63 BC; reigned 123–72 BC), who swallowed small doses of poison to build up immunity. BACK

[8] The flogging of British soldiers was intensely controversial. Cobbett spent two years in prison in 1810–1812 for denouncing the flogging of some militiamen who protested about deductions from their pay. BACK

[9] The former Prime Minister (1801–1804), Henry Addington, 1st Viscount Sidmouth (1757–1844; DNB), who became Home Secretary 1812–1822. BACK

[10] Nicolas Vansittart, 1st Baron Bexley (1766–1851; DNB) became Chancellor of the Exchequer on 20 May 1812. BACK

[11] On his return to Britain from India in 1811, the writer and politician Sir James Mackintosh (1765–1832; DNB) had been courted by Perceval and the Tories. He was elected to Parliament in 1813 as MP for Nairn and became a leading spokesman for the Whigs. BACK

[12] A review of Biographie Moderne: Lives of Remarkable Characters who have Distinguished themselves from the Commencement of the French Revolution to the Present Time (1811), Quarterly Review, 7 (June 1812), 412–438. BACK

[13] The politician and eccentric John (‘Mad Jack’) Fuller (1757–1834; DNB), county member for Sussex 1801–1812. He was renowned for his intemperate and often ridiculous interventions in debates. For example, in a debate on the slave trade, 30 May 1804, he tried to persuade auditors that the living conditions of slaves on plantations were superior to that of the labouring-poor in Britain. (Fuller’s vast wealth owed much to his estates in the West Indies.) On 27 February 1810 he was forcefully ejected from the House of Commons for drunken and rowdy conduct. He spent two days in custody, apologised to the House and was reprimanded. Fuller consistently proclaimed his independence and attacked sinecures and other abuses. He retired from parliament at the dissolution in 1812. He devoted his remaining years to his other interests: patronage of science and the arts, and folly building. BACK

[14] Publius Decius Mus was the name of three generations of Roman consuls (in 340, 312 and 279 BC). In legend all ‘devoted’ themselves on the field of battle, an act by which a commander deliberately courted death whilst praying to the gods for victory, in order to win the day for the Romans. BACK

[15] See Southey to Grosvenor Charles Bedford, 16 May 1812. No statue of Perceval was built in the Lobby of the House of Commons. BACK

[16] María de la Consolación Azlor y Villavicencio (1775–1814), a Spanish aristocrat who took an active role in the two sieges of Zaragoza in 1808–1809. BACK

[17] See Robert Southey to James Burney, 19 January 1812, Letter 2019. Burney wished to discuss Dutch colonial history. BACK