July 22 1815: The Late Mr. Whitbread

William Cobbett in the July 22 1815 edition of Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register writes a brutally cruel obituary of  Samuel Whitbread, who had committed suicide on July 6th by cutting his throat.                  .

I can, for my part, see no reason whatever, which ought to restrain one from giving one’s opinion freely as to the conduct, or the character, of the dead, which would not apply with equal force to the case of the living. For what are all the tombs, the epitaphs, the monuments, and other memorials, of the dead? Are they not intended to perpetuate the praise of the dead? And how is praise to live except on man’s lips? History, where it dares speak out, spares not the dead; and what is history but the record of the actions of men . Why, then, this squeamishness in speaking of the recent dead, when all agree, that we may freely speak of those who died at a distant period? If, indeed, it be of poor persons, ‘or of those who come by their death in consequence of their offences against power, the press seems to be at full liberty to deal with them at pleasure; while, for years, at least, the rich, or powerful, seem to find in the grave a complete shield from every thing but the praise of partial friends and hireling scribes.

Notwithstanding these reflections, however, I should not have noticed either the manner of the death, or even the public ‘ conduct of this gentleman, had not the press teemed with observations and assertions with respect to him, not only. unsupported by any proof of their truth, but, as to many points, containing flagrant falsehoods.

Mr. WHITBREAD was a man of great natural talents; his application to study’and public affairs had been great; he was possessed of a large store of useful knowledge; he was acute in perceiving, clear and strong in his statements and reasonings, and, eloquent in the conveying of his ideas to others. But, as to being the patriot that he has been represented; as to the loss which the country has sustained by his death; I recollect very few instances, in which he even endeavoured to accomplish for-the country objects worthy of the exertions of a great mind. He never cordially and heartily (‘o-operated with those who sought a reform in the House of Commons, and yet, he was too sensible a man not to perceive, not to be well convinced, that no object short of that was worth any serious effort; nay, he must have been well convinced, that his frequent contests about comparative trifles were calculated to amuse the nation with false notions and expectations; that he was drawing their attention from the true cause of their calamities; diverting the course of the public mind from its useful end; affording a shield to the citadel of political evil by wearying and exhausting the ~assailing force in skirmishings about forage, beyond even the foot of the glacis.

Vanity appears to have been his ruling passion. He was constantly in search after triumph. Nothing short of a daily victory seemed to suffice. This necessarily led him to pursue, in Parliament, la petite guerre. Nothing was too little for him; no subject too contemptible; no adversary too feeble; no quantity or kind of applause beneath his eager acceptance. The cheering of the Honourable House, the clappings of play-actors, the hum of the Bible Society; all were swallowed with equal avidity.

Much has been said about his openness and sincerity. But it unfortunately happens, that this character has been given by the most profound amll most successful hypocrite upon the face of the whole earth; and, indeed, he appears not to have wholly unmerited such praise at such hands. For where was his sincerity, where was his principle, when after most furious attacks on Percival and Castlereagh, he protested that he meant nothing disrespectful to them, and walked out of the House with them arm-in-arm. Either he believed what he had said of their conduct, or he did not; and in either case his insincerity was manifest. This was, ‘too, calculated to produce a most pernicious effect on the public, who, after hearing him, for years, accusing Perceval, heard him amongst the foremost, saw him the very bell-weather of the flock in extolling his character and conduct, and in voting large sums of the public money as a compensation for his public services. If it be just to call such a man sincere, insincerity does not exist in the World.

I do not say, and I do not think, that he was premeditately deceitful. He was led away by his vanity. Having obtained, from one side, the praise due to a bold assailant and defeater of the minister, he next sought, from the other side, the praise of candour and liberality. His vanity was a foul-feeder, but it was admirably calculated to nullify all his attacks, and to keep alive a remnant of that popular delusion as to party, which had still remained after the coalition of the Grenvilles and the Whigs.

Amongst those who were at all under his power, he was intolerant. His vanity forced, where it‘ had power, all to administer to it; and where it had not power to enforce it, it resorted to stratagems to gain its ends. That he was really insane, at the time of putting an end to his life, I have no doubt; and, it is a fact well known, that vanity is the most frequent cause of insanity as well as of suicide. Why do we hear ‘of so many men killing themselves when they fall from great riches to poverty? It is not because they fear punishment, for they are sure to receive none; it is not because they fear that they shall want the means of existence, for the ‘mere baubles -in their families will afford them such means, not to say that it is time to die when those means fail; it is not because they fear the reproaches of the world, for the world is too just to reproach men with their misfortunes: it is because they feel, with as much certainty as they feel the warmth of life within them, that the daily and hourly adulation, which has fed their vanity, has fled from them forever. contemplated the consequences of such a change in their circumstances, their minds are overpowered by the blow; they can no longer endure the world, and, in a fit of phrensy, they leave it.

To this cause I attribute the untimely death of Mr. Whitbread, who had manifestly begun to experience a great falling off in the applause, to which he had long been accustomed, and who saw, in the events upon ‘the continent, an endless source of triumph over him. He, who had-never brought his mind to endure the absence of praise, who had enjoyed all that he wanted, except that praise of which he was never glutted, saw nothing left worth his living to enjoy. As a man possessed of great mental powers, I lament‘ that he has ceased to exist. I lament more especially the cause and manner of his death, because they were derogatory to such a mind, and because they must necessarily have inflicted great pain‘on numbers, by whom he was, doubtless, beloved. But, in the teeth of fashion, ‘goodnatured ignorance, fraudulent cunning, and all-powerful cant, I must and will say, that I do not regard his death as the smallest loss to the public, being fully convinced, that his exertions for some years past, have tended to prolong rather than abridge, the duration of the calamities of the country.

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