William Hazlitt and Napoleon – 1

To him, Napoleon’s defeat represented « the utter extinction of human liberty from the earth. » (1)

It is very difficult for the British people to discern their true history and what really happened in the past if they rely solely on English history books. Many accounts of Britain during the age of Napoleon and the so-called Napoleonic Wars (sic) pretend that our noble shires were the finest repositories of liberty and freedom in Europe and the World, that the Freeborn Englishman was the luckiest chap upon the Earth. The real truth, our real history, was very different. There was no truer friend of liberty than William Hazlitt, yet throughout his life he was persecuted and oppressed by a political Establishment that treated the rights of the individual with utter contempt. Hazlitt was there, he saw and heard it all, he was a witness to what actually took place upon these supposedly enlightened shores. William was acutely sensitive to what was going on around him ; his intense perception and his thorough understanding of human psychology were put to the service of his fellow man. And no one wrote quite like he did. If anyone was proof of the axiom that the pen is mightier than the sword – it was William Hazlitt.

Napoleon died on May 5th 1821. It took weeks for the news to reach England and knowledge of this momentous event coincided with the release of the arrangements for the coronation of George IV. The sublime and the ridiculous coincided. William Hazlitt had recently been visiting his friend John Hunt who had been jailed in the notorious Coldbath Fields prison. His offence ? As the editor of The Examiner he had described the House of Commons as full of « venal boroughmongers, grasping placemen, greedy adventurers, title-hunters, or the representatives of such worthies – a body, in short, containing a far greater portion of public criminals than public guardians. » (2) Hunt paid the price for free speech. The Gagging Acts meant that no one could criticize the Government without risk of being jailed or worse. The mace of this much vaunted sceptred isle was only too ready to come crashing down on the heads of its critics.

Hazlitt and Hunt discussed the coronation. William was scathing : « What does it all amount to ? A sham – a theatrical spectacle ! What does it prove ? That a King is crowned, that a King is dead ! What is the moral to be drawn from it, that is likely to sink into the heart of the nation ? That greatness consists in finery, and that supreme merit is the dower of birth and fortune! » (3) The ceremony and the banquet to follow at Westminster Hall were expected to cost the taxpayer £250,000 – tens of millions in the pounds of today. (4) All for a pot-bellied political pygmy who thought he was both God’s anointed and God’s gift to women. The great George IV put into Britain consisted of his girth only.

Meanwhile, a truly great man had died on the tiny island of St. Helena.

Together, Hazlitt and Hunt produced the Memorial of Napoléon with a black border and sporting five iconic images of their hero. Hazlitt wrote :

« He put his foot upon the neck of Kings, who would have put their yoke upon the necks of the People: he scattered before him with fiery execution, millions of hired slaves, who came at the bidding of their masters to deny the right of others to be free. The monument of greatness and of glory he erected, was raised on ground forfeited again and again to humanity – it reared its majestic front on the ruins of the shattered hopes and broken faith of the common enemies of mankind. If he could not secure the freedom, peace, and happiness of his country, he made her a terror to those, who by sowing civil dissension and exciting foreign wars, would not let her enjoy those blessings. » (My italics) (5)

What Hazlitt detested most of all were former friends and acquaintances who, having once embraced revolution and reform, went over to the other side – men like Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, and his own brother-in-law Stoddart, who became tools and mouthpieces of the British Establishment. He continues :

« They who had trampled upon Liberty could not at least triumph in her shame and her despair, but themselves became objects of pity and derision. Their determination to persist in extremity of wrong, only brought on themselves repeated defeat, disaster, and dismay ; the accumulated aggressions their infuriated pride and disappointed malice meditated against others, returned in just and aggravated punishment upon themselves… the destruction with which they had threatened a people daring to call itself free, having suspended over their heads, like a precipice, ready to fall upon and crush them. » (6)

Duncan Wu calls William Hazlitt the First Modern Man : « he hailed the coming of a new age when the French deposed their monarch, and wept when Napoleon abdicated. He foresaw a time when people would claim the right to speak on their own account, and determine the composition of their own government. » (7)

Hazlitt had freedom and liberty in his blood. His father William Senior believed in sticking up for the oppressed and as a devote Unitarian Christian he could not just walk by on the other side of the street. By the late C18th the Unitarians were a force to be reckoned with. William Senior’s own hero, Joseph Priestley became the ‘literary companion’ to the second earl of Shelburne, William Fitzmaurice-Petty, in 1772. (8) Shelburne had supported a bill to release dissenting ministers from the straitjacket of the Thirty-Nine Articles of faith the year before. Shelburne « professed a warm regard to the Dissenters, as friends of liberty, and promised, if ever he came into power, to exert himself in supporting their rights, and placing them on the same footing with other Protestant subjects. » (9) No wonder Priestley admired him.

William Hazlitt was born on April 10th 1778 and was brought up in a family that had a passion for religion and what, in today’s parlance, would be dubbed human rights. He was less than two when the family moved to Ireland. In Bandon, County Cork, they began a new life. Not surprisingly, when William Senior heard that American prisoners of war were being tortured in nearby Kinsale prison by British soldiers from the regiment of Colonel Fitzpatrick he decided to do something about it. He wrote to the War Office and to a newspaper highlighting the abuses and began a private action against the perpetrators. Death threats soon came his way and he appealed to Lord Shelburne, now Prime Minister. A court of inquiry was initiated and Shelburne had the regiment moved elsewhere in Ireland, indicating the power of William Senior’s words. (10) As Duncan Wu states : « It was typical of Hazlitt Sr to stand up for the rights of the oppressed without regard to himself. His fidelity to his principles was absolute, and his son would be the same. » (11)

No wonder young William grew up to become the People’s Champion and he stood his ground even when the full power of the Establishment was lined up against him.

When the American War of Independence ended, the Hazlitts headed for the new beacon of liberty that was the New World. It was a time young William associated with happiness for the rest of his life. The family arrived at New York on May 26th 1783 on the Henry, the first vessel to reach the city since peace had been declared. (12) The British officers in charge of the port were beside themselves with rage when they heard the news. Cursing and swearing, the soldiers wished that the conflict could have been continued. Fate had taken the bone away from the dogs of war. Added to the knowledge of the mistreatment of prisoners of war at Kinsale, which his father must have told William about, such scenes could have done little to engender respect for his own countrymen or what they appeared to stand for. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that he would later describe John Bull as someone who : « beats his wife, quarrels with his neighbours, damns his servants, and gets drunk to kill the time and keep up his spirits, and firmly believes himself the only exceptional, accomplished, moral and religious character in Christendom. » (13) Ironically, the latter remarks aptly describe Prinny the Prince Regent and later George IV. Overweening arrogance was the jewel in the British Crown.

The widespread dismay felt by the Unitarian brotherhood at the harshness of Government policy was echoed elsewhere in the nation. Maclean says : « There was anger at the vicious cruelty with which the Government prosecuted many of those who opposed its policy. This was shared by all those of liberal sympathies, among them William Wordsworth, who until a short time previously had been by no means politically minded, but who now found himself in protest against the injustices which were being perpetrated in the name of justice :

“Our Shepherds… at that time Thirsted to make the guardian crook of law A tool of Murder;… … in their weapons and their warfare base As vermin working out of reach, they leagu’d Their strength perfidiously, to undermine Justice, and make an end of Liberty.”  » (14)

Wordsworth was amongst illustrious company. Dr Price had written his Observations on the Importance of the American Revolution that Mirabeau admired so much he had it translated into French. However, Mirabeau died in April 1791 and Price a month later. Dr Priestley preached at the latter’s funeral at Hackney. Tom Paine’s Rights of Man caused quite a stir and even Mary Wollstonecraft had spoken in favour of liberty : « she who had not yet learned that Woman had no rights, and Man himself very few. » (15) Yet in the Government’s corner stood Burke who with his Reflections passionately argued the Cabinet line. His powerful writing and his speeches were exceptional in their impact upon public opinion : « Drop by drop, the passion of anger, sorrow, fear and hatred in the soul of Burke is beginning to distil itself into the souls of others. There is no resisting its sullen potency. It is getting, not only into the soul, but into the blood of his fellow-countrymen. » (16)

Pauline Gregg calls the Reflections : « the classic of conservatism. Eloquent, forceful, rich in sonorous passages of rhetoric, passionately loyal to the ideals of chivalry and aristocracy, it lamented the passage of the French nobility and denounced the French Revolution. » (17)

In one passage Burke recalls seeing Marie-Antoinette when he was an impressionable youth and describes her as : « glittering like the morning star, full of life, of splendour, and joy. » (18) With such effusiveness and sense of worship, it is eerily like reading of Princess Diana two hundred years before she was born. His fluffy verbal confection and gross sentimentality did not appeal to everyone. In his Rights of Man, Paine prefers to discuss the horrors of the Bastille and he retorts : « It is painful to behold a man employing his talents to corrupt himself… He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird. Accustomed to kiss the aristocratical hand that hath purloined him from himself, he degenerates into a composition of art, and the genuine soul of nature forsakes him. » (19)

In The Conservative Party, Sheila Moore calls the Reflections : « Burke’s most influential work… He saw human society as organic, not mechanistic, and thus counseled change by evolution not revolution. » (20) Yet she points out that even Burke : « warned that “the greater the power, the greater the abuse.”  » (21) However she also quotes his response to the reforming programme of the French revolutionaries in which he states that : « Individuality is left out of their scheme of government. The state is all in all… The state has dominion and conquest for its sole objects – dominion over minds by proselytism, over bodies by arms. » (22)

In essence Burke is inferring that his own nation is a beacon of light and freedom in contrast with revolutionary France. As we shall see, this is little more than a sick joke. The individual had absolutely no rights in Pitt’s Britain – unless he was a rich aristocrat, and preferably a Member of Parliament as well. And Burke was an Irishman too. He obviously saw fit to ignore what happened to American prisoners of war in his version of paradise, leave alone trouble himself with the treatment of the Irish in general by the British. Burke was preaching to the converted from a pulpit of his own devising and only his Chosen People mattered – not the vast majority of ordinary men and women who knew from personal experience that « the state is all in all. »

On July 14th 1791, the second anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, Priestley’s home in Birmingham was attacked by a mob crying « Church and King. » (23)

Not only was the house burnt to the ground, his books and papers were also destroyed. Two Unitarian chapels and the homes of some of his friends also went up in flames. The Unitarians were now seen as traitors by many, but not of course by William Hazlitt.

William’s tender conscience was activated very early in his life. At the age of eight whilst in America, he had written that the Indians would have been far better off if the white man had never stepped foot in their country. (24) Whilst on a visit to Liverpool as a boy he had seen the notorious press gang in action. He told his mother in a letter that : « the world is not perfect yet. » (25) It was obviously even further from perfection by 1791 and he was moved to write a letter to The Shrewsbury Chronicle after the paper had accused Priestley of « impious and erroneous doctrines » : « Religious persecution is the bane of all religion ; and the friends of persecution are the worst enemies religion has ; and of all persecutions, that of calumny is the most intolerable. Any other kind of persecution can affect our outward circumstances only, our properties, our lives ; but this may affect out characters for ever. And this great man has not only had his goods spoiled, his habitation burned, and his life endangered, but is also calumniated, aspersed with the most malicious reflections, and charged with every thing bad, for which a misrepresentation of the truth and prejudice can give the least pretence. » (26)

This was an incredibly erudite and mature response from a boy of just thirteen. Liberty’s phoenix was rising from the flames of Priestley’s house. Hazlitt’s letter : « is his first known act in the long warfare against prejudice and injustice which was to be his portion throughout his life, and his first assertion of the need to appeal to principle rather than to force… » (27)

The Unitarians were now swimming against the tide. In 1792 when they tried to have the Test and Corporation Acts repealed with Fox’s support, Burke railed against them. He was particularly stinging and aggressive in his attitude towards the brotherhood. As well as personally attacking Dr Priestley and Dr Kippis, he pointedly distinguished between the Unitarians and older religious sects : « His finding was that while the older sects had more or less justified their existence, the Unitarians brought not “airs from heaven” into the life of the community but rather “blasts from hell.”  » (28) Such was the frenzied political backdrop to the times at home, made even worse when news of the Terror crossed the Channel.

It was becoming increasingly harder to be a loyal Englishman and a supporter of the Revolution. Wordsworth was soon assailed by the maelstrom of political events swirling all around him. He had actually been to France and witnessed the poverty of the common people : « He held to his faith and his convictions, yet he was almost wrenched asunder by the conflict between his universal human sympathy and his deep inalterable love for his own country, whether it was in the right or the wrong. » (29)

When war was declared against France on February 11th 1793, the Unitarians were even more widely seen as the enemy within. On May 11th 1792, Burke had accused them of having : « a zeal for propagating » and of being violent fanatics. (30) Priestley had been nicknamed Gunpowder Joe even though his pacifism was such that he had refused to allow his friends to use violence in order to prevent his own house from being burnt down. Mud sticks, and the Unitarians as a whole were tarred with ridiculous assertions and accused of having dangerous proclivities, despite their actual pacifism. Not surprisingly, the weaker members of the flock went astray, anxious to avoid the limelight that might bring death and destruction upon them. All this took place in England – not revolutionary France.

It must have been particularly galling for renowned pacifists to be accused of fomenting violence and of being haters of their own country. They were seen as : « strangers to Burke’s acceptance of and even admiration of “the mode of civilized war which, more than anything else, has distinguished the Christian World.”  » (31) One wonders what the American prisoners of war at Kinsale would have said about that. In fact, most Nonconformists believed that self-defence was the only justification for war. But their protests fell upon deaf ears. The Empire decided to strike back.

The Rev J. Jebb of St. John’s College, Cambridge was tried for sedition as was Rev W. Frend a former fellow of Jesus College. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a young undergraduate, was present at the trial of Frend and clapped heartily at points made in his favour. The authorities expelled Coleridge on May 30th. (32) He would soon learn to suck up to the great and the good to maintain his own position. William Hazlitt, however, never learnt to bend the knee.

Perhaps one of the most heinous miscarriages of justice perpetrated by the Government was at the trial of Rev Thomas Fyshe Palmer for the dastardly crime of proof reading a handbill on behalf of Society of the Friends of Liberty at Dundee.

Fyshe Palmer was transported for seven years and died before his sentence was completed. No wonder Robert Aspland said that Truth itself had become seditious. (33) The arbitrary cruelty of the State was doled out liberally on every side.

Young Hazlitt must have been aghast at the news of such cases and the sad accounts of the fate of Unitarian ministers that animated the conversations in his father’s presbytery in Wem. As Maclean says, he was in a particularly awkward position : « Yet the difficulty of the conflict must have intensified in him about this time both his passionate hatred of injustice and that passionate sympathy with the forlorn hope which to some extent had always been his, and which never deserted him. » (34)

Hazlitt studied Divinity at New College Hackney between 1793 and 1795 and seemed destined for the Ministry himself. Now in London, he was closer to the malign beating heart of government. His college was renowned for being liberal, so much so that Burke made a point of attacking it. To him it was  » “an arsenal” for the fabrication of revolutionary weapons and a breeding place for revolutionary ideas, “a volcano of sedition,” “a nursery of riot” even “a slaughter-house of Christianity,”  » (35) Writing later, Southey was decidedly unimpressed : « The dry-rot was in the foundation and the walls, as well as in the beams and rafters, and the unfortunate pupils came away believers in blind necessity and gross materialism – and in nothing else. » (36) Southey’s comments in 1817 were a personal attack upon Hazlitt as much as they were attacking Unitarians in general.

In 1794 the shameful case of Thomas Fyshe Palmer was discussed in the House of Commons and its legality questioned. Fox appealed for justice but Pitt would have none of it. He was prepared to sink as low as necessary to support the Government line : « in what has been called “perhaps the worst speech of his whole career,” (he) denied that there had been any miscarriage of justice, condoned any irregularities that had characterized the trials, and defended even the packing of the jury in Muir’s trial, which had been presided over by Braxfield the notorious. The sentences were upheld and Palmer and Muir were transported. » (37)

No wonder Hazlitt had nothing but contempt for Pitt after this. His insouciance in regard to the heartlessness and cruelty of this decision ranks with that of Castlereagh who excused the militia for butchering civilians at Peterloo in 1819. The same benighted stripe ran through the British Government year after year, decade after decade. Its colour was of the lash. Priestley emigrated that same year. This land of freedom was anything but.

In glaring contrast whilst in America : « The Hazlitts had seen a land in which the people had liberated themselves from the fetters of a hereditary monarch and his corrupt, unrepresentative government. » (38) However, in jolly old England the reign of terror continued. The Rev Jeremiah Joyce was arrested for « treasonable practices » and on May 17th he was sent to the Tower. Joyce was a member of the London Corresponding Society and the Society for Promoting Constitutional Information – hardly the equivalent of al Queda. In October he was tried with Thomas Hardy, Horne Tooke, Thelwall and Holcroft, fellow members of the two societies. Troops were on hand at the Old Bailey to keep the crowd in order. Miraculously, for once, the accused were acquitted and discharged. Like many others, the sixteen-year-old William Hazlitt must have been overjoyed. (39)

Hazlitt had immersed himself in books and was reading widely. Like Coleridge, he was stunned and amazed when he came across a translation of Schiller’s The Robbers. But as he tried to formulate his own political creed he was also devouring the writing of Helvétius, Condillac, Mirabaud, Baron d’Holbach, La Rochefoucault and Condorcet. (40) To add to this mental stimulus came an emotional awakening when he first saw Mrs Siddons on the stage. Through his brother John he also became acquainted with many popular artists of the day. London was at the heart of the vast British Empire and in the teeming city Hazlitt could slake his cultural thirst at galleries and theatres. Later he would enjoy many of the less salubrious venues in town. At the same time he was disturbed by the realization that he could not accept the faith of his father – a position as a Unitarian minister was out of the question so he left Hackney College in the summer of 1795.

As he honed his political ideas, hoping to devise a system that was optimistic in regard to human nature, he laboured long and hard in reaction to the widespread belief that Man was basically a selfish animal devoted to the immediate gratification of his desires. With his Unitarian upbringing he felt the need for a more positive outlook – that Man was redeemable and could progress towards something better. On this journey he came to know the enjoyment and pleasure of being a writer. He later described the feeling : « There are moments in the life of a solitary thinker which are to him what the evening of some great victory is to the conqueror and hero – milder triumphs long remembered with truer and deeper delight… indefatigable in the search for the truth, and a hope of survival in the thoughts and minds of men. » (41)

If nothing else, his time at Hackney College amongst liberal minded fellows and tutors had encouraged him to think for himself and to be prepared to embrace and cultivate unconventional thoughts, particularly in the political arena. He was also in London at a time when the capital contained many other original thinkers. He met Godwin and read his Political Justice. He became acquainted with Holcroft, Mary Wollstonecraft and the Rev Joseph Fawcett : « He was one of those who had hoped most from the Revolution in France, who had grieved when it had been tortured to excess, who had sorrowed over the outbreak of war with a people striving for their liberties. » (42) Fawcett was a great reader and he shared his literary insights with young Hazlitt who was at this time shy, tongue-tied and very reserved in public.

In 1796 Edmund Burke had decried  » “the revolution harpies of France, sprung from night and hell,” who “flutter over our heads, and souse down upon our tables, and leave nothing unrent, unrifled, unravaged, or unpolluted with the slime of their filthy offal.”  » (43) When Hazlitt saw an extract from Burke’s A Letter to a Noble Lord in the St. James Chronicle, he soon got hold of the whole Letter. As he studied it he was overwhelmed by its power, its forcefulness and style. Even though he was totally opposed to Burke’s political views he could admire and praise him as a master of his craft – a true writer of genius. Hazlitt also discovered the writings of Rousseau and admired his insights into the human unconscious mind. Even more importantly, by now Hazlitt had met his own John the Baptist, a voice crying in the wilderness that seemed meant for him personally, the man who would influence him more than any other – Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

William Hazlitt had felt himself to be a lost soul, set apart and different from everybody else. His acute shyness made him seem strange even weird to many of his contemporaries. He had yet to formulate his own political creed or discover his own vocation in life. He needed someone to give him focus, someone to give his life

meaning and purpose – that someone was Coleridge.

Nevertheless, Hazlitt enjoyed his years of ‘becoming’. He later described 1797 and 1798 as the happiest years of his life : « I cared for nothing ; I wanted nothing. I took my time to consider whatever occurred to me, and was in no hurry to give a sophistical answer to a question – there was no printer’s devil waiting for me… If I was not a great author, I could read with ever fresh delight, ‘never ending, still beginning,’ and had no occasion to write a criticism when I was done… I had no relations to the state, no duty to perform, no ties to bind me to others : I had neither friend nor mistress, wife or child. I lived in a world of contemplation, and not of action. This sort of dreaming existence is the best. » (44)

News of a wonderful poet-preacher had spread amongst the Unitarian brotherhood and by 1798 Hazlitt was aware of him. So intrigued was he that he walked ten miles just to hear Coleridge give a sermon at Shrewsbury on Sunday January 14th. The preacher’s voice was ethereal and mesmerizing – Hazlitt was hooked. He walked the ten miles back to Wem in a spiritual daze. (45) A few days later Coleridge called to pay his respects to old Mr Hazlitt. Young William hung on his every word. Coleridge had a new disciple who he invited to visit him in turn. When they met again they discussed Hume, Berkeley and Butler but William found he could not express his own theories clearly or intelligently and he left Coleridge somewhat bemused. (46) This further spurred William to renew his attempt to write down his essay On the Disinterestedness of the Human Mind but once again he faced writer’s bloc. (47)

Plunging back into his reading, he devoured Rousseau’s The New Héloise and in particular the Confessions. It was an important staging post for his own political outlook : « It was Rousseau who brought the feeling of irreconcilable enmity to rank and privileges, above humanity, home to the bosom of every man, – identified it with all the pride of intellect, and with the deepest yearnings of the human heart. He was the founder of Jacobinism, which declares the division of the species into two classes, the one the property of the other. » (48) Maclean adds : « Rousseau no less than Burke at this time helped to make him a writer. » (49)

To be continued…

  1. P.G.Patmore in Duncan Wu William Hazlitt The First Modern Man (Oxford: OUP 2008) 180
  2. Ibid. 298-299
  3. Ibid. 299
  4. Ibid. 299
  5. Ibid. 299-300
  6. Ibid. 299-300
  7. Ibid Preface xxiii
  8. Ibid. 25
  9. Ibid. 25
  10. Catherine Macdonald Maclean Born Under Saturn (London and Glasgow: Collins 1943) 9-11
  11. Wu op. cit. 25
  12. Maclean op. cit. 9
  13. Wu op.cit. 26
  14. Maclean op.cit. 55
  15. Ibid. 42
  16. Ibid. 41-42
  17. Pauline Gregg A Social and Economic History of Britain 1760-1965 (London: Harrap & Co. Ltd 1965) 79
  18. Ibid. 80
  19. Ibid. 80-81
  20. Sheila Moore The Conservative Party The First 150 Years (Richmond Upon Thames: Country Life Books 1980) 61
  21. Ibid. 61
  22. Ibid. 105
  23. Maclean op. cit. 42
  24. Wu op.cit. 36
  25. Maclean op.cit. 34
  26. Wu op.cit. 49
  27. Maclean op.cit. 42
  28. Ibid. 52
  29. Ibid. 56
  30. Ibid. 56
  31. Ibid. 57
  32. Ibid. 57
  33. Ibid. 57-58
  34. Ibid. 58
  35. Ibid. 65
  36. Ibid. 65-66
  37. Ibid. 74
  38. Wu op.cit. 42
  39. Maclean op.cit. 74-75
  40. Ibid. 78
  41. Ibid. 83
  42. Ibid. 88
  43. Ibid. 92
  44. Ibid. 96
  45. Ibid. 99
  46. Ibid. 102
  47. Ibid. 103
  48. Ibid. 104-105
  49. Ibid. 106