William Hazlitt and Napoleon – 3

The writer Edward Sterling aka Vetus attacked Napoleon vociferously in The Times. Vetus wanted the Allies to fight on, depose Napoleon and restore the Bourbons to the French throne. (103) Hazlitt favoured a dialogue with Napoleon so that the advances already made by the Revolution could be kept. However, he found he had an even more powerful enemy, none other than John Stoddart, the editor of The Times and his own brother-in-law. Stoddart was another whose opinions had turned through one hundred and eighty degrees. The former shaven headed radical who had once espoused the belief that Britain might benefit from being conquered by Napoleon was now a reactionary of the first order. In his leading articles he jeered at William for his continued support of the Revolution and savagely criticized him for being stupidly attached to a lost cause.

On January 29th 1814, Stoddart wrote : « The Bank, the Institute, the Legion of Honour, the Emperor’s profound policy, his matchless skill, his irresistible heroism! Thus they went on – puff ! puff ! puff ! – and our silly Dottrels, who profess and call themselves “The True Jacobins”… are of all men the most easily fooled… » (104) William responded with « Dottrel-Catching », in which he painted Stoddart as a traitor to his own former views : « for the smallest concession, (he) is prevailed upon to give up every principle, and to surrender himself, bound hand and foot, the slave of a party, who get all they want of him… » (105)

Hazlitt supported Napoleon to the bitter end. On March 1st he hoped the Emperor’s fortunes might still improve writing that : « The march to Paris has been tried and has failed… Alas ! How chop-fallen the would-be heroes who with such big words called for nothing less than perpetual war, or the utter extermination of the BONAPARTEAN dynasty. » (106) A few days later on April 3rd he wrote another piece damning the French royal family and the war, little knowing that by then the Allies were already in Paris and that Louis XVIII would very soon return to the capital in their baggage train. Stoddart, who as editor of The Times was on the massive salary of £1,400 a year, was cock-a-hoop at the news. (107)

Most of Hazlitt’s political commentaries were written for the Morning Chronicle, but its proprietor James Perry had had enough of his outspokenness and he was sacked. (108) He turned to writing for The Examiner and The Champion and he soon found another target. In July 1814 Wordsworth’s Excursion was published. It was a poetical tome and the summation of his life’s work. Once, long before, Wordsworth and Coleridge had planned on changing the world with their poetry and they were men with a mission. They had both been radical in their youth and great supporters of the Revolution. By 1814 they were both Establishment figures. Indeed, the Excursion was dedicated to a Tory Peer, William Lowther, second Lord Lonsdale. So much for the grand poetic work that would appeal to Everyman and prove that even the commonest peasant deserved a voice. (109)

William was determined to make Wordsworth acknowledge his own past and face up to the fact that he had turned his back on optimism and the prospect of engendering radical change in society :

« … yet we will never cease, nor be prevented from, returning on the wings of imagination to that bright dream of our youth; that glad-dawn of the day-star of liberty ; that spring-time of the world, in which the hopes and expectations of the human race seemed opening in the same gay career with our own ; when France called her children to partake her equal blessings under her laughing skies… The dawn of that day was suddenly overcast : that season of hope is past… To those hopes eternal regrets are due : to those who maliciously and willfully blasted them, in the fear that they might be accomplished, we feel no less what we owe – hatred and scorn as lasting. » (110)

With the fall of Napoleon Hazlitt had lost all hope of a better future for mankind. Although he had Wordsworth in the crosshairs of his verbal fusillade, he also wept for what might have been, had Wordsworth and Coleridge lived up to all their earlier promise.

It is not hard to imagine his relief and joy at the news that Napoleon had escaped from Elba and he could not contain his enthusiasm :

« Those days were jocund and jubilant – full of heart’s ease and of allegresse. Its footsteps had an audible echo through the earth. Laughed eyes, danced hearts, clapped hands at it. It “loosened something at the chest” ; and men listened with delight and wonder (wherever such were found) to the unbarring and unbolting of those doors of despotism which they thought had been closed on them forever. All that was human rejoiced ; the tyrant and the slave shrunk back aghast, as the clash of arms was drowned in the shout of the multitude… Therefore Buonaparte seemed from his first landing to bestride the country like a Colossus… » (111)

Then came Waterloo – and the dream turned into a nightmare.

Thomas Noon Talfourd found William « staggering under the blow of Waterloo… as if he had sustained a personal wrong ». (112) The artist Benjamin Robert Haydon wrote in his memoirs : « As for Hazlitt, it is not to be believed how the destruction of Napoleon affected him ; he seemed prostrated in mind and body ; he walked about, unwashed, unshaved, hardly sober by day, and always intoxicated by night, literally, without exaggeration, for weeks ; until at length wakening as it were from his stupor, he at once left off all stimulating liquors, and never touched them after. » (113)

To Hazlitt, the fall of Napoleon was nothing less than « the utter extinction of human liberty from the earth ». (114)

In 1816, thanks to Byron putting in a good word for him with the publisher John Murray, Coleridge’s poems Christabel and Kubla Khan were published. Hazlitt now had the opportunity to put another apostate in the stocks. Once Coleridge had seemed to presage a revolution in himself: he was an excellent preacher, a very gifted poet and a leader of men. But then came his addiction to opium, obesity and a lassitude that prevented him from achieving anything of note. In 1816 Coleridge was a fallen star, his cold talent buried deep beneath his inadequacies as a human being. He was a has-been reliant on handouts from Sir George Beaumont, a man who detested republicanism. Hazlitt crucified Christabel in the Edinburgh Review : « The thing now before us is utterly destitute of value. It exhibits from beginning to end not a ray of genius… » (115)

William felt a deep and personal affront at having been duped by Coleridge, who had promised so much and delivered so little. It was nothing less than an act of betrayal. Hence he did not spare the rapier, attacking him in several publications. As Wu states : « Hazlitt’s attacks were well founded. When first he met the Lakers, their declared aim was to realize the objectives of the French Revolution by non-violent means. It had been abandoned at a time when ordinary people were more oppressed than ever. » (116)

Hazlitt also held forthright views on the subject of the repressive Liverpool administration : « The war has wasted the resources of the country in foolery, which the country has now to pay for in a load of taxes on its remaining resources, its actual produce and labour », and adds that :

« The tax-gatherer is a government-machine that takes sixty-five millions-a-year from the bankrupt pockets of the nation, to give to those who have brought it into that situation ; who takes so much from the necessaries of life belonging to the poor, to add to the superfluities of the rich ; who adds so much to the hard labour of the working part of the community, to “relieve the killing languor and over-laboured lassitude of those who have nothing to do” ; who, in short, out of the grinding poverty and ceaseless toil of those who pay the taxes, enables those who receive them to live in luxury and idleness. » (117)

William was brave to nail his colours to the mast. The Prince Regent had been booed at the State Opening of Parliament on January 28th 1817 and stones were pelted at his coach, breaking a window. This demonstration of general disapproval was used as an excuse to suspend Habeas Corpus and ban public meetings unless approved by a magistrate. And, as if to emphasize how far Southey had travelled down the road to perdition, he wrote to the Prime Minister saying : « No means can be effectual for checking the intolerable license of the press but that of making transportation the punishment for its abuse. » (118) The vindictive Poet Laureate had become nothing but a Government stooge.

In a beautiful twist of fate, Wat Tyler, a play written by a very much younger Southey then came into the public domain. It had been written to castigate Pitt’s government and was extremely embarrassing to the older man. Despite all his efforts the play was published over and over and became his best-selling piece. As he no longer held the copyright he earned absolutely nothing from this old play. (119) But Hazlitt made sure he would never forget it. Comparing Wat Tyler to one of Southey’s diatribes in the Quarterly Review he states that :

« The author of Wat Tyler was an Ultra-Jacobin ; the author of Parliamentary Reform is an Ultra-royalist ; the one was a frantic demagogue ; the other is a court-tool… the one saw nothing but the abuses of power ; the other sees nothing but the horrors of resistance to those abuses : the one did not stop short of general anarchy ; the other goes the whole length of despotism : the one vilified kings, priests, and nobles ; the other vilifies the people : the one was for universal suffrage and perfect equality ; the other is for seat-selling, and the increasing influence of the Crown : the one admired the preaching of John Ball ; the other recommends the Suspension of Habeas Corpus, and the putting down of the Examiner by the sword, the dagger, or the thumb-screw ; for the pen, Mr Southey tells us, is not sufficient. » (120)

William Smith MP followed Hazlitt’s lead in Parliament, reading from Wat Tyler and the Quarterly Review saying that : « what he most detested, what most filled him with disgust, was the settled, determined malignity of a renagado. » (121)

So there, Southey.

When the Poet Laureate replied with A Letter to William Smith, Hazlitt savaged him again : « Once admit that Mr Southey is always in the right, and everyone else in the wrong, and all the rest follows… He is both judge and jury in his own cause… The crime of Mr William Smith and others, against whom this high-priest of impertinence levels his anathemas, is in not being Mr Southey. » (122)

Another renegade was waiting in the wings to take another bow – John Stoddart. He had called Napoleon « a Corsican upstart » and « a monster redeemed from vice by no single virtue » (123) – and had constantly denounced any talk of negotiations between Britain and France. He also lambasted his opponents and especially his own brother-in-law. Hazlitt responded in kind calling him : « a very weak and violent man… a very stupid, senseless, vulgar person ». (124) He also had the satisfaction of seeing him being forced from his position as editor of The Times in 1816 by its owner John Walter II who had tired of his fanatical anti-republican copy. It was too one-sided for a supposed independent paper. And in a fine irony, Hazlitt soon found himself writing for the illustrious Times. (125)

On July 28th 1817 in a cringing outpouring of verbal diarrhoea, Coleridge wrote to Lord Liverpool saying : « the strong feeling of respect, the inward honor, which I have been so long in the habit of connecting with your name, [and] « support of those principles… of the measures and means, which have at length secured the gratitude and reverence of the wise and good to your Lordship and your Lordship’s fellow-combatants in the long agonizing contest » [i.e. the suppression of dissidents] recommending that ‘the system ends as it began in “physical force”, as the sovereign people are sure to learn, where the minority happens to consist of a ruffian at the head of an army of ruffians ». (126) Despite all this affected waffle – it was obvious whose side Coleridge was now on.

Wordsworth, Coleridge, Stoddart and Southey were traitors to the republican cause and they berated their own former views with the passion and fanaticism of a convert. What they all did not like was being reminded by William Hazlitt of who they used to be, and of what they had once stood for. He was a constant mirror to their oversize egos, an ever-present reminder that they were not who they said they were, no matter how much they lied about their past.

The vile Establishment attacks upon its critics knew no bounds and many fell silent. In 1818 John Hunt published a new anti-government paper The Yellow Dwarf, which Hazlitt co-edited. On November 7th that year at Derby, three men set up by a government spy were hanged, drawn and beheaded in a hideous throwback to the Middle Ages. Was this what the British soldiers at Waterloo had been fighting for ? (127)

William Hazlitt defended Napoleon whatever the occasion, at one time criticizing Byron for being both for and against the Emperor at the same time during his lecture On the Living Poets : « If my Lord Byron will do these things, he must take the consequences ; the acts of Napoleon Buonaparte are subjects of history, not for the disparagement of the Muse. » (128) And although William praised the artist Turner’s work – which mystified many critics – he vociferously disagreed with him when he criticized Napoleon. Meanwhile, in « What is the People », one of his essays for The Yellow Dwarf he stated that : « nothing rouses the people to resistance but extreme and aggravated injustice. » (129) Hazlitt certainly knew the prevailing mood of the country better than most.

Hazlitt lectures helped keep his head above water financially when his newspaper copy was just too hot for the persecuted press. The architect John Soane was an admirer of them and invited William to his house in London which contained his own private museum. (130) Hazlitt was especially entranced by a bust of Napoleon he saw there. Very few people, even today, realize just how popular the Emperor was in this country.

In 1819 William’s Political Essays were published by William Hone and dedicated to John Hunt. All three of them detested the reactionary government of Lord Liverpool and the addled institution of the monarchy. (131) Hazlitt summed up his own political philosophy in these words :

« I am no politician, and still less can I be said to be a party-man : but I have a hatred of tyranny, and a contempt for its tools; and this feeling I have expressed as often and as strongly as I could. I cannot sit quietly down under the claims of barefaced power, and I have tried to express the little arts of sophistry by which they are defended. I have no mind to have my person made a property of, nor my understanding made a dupe of. I deny that liberty and slavery are convertible terms, that right and wrong, truth and falsehood, plenty and famine, the comforts or wretchedness of a people, are matters of perfect indifference… » (132)

On February 2nd 1819, the Government mouthpiece the Quarterly Review, slated Hazlitt’s Lectures on the English Poets. This was not only a personal attack upon him, it was a conscious policy designed to make it as difficult as possible for him to make a living. The editor of the Quarterly Review was William Gifford who was one of the uglier creatures of power. William was not the sort of man to take this treatment lying down. In a brilliant and coruscating attack upon Gifford he said :

« You are a little person, but a considerable cat’s-paw ; and so worthy of notice. Your clandestine connexion with persons high in office constantly influences your opinions, and alone gives importance to them. You are the Government Critic, a character nicely differing from that of a government spy – the invisible link that connects literature with the police. It is your business to keep a strict eye over all the writers who differ in opinion with his Majesty’s Ministers, and to measure their talents and attainments by the standard of their servility and meanness. For this office you are well qualified. » (133)

In the year 1819 occurred the infamous Peterloo Massacre. On August 16th at least 60,000 people had assembled at Saint Peters Fields Manchester to listen to Henry « Orator » Hunt speak on universal suffrage and reform. Manchester’s population had soared due to the Industrial Revolution but it did not have a Member of Parliament at that time. The men were dressed in their Sunday best, while the women wore their holiday clothes. The fact that there were many children present is indicative of the peaceful intentions of the crowd. There were even bands playing God Save the King. A member of the Times newspaper was also present at the meeting. Hunt had only just started speaking when a large group of riders from the Manchester Yeomanry Cavalry appeared and brandished their swords. They were supported by the Cheshire Yeomanry, the 15th Hussars and over three hundred special constables. When a woman was knocked down by a horse the crowd panicked. The troops then surged forward, ploughing through the densely packed throng to get at Hunt and arrest him. The Times correspondent then heard them cry « Have at their flags ! » and they charged at anyone holding a banner, in the process « cutting most indiscriminatingly to the right and to the left in order to get at them. » Eleven people were hacked to death and hundreds were seriously wounded. (134)

This act of sheer butchery was dubbed Peterloo because one of the crazed constables had shouted out : « This is Waterloo for you – this is Waterloo. » (135) By another irony it also happened the day after Napoleon’s 50th birthday. He had been banished to Saint Helena in 1815 so for once the British authorities could not blame him personally for this tragedy. However, the savagery of the day was supported by the Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth, the Prince Regent and Lord Liverpool, while Southey to his eternal shame congratulated the magistrates for their decision to use the troops. The Government also used the massacre as an excuse to bring in the six Gagging Acts forbidding all such future gatherings. No wonder that on September 8th 1819 Frances Place told Thomas Hodgskin : « … we are really under the government of the Sword. » (136)

After the Emperor’s death in 1821, William Hazlitt decided to embark on the most important project of his literary career – a biography of Napoleon. He already knew that dozens of books about Napoleon had already been written since his demise and that Sir Walter Scott was planning a huge nine-volume study himself : « I felt pride », he said : « to think that there was one reputation in modern times equal to the ancients, and at seeing one man greater than the throne he sat upon. » (137) The necessary research involved in such a mammoth undertaking gave William the chance to return to France. This time he went with his second wife Isabella. In France he discussed his great history with Marie-Henri Beyle aka Stendhal who had been part of Napoleon’s infamous 1812 invasion of Russia, the Marquis de Lafayette and Benjamin Constant.

Unfortunately for William, government stooges in the press had done their very best to blacken his name and there was also at that time a recession in the publishing business. Even Sir Walter Scott was declared bankrupt to the tune of £86,000. (138) So things did not look propitious for yet another biography of Napoleon. However Scott sold 8,000 copies of his biography in June 1827, success Hazlitt could only dream of. William was also now very sickly with stomach trouble and at the same time living a hand to mouth existence. He was nearly always in debt, a situation that added yet more pressure to his lot. He began to worry that he might die before he finished his version of Napoleon’s life. Finally on February 11th 1828 the first two volumes of his Life of Napoleon Buonaparte went on sale for the not inconsiderable sum of 30 shillings.139 For all his pains and efforts it went down like a lead balloon.

In his Preface to the work he stated why he had such a high regard for Napoleon :

« It is true, I admired the man ; but what chiefly attached me to him was his being, as he had been long ago designated, « the child and champion of the Revolution. » Of this character he could not divest himself, even though he wished it. He was nothing, he could be nothing but what he owed to himself and to his triumphs over those who claimed mankind as their inheritance by divine right ; and as long as he was a thorn in the side of kings and kept them at bay, his cause rose out of the ruins and defeat of their pride and hopes of revenge. He stood (and he alone stood) between them and their natural prey. He kept off that last indignity and wrong offered to a whole people (and through them to the rest of the world) of being handed over, like a herd of cattle, to a particular family, and chained to the foot of a legitimate throne. This was the chief point at issue – this was the great question, compared with which all others were tame and insignificant – Whether mankind were, from the beginning to the end of time, born slaves or not ? As long as he remained, his acts, his very existence gave a proud and full answer to this question. » (140)

In 1829 he found a publisher for the third and fourth volumes of his Napoleon biography. The Preface above was actually printed as part of volume three. He just managed to complete the great work before his health took a serious turn for the worst. He died on September 18th 1830, aged 52. (141) In another strange twist of fate he had outlived his hero by a less than a year. His epitaph included this :

« He lived to see… the downfall of the Bourbons, And some prospect of good to mankind « To leave some sterling work to the world »…

He was

The first (unanswered) metaphysician of the age. A despiser of the merely Rich and Great : A lover of the People, Poor and Oppressed : A hater of the Pride and Power of the Few, As opposed to the happiness of the Many ; A man of true moral courage, Who sacrificed Profit and present

Fame To Principle,

And a yearning for the good of Human Nature. Who was a burning wound to an Aristocracy… » (142)

He was Napoleon’s greatest champion and a constant fighter for freedom and fairness for all. And few in Britain today even know his name.

© 2016 John Tarttelin – M.A. History


Brookner Anita Jacques-Louis David (London: Chatto & Windus 1980)

Gregg Pauline A Social and Economic History of Britain (London: Harrap & Co. Ltd. 1965)

Hazlitt William The Spirit Of The Age (USA: Kessinger Publishing) www.kessinger.net

Hebron Stephen William Wordsworth (The British Library: writer’s lives)

Laws Bill Byways, Boots & Blisters (Stroud, Gloucestershire: The History Press 2009)

Maclean Catherine Macdonald Born Under Saturn (London: Collins 1943)

Moore Sheila The Conservative Party (Richmond upon Thames: Country Life 1980)

Rhys Ernest (Ed.) Hazlitt’s Characters of Shakespear’s Plays (London: Everyman’s Library 1921)

Schama Simon A History of Britain Volume 3 The Fate of Empire 1776-2000 (London: BBC 2002)

Wu Duncan William Hazlitt The First Modern Man (Oxford: OUP 2008)