Forty-five years ago, when John Bright was first elected to the British Parliament, he spoke thus to his constituents: –
„I am a working man as much as you. My father was as poor as any man in this crowd. He was of your own body entirely. He boasts not, nor do I, of birth, nor of great family distinctions. What he has made, he has made by his own industry and successful commerce. What I have comes from him and from my own exertions. I come before you as the friend of my own class and order, as one of the people.”
When these words were spoken, his father, Jacob Bright, a Quaker, and the son of a Quaker, was still alive, a thriving cotton manufacturer of Rochdale, ten miles from Manchester. Jacob Bright had been a „Good Apprentice,” who married one of the daughters of his master, and had been admitted as a partner in his business. He was a man of much force and ability, who became in a few years the practical head of the concern, finally its sole proprietor, and left it to his sons, who have carried it on with success for about half a century longer.
Four years ago, on the celebration of John Bright’s seventieth birthday, he stood face to face with fifteen hundred persons in the employment of his firm, and repeated in substance what he had said once before, that, during the seventy-three years of the firm’s existence, there had been, with one brief exception, uninterrupted harmony and confidence between his family and those who had worked for them.
He made another remark on that birthday which explains a great deal in his career. It was of particular interest to me, because I have long been convinced that no man can give himself up to the service of the public, with advantage to the public, and safety to himself, unless he is practically free from the burdens and trammels of private business.
„I have been greatly fortunate,” said Mr. Bright, „in one respect – that, although connected with a large and increasing and somewhat intricate business, yet I have been permitted to be free from the employments and engagements and occupations of business by the constant and undeviating generosity and kindness of my brother, Thomas Bright.”
The tribute was well deserved. Certainly, no individual can successfully direct the industry of fifteen hundred persons, and spend six months of the year in London, working night and day as a member of Parliament. Richard Cobden tried it, and brought a flourishing business to ruin by the attempt, and probably shortened his own life. Even with the aid rendered him by his brother, Mr. Bright was obliged to withdraw from public life for three years in order to restore an exhausted brain.
John Bright enjoyed just the kind of education in his youth which experience has shown to be the best for the development of a leader of men. At fifteen, after attending pretty good Quaker schools in the country, where, besides spelling and arithmetic, he learned how to swim, to fish, and to love nature, he came home, went into his father’s factory, and became a man of business. He had acquired at school love of literature, particularly of poetry, which he continued to indulge during his leisure hours. You will seldom hear Mr. Bright speak twenty minutes without hearing him make an apt and most telling quotation from one of the poets. He possesses in an eminent degree the talent of quotation, which is one of the happiest gifts of the popular orator. It is worthy of note that this manufacturer, this man of the people, this Manchester man, shows a familiarity with the more dainty, outlying, recondite literature of the world than is shown by any other member of a house composed chiefly of college-bred men.
In his early days he belonged to a debating society, spoke at temperance meetings, was an ardent politician, and, in short, had about the sort of training which an American young man of similar cast of mind would have enjoyed. John Bright, in fact, is one of that numerous class of Americans whom the accident of birth and the circumstances of their lot have prevented from treading the soil of America. In his debating society he had good practice in public speaking, and on all questions took what we may justly call the Quaker side, i. e., the side which he thought had most in it of humanity and benevolence. He sided against capital punishment, against the established church, and defended the principle of equal toleration of all religions.
Next to Mr. Gladstone, the most admired speaker in Great Britain is John Bright, and there are those who even place him first among the living orators of his country. His published speeches reveal to us only part of the secret of his power, for an essential part of the equipment of an orator is his bodily attributes, his voice, depth of chest, eye, demeanor, presence.
The youngest portrait of him which has been published represents him as he was at the age of thirty-one. If an inch or two could have been added to his stature he would have been as perfect a piece of flesh and blood as can ordinarily be found. His face was strikingly handsome, and bore the impress both of power and of serenity. It was a well-balanced face; there being a full development of the lower portion without any bull-dog excess. His voice was sonorous and commanding; his manner tranquil and dignified. As he was never a student at either university, he did not acquire the Cambridge nor the Oxford sing-song, but has always spoken the English language as distinctly and naturally as though he were a native American citizen.
Although of Quaker family, and himself a member of the Society of Friends, he has never used the Quaker thee and thou, nor persisted in wearing his hat where other men take off theirs. In the House of Commons he conforms to the usages of the place, and speaks of „the noble lord opposite,” and „my right honorable friend near me,” just as though the Quakers never had borne their testimony against such vanity. In his dress, too, there is only the faintest intimation of the Quaker cut. He is a Quaker in his abhorrence of war and in his feeling of the substantial equality of men. He is a Quaker in those few sublime principles in which the Quakers, two centuries ago, were three centuries in advance of the time.
For the benefit of young orators, I will mention also that he has taken excellent care of his bodily powers. As a young man he was a noted cricketer and an enthusiastic angler. At all periods of his life he has played a capital game at billiards. Angling, however, has been his favorite recreation, and he has fished in almost all the good streams of the northern part of his native island.
Nor does he find it necessary to carry a brandy flask with him on his fishing excursions. He mentioned some time ago, at a public meeting, that he had been a tee-totaler from the time when he set up housekeeping thirty-four years before. He said he had in his house no decanters, and, so far as he knew, no wineglasses.
Edward Everett used to say that a speaker’s success before an audience depended chiefly upon the thoroughness of his previous preparation. Mr. Bright has often spoken extempore with great effect, when circumstances demanded it. But his custom is to prepare carefully, and in his earlier days he used frequently to write his speech and learn it by heart. He received his first lesson in oratory from a Baptist clergyman of great note, whom he accompanied to a meeting of the Bible Society, and who afterwards gave an account of their conversation. John Bright was then twenty-one years of age.
„Soon a slender, modest young gentleman came, who surprised me by his intelligence and thoughtfulness. I took his arm on the way to the meeting, and I thought he seemed nervous. I think it was his first public speech. It was very eloquent and powerful, and carried away the meeting, but it was elaborate, and had been committed to memory. On our way back, as I congratulated him, he said that such efforts cost him too dear, and asked me how I spoke so easily. I said that in his case, as in most, I thought it would be best not to burden the memory too much, but, having carefully prepared and committed any portion when special effect was desired, merely to put down other things in the desired order, leaving the wording of them to the moment.”
The young man remembered this lesson, and acted upon it. He no longer finds it best to learn any portions of his speeches by heart, but his addresses show a remarkable thoroughness of preparation, else they could not be so thickly sown as they are with pregnant facts, telling figures, and apt illustrations. His pudding is too full of plums to be the work of the moment. Such aptness of quotation as he displays is sometimes a little too happy to be spontaneous; as when, in alluding to the difference between men’s professions out of office and their measures in office, he quoted Thomas Moore: –
„As bees on flowers alighting cease to hum, So, settling upon places, Whigs grow dumb.”
So also, in referring to the aristocratic composition of the English government, he quoted Mr. Lowell’s „Biglow Papers”: –
„It is something like fulfilling the prophecies When the first families have all the best offices.”
Again, when lamenting the obstacles put in the way of universal education by the rivalries of sect, he produced a great effect in the House of Commons by saying: –
„We are, after all, of one religion.”
And then he quoted in illustration an impressive sentence from William Penn, to the effect that just and good souls were everywhere of one faith, and „when death has taken off the mask, they will know one another, though the diverse liveries they wear here make them strangers.”
No man has less need to quote the brilliant utterances of others than John Bright; for he possesses himself the power to speak in epigrams, and to make sentences which remain long in the memory. Once in his life he found himself in opposition to the workingmen of his district, and during the excitement of an election he was greeted with hoots and hisses. He made a remark on the platform which all public men making head against opposition would do well to remember: –
„Although there are here many of the operative classes who consider me to be their enemy, I would rather have their ill-will now, while defending their interests, than have their ill-will hereafter because I have betrayed them.”
One of his homely similes uttered thirty years ago, to show the waste and folly of the Crimean War, has become a familiar saying in Great Britain.
„Some men,” said he, „because they have got government contracts, fancy that trade is good, and that war is good for trade. Why, it is but endeavoring to keep a dog alive by feeding him with his own tail.”
This homeliness of speech, when there is strong conviction and massive sense behind it, has a prodigious effect upon a large meeting. Once, during his warfare upon the Corn Laws, he exclaimed: –
„This is not a party question, for men of all parties are united upon it. It is a pantry question – a knife-and-fork question – a question between the working millions and the aristocracy.”
So in addressing the work-people of his native town, who were on a strike for higher wages at a time when it was impossible for the employers to accede to their demands without ruin, he expressed an obvious truth very happily in saying: –
„Neither act of parliament nor act of a multitude can keep up wages.”
I need scarcely say that no combination of physical and intellectual powers can make a truly great orator. Moral qualities are indispensable. There must be courage, sincerity, patriotism, humanity, faith in the future of our race.
His Quaker training was evidently the most influential fact of his whole existence, for it gave him the key to the moral and political problems of his day. It made him, as it were, the natural enemy of privilege and monopoly in all their countless forms. It suffused his whole being with the sentiment of human equality, and showed him that no class can be degraded without lowering all other classes. He seems from the first to have known that human brotherhood is not a mere sentiment, not a conviction of the mind, but a fact of nature, from which there is no escape; so that no individual can be harmed without harm being done to the whole. When he was a young man he summed up all this class of truths in a sentence: –
„The interests of all classes are so intimately blended that none can suffer without injury being inflicted upon the rest, and the true interest of each will be found to be advanced by those measures which conduce to the prosperity of the whole.”
Feeling thus, he was one of the first to join the movement for Free Trade. When he came upon the public stage the Corn Laws, as they were called, which sought to protect the interests of farmers and landlords by putting high duties upon imported food, had consigned to the poor-houses of Great Britain and Ireland more than two millions of paupers, and reduced two millions more to the verge of despair. John Bright was the great orator of the movement for the repeal of those laws. After six years of the best sustained agitation ever witnessed in a free country, the farmers and land-owners were not yet convinced. In 1846, however, an event occurred which gave the reasoning of Cobden and the eloquence of Bright their due effect upon the minds of the ruling class. This event was the Irish famine of 1846, which lessened the population of Ireland by two millions in one year. This awful event prevailed, though it would not have prevailed unless the exertions of Cobden and Bright had familiarized the minds of men with the true remedy, – which was the free admission of those commodities for the want of which people were dying.
On his seventieth birthday Mr. Bright justified what he called the policy of 1846. He said to his townsmen: –
„I was looking the other day at one of our wages books of 1840 and 1841. I find that the throttle-piecers were then receiving eight shillings a week, and they were working twelve hours a day. I find that now the same class of hands are receiving thirteen shillings a week at ten hours a day – exactly double. At that time we had a blacksmith, whom I used to like to see strike the sparks out. His wages were twenty-two shillings a week. Our blacksmiths now have wages of thirty-four shillings, and they only work ten hours.”
Poor men alone know what these figures mean. They know what an amount of improvement in the lot of the industrial class is due to the shortened day, the cheaper loaf, the added shillings.
In a word, the effort of John Bright’s life has been to apply Quaker principles to the government of his country. He has called upon ministers to cease meddling with the affairs of people on the other side of the globe, to let Turkey alone, to stop building insensate ironclads, and to devote their main strength to the improvement and elevation of their own people. He says to them in substance: You may have an historical monarchy and a splendid throne; you may have an ancient nobility, living in spacious mansions on vast estates; you may have a church hiding with its pomp and magnificence a religion of humility; and yet, with all this, if the mass of the people are ignorant and degraded, the whole fabric is rotten, and is doomed at last to sink into ruin.