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Sketches in Parliament

The Illustrated London News, vol. 42, no. 1201, p. 478.

May 2, 1863


This is not so humdrum a Session after all. The old features are coming out, and the only new habit that prevails as yet is that late sittings are the exception, and there is a tone of remonstrance about the Lower House against lapsing into that pernicious custom. It is curious to observe how little influence the Government possesses in the regulation and management of the Commons--witness the other night, when the first of the two debates on our relations with America which have occurred in the last five or six days was forced on against the manifest reluctance of Ministers. Mr. Bentinck had given notice of a motion, which would have brought the subject on; but it seemed that attempts had been made to stave it off, and it is possible that the formal motion might have been begged away. But Mr. Roebuck, in an atrabilarious rage, dashed into an extempore assault on his quondam brothers across the Atlantic, and proceeded, in his summary and execrating manner, to put them out of the pale of civilised humanity. He got up a row, and was splashing about in the turmoil with evident enjoyment, when Lord Palmerston tried to stop him by the artful device of jumping up to answer a question he had asked during one of those pauses which he sometimes makes with intent to concentrate his resentment into one special and high-spiced anathema. But in vain. Mr. Roebuck had reviewed his vocabulary of contempt and selected his adequate phrases, and he was not to be baulked in their enunciation; and he was not. The sensitive believers in Federal excellence shuddered and shrunk from the hot blast of his indignation; and Mr. Bentinck, being naturally annoyed at having his comparatively mild thunder anticipated, was not to be tempted by the meek request of the Premier to let him move the grant for the memorial to the Prince Consort before the motions came on, doubtless in the belief that that subject might produce a feeling of harmony, the effects of which would neutralise the acidity, not to say bitterness, of the subsequent discussion. But it was clear that the American question had got together a large House, the Opposition mustering in force; and so Mr. Bentinck went on in what would have been a forcible style had it not been weakened by contrast with Mr. Roebuck's miraculous flow of acerbity. And so the debate continued, and Mr. Malins was able to state, with his usual rotund emphasis, that he felt himself "humiliated every morning" at the insults inflicted by Commodore Wilkes on the British flag; and Mr. Bernal Osborne--who was supposed to have, for this Session at least, abandoned Parliamentary flowers of speech for the cultivation of cabbages in Ireland, but who somehow or other turned up when arrangements for filling vacant offices were in progress--was enabled to assume an air of virtuous severity, and to rebuke those who sought to promote irritation in America, and who, he insinuated, were in doubt whether the interests and honour of the country were safe in the hands of that very Government which last July he himself denounced in his most powerful and therefore most disagreeable style.

Much more dignified and argumentative was the second discussion on this subject, which was initiated by Mr. Horsfall in a most able and impressive speech, and which was supplemented by Mr. Cobden in his motion from the other point of view--namely, that of placating the Federals--while Mr. Horsfall demanded that they should not have everything their own way. No man has proved more practically than Mr. Cobden his faith in American institutions and American people; for he trusted them with his money, and lost it. That he is not mercenary, and that he hardly understands the value of money, he has also proved; and therefore it is probable that he of all men would be least likely to have his convictions in a nation shaken by the loss of mere pelf; but certainly it does seem something verging on simplicity to hear him arguing, and with no little skill, that the normal tendency of the Americans has been to forbearance and kindly feeling to this country. The ingenuity with which on the present occasion he illustrated this dogma from the occurrences of the rebellion in Canada was remarkable; and his whole argument and speech, delivered so earnestly and in such good faith, augured an amiable credulity which people have somehow begun to discover is a paramount quality in one whom they had once thought the very type and symbol of a hard-headed, practical man. In these international debates it was amusing, but at the same time rather painful, to witness the quiet deposition of the first law officer of the Crown from the chief place as the organ of the Government. In the present case, as there were two debates, although the subject was cognate, the Solicitor-General was reserved to sum up the case in that which was specially originated by Mr. Cobden; and therefore it was necessary that the Attorney-General should take an early part in the discussion. It was cruel of Mr. Whiteside to say that this high legal functionary had missed all the points, but that he supposed the Solicitor-General could supply the deficiencies of his senior officer; and it was cruel of the House to burst into ironical laughter when, later, the Solicitor-General, with some naiveté, said that he thought his noble and learned friend had not been understood. But when the House takes up an idea about one of its members it seldom, if ever, relinquishes it; and so an able lawyer and a practical man of business, who has fought his way to the highest positions in his profession, is placed under a Parliamentary ostracism, principally, as we believe, because he has not caught the knack of the place. In answer to Mr. Whiteside's call, there came a response from the Solicitor-General in posse; that is Mr. Collier, who intervened, and enabled the Solicitor-General in esse to hold his allotted place in the debate. The feature of the discussion, however, was the appearance, for the first time this Session, of Mr. Horsman; and he drew all the coverts of the House, for everybody flocked in to hear him. Well, he was true to his inspirations, for such a tissue of gentlemanly imprecation flowed from him as perhaps even he has never before produced. One understands Mr. Roebuck's rugged irascibility, and the spontaneity of his ire; when he says bitter things, and denounces, like Habakkuk Mucklewrath, we know that the man is in a rage, and that the abundance of his heart is pouring through his lips. But one does not comprehend the cold, calm delivery, in rounded, polished sentences, of a prepared oration, which consists of the sharpest and most virulent abuse, which does not seem to rush from the midst of a white heat of passion, but to ooze out of an accumulated mass of ill-humour and dislike. Is Mr. Horsman aware that he absolutely shocked Mr. Bernal Osbourne?.

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