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William Hazlitt: Systematic patrons of eternal war

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

British writers on peace and war

William Hazlitt: Selections on war

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William Hazlitt
On The Late War (1814)

The systematic patrons of eternal war are always returning when they dare to the point from which they set out twenty years ago; the war with them has not yet lost its original character: they have long memories: they never lose sight of their objects and principles. We cannot but admire their candour as well as their consistency, and would wish to imitate it.

It is deemed necessary by the everlasting war-faction to prove in their own justification, “that the march to Paris was not chimerical in 1793,” by carrying it into effect now, and to blot France out of the map of Europe, three-and-twenty years after the event had been announced by that great prophet and politician, Mr Burke.

This splendid reverie is not yet accomplished. The triumph of the Pitt-school over the peace-faction is not yet complete; but we are put in complete possession of what is required to make it so. As the war with them was a war of extermination, so the peace, not to fix a lasting stigma on their school and principles, must be a peace of extermination.

This is what we always said and thought of those principles and that school. This is their triumph, their only triumph – the true crown of their hopes, the consummation of their utmost wishes, nothing short of which can satisfy their proud pretensions, or finish this just and necessary war, as it was begun.

Otherwise, no peace for them; otherwise, they will have failed in both branches of that happy dilemma, hit upon by the beneficent genius of “the great statesman, now no more,” the necessity of destroying France, or being ourselves destroyed in the attempt.

If they succeed in neither experiment, all that they have done is surely lost labour. They have then a right to their revenge, “their pound of carrion-flesh” – “’tis theirs, ’tis dearly bought, and they will have it.” Be it so. But we shall let them feast alone: we are not man-eaters. We shall not join the barbarous yell of this worse than Thracian rout, nor figure in at the close of their dance of death, nor applaud the catastrophe of their twenty years’ tragedy.

We did not approve it in its commencement or progress; nor will we hail its threatened conclusion. We have had, and we will have, no hand in the plot, the execution, the scene-shifting, or the decoration.

We leave the full credit of it to the original authors; and, in spite of all the puffing of the Bayes’s for the Pitt-school, the only answer they will get from us is, “‘Tis an indifferent piece of work: would ’twere done!” Though the torch of The Times blazes over Paris, “fierce as a comet;” though The Sun see the lilied banner of the Bourbons floating before Lord Wellington in the plains of Normandy; though The Courier is is setting out posthaste to break up the negociations at Chatillon; and The Morning Herald sheds tears of joy over the fashionable virtues of the rising generation, and finds that we shall make better manmilliners, better lacqueys, and better courtiers than ever – we remain sceptical as to the success, and more than sceptical as to the necessity of this last cast of our political dicers, and desperate venture of our licensed dealers and chapmen in morality and massacre.

In our opinion, lives enough have been thrown away to prove that the survivors are only born to bear fardels. This is the moral of the piece, if it succeeds on the principles of the Pitt-school and all short of that is mere gratuitous mischief. The war, conducted on those principles and for those purposes, “was not, and it cannot come to good.” Its failure, or its success, must be fatal.

The war, as it was carried on from the first by the Pitt-school, and as they would now revive it, was not a national quarrel, but a question about a political principle. It had no more to do with France or England as geographical denominations, than the wars between the Guelphs and Gibelines.

It was not a war of mercantile advantage, or a trial of strength between two countries which must be decided by the turn of events, by the probable calculation of loss and profit, but a war against an opinion, which could, therefore, never cease, but with the extirpation of that opinion.

Hence there could be neither safety, nor honour, nor justice, in any terms of peace with the French government, because, by the supposition, it was not with its power or its conduct, but with its existence, that we were at war. Hence the impossibility of maintaining the relations of peace and amity with France.

Hence Mr Burke’s regicide war. Hence the ridiculousness asserted by The Courier, of even attempting negociation with this hated power. Hence the various and contradictory aspects which the war assumed after its first out-set, and all of which answered the purpose equally well, because there was another pivot on which the whole turned, the sheet-anchor which never loosed its hold, and which enabled “the pilot to weather the storm.”

It was not a temporary or local question of the boundaries, the possessions, or particular rights of rival states, but a question, in which all states are at all times equally interested, of the internal right of any people to choose its own form of government. Whether this was a just ground of war or not, is another question; but it was the true one – that which gave its character to the war, and accounts for all its consequences.

It was a war of proscription against a great and powerful state, for having set the example of a people ridding itself of an odious and despicable tyranny. It was the question of the balance of power between kings and people; a question compared with which the balance of power in Europe is petty and insignificant.

That what we have here stated, are the real and paramount grounds of this bloody and inveterate contest in the minds of the war-faction is what we apprehend they will not, in their present state of frenzy, deny. They are the only one that always survive the shock of accident and the fluctuation of the circumstances, and which are always recurred to when all others fail, and are constantly avowed in the face of day, whenever the least probability of success attends them.

It has been declared again and again, month after month, and year after year, that no peace should be made with France, till the last remaining effort has been tried to attain this object. We were to bury ourselves with our great war-minister under the ruins of the civilized world, sooner than relax in our exertions or recede from our object. No sacrifices were to be held too dear – no sufferings too great in the prosecution of this sacred cause. No other than the last extremity was to force peace from us. Nothing short of the complete subjugation of France was to satisfy us – nothing short of our own ruin was to drive us to despair. We were like wrestlers struggling on the edge of a precipice, one (or both) of whom must be certain of destruction. Such were the mad, mischievous, and unprincipled terms on which a pampered crew of sycophants have played away the welfare, the repose, the liberties, and happiness of mankind, on which they would now urge us to stake our all again to realize their favourite scheme of the march to Paris, and the annihilation of the French people.

The consequences of the Pitt project were inevitable. From the moment that the existence of France as a nation was declared to be incompatible with that of the surrounding states – that she was denounced as a nuisance which must be abated, and set up as a mark for the vengence of the rest of the world, the struggle necessarily became convulsive and the re-action terrible.

Is it then a matter of wonder, that in this unnatural strife, France, proscribed, hunted down, put out of the pale of nations, endeavoured rather to reduce others to the last extremity than to be reduced to it herself? Or are we entitled to wreak that vengeance upon he which we could not at first execute, because the engine which we had prepared to crush her has recoiled with the greatest violence upon ourselves?

It has been said that we less easily forgive the injuries we do or meditate against others than those we receive from them. There are, we know, persons to whom the celebrated line of the historian, is, at all times, applicable; Odia in longum jaciens, quae conderet, auctaque promeret. We are not surprised to find that the good intentions of those person towards France, though she did not submit to the original tender made to her of their kind interference and paternal care, have not spoiled by keeping. If Titus complained with so much bitterness that he had lost a day to virtue, what must not some modern friend to mankind feel when they reflect that they have lost so many years in the execution of their just and beneficent plans! In spite of Mr Southey’s reasoning in his Carmen Triumphale about joining “the avengers of mankind,” we conceive the wheel has gone once round already, “full circle home,” and that now it had now better stand still.

But it may be said, do we mean to apply these remarks to Bonaparte? As far as relates to the merits of the war-faction. It was they who implicated him with the cause of the French people, as “the child and champion of Jacobinism.” We cannot express or opinion better than in the words of Mr Whitbread, “that England had made Bonaparte, and he had undone himself.” He was the creature of the Pitt-school. Was the iron scourge which he has held over Europe put into his hands by the peace-party? Were the battles of Austerlitz and Jena, were the March to Vienna, the possession of Berlin, the invasion of Spain, the expedition to Russia, and the burning of Moscow the consequences of the signing or the of the breaking of the treaty of Amiens?

The author of the letters of Vetus (who we suppose is silenced by The Times, for asserting that the Bourbons have no more a lawful right to the throne of France, at this moment, than the Stuarts had to the throne of England twenty years after the Revolution of 1688), is of opinion that this war is merely national, merely the old grudge between the two countries; and that the Bourbons, the Republic, and Bonaparte, are equally hostile to England, and we to them.

In this, as in most things else, our opinion is the opposite of his….

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