John Bright by Elbert Hubbard

Story type: Essay

I have often tried to picture to myself what famine is, but the human mind is not capable of drawing any form, any scene, that will realize the horrors of starvation. The men who made the Corn Laws are totally ignorant of what it means. The agricultural laborers know something of it in some counties, and there are some hand-loom weavers in Lancashire who know what it is. I saw the other night, late at night, a light in a cottage-window, and heard the loom busily at work, the shuttle flying rapidly. It ought to have a cheerful sound, but when it is at work near midnight, when there is care upon the brow of the workman–lest he should not be able to secure that which will maintain his wife and children–then there is a foretaste of what is meant by the word “famine.”

Oh, if these men who made the Corn Laws, if these men who step in between the Creator and His creatures, could for only one short twelvemonth–I would inflict upon them no harder punishment for their guilt–if they for one single twelvemonth might sit at the loom and throw the shuttle! I will not ask that they should have the rest of the evils; I will not ask that they shall be torn by the harrowing feelings which must exist when a beloved wife and helpless children are suffering the horrors which these Corn Laws have inflicted upon millions.

—John Bright

The Society of Friends–I like the phrase, don’t you? The thought of having friends, and of being a friend, comes to us like a benison and a benediction. Friendship is almost a religion: the recognition in your life of the fact that to have friends you must be one is religion.

The Quakers did not educate men to preach: they simply educated them to be Friends–and live. Those who “heard the Voice” preached. Most modern preachers do not follow a Voice–they only harken to an echo. The practical test with the Quakers was whether the man heard the “Voice” or not–if so, he could preach. Men were not licensed to preach–that is quite superfluous and absurd. Those who have to listen are the only ones to decide concerning whether the speaker has heard the “Voice” or not. As it is now, we often license men to preach who can not. The ability should be the license.

For, certain it is that men who can command attention need no testimonial from a commission in lunacy. People who have lived and are living are the only ones who have a message for living men and women.

George Fox plainly saw that a paid priesthood–specialists in divinity–created a caste, a superior class that exalted the pulpit at the expense of the pew. The plan tended to suppress the pew, for all the talking was strictly ex parte. It also tended to self-deception among the clergy, for they seldom heard the other side, and in time came to believe their own statements, no matter how extravagant.

People learn to think by thinking, and to talk by talking. In explaining a theme to another, it becomes luminous to ourselves.

And so Fox foresaw, with a vision that was as beautiful as it was rare, that to educate an entire congregation you must make them all potential preachers. Then any man who rises to speak is aware that a reply may follow from his mother, his wife, his sister or his neighbor.

And so the listeners not only listened to the person speaking, but they also always harkened for the “Inner Voice” and watched for the “Light Within.” In all of which method and plan dwells much plain commonsense to which the world, of necessity, will yet return.

George Fox was the son of a Leicestershire weaver, and he was himself a weaver by trade. He had thoughts and he could express them. And so he traveled and preached in the marketplaces, at crossroads, on church-steps–just the religion of friendship: simplicity, industry, directness, truth.

No priests, no liturgy, no creed, no sacraments, no titles nor degrees–a religion of friendship! You should not kill your enemy, because he is your friend who does not yet understand you. To make war on others is to make war on yourself. Do as you would be done by.

Fox had no intention of founding an organization, nor was he in competition with any other religion. Such a movement, of course, depends entirely upon the quality of the man who advocates it. George Fox had personality–character–and so people flocked to hear him speak. His plea was so earnest, so direct, so vivid, so irrefutable, that as the listeners listened, some trembled with emotion. “Quakers,” a scoffer called them, and this word, flung by an unknown hoodlum, stuck like a mud-ball. The name of the particular hoodlum, like the man who fired the Alexandrian Library, still lies mired in the mud from which he formed the ball that stuck. That ball escaped the fate of the mass because it hit a great man; had the thrower thought only to have attached his name, it might have gone down the ages linked with that of greatness.

In a short time Fox found himself in troubled waters. He had offended the Catholics, Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Baptists, and to save himself and his people he finally banded them into an organization. About this time William Penn appeared (with his hat firmly on his head) and organized colonies of Quakers to go to New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The Quakers refused to accept the sacrament, claiming that no one part of life was any more holy than the rest, and that no one man was any more worthy of performing a rite than another.

See also  No. 129 [from The Spectator] by Joseph Addison

Parliament then stepped in and made church attendance compulsory, the sacrament obligatory, and the protest against war and advocacy of universal peace a misdemeanor.

Those early Quakers were really people who had graduated from the Church. When the scholar graduates from school the teacher is proud, and friends send flowers and kindly congratulations. When you graduate from Church the preacher declares you are lost, and the congregation calls you bad names. Up to Sixteen Hundred Eighty-nine, things were not allowed to rest even there, for you were considered by the law to be the enemy of the State. In Sixteen Hundred Fifty-six, a thousand Quakers were in prison in England on account of their religious belief, several hundred had been hanged, a few were burned at the stake, many had their ears cut off, others were branded, and many others had their tongues bored through. But strangely enough, the number of Quakers increased. A king can’t kill all his people, even if they are all wrong, and so in fear the government changed its tactics.

In Sixteen Hundred Eighty-nine came the Toleration Act, which put a stop to violent persecution, retaining merely the passive sort. The Quakers were excluded from all schools, colleges and universities, and from all right of franchise and the holding of political office; like unto the fond mother who orders her child to come into the house, and then when the child does not obey, says, “Well, stay out then!”

So the Quakers stayed out, not wishing to come in, but they had to pay tithes for support of the Established Church, whether they attended services or not. This arrangement still exists in America, only it has to be worked by indirection: instead of compelling everybody to pay for the support of the clergy, we reach the same point by allowing church property to be exempt from taxation.

Persecution having ceased, the Quakers quit proselyting and therefore ceased to grow. But the traditions remained and the sentiment of friendship of man for man remained to fertilize that wonderful year, Seventeen Hundred Seventy-six, the year that man was really discovered.

George Fox prepared the way for Susanna Wesley and her two great sons, John and Charles.

George Fox believed and taught the equality of the sexes. He said that God’s spirit might voice itself through a woman quite as readily as through a man; and it was with this thought in mind, and the example of the Quakers before her, that Susanna Wesley harkened to the Voice and spoke to the multitude. Later came little Elizabeth Fry, with a message for those in bonds, and also for those who had a fine faith in fetters, and a belief in chains and bars and gyves and the gentle ministry of the lash.

The wisdom of the paid priesthood lies in the fact that it renders a large number of men useless for anything else. Seven years in college emasculates the man. His very helplessness then makes him clutch the Church with a death-grip. He is a sailor who can not swim.

And these advocates, incapacitated by miscalled seminaries for alluseful endeavor, become defenders of the faith and prosecutors of all and each and any who fix their hearts on such simple and Godlike things as friendship and equality. Indeed, many of these advocates abjure the relationship of the sexes, tolerating woman only as a necessity, and as for themselves personally eschew her–or say they do.

The Society of Friends being essentially a Religion of Humanity, and therefore divine, regards man as the equal of woman. John Bright was always a bit boastful that one of his maternal grandparents was a Jewess who forfeited the friendship of her family by eloping with a Quaker–there is a cross for you! Joseph Bright, the father of John Bright, never voluntarily paid church-tithes. Every year the bailiff came, demanded money, was courteously refused, and proceeded to levy on goods which were carried away, duly advertised and sold at auction.

John Bright very early in life was delegated by his father to go and bid on the chattels levied upon, and this was his first introduction into business. For a time he himself paid church-tithes, but never without the protest, “I hereby pay this tax because I am obliged to; but entering my protest because I believe that this money is not to be used for either the glory of God or the benefit of man.” Later, he went back to his father’s plan and let the State levy.

His religion was one of friendship for humanity, and to him man was the highest expression of divinity. Also, he believed that the love of God could never even have been imagined were it not for the loves of men and women.

* * * * *

John Bright was born in Eighteen Hundred Eleven. He was the culminating flower of seven generations of Quaker ancestry. His father was a rich manufacturer at Rochdale, and being a Quaker, did not try the dubious experiment of making his children exempt from useful work in the name of education.

Be it known that John Bright had no part in that aristocratic and somewhat costly invention known as Bright’s disease. This was the work of Doctor Richard Bright, a distant kinsman.

The parents of John Bright were both public speakers, and little John was an orator through prenatal tendency. A good plan for parents, or possible parents, to follow is to educate themselves in the interests of posterity, and this without asking that foolish question propounded by an Irish Member of Parliament, “What has posterity ever done for us?”

See also  Beauty and The Beast by Bayard Taylor

So this, then, is the recipe for educating your children: Educate yourself.

Beyond this, man inherits himself; he is both ancestor and posterity. I am today what I am because I was what I was last year; and next year I will be what I will be, because I am now what I ata. These were truths which were, very early in life, familiar to John Bright. Before he could speak without a childish lisp, his mother taught him to decide on his own actions. “I don’t want to study; can’t I go and wade in the brook?” once asked little John of his mother.

“Thee better go into the next room and listen for the Voice, then do as it says,” answered the mother.

The boy went into the next room and soon returned, saying, “The Voice says I must study hard for half an hour and then I can go and wade in the brook.”

“Very well,” was the reply; “we must always obey the Voice.”

At this time there was a wave of Socialism sweeping over England, originated largely by Robert Owen, a Welshman, who at the age of nineteen became manager, by divine right, of a Manchester cotton-mill. He was a man of splendid initiative, noble resources, generous impulses.

Robert Owen caught it from Josiah Wedgwood, and set out to make his cotton-mill a school as well as a factory. Among the good men he discovered and hired to teach his people was John Tyndall, one of the world’s great scientists. Owen seized upon Fourier’s plan of the “phalanstery”–five hundred or a thousand people living in one great palace, built in the form of a hollow square. Each family was to have separate apartments, but there would be common dining-rooms and one great laundry; certain people would be set apart to care for the children; there would be art-galleries, libraries, swimming-pools; and all these working people would have the benefits and advantages that now accrue only to the fortunate few. It was a scheme of co-operation, but Owen’s people refused to co-operate–the world was not ready for it. Then Owen tried the plan in America, and founded the town of New Harmony, Indiana, which had the second public library in America, Benjamin Franklin having founded the first in Philadelphia.

Robert Owen thought he had failed, but he had not, for his ideas have enriched the world, and when we are worthy of Utopia it will be here.

John Bright’s father caught it from Robert Owen, just as Owen had been exposed to Josiah Wedgwood. Great hearts never fail, no matter what occurs; even though they die, they yet live again in minds made better.

Joseph Bright had an auditorium attached to his mill, and often invited speakers to come from Liverpool or Manchester and give lectures to his people on science, travel or literature. By the time John Bright was twenty-one he was usually chosen to preside at these lectures. This, because he had learned to speak in Quaker meetings by speaking. He was quiet, simple, forceful, direct. In size he was small, but what he lacked in inches he made up in brain.

The grandfather of John Bright’s mother was John Grattan, a Quaker preacher who spent five years in prison because he refused to take the oath of allegiance to the English Church. The life of Grattan descended as a precious legacy from mother to son, and all history was early made familiar to him through the teaching of this mother who passed away when the boy was eighteen. So she did not live to know the greatness of her son, but before her passing he had developed far enough so she prophesied that if ever a Friend were admitted to the Cabinet, John Bright would be that one. This prophecy, unlike so many born of the loving mother heart, came true, and this in spite of the fact that the Quakers up to this time had never had anything to do with politics.

Once John Bright was asked how he had been educated, and he replied, “By my mother, with the help of the Rochdale Literary Society.”

And it was a fact that this society, founded by Joseph and Martha Bright, that met weekly for more than thirty years, was almost a university, and served to set Rochdale apart as a city set upon a hill. This society discussed every topic of human interest, save politics and religion, boxing the compass of human knowledge. The wisdom, excellence, worth and benefit of such a society in a town is of an importance absolutely beyond compute. No religious institution can compare with it in beneficent results, carried on, as it was, by a businessman, his wife and their children, all quite incidentally! Were they not Friends, indeed?

By the process of natural selection, John Bright slipped into the place of superintendent of his father’s mill, and before he was twenty-five was the actual manager. As such he had traveled considerably, making various trips to London, and also to the various cities of the Continent.

But now in his twenty-seventh year there had been a marked increase in Church-Rates, and the Church people were jubilant over the fact that the Quaker mill-owners, who never went to Church, were obliged to pay more to the support of the Church than any one else in the town. John Bright called a meeting of the Literary Society and invited all clergymen in the town to be present, and for once there was a breaking over the rules and both religion and politics were discussed. From that time to his death John Bright was a-sail upon a sea of politics. Here is a portion of that first political speech:

See also  The One And The Many by William James

The vicar has published a handbill, a copy of which I hold in my hands; he quotes Scripture in favor of a rate, and a greater piece of hardihood can not be imagined, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” leaving out the latter part of the sentence.

I hold that to quote Scripture in defense of church-rate is the very height of presumption. The New Testament teems with passages inculcating peace, brotherly love, mutual forbearance, charity, disregard of filthy lucre, and devotedness to the welfare of our fellowmen. In the exaction of church-rates, in the seizure of the goods of the members of his flock, in the imprisonment of those who refuse to pay, in the harassing process of law and injustice in the Church courts, in the stirring-up of strife and bitterness among the parishioners–in all this a clergyman violates the precepts he is paid to preach, and affords a mournful proof of the infirmity or wickedness of human nature. Fellow townsmen, I look on an old church building–that venerable building yonder, for its antiquity gives it a venerable air–with a feeling of pain. I behold it as a witness of ages gone by, as a connecting link between this and former ages. I could look on it with a feeling of affection, did I not know that it forms the center of that source of discord with which our neighborhood has for years been afflicted, and did it not seem that genial bed wherein strife and bitter jarring were perpetually produced to spread their baneful influence over this densely peopled parish. I would that that venerable fabric were the representative of a really reformed Church–of a Church separated from the foul connection with the State–of a Church depending upon her own resources, upon the zeal of her people, upon the truthfulness of her principles, and upon the blessings of her spiritual head! Then would the Church be really free from her old vices: then would she run a career of brighter and still brightening glory: then would she unite heart and hand with her sister churches in this kingdom, in the great and glorious work of evangelizing the people of this great empire, and of every clime throughout the world. My friends, the time is coming when a State Church will be unknown in England, and it rests with you to accelerate or retard that happy consummation. I call upon you to gird yourselves for the contest which is impending, for the hour of conflict is approaching when the people of England will be arbiters of their own fate–when they will have to choose between civil and religious liberty, or the iron hoof, the mental thralldom of a hireling State priesthood. Men of Rochdale, do your duty! You know what becomes you. Maintain the great principles you profess to hold dear: unite with me in a firm resolve and under no possible circumstances will you ever again pay a tax to support a church: and whatever may await you, prove that good and bold principles can nerve the heart: and ultimately our cause, your cause, the world’s cause, shall triumph gloriously.

* * * * *

Great men make room for great men. John Bright first met Richard Cobden in Eighteen Hundred Thirty-four. Bright was then twenty-three years old, while Cobden had reached the mature age of thirty. Bright regarded him as a patriarch, and called at his office in Manchester with thumping heart. Cobden looked at young Bright with his intuitive glance and concluded he wanted work. Cobden saw by his caller’s clothes that he was a Quaker, and in an instant had decided to employ him.

In relating the incident, years after, Cobden said: “I was wrong in my conclusions–I thought he had come to me for work; instead, he had come to hire me. He wanted me to go over to Rochdale and lecture for his Literary Society.”

When you go to a businessman and ask him to lecture, you catch him with his guard down. Cobden was complimented–he asked questions about the Bright Mill at Rochdale, and was ashamed to note that, although it was only a few miles away, he did not know of the spirit of humanity that dwelt in that particular commercial venture. The Brights were doing the very things which he was advocating–making business both a religion and an art. “My love went out to the gentle-voiced stranger,” said Cobden, “and I was ashamed at my ignorance concerning the fine souls at my very door, who were actually carrying into execution the things which I had prided myself on having originated.”

So Cobden went over to Rochdale to lecture, and there began that friendship between two strong men which only death could sever, and possibly even death did not–I really cannot say. But for many years Cobden was to speak at Rochdale–several times a year. Whenever he heard the Voice he went over to Rochdale and told his friends, the millworkers, what had come to him.

“When I had a big speech to make in London I always visited Rochdale and gave my message first, for the Brights had trained their audiences to think, and if they understood, I felt I could take my chances in the House of Commons.”

So Bright helped to evolve Cobden, and Cobden was a prime factor in the evolution of Bright. As the years went by, these men grew to look alike, and the term “David and Jonathan” seemed a fitting phrase for them, only no one could really say which was David and which Jonathan.

See also  His Other Self By W W Jacobs

* * * * *

When John Bright was twenty-eight years old he married Elizabeth Priestman, a woman near his own age, and a person, like himself, of power. It seemed an ideal mating–they loved the same things. Many plans were made, for lovers are always given to planning. There was to be a cottage in the hills, where they were to live like peasants, without servants or equipage, and there John was to write a wonderful history of civilization, and make a forecast of the future, showing how the regeneration of the world was to come by wedding ethics to business.

The plan never materialized. John and Elizabeth journeyed together for two years, and then she died and was buried in her wedding-dress, holding a spray of syringa in her stiff, blue-veined hands.

John Bright had arranged to have the funeral very simple in all its arrangements–all quite Quaker-like. He himself was going to make a little speech, telling how the Voice had said to him that death was as natural as life, and perhaps just as good, and that she who was dead had no fear of death, but greeted it as an imitation, her only care being for the living.

But John Bright did not make the speech. He held in his arms his motherless baby girl, a little over a year old, and the baby laughed and pulled his hair in childish glee, and John Bright, groping for words, found them not. He took his seat, dumb. A Quakeress arose, a worker in the mills, and made the speech which he had intended to give–perhaps she made a better one.

John Bright had only turned thirty, but he thought that life for him was then and thereafter but a blank. He did not realize that whether death is an initiation for the dead or not, it surely is for the living. To stand by an open grave and behold the sky shut down on less worth in the world is a milestone–an epoch.

A month of dumb, dragging, bitter grief followed, and Richard Cobden came up from Manchester to visit his friend. Cobden had a message for Bright. It was this: “Grief hugged to the heart is a kind of selfish joy. To live is to think, to work, to act. At this moment thousands of women and children are starving in England–absolutely perishing for lack of bread. Come with me and help remove the tax that places food out of the reach of many. Transmute grief for the dead into love for the living. Let us never rest until the Corn Laws are abolished– Come!” To dedicate himself to humanity now seemed easy for John Bright. This he did, and life took on a great, quiet sanctity, purified and refined by death.

The baby girl grew into beautiful womanhood. She is now a grandmother with children grown, and true to tradition, as became the daughter of her father, she made herself notorious for the many and famous for the few, by heading an appeal to Parliament in favor of woman suffrage. For the same cause comes Mrs. Cobden-Sanderson, daughter of Richard Cobden, and spends four months in jail for insisting that her political preferences shall be officially recorded. We do move that precious slow!

* * * * *

Bright now took up the big business of the Anti-Corn-Law League, and devoted himself to the issue, even to neglecting his private affairs. The “League” had headquarters in Manchester, and Bright was its practical head. Cobden was then making a tour of the provinces, speaking in schoolhouses, townhalls and marketplaces, endeavoring to show the folly of maintaining a tax on food. The idea was then conceived of Cobden and Bright traveling together, going into the enemy’s country, and offering to debate the issue with all comers. The challenge aroused the people, and wherever the orators went, they spoke to the capacity of the hall. Cobden opened the debate, started the question in a half-hour speech, and then the meeting was thrown open for the opposition. Occasionally a man replied, often a clergyman of local oratorical reputation being put forward by the landlords.

Bright then finished him and polished him off in a way that made any further opposition impossible. Bright had certain well-defined ideas about the clergy that took with the people, and a braver man never stood on a platform. Here is a taste of his quality:

The declaration of the Church as by law established, makes me say that I believe that the Establishment has been the means of increasing individual piety and national prosperity. But individually I would ask, how comes it that England is now, as regards a vast proportion of her population, ignorant and irreligious–how is it that while the Church has had the King for its head and governor, the two Houses of Parliament to support it, and the whole influence of the aristocracy and landed gentry of the country to boot (with the advantage of being educated at Oxford and Cambridge, from which Dissenters have been shut out)–that while the Church has had millions upon millions to work upon, drawn not only from her own party, but from the property of Dissenters-I ask how comes it that England is neither a sober nor a moral country, and that vice in every shape rears its horrid front? Does it not prove that there is a radical error in the system? By the union of the people of England advantages of no trifling amount have lately been gained: the barrier of the Test Acts has been broken down; the system of parliamentary corruption has been stormed with success; and I trust the time is not far distant when the consciences of men will be no longer shackled by the restrictions of the civil power, when religious liberty will take the place of toleration, and when men will wonder that a monopoly ever existed which ordained State priests sole venders of the lore that works salvation.

The farmers were in opposition to the League, being told by the landlords that if breadstuffs were allowed to come into the United Kingdom free, the tillers of the soil would be made bankrupt.

See also  Clarice Of The Autumn Concerts by Arnold Bennett

Cobden was a ready speaker, and his knowledge of history and economics commanded respect, but Bright’s oratory went to their hearts. Bright had a touch of the true Methodist fervor which won the hearer without making too much of a demand on his intellect.

Shortly after Cobden and Bright made their alliance, Cobden ran for Parliament and was elected. “The one thing that formed the pivotal point, and won the farmers, as well as the men of Manchester, was the oratory of John Bright,” said Gladstone. The term “Manchester men” was flung at Cobden and Bright, and stuck. It meant that they were merely manufacturers, neither scholars nor gentlemen. Bright had modified the severity of the Quaker costume, but wore the soft, gray colors with hat to match, “because,” said his enemies, “it is so effective.”

Cobden being now in the House of Commons, Bright called himself “Secretary of the Exterior,” and often fought the good fight alone, speaking on an average three nights a week, and the rest of the time attending to his business.

Two years after Cobden’s election, Bright was obliged to purchase a suit of solemn black and a chimney-pot hat, for he, too, had been chosen a member of the House of Commons.

“Another Manchester man–I do declare, you know, it will be a convention of bagmen, yet!” remarked Sir Robert Peel, as he adjusted his monocle. Peel, however, grew to have a very wholesome respect for the Manchester men. They could neither be bribed, bought nor bullied. They had money enough to free them from temptation, and they could think on their feet. They were in the minority, but it was a minority that could not be snubbed nor subdued.

The total repeal of the Corn Laws came in Eighteen Hundred Forty-nine, but not until both Cobden and Bright had been threatened with criminal proceedings for inciting revolution. However, the ministry backed down, the new era came, and proved to be one of peace and great prosperity.

John Bright worked for humanity. To his voice, more than to any other, Ireland owes her freedom from the “Establishment.”

He struggled to free England from the clutch of the Established Church, but admitted at last that it would require time to unloose the grip of the clergy from their perquisites. Always and forever he argued and voted against war, or any increase of armament, even when he stood alone. And once he forfeited his seat for a term by going against the popular cry for blood. John Bright is a good example of a man with the study habit. Not only did he carry on a great private business, and at the same time bear heavy burdens in the management of his country’s affairs, but he was always a student, always a learner, and also always a teacher. Neither he nor Richard Cobden ever divorced ethics from business, religion from work, nor life from education.

John Bright possessed a sterling honesty, a perennial good-cheer, and always and forever a tender, sympathetic heart. These things seemed to spring naturally, easily and gently from his nature; they were the habits of his life. And having acquired good habits his judgment was almost uniformly correct; his actions manly; his temper considerate; his opinion right. Private business was to John Bright a public trust. He, of all men, knew that the only way to help one’s self is to help others.

During our Civil War, John Bright sided with the North, and fired his broadsides of scorn at the many in the House of Commons who hoped and prayed that the United States would no longer be united.

In Eighteen Hundred Sixty-eight, under Gladstone as Premier, Bright was chosen President of the Board of Trade, being the first Quaker to hold a Cabinet office.

John Bright was a rich man, and his life proves what riches can do when rightly used. That his example of absolute honesty and adherence to principle sets him apart as a character luminous and unique is and indictment of the times in which we live.

John Bright’s energy, eloquence, purity of conduct, sincerity of purpose, his freedom from petty quarrels, his unselfishness, his lofty ideals, his noble discontent and prophetic outlook, have tinted the entire zeitgeist, and are discovering for us that Utopia is here now, if we will but have it so.

Leave a Reply 0

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *