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XXVII. A house of cards.

It is a curious thing that the advent of a Conservative ministry in England should have brought with it a series of illustrations of the obsoleteness and decay of the House of Lords. Mr. Gladstone, the foremost statesman of England, once declined an earldom. On the other hand, Sir Stafford Northcote was transferred from the House of Commons to the House of Lords, in order to lay him on the shelf, and the process was described in the newspapers as “Sir Stafford's snub,” and as being “kicked upstairs.” It came out, about the same time, that Lord Salisbury himself, the Premier of the new Conservative ministry, had always disliked the House of Lords, and had once seriously consulted counsel as to the practicability of resigning his peerage and returning to the louse of Commons. When we add to this the general regret felt, not only in America, but in England, when Alfred Tennyson, the poet, became Baron Tennyson d'eyncourt, it certainly seems as if the English peerage were but a house of cards-showy, brilliant, with at least four distinct court suits, but insecure and liable to fall. [137]

Another recent event illustrates clearly, to Americans at least, this baseless and now meaningless institution, which nevertheless so dazzles many. The claims to the Lauderdale peerage, in regard to which several of our own lawyers have been summoned to testify, rests wholly on the question whether the heir to a certain English title was legally married in New York at the close of the last century to a woman who had borne him several children without marriage. If the final union was legal, it legalized these children; and Major Maitland, who is descended from one of these, is an English peer; if otherwise, he is not; and on this point Mr. Phelps and Senator Edmunds give opposite opinions. Now it is obvious that this tardy decision cannot affect in the slightest degree the personal qualities, mental, moral, or physical, of Major Maitland. He is what he is, in all these respects, whether he is a lord or not; and yet in one case he is entitled by birth to legislate in what is still called the. “Upper house” of the British Empire, and to have the enormous social precedence implied in a title; while in the other case he loses it. There could hardly be a better reductio ad absurdum of the whole system of hereditary rank.

It is true that the old French theory that the blood of a nobleman was chemically distinct from that of a plebeian has pretty well disappeared from [138] the English mind. It is generally admitted that a great many English peerages have a very dishonorable origin — some royal mistress, some low — born money-lender. Lord St. Leonards, who lately went to prison for the once high-bred offence of seducing a servant-maid, was the grandson of Sir Edward Sugden, Lord-chancellor, whose father was the court barber. But the common claim is that, whatever the origin may be, the associations and traditions of high birth have an elevating influence — that noblesse oblige, and all the rest of it. I believe that nothing can be shallower than this theory. One makes a mistake who reads Thackeray's “Four Georges” and thinks of it as revealing a condition of things wholly passed by. Any one who reads the admirable sketch, “London society,” by “A foreign resident,” will get a companion picture. But apart from such extremes, what an extraordinary self — revelation is that contained in the autobiography of Lord Ronald Gower, a man born in the purple, or as near it as England can get — the early resident of the very toy-palace minutely described in “Lothair” --a man whose reminiscences fairly glitter with great names! And what is the outcome of it all? A petty scribbler in Vanity Fair who by his own confession serves up his hosts to ridicule in print if their houses happen to smell of the roast mutton on which their [139] high-born guests dine. No Western cow-boy would be guilty of such brutality.

And yet the last stronghold of the House of Cards is its supposed influence on manners. Not merely untravelled Americans, but even liberal Englishmen, and, still more, English-women, are even now fettered by the delusion. I remember having a long talk in England, a dozen years ago, with a lady, a thorough Liberal in politics, who stoutly maintained the absolute necessity of an hereditary aristocracy to keep up the standard of good manners. I counted over to her, one by one, the noblemen I had happened to meet — it did not take long --not one of whom, I asserted, had what would be called in America good manners. In each case she admitted it, but found each case an exception. This one was a notorious oddity, and his father before him; that one was “a recent creation ;” the other was a “law lord.” Cite whom I might, the blue blood was never at fault. At last I said, “Can the stream rise above its source? I hear of very rude things as done by the royal princes.” “Oh!,” she said, “they are not Englishmen; they are Germans!”

I believe that there is nothing worse for the manners as well as morals of a nation than to have a class which claims an hereditary privilege to establish its own standard, and which ends by imposing [140] that standard on other people. The English aristocratic society, Matthew Arnold says, “materializes the upper classes, vulgarizes the middle classes, and brutalizes the lower classes.” For a few foolish Americans it does all three of these things at once.

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