Decorated initial I

n “The Reform League and the Parks,” an article in the September 1866 Fraser’s Magazine about the campaign for the Second Reform Bill, opens with a characteristically Victorian focus on a contemporary event or phenomenon that supposedly provides a way into what has become known as the Condition of England question: “The Reform demonstrations on and after the 23rd July, with the resulting or concurrent disturbances in the parks and other public places of resort, are events of more than temporary interest or ordinary significance.” Echoing the title of Thomas Carlyle’s “Signs of the Times” (text), the work that essentially invents Victorian Sage-writing, Fraser’s Magazine continued: “We look upon them as important signs of the times; and as they have been studiously misinterpreted, we shall briefly recall attention to the precise facts and the pregnant conclusion to be drawn from them” (404). Given that in “The Signs of the Times” Thomas Carlyle both invented the Condition of England question and the prose genre — Victorian Sage-writing — that attempted to answer it, one is not surprised to find Fraser’s alluding to it. What might well surprise, however, are two other matters to which the article connects — or indicts — Carlyle.

First of all, the author's reference to “hero-worship,” an unmistakenly Carlylean notion, makes clear that he is one of those to blame for the cult of Might makes Right in national and international affairs.

Few things are more remarkable or (we think) more lamentable of late years than the growth and spread of the doctrines,—that might makes right: that success sanctions wrong: that the end justifies the means: that strong volition is the grand quality of statesmanship; and that mankind are best governed by corrupting or coercing them. Particular writers have helped to bring about this disposition of mind by their peculiar system of hero-worship, and it would be strange if the popular judgment had not been blinded or confused for a period by the dazzling examples of Louis Napoleon, Cavour, and Bismarck. Giving them full credit for boldness and grandeur of conception, and even (as regards the Italian and the Prussian) for exalted patriotism, it is undeniable that they all three attained their ends by setting aside principle, by alternately resorting to violence and deceit, by systematically disregarding the obligations of morality and international law. Yet two of them are already the objects of unqualified admiration to the indiscriminating many; and so soon as the impression of recent arrogance and lawlessness has lost its freshness, the same preeminence will be readily conceded to the third.

After thus pointing to the brutalizing effect of the belief that might makes right in international affairs, the article turns to a particular example that Carlyle himself defended — the illegal brutality with which Governor Eyre and his forces acted well after the recent insurrection in Jamaica ended:

One sign and consequence of the tone and tendency thus generated was the manner in which the cruel and arbitrary proceedings of the Jamaica authorities have been viewed by the bulk of the higher classes in England; a large proportion of whom still think that the amount of suffering inflicted, or of bad passions let loose, mattered nothing so long as an unpremeditated outbreak, magnified by fear into conspiracy and rebellion, was effectually suppressed. It was useless to dwell upon the wanton hanging, shooting, flogging, and burning for three weeks after all semblance of resistance was at an end.

Fraser’s next points not only to the wrongs that Eyre and the troops committed but also to the effect that such actions had upon them, when it mentions “the degrading and demoralising nature of the duty on which British soldiers and seamen were employed; duty from which an average hangman would have shrunk.” Next, the article points to what to many seemed one of the most most egregious atrocities — the judicial murder of Gordon, a black member of the legislature: “Equally unavailing was it to point out the terrible precedent that would be established if the summary execution of a political agitator, like Gordon, were to be deemed justified by the fact that it was imperatively demanded by the dominant party who dreaded and detested him.” As the article points out, “The enlightened advocates of justice and humanity had some difficulty in procuring a hesitating condemnation of the worst atrocities” — something that the continuing racist harrangues in Punch make clear. Since Carlyle was one of those who defended Eyre's actions, readers did not need any reminder that Fraser’s was claiming that he was one of the underlying causes, a very sponsor, of such atrocities committed in the name of the British government.

Perhaps most interesting about this article's introduction of the Eyre Affair, a matter of events that took place across the Atlantic, is that the author emphasizes its bearings on the campaign for the Reform Bill of 1867, something that Carlyle also opposed.

Related material


“The Reform League and the Parks.” Fraser’s Magazine (September 1866): 404-10. Hathi Digital Library Trust version of a copy of the periodical in the University of Michigan Library. Web. 29 January 2016.

Last modified 28 January 2016