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ENGLAND, after Waterloo, was indisputably the foremost nation in Europe. The English navy, English armies, English subsidies had gained for her an increasing prestige among the powers. For twenty years a modern Tamburlaine had wrought his will on the Continent. The globe itself had felt the shocks. At last on the Belgian field an English general had destroyed the last hope of the conqueror and brought his orgy of egotism to a close. It was England who claimed the great captive and bore him away to her lonely rock in the South Atlantic.
The Laus Deo echoed 'through the ancient Abbey. Then there was a jubilee in praise of the victory. When the jubilee was over, the Englishman returned to his mansion, his pipe, and his tankard, to enjoy peace after war. His stolid
organism had been violently shaken; it was still tremulous. He had seen regicides, red terrors, mobocracies in France; a fleet gathered to invade his inviolable island. He had been haunted by the spectres of banded conspirators at home. Often he had been awakened by a nightmare of London in flames. The dread was passing. England and the allies had laid the Corsican ghost, restored monarchy in France, rekindled the aura that invests a king. History was free once more to pursue the even tenor of her way. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,-- these would be recorded, in a footnote, as an aberration of the human brain.
There had been a time when the Englishman listened sympathetically to the plea for the common brotherhood. In the depths of his heart he was generous. He had received Jean-Jacques and given him a pension. He had considered, half interested, half amused, Condorcet's logic about the perfectibility of man. He had permitted discussions about human rights and had even instructed his minister, the younger Pitt, to introduce certain measures of reform. In those days he looked across the Channel and saw with tolerance a starved people rising against an iniquitous government. The Bastille fell; he was
not sorry. With the detachment of a spectator he beheld a political theory pass into a drama of action. He admired the sanity of Mirabeau and his control of the Convention. But when Mirabeau died and the factions took to wrangling and the Mountain on the Left loomed up, vindictive, roaring, the Englishman became uneasy. The political theory ran swiftly into a tragedy of blood; a king's head, then a queen’s; then the tumbrils and the drop of the knife; the sack of castles; the flight of refugees; the frenzy of a people impelled, like the Moslems, to extend their wild propaganda unto the ends of the earth. “Ah!” cried the Englishman in a panic, “if I had only heeded the warning of Burke! This anarchy is contagious. I must crush it.” So he ordered Pitt to declare war on the French madmen. War followed, and — – Napoleon.
The tolerant Englishman hardened into John Bull. No more kindliness; no more charity for the lowly. The doors of his heart were shut and barred. Amid the alarm for his own safety he identified French principles with all humanitarian proposals. He cursed those who advocated any change, and he hunted his kingdom for every viper of reform. Consider the case of Sir Francis Burdett! The land of Magna Charta and of the
Bill of Rights was beset with spies, scoured by press-gangs, patrolled by squads of cavalry. Meanwhile King George was blind, deaf, insane; the Regent the unspeakable gentleman - was inventing the famous shoe-buckle. Yet the royal sceptre was revered as a sign from heaven; the bishops preached the awful divinity of kings and pronounced anathema on popular rights. John Bull was in the mood of a bigot. Before Waterloo, and long after, he instructed his ministers to enforce rigidly the authority of his Bible, his Crown, and his Constitution. And there was no one whom he hated with more ungovernable rage than a patriot of humanity.
It was in this age of turmoil and intolerance that Destiny, by some caprice, sent unto England an apostle of pagan beauty.
The poets of the Georgian era were stirred, more or less, by the dynamic energy of a world in convulsions. Burns came and went before the panic. The Englishman of his day was openminded, benevolent. The songs of the hearthstone touched his heart. He listened graciously to the plea for the dignity of the humble. “A man's a man, for a' that.” He assented, with reservations, to the claim of the obscure, and