Read MR. HENRY REEVE of Historical and Political Essays , free online book, by William Edward Hartpole Lecky, on ReadCentral.com.

Although it has never been the custom of the ‘Edinburgh Review’ to withdraw the veil of anonymity from its writers and its administration, it would be mere affectation to suffer it to appear before the public without some allusion to the great editor whom we have just lost, and who for forty years has watched with indefatigable care over its pages.

The career of Mr. Henry Reeve is perhaps the most striking illustration in our time of how little in English life influence is measured by notoriety. To the outer world his name was but little known. He is remembered as the translator of Tocqueville, as the editor of the ‘Greville Memoirs,’ as the author of a not quite forgotten book on Royal and Republican France, showing much knowledge of French literature and politics; as the holder during fifty years of the respectable, but not very prominent, post of Registrar of the Privy Council. To those who have a more intimate knowledge of the political and literary life of England, it is well known that during nearly the whole of his long life he was a powerful and living force in English literature; that few men of his time have filled a larger place in some of the most select circles of English social life; and that he exercised during many years a political influence such as rarely falls to the lot of any Englishman outside Parliament, or even outside the Cabinet.

He was born at Norwich in 1813, and brought up in a highly cultivated, and even brilliant, literary circle. His father, Dr. Reeve, was one of the earliest contributors to the ‘Edinburgh Review.’ The Austins, the Opies, the Taylors, and the Aldersons were closely related to him, and he is said to have been indebted to his gifted aunt, Sarah Austin, for his appointment in the Privy Council. The family income was not large, and a great part of Mr. Reeve’s education took place on the Continent, chiefly at Geneva and Munich. He went with excellent introductions, and the years he spent abroad were abundantly fruitful. He learned German so well that he was at one time a contributor to a German periodical. He was one of the rare Englishmen who spoke French almost like a Frenchman, and at a very early age he formed friendships with several eminent French writers. His translation of the ’Democracy in America,’ by Tocqueville, which appeared in 1835, strengthened his hold on French society. Two years later he obtained the appointment in the Privy Council, which he held until 1887. It was in this office that he became the colleague and fast friend of Charles Greville, who on his death-bed entrusted him with the publication of his ‘Memoirs.’

Mr. Reeve had now obtained an assured income and a steady occupation, but it was far from satisfying his desire for work. He became a contributor, and very soon a leading contributor, to the ‘Times,’ while his close and confidential intercourse with Mr. Delane gave him a considerable voice in its management. The penny newspaper was still unborn, and the ‘Times’ at this period was the undisputed monarch of the Press, and exercised an influence over public opinion, both in England and on the Continent, such as no existing paper can be said to possess. It is, we believe, no exaggeration to say that for the space of fifteen years nearly every article that appeared in its columns on foreign politics was written by Mr. Reeve, and the period during which he wrote for it included the year 1848, when foreign politics had the most transcendent importance.

The great political influence which he at this time exercised naturally drew him into close connection with many of the chief statesmen of his time. With Lord Clarendon especially his friendship was close and confidential, and he received from that statesman almost weekly letters during his viceroyalty in Ireland and during others of the more critical periods of his career. In France, Mr. Reeve’s connections were scarcely less numerous than in England. Guizot, Thiers, Cousin, Tocqueville, Villemain, Circourt in fact, nearly all the leading figures in French literature and politics during the reign of Louis Philippe were among his friends or correspondents. He was at all times singularly international in his sympathies and friendships, and he appears to have been more than once made the channel of confidential communications between English and French statesmen.

It was a task for which he was eminently suited. The qualities which most impressed all who came into close communication with him were the strength, swiftness, and soundness of his judgment, and his unfailing tact and discretion in dealing with delicate questions. He was eminently a man of the world, and had quite as much knowledge of men as of books. Probably few men of his time have been so frequently and so variously consulted. He always spoke with confidence and authority, and his clear, keen-cut, decisive sentences, a certain stateliness of manner which did not so much claim as assume ascendancy, and a somewhat elaborate formality of courtesy which was very efficacious in repelling intruders, sometimes concealed from strangers the softer side of his character. But those who knew him well soon learnt to recognise the genuine kindliness of his nature, his remarkable skill in avoiding friction, and the rare steadiness of his friendships.

One great source of his influence was the just belief in his complete independence and disinterestedness. For a very able man his ambition was singularly moderate. As he once said, he had made it his object throughout life only to aim at things which were well within his power. He had very little respect for the judgment of the multitude, and he cared nothing for notoriety and not much for dignities. A moderate competence, congenial work, a sphere of wide and genuine influence, a close and intimate friendship with a large proportion of the guiding spirits of his time, were the things he really valued, and all these he fully attained. He had great conversational powers, which never degenerated into monologue, a singularly equable, happy, and sanguine temperament, and a keen delight in cultivated society. These characteristics showed conspicuously in two small and very select dining-clubs which have included most of the distinguished English statesmen and men of letters of the century. He became a member of the Literary Society in 1857 and of Dr. Johnson’s Club in 1861, and it is a remarkable evidence of the appreciation of his social tact that both bodies speedily selected him as their treasurer. He held that position in ‘The Club’ from 1868 till within a year of his death, when failing health and absence from London obliged him to relinquish it. The French Institute elected him ‘Correspondant’ in 1863 and Associated Member in 1888, in which latter dignity he succeeded Sir Henry Maine. In 1869 the University of Oxford conferred on him the honorary degree of D.C.L.

It was in 1855, on the death of Sir George Cornewall Lewis, that he assumed the editorship of the ‘Edinburgh Review’ which he retained till the day of his death. Both on the political and the literary side he was in full harmony with its traditions. His rare and minute knowledge of recent English and foreign political history; his vast fund of political anecdote; his personal acquaintance with so many of the chief actors on the political scene, both in England and France, gave a great weight and authority to his judgments, and his mind was essentially of the Whig cast. He was a genuine Liberal of the school of Russell, Palmerston, Clarendon, and Cornewall Lewis. It was a sober and tolerant Liberalism, rooted in the traditions of the past, and deeply attached to the historical elements in the Constitution. The dislike and distrust with which he had always viewed the progress of democracy deepened with age, and it was his firm conviction that it could never become the permanent basis of good government. Like most men of his type of thought and character, he was strongly repelled by the later career of Mr. Gladstone, and the Home Rule policy at last severed him definitely from the bulk of the Liberal party. From this time the present Duke of Devonshire was the leader of his party.

His literary judgments had much analogy to his political ones. His leanings were all towards the old standards of thought and style. He had been formed in the school of Macaulay and Milman, and of the great French writers under Louis Philippe. Sober thought, clear reasoning, solid scholarship, a transparent, vivid, and restrained style were the literary qualities he most appreciated. He was a great purist, inexorably hostile to a new word. In philosophy he was a devoted disciple of Kant, and his decided orthodoxy in religious belief affected many of his judgments. He could not appreciate Carlyle; he looked with much distrust on Darwinism and the philosophy of Herbert Spencer and he had very little patience with some of the moral and intellectual extravagances of modern literature. But, according to his own standards and in the wide range of his own subjects, his literary judgment was eminently sound, and he was quick and generous in recognising rising eminence. In at least one case the first considerable recognition of a prominent historian was an article in the ‘Edinburgh Review’ from his pen.

He had a strong sense of the responsibility of an editor, and especially of the editor of a Review of unsigned articles. No article appeared which he did not carefully consider. His powerful individuality was deeply stamped upon the Review, and he carefully maintained its unity and consistency of sentiments. It was one of the chief occupations and pleasures of his closing days, and the very last letter he dictated referred to it.

Time, as might be expected, had greatly thinned the circle of his friends. Of the France which he knew so well scarcely anything remained, but his old friend and senior Barthelemy Saint-Hilaire visited him at Christ Church, and he kept up to the end a warm friendship with the Duc d’Aumale. He spent his eightieth birthday at Chantilly, and until the very last year of his life he was never absent when the Duke dined at ‘The Club.’ In Lord Derby he lost the statesman with whom in his later years he was most closely connected by private friendship and political sympathy, while the death of Lady Stanley of Alderley deprived him of an attached and lifelong friend.

Growing infirmities prevented him in his latter days from mixing much in general society in London, but his life was brightened by all that loving companionship could give; his mental powers were unfaded, and he could still enjoy the society of younger friends. He looked forward to the end with a perfect and a most characteristic calm, without fear and without regret. It was the placid close of a long, dignified, and useful life.