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Lord John Russell, by Bertrand Russell (1952)

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My grandfather, whom I remember vividly, was born on the eighteenth of August, 1792, a fortnight after the poet Shelley, whose life ended in 1822. At the moment of my grandfather's birth the French Revolution was just getting under way, and it was in the month of his birth that the monarchy fell. He was one month old when the September Massacres terrified Royalists at home and the Battle of Valmy began the twenty-two years' war of the revolution against reaction. In this war, my grandfather, as became a follower of Fox, was more or less what would now be called a "fellow traveler." His first (unpublished) work contained an ironical dedication to Pitt, then still Prime Minister. During the Peninsular War he traveled in Spain, but with no wish to fight against Napoleon. He visited Napoleon in Elba, and had his ear pulled by the Great Man as was usual. When Napoleon returned from Elba my grandfather, who had been for two years a Member of Parliament, made a speech urging that he should not be opposed. The Government, however, being in the hands of the Tories, decided otherwise, and the Battle of Waterloo was the result. His greatest achievement was the carrying of the Reform Bill in 1832, which started Britain on the course that led to complete democracy. The opposition to this Bill on the part of the Tories was very violent and almost led to civil war. The clash at this time was the decisive battle between reactionaries and progressives in England. It was the peaceful victory in this battle that saved England from revolution, and it was my grandfather who did most to secure the victory. He had after this a long career in politics and was twice Prime Minister, but did not again have the opportunity to lead decisively at a great crisis. In his later years he was only moderately liberal, except in one respect, and that was his hatred of religious disabilities. When he was a young man all who were not members of the Church of England suffered grave political disabilities. Jews especially were excluded from both Houses of Parliament and from many offices by means of an oath which only Christians could take. I still remember vividly seeing a large gathering of earnest men on the lawn in front of our house on May 9, 1878, when he was within a few days of his death. They cheered, and I naturally inquired what they were cheering about. I was told that they were leading nonconformists congratulating him on the fiftieth anniversary of his first great achievement, the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, which excluded nonconformists from office and Parliament. The love of civil and religious liberty was very firmly implanted in me by such incidents and by the teaching of history that illuminated them. This feeling has survived through the various totalitarian regimes that have seduced many of my friends of the Right and of the Left equally.
As my parents were dead, I lived in my grandfather's house during the last two years of his life. Even at the beginning of this time his physical powers were much impaired. I remember him out of doors being wheeled in a Bath chair, and I remember him sitting reading in his sitting room. My recollection, which is of course unreliable, is that he was always reading Parliamentary Reports of which bound volumes covered all the walls of the large hall At the time to which this recollection refers, he was contemplating action connected with the Russo-Turkish War of 1876, but ill health made that impossible.
In public life he was often accused of coldness, but at home he was warm and affectionate and kindly in the highest degree. He liked children, and I do not remember any single occasion when he told me not to make a noise or said any of the other repressive things that old people are apt to say to the very young. He was a good linguist and had no difficulty in making speeches in French or Spanish or Italian. He used to sit shaking with laughter over Don Quixote in the original. Like all Liberals of his time he had a romantic love of Italy, and the Italian Government gave him a large statue representing Italy, to express their gratitude for his services in the cause of Italian unity. This statue always stood in his sitting room and greatly interested me.
My grandfather belonged to a type which is now quite extinct, the type of the aristocratic reformer whose zeal is derived from the classics, from Demosthenes and Tacitus, rather than from any more recent source. They worshiped a goddess called Liberty, but her lineaments were rather vague. There was also a demon called Tyranny. He was rather more definite. He was represented by kings and priests and policemen, especially if they were aliens. This creed had inspired the intellectual revolutionaries of France, though Madame Roland on the scaffold found it somewhat too simple. It was this creed that inspired Byron, and led him to fight for Greece. It was this creed that inspired Mazzini and Garibaldi and their English admirers. As a creed it was literary and poetic and romantic. It was quite untouched by the hard facts of economics which dominate all modern political thinking. My grandfather, as a boy, had as tutor Dr. Cartwright, the inventor of the power loom, which was one of the main factors in the Industrial Revolution. My grandfather never knew that he had made this invention, but admired him for his elegant Latinity and for the elevation of his moral sentiments, as well as for the fact that he was the brother of a famous radical agitator.
My grandfather subscribed to democracy as an ideal, but was by no means anxious that the approach to it should be in any way precipitate. He favored a gradual extension of the franchise, but I think he was convinced that, however it might be extended, English reforming parties would always find their leaders in the great Whig families. I do not mean that he was consciously convinced of this, but that it was part of the air he breathed, something which could be taken for granted without discussion.
Pembroke Lodge, where my grandfather lived, was a house in the middle of Richmond Park about ten miles from the center of London. It was in the gift of the Queen, and was given by her to my grandfather for his lifetime and that of my grandmother. In this house many Cabinet meetings took place and to this house many famous men came. On one occasion the Shah of Persia came and my grandfather apologized for the smallness of the house. The Shah replied politely, "Yes, it is a small house, but it contains a great man". In this house I met Queen Victoria when I was two years old. I was much interested by the visit of three Chinese diplomats in the correct Chinese ceremonial costume of that day; also by the visit of two Negro emissaries from Liberia. There was in the drawing room an exquisite inlaid Japanese table given to my grandfather by the Japanese Government. On sideboards in the dining room there were two enormous porcelain vases, which were presents from the King of Saxony. There was a narrow space between a table and a china cabinet which I was strictly forbidden to squeeze through, and, on this ground, it was always called the Dardanelles. Every corner of the house was associated with some nineteenth-century event or institution which now seems as remotely historical as the dodo. Everything belonging to my childhood was part of a now completely vanished world the rambling Victorian house, now no longer in the gift of the sovereign, but turned into a tea shop; the garden, formerly full of nooks and crannies in which a child could hide, but now wide open to the general public; the courtly diplomats representing sovereigns of States now vanished or turned into republics; the solemn pompous men of letters, to whom every platitude seemed profound; and above all, the absolute conviction of stability which made it an unquestioned axiom that no changes were to be expected anywhere in the world, except an ordered and gradual development toward a constitution exactly like that of Britain. Was ever an age so blessedly blind to the future? Cassandra truly prophesied disaster and was not believed; the men of my grandfather's age falsely prophesied prosperity and were believed. If he could come back into our present world he would be far more bewildered than his grandfather would have been by the nineteenth century. For those who have grown up in the atmosphere of a strong tradition, adaptation to the world of the present is difficult. Awareness of this difficulty makes it possible to understand how in the past and in the present great empires and great institutions, which have stood for ages, can be swept away because the political experience that they embody has suddenly become useless and inapplicable. For this reason our age produces bewilderment in many, but offers at the same time a possibly fruitful challenge to those who are capable of new thought and new imagination.