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This article was written by Theodore Martin and was published in 1888
John Wilson Croker, a politician and essayist, was born in Galway on 20 December 1780. He was the son of John Croker, a man of an old Devonshire stock, who was for many years surveyor-general of customs and excise in Ireland, and is spoken of by Burke as ‘a man of great abilities and most amiable manner, an able and upright public steward, and universally beloved and respected in private life.’ His mother was the daughter of the Rev. R. Rathbone of Galway. Such being his parentage, Croker, with the usual accuracy of rancorous journalists, was in after years denounced as a man of ‘low birth, the son of a country gauger.’
He was obviously a bright, clever boy, and amiable also, if we may credit Sheridan Knowles, to whose father's school in Cork Croker was sent when very young to have a stutter corrected, which he never entirely conquered. When only nine years old he made his first essay in authorship in an election squib during a Cork election. He afterwards spent some time at a school there founded by French refugees, where he attained a facility in reading, writing, and speaking their language. At a Mr. Willis's school in Portarlington he was at twelve years old ‘head of the school, facile princeps in every branch,’ and the pride of the masters. By this time he was able to translate the first Eclogue and the first book of the Æneid of Virgil into verse founded on the model of Pope's Homer, which he had learned by heart.
A year or two at another and more classical school, also at Portarlington, kept by the Rev. Richmond Hood, who in later years became the second Sir Robert Peel's classical tutor, prepared him for Trinity College, Dublin, where he was entered in November 1796. Tom Moore was there, a year or two his senior, and he met of his own class Strangford, Leslie Foster, Gervais, Fitzgibbon, Coote, and others who rose afterwards to social and professional distinction. During his four years at Trinity College, where he took a B.A. degree, Croker won a distinguished place among his contemporaries, and was conspicuous as a speaker in the debates of the Historical Society, besides gaining several medals for essays marked by extensive information as well as literary power. In 1800 he entered himself as a student at Lincoln's Inn, and during the two following years devoted himself to legal study there.
But the bent of his mind was essentially literary. The incidents of the French revolution had taken a strong hold upon his mind, and he had already made progress in that minute study of the revolutionary epoch which ultimately led to his forming a remarkable collection of French contemporary pamphlets, now in the British Museum, and made him probably the best informed man in England about all details of this period of French history. A series of letters addressed to Tallien which he wrote introduced him to a connection with the Times, and laid the foundation of a lasting and confidential intimacy with its leading proprietor. During this period he was associated with Horace and James Smith, Mr. Herries, Colonel Greville, Prince Hoare, and Mr. Richard Cumberland in writing both prose and verse for two short-lived publications called The Cabinet and The Picnic.
He returned to Dublin in 1802, and in 1804 created great local commotion there by a little volume in octosyllabic verse of Familiar Epistles to Mr. Jones, the manager of the Crow Street Theatre, ‘on the Present State of the Irish Stage.’ The theatre was then the delight of the best people in Dublin, and yielded, as Croker mentions, the large income for those days of £5,000 a year to the manager — a sum, as he says, ‘greater than the salary of two of the judges of that land.’ Between £6,000 and £7,000 was in fact the true amount. But, to judge by Croker's book, the liberality of the manager in providing a company of good actors did not keep pace with the liberality of the public. In a kind of Rosciad, a very pale reflex of Churchill's masterpiece, the actors and their manager are passed in review. The writing is not without point and sparkle. Five editions of the book were sold within the year. Parties in society and in the press raved about the book. The author, said the Freeman's Journal, is ‘an infamous scribbler.’ ‘He is a well-educated gentleman,’ rejoined another organ. Croker, with characteristic coolness, published in his successive editions an abstract of the conflicting praise and abuse. The book has now no interest except for dabblers in histrionic story. The preface and notes are overloaded with quotations from Greek, Latin, Spanish, Italian, and French — a vice, partly of vanity, partly of pedantry, from which Croker's style never thoroughly cleared itself. His next literary venture was in prose, and met with even greater success. It was called An Interrupted Letter from J— T—, Esq., written at Canton to his friend in Dublin, and under the disguise of Chinese names gave a piquant sketch of the Irish capital and its notabilities. It reached a seventh edition within a year, and then was forgotten.
Meanwhile Croker was making his way at the Irish bar. He attached himself to the Munster circuit, where he first encountered Mr. Daniel O'Connell. His father's influence got him briefs in many revenue cases; he seemed in the way of rising into a large practice, and in 1806 he married Miss Rosamond Pennell, daughter of Mr. William Pennell, afterwards British consul in South America. She proved to be a thoroughly congenial companion, and he always regarded his union with her as the chief blessing of his life. In the same year, the candidate for Downpatrick, whom he had gone down to support, having withdrawn, Croker succeeded in obtaining the seat on a petition. He was re-elected when a dissolution took place the following year on the collapse of the ‘All Talents’ ministry, and retained the seat till 1812, when he was rejected at the general election. He was thereupon returned for Athlone, which he represented till 1818. He unsuccessfully contested Dublin University that year, and in 1819 was returned for Yarmouth (I. W.). His subsequent constituencies were Bodmin (1820-6), Aldeburgh (1826-7), Dublin University (1827-30), and Aldeburgh again (1830-2).
During the parliament of 1807-12 Croker declared his general adherence to the administration of the Duke of Portland, reserving to himself freedom on the question as to the removal of catholic disabilities, to which he was favourable. On the night he took his seat in the House of Commons he spoke on the state of Ireland, stimulated by Grattan's observations, which he thought injurious and unfounded. This bold venture proved entirely successful. ‘Though obviously unpremeditated,’ he wrote long afterwards, ‘I was not altogether flattered at hearing that my first speech was the best. I suspect it was so. Canning, whom I had never seen before, asked Mr. Foster to introduce me to him after the division, was very kind, and walked home with me to my lodgings.’ The acquaintance thus begun, cemented as it was by community of opinion on the catholic question, ripened into a friendship which only terminated with Canning's death.
The impression made by Croker in the house was greatly strengthened by the ability with which his views on that burning question were stated in a pamphlet called A Sketch of Ireland Past and Present. It ran rapidly through twenty editions, and its sound and far-seeing views have been found of such permanent value that it was reprinted in 1884. It fixed upon its author the attention of all the leading politicians of the day, Perceval among them, who, though of opposite opinions, formed so high an opinion of the writer's powers that he recommended Sir Arthur Wellesley, on his appointment in June 1808 to the command in the Peninsula, to entrust to the young Irish member during his absence the business of his office of chief secretary for Ireland. Sir Arthur acted upon his advice, and a relation between himself and Croker was thus established, which grew into intimacy and lasted through life. Croker's duties gave him a position which commanded a hearing for him in the House of Commons. The discussions there in 1809 on Colonel Wardle's charge against the Duke of York of conniving at the sale of military appointments by his mistress, Mrs. Clarke, brought Croker to the front. Speaking in answer to Sir Francis Burdett (14 March) he dissected the evidence adduced against the duke with a dexterity which showed how much he had profited by his legal experience. The speech was a brilliant success, and assisted so materially in the vindication of the duke, that it drew down upon Croker much obloquy and scurrilous abuse.
Meanwhile Croker had no income but what he derived from his profession and from literary work; but Perceval told him that the government would gladly recognise his services by any suitable appointment. He had shared the counsels of Canning and George Ellis in arranging for the establishment of the Quarterly Review in February 1809, and was enlisted among its contributors. His first article was a review of Miss Edgeworth's Tales of Fashionable Life. He did not contribute again till the tenth number in 1811, but from that time to 1845, excepting for an interval between 1826 and 1831, scarcely a number appeared without one or more papers by him. In all he wrote about two hundred and sixty articles upon the most varied topics, legal, ecclesiastical, historical (especially connected with the French revolution), Ireland, contemporary history, reviews of novels, travels, and poetry, the then new school of which, as represented by Leigh Hunt, Shelley, and Keats, was especially uncongenial to his taste, trained as it had been upon the measured precision of Pope. For the appreciation of such writers he was especially unfitted, not only by want of sympathy but by incapacity to appreciate their struggle to bring feeling and language into closer harmony by forms of expression more simple and unconventional than those of the preceding century. His well-known review of Keats's Endymion (Quarterly Review, No. 32, September 1818) is an instructive specimen of that worst style of so-called criticism which starts with the assumption that, because the writer does not like the work, it is therefore bad, and proceeds to condemn whatever does not fall in with the critic's individual ideas. The poem was brought out under the patronage of Leigh Hunt, a circumstance sufficient in those days to seal its condemnation in the eyes of a tory journalist.
No list of Croker's reviews has ever been made public, and the secret of the authorship of papers in the Quarterly as they appeared was as a rule so well kept, that conjecture on the subject supplied the place of knowledge, and, as commonly happens, conjecture was generally wrong. Croker being from his political position obnoxious to the whig press, they credited all the political articles in the Quarterly Review to his account, while the truth was that, as he wrote to Mr. Lockhart in 1834, ‘for the twenty years that I wrote in it, from 1809 to 1829, I never gave, I believe, one purely political article — not one, certainly, in which politics predominated.’ The battle of Talavera (28 July 1809) stirred the poetic vein of the young politician. The poem bearing the name of the battle appeared in the autumn of 1809. More for the enthusiasm which reader shared with writer than for any superlative merit in the poetry, as poetry is now understood, the book had a signal success, greater, according to the publisher, Mr. Murray, ‘than any short poem he knew, exceeding Mr. Heber's “Palestine” or “Europe,” and even Mr. Canning's “Ulm” and “Trafalgar.”’ Sir Walter Scott, in the measures of whose ‘Marmion’ it was written, praised it both by letter and in the Quarterly; and in a letter to Croker from Badajoz (15 Nov. 1809) Wellington wrote that he had read the poem with great pleasure, adding, characteristically, ‘I did not think a battle could be turned to anything so entertaining.’
Perceval, who had by this time become premier, proved his sense of the value of Croker's services to his party by appointing him secretary of the admiralty. It was a higher office than Croker aspired to; but, the duration of the Perceval administration being most precarious, Croker at first hesitated in abandoning for it his professional career, of which he was fond and which was now yielding him a fair income. But on learning that Perceval in his unsuccessful negotiations with Lords Grenville and Grey to take office with him, while offering to take the seals of the home office himself, had made no other stipulation than that Croker should be his under-secretary, he felt he could do no otherwise than yield to the wish of so generous a friend. ‘In that situation,’ wrote Wellington, ‘I have no doubt you will do yourself credit, and more than justify me in any little exertion I may have made for you while I was in office.’
The anticipation was amply fulfilled. The appointment of a young and untried man to so important an office was of course violently attacked. But in less than a month Perceval's estimate of the fitness of his young friend for the duties of his responsible office was fully justified. Croker had, with his wonted acumen, at once set to work to master all the details of his department as the first step to sound administration, and in doing so he found reason to suspect a serious defalcation in the accounts of an official of high rank and reputation which had escaped the notice of his predecessors. He therefore refused to sign a warrant for a further issue of money until the last issues were accounted for. The defaulter, who had great influence with George III, used it to persuade the king that everything was right, and that the new secretary did not understand his business. Meanwhile Croker pursued his investigations, and satisfied himself that ‘it was a case of ruin and disgrace to the individual and a loss of at least £200,000 to the public.’ He laid the facts before the head of the department, Lord Mulgrave, and, finding his lordship did not take the same view of the case, tendered his resignation. Upon this Perceval took the matter up, satisfied himself that Croker was right, and insisted that no compromise should be made. He explained the facts to the king, who thereupon sent the young official a warm assurance of satisfaction at his zeal in doing his duty, and ‘his firmness in resisting his (the king's) own first suggestions under a misunderstanding of the case.’ Nothing could more conclusively prove the soundness of Croker's appointment than his conduct in this affair. It showed his determination that it should be no fault of his if the public service were not discharged honestly and efficiently, for rather than connive at misappropriation of the funds allotted to his department he was ready to sacrifice a fine appointment and an income of £3,500 a year. In the face of this and other proofs of ability and zeal the attacks of those who had assailed his appointment died down, and he devoted himself to the work of his office with an energy and sagacity, which the critical position of the country and the importance of maintaining its naval forces in high efficiency made especially valuable.
The extent of work in which he was at once involved was, to use his own words, ‘quite terrific.’ He was at his office by nine, and worked there till four or five. But his heart was in his work, and he was always to be found at his desk. ‘For two-and-twenty years,’ he wrote to Mr. Murray, the publisher, in 1838, ‘I never quitted that room without a kind of uneasiness like a truant boy.’ Such devotion, combined with strong practical sagacity and the determination to master every detail and to see that full value should be obtained for money spent, soon made him the presiding spirit of the department. The rules which he laid down and the organisation which he established are, we are told by his biographer, Mr. Jennings, acknowledged to this day as the foundation of ‘all that is best and most businesslike in the department.’ He was not of a temper to lose any of the authority which his superior knowledge gave him, and his ascendency over his official superiors became ultimately so well recognised, that on one occasion, when he stated in the House of Commons that he was only ‘the servant of the board,’ Sir Joseph Yorke, a former lord of the admiralty, remarked that when he was at the board ‘it was precisely the other way.’ In any case the work of the board was admitted to be thoroughly well done, and there is no record during his long term of office under successive administrations of any complaints of his official conduct. The three first lords under whom he served — the Earl of Mulgrave, the Right Hon. Charles Yorke, and Viscount Melville — all respected and got on well with him, and he had the courage to maintain his ground against the whims and vagaries of the Duke of Clarence, when lord high admiral, with a spirit for which in after years William IV bore him no ill-will. The duke once said to him, in 1815, that when he became king Croker should not be secretary of the admiralty. ‘I told him,’ says Croker, ‘“a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” He had just before told me he would in that event declare himself lord high admiral, and asked me what objection I could start to that. I replied, with a low bow, “None; that there was a case in point; James II had done the same.”’
Very early after his appointment at the admiralty Croker became numbered among the friends of the Prince of Wales, with whom he was always a favourite, probably because he had little of the courtier in him, and could be relied on for sincerity in giving his opinion. He was always a welcome visitor at Carlton House and Windsor, and later at the Pavilion in Brighton. A sister of Croker's wife, whom Croker had adopted from childhood as his daughter, was a great favourite with George IV, who was fond of children. She was never forgotten at the children's balls which were often given at the palace, and the king always called her by her pet name, ‘Nony.’ Miss Croker, as she was called, afterwards Lady Barrow, wife of Sir George Barrow, grew up a beautiful woman, and inspired one of Sir Thomas Lawrence's finest portraits, best known in a masterly mezzotint by Samuel Cousins.
While establishing a great reputation as a public official, Croker steadily made his way in parliament as a debater of the first rank. His great command of facts and accuracy of statement made him a formidable adversary even to the leaders of the opposition. He was terse and incisive in style, and showed a sharp and ready vein of sarcasm, which occasionally rose into a strain of eloquent invective. In committee of supply his services to the ministry were invaluable. ‘At a distance of forty years,’ the late Lord Hatherton, writing in 1857, speaks of a continuous encounter there between Tierney and Croker as ‘the most brilliant scene in the House of Commons during the twenty-three years he was member of it.’ On the catholic question he maintained throughout the principles advocated in his pamphlet of 1807, and was admitted by those who had no reason to love him to speak upon it with frankness, warmth, and sincerity, while differing from the views of his party. Thus in 1819 Lord Monteagle, then Mr. Spring Rice, writes of a speech Croker had recently made on this question, that ‘it showed him to be an honest Irishman no less than an able statesman: ready to quit the road of fortune under the auspices of his personal friend Peel, if the latter was only to be conciliated by what Oxonians term orthodoxy and the Cantabs consider as intolerance.’
To have abandoned the lead of Peel would have indeed been a severe trial, for Croker had at this time been attached to him for many years by the ties of affectionate friendship as well as of political sympathy. From 1812, when Peel was secretary of state for Ireland, down to Peel's corn law measure in 1845, they were in constant and most confidential communication. Peel was godfather of Croker's only child, a son born in January 1817, and named Spencer after his father's first patron, Mr. Perceval. This child was the light of his parents' eyes, but was cut off by a sharp illness on 20 May 1820. The ambition to advance himself in public life seems to have died when he lost his boy. The grief for this loss, which overshadowed the rest of his life, completely unnerved him. The fear of mischief to health of mind and body, which might ensue on retiring from office, alone kept him from resigning his post at the admiralty. He even went the length of intimating to Lord Liverpool his readiness to place it at his lordship's disposal, if this would facilitate his arrangements in forming his ministry. But Croker's services were far too important to be dispensed with; and it was well for his own ultimate happiness that his mind was kept at work at his ‘old green desk,’ and not allowed to dwell upon a sorrow which never ceased to weigh heavily upon him.
To Peel Croker had for years looked forward as the man best fitted to become the leader of his party. Peel hung back even from office; but Croker now became more urgent than ever in soliciting him to join their ranks and to aspire to a commanding position. Thus he writes (14 September 1821): ‘For my own part in the whole round of the political compass there is no point to which I look with any interest but yourself. I should like to see you in high and effective office for a hundred reasons which I have before told you, and for some which I have not told and need not tell you; but if I looked only to your own comfort and happiness, I should never wish to see you within the walls of Pandemonium.’ Croker's wish was gratified in 1822, when, after the accession of George IV, Peel took office as home secretary under Lord Liverpool; and the two friends fought the battle of their party side by side down to 1827, when the break-down of Lord Liverpool's health raised the question of a successor. The choice lay between Canning and Peel; but, much as Croker would have wished to see Peel take the place he had long desired for him, he saw that this could not be in the existing state of parties. ‘My regard and gratitude to the Duke of Wellington, who first brought me forward in public life,’ he writes to Canning (27 April 1827), ‘my private love for Peel, and my respect and admiration for you, made and make me most anxious that you should all hold together.’ But finding this could not be arranged, Croker stood by Canning, and played so important a part in his counsels while forming his cabinet that a cloud of jealousy towards his old friend was raised for a time in Peel's mind.
This, however, was soon dissipated before the unmistakable proofs of devoted loyalty and unselfishness on Croker's part. He refused higher office for himself under Canning, and on Canning's death a few months afterwards, Croker urged upon his successor, Lord Goderich, the importance of introducing Peel and the Duke of Wellington into the new cabinet, and a coalition of the tories with the moderate whigs. To clear the way for this he even offered to resign his own appointment, ‘worth £3,200 a year and one of the best houses in London.’ Peel had too mean an opinion of Goderich's capacity to accept him for a leader, and preferred to stand aloof. He had soon the satisfaction of coming into office under a leader in the Duke of Wellington of a very different stamp, resuming his old position at the home office. Again Croker refused to take higher office. But his services had been so valuable to his leaders, that they insisted on his allowing himself, as a slight recognition of them, to be sworn of the privy council, an honour which he had refused to accept from two previous administrations.
In the stormy conflicts that prevailed during the Wellington administration (1829-30), Croker fought the battle of his party in parliament with vigour and success. On the question of the catholic claims his opinions from the day he entered parliament in 1807 had been in advance of theirs; and when they were driven by stress of circumstances in 1829 to adopt them, his frequently expressed conviction that their conversion would come too late was verified. He had also for many years advocated a measure of parliamentary reform, which would have transferred to the great centres of commerce and industry the seats of decayed and corrupt boroughs. In 1822 he had urged in a letter to Peel the necessity of dealing frankly with this question, and depriving the radicals of complaint against abuses in the parliamentary system which it was impossible to justify, and the outcry against which might force on measures that would prove in the end dangerous to the constitution. The advice was not taken; the democratic spirit which Croker dreaded spread far and fast, and he viewed with dismay the momentum which it received from the French revolution in 1830. When the Wellington ministry retired in November of that year, Croker at once resigned his office at the admiralty, which he had held for twenty-two years, his retirement drawing from Sir James Graham, the new first lord of the admiralty, an expression of regret ‘that the admiralty would no longer have the benefit of his brilliant talents and his faithful services.’
Although released from official life, Croker regarded the issues involved in the Reform Bill as so momentous that he felt bound actively to support the views of his party. Accordingly he threw himself with energy into the debates, and showed a fertility of resource, a copious mastery of facts, and a vigour of statement, which commanded, with one conspicuous exception, the admiration even of his opponents. That exception was Macaulay, who in himself illustrated the truth of his own remark, ‘How extravagantly unjust party spirit makes men!’ He came down to the House of Commons (22 September 1831) with one of his elaborately prepared orations, in which he attacked the House of Lords, pointing to the downfall of the French nobility as a warning of what might result from a ‘want of sympathy with the people.’ Croker at once rose to reply, and argued upon the spur of the moment from the facts of the French revolutionary history that the analogy was baseless, and that it was weak concession and not resistance to popular clamour which had accelerated the downfall of the French noblesse. He carried the house with him. Macaulay's rhetoric was eclipsed, and a man of his egotistical temperament was not likely to forgive the defeat, or the contemptuous reference in Croker's speech to ‘vague generalities handled with that brilliant imagination which tickles the ear and amuses the fancy without satisfying the reason.’
This was not the first discomfiture in the House of Commons which Macaulay had sustained at Croker's hands. In several previous encounters he had come badly off. These defeats rankled, and it is now very obvious from Macaulay's published correspondence that something more than his professed reverence for his author had prompted him to attack Croker's elaborate edition of Boswell's Life of Johnson in a recent number of the ‘Edinburgh’ with an asperity of which there are happily few examples in recent literary history. The book was in truth a monument of editorial industry and editorial skill, and enriched by a large amount of curious information, of which subsequent editors have not failed to avail themselves. Macaulay thought that he had, to use his own phrase, ‘smashed the book,’ and destroyed Croker's reputation as a literary man. Croker knew too well that his work would outlive any slashing article, even from Macaulay's hand, to give himself even the trouble of refuting the charges of inaccuracy. But this was done for him very effectively by his friend J. G. Lockhart, in one of the ‘Blackwood’ ‘Noctes Ambrosianæ,’ and the detailed answers to Macaulay's charges were so conclusive that they were subsequently reprinted along with these charges in the single volume popular edition of the book.
The success of this refutation did not tend to make Macaulay think better of Croker, and he lost no opportunity of denouncing his literary incapacity. ‘He was,’ he says, ‘the most inaccurate writer that ever lived,’ ‘he was a man of very slender faculties,’ ‘he had nothing but italics and capitals as substitutes for eloquence and reason,’ ‘his morals, too, were as bad as his style,’ ‘he is a bad, a very bad man; a scandal to literature and to politics.’ Such phrases in the mouth of a man so eminent as Macaulay have naturally created prejudice against Croker in the minds of those who have neither cared nor been able to test their accuracy. But in truth they were little more than the ebullitions of a man who, by his own confession, was given to ‘saying a thousand wild and inaccurate things, and employing exaggerated expressions about persons and events,’ and who, moreover, according to his sister Margaret, ‘was very sensitive, and remembered long as well as felt deeply anything in the form of slight.’
Croker had during this session shown himself to be of so much importance to his party in parliament, that during the unsuccessful attempt to form a tory ministry in May 1832 Lord Lyndhurst represented to the Duke of Wellington, that it was absolutely necessary he should come into the cabinet. But Croker valued his own character for consistency too highly to enter a government which could not have existed for a week, except upon a promise of such a measure of reform as he could not in his conscience approve. Before this Croker had determined to retire altogether from public life, as, ‘besides all other reasons, he felt his health could not stand the worry of business.’ This resolution he carried out upon the passing of the Reform Bill. Several seats were placed at his disposal, and the Duke of Wellington importuned him to re-enter parliament, but without success. ‘All my political friends,’ he writes (28 August 1832) to Lord Fitzgerald, ‘are very angry with me, the duke seriously so.’ The reason he gave might well account for their anger. It was that he could not ‘spontaneously take an active share in a system which must in my judgment subvert the church, the peerage, and the throne — in one word, the constitution of England.’ This was nothing less than to run away from the colours. But probably his real reason, though he did not like to make it public, was a consciousness of that growing weakness of the heart under which he ultimately succumbed, and which would have been fatal under the fatigue and excitement of parliamentary warfare. It was at the same time not so serious as to prevent his prosecuting his literary labours, and indeed from this time forward it was from his library that he fought the battle of his party.
He continued to maintain the most intimate relations with the Duke of Wellington and Sir R. Peel, doing his best to keep up the spirits of his party, but at the same time oppressed with the gloomiest anticipations. The Grey administration soon began to totter, and indeed was kept on its legs mainly by the assistance of the tory opposition. Strongly urged by Croker, Peel had made up his mind, if the occasion arose, to take office and try to rally into something of its old compactness the scattered forces of what Croker was the first to call ‘the conservatives.’ (Croker seems to have first employed the appellation in an article in the ‘Quarterly’ for January 1830, p. 276. In July 1832 Macaulay, in his article on Mirabeau for the ‘Edinburgh Review,’ p. 557, refers to the term ‘conservative’ as ‘the new cant word.’) When Lord Melbourne had to resign (July 1834), Peel hurried back from Italy to take the reins of government. His first letter on reaching England was to Croker asking him to call, and saying: ‘It will be a relief to me from the harassing cares that await me.’ Croker was ill, but he wrote at once in reply. He was not by any means sanguine that Peel could succeed in forming a ministry that would stand. His advice was: ‘Get, if you can, new men, young blood— the ablest, the fittest — and throw aside boldly the claims of all the “mediocrities” with which we were overladen in the last race. I don't promise that even that will insure success; but it is your best chance.’
Would Croker himself take office? was Peel's first question when they met. Nothing, was his answer, would induce him again to enter the House of Commons. But he did what he could for his friend by a strong article in the Quarterly Review in which he defended the policy set forth by Peel in what is known as the ‘Tamworth Manifesto.’ He stood by Peel throughout the gallant struggle maintained by him during his short-lived administration, constant communication upon political affairs being maintained between them of a most confidential kind. During this period Croker availed himself of this intimacy to urge the claims of literature and science upon the prime minister's consideration. Through his intervention a grant of £200 a year was made to Mrs. Somerville, he procured help for Dr. Maginn, ‘though I believe,’ as he wrote to Peel, ‘he has libelled you and me,’ and he also pressed for some relief to Moore, who was then in great financial straits. To Lord Lyndhurst, then chancellor for the second time, he appealed to give a living to another struggling literary man, the Rev. George Croly. In the incidents of the administration it is clear from Croker's published correspondence that nothing gave greater pleasure to Peel to write and Croker to learn than that the chancellor had given a living to Crabbe, one of Croker's favourite poets, and that liberal pensions had been awarded to Professor Airy, Sharon Turner, Southey, and James Montgomery.
When the Peel administration came to an end in 1835, this caused no cessation in the intimate friendly correspondence on all topics, literary and artistic, as well as political, between himself and Croker. When he resumed the reins of office in the autumn of 1841, Croker supported his friend's measures in the Quarterly Review with the same confidence that he had all along shown in Peel's powers as the only man who could be relied on to maintain sound constitutional principles. By this time the faith of not a few of Peel's followers had begun to be shaken; and it is apparent from his published correspondence with Croker, that so great a change had begun to take place, that it is surprising Croker himself had not caught the alarm. The attacks of Disraeli and his friends on the Peel policy found no sympathy from Croker, who in one of his political articles spoke of the ‘extreme inconsistency and impolicy of endeavouring to create distrust of the only statesman in whom the great conservative body has any confidence, and can have any hope.’ It was therefore a terrible shock to Croker's lifelong belief in Peel when he announced his adherence to the policy of Cobden on resuming office in 1845, after Lord John Russell's failure to form a government.
roker felt this the more bitterly that he had been used by Peel and Sir James Graham to express views antagonistic to the abolition of the corn laws in an article in the Quarterly Review in December 1842, which Peel in returning the proofs had pronounced to be excellent. In a correspondence which passed between Croker and the Duke of Wellington at the time Croker tells the duke that his articles ‘on the corn laws and on the league were written under Peel's eye,’ and under the direct inspiration of Peel and Graham. When the duke urged that a refusal by Peel to abolish the corn laws would have placed the government ‘in the hands of the league and the radicals,’ Croker replied that this was just what Peel's action would do. But what he chiefly regretted was that Peel, by deserting the specific principle upon which he was brought into office, had ‘ruined the character of public men, and dissolved by dividing the great landed interest’ (Letter to Sir H. Hardinge, 24 April 1846). His letters show what pain it cost him to separate from the friend of a lifetime. He would fain have abstained from giving public expression to his opinions. But when appealed to by the proprietor and editor of the Quarterly Review ‘as a man of honour to maintain the principle to which he had, in December 1842, pledged’ that journal, he felt he could not refuse.In the articles which he then wrote there is nothing, according to Mr. Jennings, the editor of the ‘Croker Papers,’ ‘which was aimed at the man as distinguished from the statesman.’ They were not so regarded by Peel. In the letters which passed between them Croker writes with manly pathos. He subscribed his last letter to Peel ‘very sincerely and affectionately yours, Up to the Altar.’ Peel opens his reply with a cold ‘Sir,’ and ends ‘I have the honour to be, Sir, your obedient servant.’ They never met again.
Very different was the case with the Duke of Wellington. No cloud passed over his friendship towards Croker, which remained unbroken to the last. In 1847 Lord George Bentinck appears among Croker's correspondents, and in March 1848 Croker asks him as to Disraeli's manner of speaking and effectiveness in debate. Four years previously Disraeli was supposed to have drawn the character of Rigby, in the novel of Coningsby, after Croker. The character is one of the most hateful and contemptible in modern fiction; and knowing the relation in which Croker stood to the Marquis of Hertford as the commissioner and manager of his estates and intimate personal friend, Disraeli abused the license of the novelist in drawing his Rigby in a way that could scarcely fail to raise the surmise, that in the agent and panderer to the vices of Lord Monmouth he had Croker in view. Of Croker personally he knew almost nothing, having met him only thrice. The correspondence between Croker and the Marquis of Hertford published by Mr. Jennings shows the grievous injustice done by Disraeli if he had Croker in view. In that correspondence no trace of that contemptible personage is to be found. Lord Hertford found in Croker not only a lively correspondent, but an invaluable guide in the management of his vast property, which seems to have been wholly under Croker's direction. For this service he refused to be paid; and so well understood was his position that, when Lord Hertford died, Peel, who as well as the Duke of Wellington had been one of his lordship's intimate friends, wrote to Croker (3 March 1842): ‘My chief interest in respect to Lord Hertford's will was the hope that out of his enormous wealth he would mark his sense of your unvarying and real friendship for him.’ Lord Hertford had always said that he would leave Croker £80,000. The sum he actually received was £20,000, an informality in a codicil having deprived him of a much larger sum. It now appears that Croker never had the curiosity even to look into Coningsby, and that it was only after he had published a ‘Review of Mr. Disraeli's Budget Speech of 1853’ that his attention was called to the book by hearing that the review was regarded as retaliation for what Disraeli had said of him in his Vivian Grey and Coningsby.
It was Croker's rule through life to take no notice of libellous attacks; and to take public notice of any of the characters in ‘Coningsby’ would have shown an utter want of tact. But he would have been more than human if, when the two first volumes of Macaulay's History appeared, he had refrained from showing that the man who had assailed him for ‘gross and scandalous inaccuracy’ was not himself free from reproach. This he did in an elaborate article in the Quarterly Review (March 1849). It is written with admirable temper, and, while giving to the work full credit for the brilliant and fascinating qualities, it points out upon incontrovertible evidence its grave faults of inaccurate and overcharged statement. Not till this has been done does it conclude with the opinion, in which Croker was not singular even then, that, however charming as an historical romance, Macaulay's work ‘will never be quoted as authority on any question or point in the history of England.’ It is a striking corroboration of this view that Sir James Stephen, after undertaking to review the book in the Edinburgh Review, abandoned his intention, ‘because it was, in truth, not what it professed to be —a history — but an historical novel.’ Macaulay himself said of Croker's article that it was ‘written with so much rancour as to make everybody sick.’ It is impossible, in justice to Croker, not to advert to the attacks upon him, not only by Macaulay, but also by his biographer, and to indicate that there is another side to the question than that which they have been at great pains to present. Croker continued to enjoy the friendship and the confidence of many of the best and ablest men of his time.
The infirmities of age, and a feeling that ‘he was out of date, at least out of season,’ made him withdraw in 1854 from his active connection with the Quarterly Review. Literature, however, continued to be to the last his chief occupation and enjoyment. He had long meditated an edition of Pope, and his later years were spent in accumulating materials for this, which he was himself unable to use, but which have been turned to account by Mr. Whitwell Elwin and Mr. Courthope. These years were full of suffering, but Croker found solace in the work, which had become a necessity of his life. ‘Though death,’ says his biographer, Mr. Jennings, ‘was constantly within sight, he did not fear it, or allow it in any way to interfere with the performance of the daily duties which he prescribed for himself.’ The first serious symptoms of his malady —disease of the heart — appeared in 1850, and he was liable to fainting fits, sometimes as many as twelve or fourteen in a day. His pulse was seldom above thirty, and often fell to twenty-three, and acute neuralgia frequently aggravated his sufferings. ‘His patience,’ says Lady Barrow, the amanuensis of his later years, who was with him to his death, ‘never failed.’ His love for his family and his friends was something wonderful. His general health was good, and his brain as active and acute as ever. Thus, till the last day of his life (10 August 1857), he kept up his wide correspondence, and he even worked all that day at his notes on Pope. As he was being put into bed by his servant he fell back dead, exclaiming ‘O Wade!’ passing away, says his biographer, ‘in the manner which he had always desired — surrounded by those whom he loved the best, and yet spared the pain of protracted parting and farewells. In this hope he died as he had lived.’
Ample materials for forming an estimate of Croker are to be found in the three volumes of his ‘Memoirs, Diaries, and Correspondence,’ edited by Louis J. Jennings, published in 1884. He was manifestly a man of strict honour, of high principle, of upright life, of great courage, of untiring industry, devoted with singleness of heart to the interests of his country, a loyal friend, and in his domestic relations unexceptionable. Living in the days when party rancour raged, prominent as a speaker in parliament, and wielding a trenchant and too often personally aggressive pen in the leading organ of the tory party, he came in for a very large share of the misrepresentation which always pursues political partisans. His literary tastes were far from catholic in their range, and he made himself obnoxious to the newer school by the dogmatic and narrow spirit and the sarcastic bitterness which are apt to be the sins that more easily beset the self-constituted and anonymous critics of a leading review. Thus to political adversaries he added many an enemy in the field of literature. As he never replied to any attack, however libellous, it became the practice among a certain class of writers to accuse him of heartlessness and malignity. Only once did he reply to such accusations, and then he showed how much his enemies probably owed to his forbearance. His assailant in this case was Lord John Russell, who, stung by a severe censure, in a review by Croker of Lord John's edition of Moore's ‘Diaries,’ of the disregard of private feeling and good taste shown in the editing of the book, attacked Croker in a note to one of the volumes, impugning his moral character and personal honour, and charging him with using the fact that Moore had been a former friend and was now dead, ‘to give additional zest to the pleasure of a safe malignity.’ A correspondence in the Times ensued, in which Croker completely turned the tables upon his assailant.
That Croker had serious faults of temper and manner cannot, however, be denied. ‘To strangers, or towards persons whom he disliked,’ says Mr. Jennings, ‘his manner was often overbearing and harsh.’ He was, especially in his latter days, impatient of contradiction, and somewhat given to self-assertion. But no man was more thoroughly trusted by his friends or loved them more truly. Those who knew him best ‘never wavered in their attachment to him,’ says Mr. Jennings. ‘Every one who had more than a superficial acquaintance with him was well aware that he had done a thousand kindly acts, some of them to persons who little deserved them at his hands, and that, as was said of Dr. Johnson, there was nothing of the bear about him but the skin.’ In person Croker was rather under the middle size, slender, and well knit. His head, of the same type as that of Canning and Sir Thomas Lawrence, was handsome, and spoke of a quick, acute, and active intellect.
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