J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, September 05, 2017

“He was the delight and ornament of this House”

Yesterday I quoted Horace Walpole’s immediate response to the death of Charles Townshend in September 1767. Townshend had a big personality full of contradictions, and he seems to have both fascinated and exasperated his political peers—who expressed themselves so handsomely.

Walpole had more to say about Townshend later in his Memoirs of the Reign of King George III:
On the 4th of September, 1767, died Charles Townshend, of a neglected fever, in, I think, the forty-second year of his age. He met his approaching fate with a good humour that never forsook him, and with an equanimity that he had never shown on the most trifling occasions. Though cut off so immaturely, it is a question whether he had not lived long enough for his character. His genius could have received no accession of brightness; his faults only promised multiplication. He had almost every great talent, and every little quality. His vanity exceeded even his abilities, and his suspicions seemed to make him doubt whether he had any. With such a capacity he must have been the greatest man of this age, and perhaps inferior to no man in any age, had his faults been only in a moderate proportion—in short, if he had had but common truth, common sincerity, common honesty, common modesty, common steadiness, common courage, and common sense. . . .

Charles Townshend, who had studied nothing accurately or with attention, had parts that embraced all knowledge with such quickness, that he seemed to create knowledge instead of searching for it; and, ready as [Edmund] Burke’s wit was, it appeared artificial when set by that of Charles Townshend, which was so abundant, that in him it seemed a loss of time to think. He had but to speak, and all he said was new, natural, and yet uncommon. If Burke replied extempore, his very answers, that sprang from what had been said by others, were so painted and artfully arranged, that they wore the appearance of study and preparation: like beautiful translations, they seemed to want the soul of the original author. Townshend's speeches, like the Satires of Pope, had a thousand times more sense and meaning than the majestic blank verse of Pitt; and yet, the latter, like Milton, stalked with a conscious dignity of pre-eminence, and fascinated his audience with that respect which always attends the pompous but often shallow idea of the sublime.
Edmund Burke himself, in his 1774 speech on American taxation, recalled his political colleague and frequent adversary this way:
In truth, Sir, he was the delight and ornament of this House, and the charm of every private society which he honoured with his presence. Perhaps there never arose in this country, nor in any country, a man of a more pointed and finished wit, and (where his passions were not concerned) of a more refined, exquisite, and penetrating judgment. If he had not so great a stock, as some have had who flourished formerly, of knowledge long treasured up, he knew better by far than any man I was ever acquainted with how to bring together within a short time all that was necessary to establish, to illustrate, and to decorate that side of the question he supported. He stated his matter skilfully and powerfully. He particularly excelled in a most luminous explanation and display of his subject. His style of argument was neither trite nor vulgar, nor subtle and abstruse. He hit the House between wind and water; and, not being troubled with too anxious a zeal for any matter in question, he was never more tedious nor more earnest than the preconceived opinions and present temper of his hearers required, with whom he was always in perfect unison. He conformed exactly to the temper of the House; and he seemed to lead because he was always sure to follow it.
For Burke always knowing the pulse of Parliament was, to be sure, somewhat faint praise, but praise nonetheless.

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