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THE NOTE-BOOK OF AN IRISH BARRISTER.'-No. VI.
SIR WILLIAM C. SMITH, LATE BARON OF THE EXCHEQUER.
HITHERTO We have been conversant with the living-let us now turn to the dead-from the present ornaments of the Irish bar to one who was its lustre while he lived. The virtues of the dead should not be forgotten in the excellencies of the living: to remember them is not less charitable than just to neglect them would be to act the part of the unworthy parasite, who shared in the hospitality of a generous , patron, and whose gratitude terminated with the viands. Baron Smith was one who shed the blaze of a brilliant reputation, as a lawyer, an orator, and writer, over that profession to which he was so singularly attached, and by which he was admired and venerated. He was kind and benevolent to all and each of its members, and they reciprocated his kindness and benevolence in affectionate respect. If he was occasionally snappish to his brethren of the ermine, to them alone his passing intemperance was limited-it rarely passed over to the bar, and when it did, it fell on the powerful-the weak were never subjected to his acerbity. He doubtless had his errors, but they were few-of a far less aggravated character than fall to the lot of general humanity; and less numerous than men usually display who look down from the heights of exalted office, and particularly that class which has been brought up under the vitiating influence of aristocratic tastes. The man on whom, in a worldly sense, fortune had never frowned, and who, having been raised to power at an immature period of life, when observation and experience supply none of those correcting media which mitigate the natural propensity of man to the rankness of official insolence, elevates his mind to the high tone of truth and liberty, is a rare phenomenon. Even the errors of a man of genius, paradoxical as it may appear, are worthy of respect, and few will deny that he was one. We shall notice them with tender truth. To speak ungenerously of a generous nature, when the object is not present to sustain his fame or defend his character from the assaults of harshness, would be unmanly. In that one-sided warfare we shall not indulge. If some unaccountable motives, which we cannot reach, warped his closing days from the noble cause of liberality which he had so long pursued-if he flinched from the advocacy of those high doctrines of freedom and right which he steadily maintained through the dark profligacy of the past, biography would fail miserably in its duty to the dead were it to contemplate alone the few spots of shade 1 Continued from vol. xxi. p. 239. May, 1838.-VOL. XXII.—NO. LXXXV.
without taking in the remainder of the luminous disk. If political exasperation cankered his fine understanding, and with the progress of old age came the progress of illiberal opinions, let it also be remembered, that when his intellect was in the full flush of its strength -when his support was a tower to the principles of truth and civil freedom, he was found firm to their cause; and if for a few years— years of natural mental weakness, he lapsed from his old political virtues, there is a powerful counterpoise in the long life during which he cherished them, and never abated the proud tone of enthusiasm with which he cheerfully hailed every advance of popular freedom. With one party his name deserves to be held in fragrant remembrance. From the very outset of his career he strenuously advocated in the Irish parliament the cause of the persecuted Catholic against a host of domestic bigots and oppressors; his struggles against the insensate prejudices of a strong faction were as unceasing as they were generous. In that worthy fervour he never relaxed, and though, like his friend Burke, whose general notions of liberty were poisoned by the bloody phantasmagoria of the French Revolution, in his closing days Baron Smith's also were similarly troubled by the hideous vision of Reform: he beheld in the modern English Revolution what the diseased eye of Burke saw in the other-a ferocious appetite for constitutional ruin-the immediate levelling of all ancient and timehonoured landmarks-in every parliamentary movement since 1831 the subversion of social order-and in every unsuspecting Radical he recognised a sanguinary butcher, who, like Carnot, was taking the measure of the harmless baron, and only waited the moment of universal massacre to glut his revolutionary appetite on his gray hairs ;-though, like Burke, he only saw shapes of blood, where he saw before shapes of moral health and beauty,-like him, too, he continued well affected to Catholic progression to the end. Public favour is variable, even to a proverb; like a petted child, what it adopts one moment it rejects at another-it requires a perpetual feast of comfits to keep it in sweet temper. With the baron's trifling peccadilloes it became terribly incensed, and threw him aside as a worn-out toy that had served its purpose. He lost much, indeed all that vehement enthusiasm which burned around him for more than half a century-political animosity, sublimed to the highest perfection of bitterness, made him the butt of clumsy and unmanly ridicule. This was the least offensive of its weapons in attacking an old champion; but there was a stability in his character and genius destined to outlive the scoffs and sneers of ignorance and ingratitude. Men, before profuse in their praises, even to adulation, did not hesitate to ascribe to an absence of integrity what charity would construe into the weakness of old age. We do not deny that he sinned, but his sins were not sins against light; they were not the errors of obstinate bigotry, but rather the mild faults of a tottering understanding, plastic in its weakness and capable of false impressions, which its strength would have contemptuously rejected. He should have found in the recollections of the past a protecting shield: one of a muster of great minds, whose names should have for Irishmen a magic and fascination—each a link in a long chain of national renown-who, having come from the past into the present,
like the melodies of our country heard in a foreign land, bring with them in their train a long pomp of noble though melancholy recollections-consolation to the old, and animating energies to the youngmen who stand, like the ancient Phari, living monuments of bygone grandeur, and who carry with them to the grave our honour and our history.
Irish feelings, so peculiarly alive to all the associations of our national era, ought to have hurried to his relief, and spared a repetition of Athenian unkindness: it did come, but it was only to augment his sorrows; and though there was no laughter over his grave, there was little regret. It would be an invidious task-one, at least, which the writer of this memoir cannot persuade himself to undertake—to lavish on such a man epithets of dishonour. The old maxim is not less beautiful than humane-" Nil de mortuis nisi bonum”—one of those pure sentiments which flows from the well-spring of true charity, and alleviates the severe charge of partiality by the divine and tender regard it expresses for the character of the departed. Our interpretation shall not be of that very negative description which an old friend of ours once gave, in canvassing the merits of a deceased barrister. "Have you heard," said C—, with a repulsive grin expressing anything but condolence," of the death of our poor friend K?"
"Yes," I replied, with some feelings of regret.
"Well," said he, "poor fellow!--Nil de mortuis nisi bonum; but,” -whispering at the same moment into my ear-" between ourselves, he was the d scoundrel I ever knew in my life he cheated me at a rubber of whist."
Such was his interpretation of that fine moral line-a mode of translation which he takes every reasonable opportunity to indulge in, but in which I shall be very slow to follow his footsteps. Yet, at the same time, while I redeem the truth of the injunction by treading gently on the ashes of Baron Smith, and perhaps scattering an odd flower on his grave, his public career will be detailed with as much fidelity as this short memoir will permit: where he deserves praise, gladly shall it be dealt him; and where he merits censure, it will be in the power of the reader to deal or withhold it as he pleases. The groundwork shall be laid to enable him to form a correct estimate of his virtues and faults.
In person he was one of those men whose physical formation affords a very imperfect index of the mind within. Shakspeare, and before him. Euripides, both very good judges of character, asserted that no human art exists to discover the nature of the mind in the construction of the countenance; but that was before Lavater built up his facial system, or Dr. Spurzheim broached his craniological philosophy. In the application of these contradictory doctrines to our present subject, we are decided partisans of the ancients, of course including Shakspeare. Nothing in the arid and shrivelled countenance of Baron Smith, or in his entire figure, could ever lead you to the belief that so brilliant and energetic an intellect found a dwelling in so miserable a tenement. I speak of his latter years: what he may have been in his youth I cannot tell, although, from a good-natured allusion in one of Burke's
letters, expressing pleasurable surprise at the disparity between the external and internal constitution of his young friend William Smith, there is good reason to infer that the same striking disproportion existed as in his old age. No person who saw him on the bench, between the Chief Baron-not a very muscular man-and Baron Pennefather, with his very little figure swathed in silk, and his head nestled in his ermine collar, like a small cauliflower in a profusion of green leaves, to use an horticultural illustration of Geoffrey Crayon could imagine that there was so much animation in the one, or brains in the other. But the moment he spoke, the conjecture was dissipated-there was an end to the visionary philosophy of Lavater, who, no doubt, could see in that face and figure only imbecility and inanition.* The largeness of his conceptions annihilated the theory of bumps-it confounded the skull-science of all Paris. None could look on him without wonder that he could possess so gifted an intellect: the same surprise affected persons who heard Curran revel in the outpourings of his own wild and luxuriant eloquence; but Curran had the eye of an eagle, deep and burning, which reflected from his soul all the rays of genius and eloquence; the observer was fascinated by its lustre-in its glowing power the meagreness of his person was forgotten. On the bench Baron Smith was vigorous and animated; the acuteness of his remarks was oftentimes astonishing in matters which afforded very little scope for nice observation: some lively sally in the middle of a ponderous argument, always interwoven with the subject, roused the court into a momentary fit of good humour, even to the relaxation of the frigid muscles of some of his more solemn brethren, who considered a judicial smile to be little less than lèse majesté to the gravity of the ermine. Baron Pennefather dangled his eye-glass most turbulently, and was often compelled to have recourse to the suppressing powers of his pocket-kerchief. He had an extraordinary facility of expression,-clear, terse, and pointed as an arrow; an elegant vehicle for his thoughts, as graceful as it was appropriate, always stimulating attention, and never fatiguing it. I remember, on the celebrated argument on the writ of rebellion, in which he took a very forward part, the agreeable effect produced throughout the discussion by his quickness and versatility. When the solicitor-general laid down a series of strong philosophic principles, the baron invariably came to the rescue of the writ with a counter series of imaginary positions, and defended the cherished offspring of the Exchequer with incomparable skill and shrewdness. In pronouncing judgment, he flung about a profusion of wit, and the happy
*The following humorous anecdote, told by the baron himself, will fully illustrate the truth of what has been asserted about his personal appearance. Happening on circuit to dine with the bishop of the diocese in which we were, a considerable intimacy arose between a fine little granddaughter of his lordship, who made her appearance after the dessert, and me. She sat beside me, asked a number of questions, told me a variety of childish anecdotes, and at length, during a pause which had taken place in our very animated conversation, after gazing alternately at her grandmamma and me, she turned to her mother, and rather suddenly exclaimed'Mamma, I don't think B—— S― is a very old woman.' She had interpreted too literally what she heard of judges, but, unlike my reviewers, seemed to think the better of me for not being far gone into anility, which she ascribed to the members of my order. The child was right-at five-and-thirty even a judge is not a very old woman!"