S. Austin Allibone, comp. Prose Quotations from Socrates to Macaulay. 1880.


The English delight in silence more than any other European nation, if the remarks which are made on us by foreigners are true. Our discourse is not kept up in conversation, but falls into more pauses and intervals than in our neighbouring countries; as it is observed, that the matter of our writings is thrown much closer together, and lies in a narrower compass, than is usual in the works of foreign authors; for, to favour our natural taciturnity, when we are obliged to utter our thoughts, we do it in the shortest way we are able, and give as quick a birth to our conceptions as possible.

This humour shows itself in several remarks that we may make upon the English language. As, first of all, by its abounding in monosyllables, which gives us an opportunity of delivering out thoughts in few sounds.

Joseph Addison: Spectator, No. 135.

We have in England a particular bashfulness in everything that regards religion. A well-bred man is obliged to conceal any serious sentiment of this nature, and very often to appear a greater libertine than he is, that he may keep himself in countenance among the men of mode.

Joseph Addison: Spectator, No. 458.

In our present miserable and divided condition, how just soever a man’s pretensions may be to a great or blameless reputation, he must, with regard to his posthumous character, content himself with such a consideration as induced the famous Sir Francis Bacon, after having bequeathed his soul to God, and his body to the earth, to leave his fame to foreign nations.

Joseph Addison.

They have grudged those contributions which have set our country at the head of all the governments of Europe.

Joseph Addison.

The man within whose reach Heaven has placed the greatest materials for making life happy is an English country gentleman.

Emperor Alexander.

There is no earthly thing more mean and despicable, in my mind, than an English gentleman destitute of all sense of his responsibilities and opportunities, and only revelling in the luxuries of our high civilization, and thinking himself a great person.

Dr. Thomas Arnold.

This kingdom hath been famous for good literature; and if preferment attend deservers, there will not want supplies.

Let the vanity of the times be restrained, which the neighbourhood of other nations has induced, and we strive apace to exceed our pattern.

Those who talk of liberty in Britain on any other principles than those of the British constitution talk impertinently at best, and much charity is requisite to believe no worse of them.

Lord Bolingbroke.

Resolve, my lord, our history from the Conquest. We scarcely ever had a Parliament which knew, when it attempted to set limits to the royal authority, how to set limits to its own. Evils we have had continually calling for reformation, and reformations more grievous than any evils. Our boasted liberty sometimes trodden down, sometimes giddily set up, and ever precariously fluctuating and unsettled; it has only been kept alive by the blasts of continual feuds, wars, and conspiracies. In no country in Europe has the scaffold so often blushed with the blood of its nobility. Confiscations, banishments, attainders, executions, make a large part of the history of such of our families as are not utterly extinguished by them.

Edmund Burke: Vindic. of Nat. Society, 1756.

The power of the crown, almost dead and rotten as Prerogative, has grown up anew, with much more strength, and far less odium, under the name of Influence. An influence which operated without noise and without violence; an influence which converted the very antagonist into the instrument of power; which contained in itself a perpetual principle of growth and renovation; and which the distresses and the prosperity of the country equally tended to augment, was an admirable substitute for a prerogative that, being only the offspring of antiquated prejudices, had moulded in its original stamina irresistible principles of decay and dissolution. The ignorance of the people is a bottom but for a temporary system; the interest of active men in the state is a foundation perpetual and infallible.

Edmund Burke: Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents, 1770.

Who can avoid being touched with the most poignant emotion when he compares the state of things at this the opening of his Majesty’s third parliament with their condition at the opening of his first? Sir, the House has many young members who are saved the feeling of this painful contrast; but the aged Israelites weep at the view of the second temple! Oh! what a falling off is there! Oh! how soon this sun of our meridian glory is setting in clouds, in tempests, and storms—in darkness and the shadow of death!

At that happy meridian, Sir, we triumphantly withstood the combination of all Europe. Every part of the globe bowed under the force of our victorious arms; and, what was a combination new under the sun, we had all the trophies of war combined with all the advantages of peace. The rugged field of glory was buried under the exuberance of luxuriant harvest. The peaceful olive was engrafted on the laurel; arms and arts embraced each other. The messengers of victory, sent from every quarter of the globe, met the convoys of commerce that issued from every port, and announced one triumph while they prepared another. In the season of piracy and rapine the ocean was as safe to navigation as the tranquil bosom of the Thames. All this was done by the concord, by the consent, and harmonious motion, of all the parts of the empire; and this harmony, consent, and concord arose from the principle of liberty, that fed, that animated, and bound together, the whole.

But now, while those enemies look on and rejoice, we are tearing to pieces this beautiful structure! The demon of discord walks abroad; a spirit of blindness and delusion prevails; we are preparing to mangle our own flesh in order to cut to pieces the bonds of our union, and we begin with the destruction of our commerce as a preliminary to civil slaughter,—and thus opens this third Parliament.

Edmund Burke: Notes for Speech on Amendment of the Address, Nov. 30, 1774.

But although there are some amongst us who think our Constitution wants many improvements to make it a complete system of liberty, perhaps none who are of that opinion would think it right to aim at such improvement by disturbing his country and risking everything that is dear to him. In every arduous enterprise, we consider what we are to lose, as well as what we are to gain; and the more and better stake of liberty every people possess, the less they will hazard in a vain attempt to make it more. These are the cords of man. Man acts from adequate motives relative to his interest, and not on metaphysical speculations. Aristotle, the great master of reasoning, cautions us, and with great weight and propriety, against this species of delusive geometrical accuracy in moral arguments, as the most fallacious of all sophistry.

Edmund Burke: Speech on Conciliation with America, March 22, 1775.

Magnanimity in politics is not seldom the truest wisdom; and a great empire and little minds go ill together. If we are conscious of our situation, and glow with zeal to fill our place as becomes our station and ourselves, we ought to auspicate all our public proceedings on America with the old warning of the Church, Sursum corda! We ought to elevate our minds to the greatness of that trust to which the order of Providence has called us. By adverting to the dignity of this high calling, our ancestors have turned a savage wilderness into a glorious empire, and have made the most extensive and the only honourable conquests, not by destroying but by promoting the wealth, the number, the happiness of the human race. Let us get an American revenue as we have got an American empire. English privileges have made it all that it is; English privileges alone will make it all it can be.

Edmund Burke: Speech on Conciliation with America, March 22, 1775.

Parliament, from a mere representative of the people, and a guardian of popular privileges for its own immediate constituents, grew into a mighty sovereign. Instead of being a control on the crown on its own behalf, it communicated a sort of strength to the royal authority, which was wanted for the conservation of a new object, but which could not be safely trusted to the crown alone.

Edmund Burke: Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol, April 3, 1777.

In that Constitution I know, and exultingly I feel, both that I am free, and that I am not free dangerously to myself or to others. I know that no power on earth, acting as I ought to do, can touch my life, my liberty, or my property. I have that inward and dignified consciousness of my own security and independence which constitutes, and is the only thing which does constitute, the proud and comfortable sentiment of freedom in the human breast.

Edmund Burke: Speech on Reform of Representation of the Commons in Parliament, May 7, 1782.

It suggests melancholy reflections, in consequence of the strange course we have long held, that we are now no longer quarrelling about the character, or about the conduct, of men, or the tenour of measures, but we are grown out of humour with the English Constitution itself; this is become the object of the animosity of Englishmen. This constitution in former days used to be the admiration and the envy of the world: it was the pattern for politicians, the theme of the eloquent, the meditation of the philosopher, in every part of the world. As to Englishmen, it was their pride, their consolation. By it they lived, for it they were ready to die. Its defects, if it had any, were partly covered by partiality, and partly borne by prudence. Now all its excellencies are forgot, its faults are now forcibly dragged into day, exaggerated by every artifice of representation. It is despised and rejected of men, and every device and invention of ingenuity or idleness is set up in opposition or in preference to it.

Edmund Burke: Speech on Reform of Representation of the Commons in Parliament, May 7, 1782.

Formerly the people of England were censured, and perhaps properly, with being a sullen, unsocial, cold, unpleasant race of men, and as inconstant as the climate in which they are born. These are the vices which the enemies of the kingdom charged them with: and people are seldom charged with vices of which they do not in some measure partake. But nobody refused them the character of being an open-hearted, candid, liberal, plain, sincere people,—qualities which would cancel a thousand faults, if they had them.

Edmund Burke: Impeachment of W. Hastings, May 7, 1789.

The excellencies of the British Constitution had already exercised and exhausted the talents of the best thinkers and the most eloquent writers and speakers that the world ever saw.

Edmund Burke: Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, 1791.

You have gone through all the standing power and greatness of the world; you are now amidst the ruins of what is fallen. Power of every name and kind. Power of force, and power of opinion. Italy is deprived of these; but her grand and fertile nature and her fine position remain. The monuments of art, and taste, and magnificence, which in her prosperity were her ornament, are still our lesson; and teach, and will teach us, as long as we have sense enough to learn from them, the spirit with which we ought, when we are able, to decorate a country now the most flourishing that exists. These will give her dignity and glory, when her opulence and her power are gone away, and will perpetuate to other ages and other nations the elegance and taste we have had from Italy. I am sure you must have been struck on viewing the splendid ruins, and half-ruins, of the imperial and pontifical Italy, with the littleness and meanness (though not wholly without taste and elegance and neatness) of everything in this country, although more opulent than any which ever was perhaps in the world. What is London? Clean, commodious, neat; but, a very few things indeed excepted, an endless addition of littleness to littleness, extending itself over a great tract of land. This will lead you to the general principles which divert wealth to objects of permanence and grandeur, and to those which confine it to personal convenience and partial luxury.

Edmund Burke: To the Rev. Robert Dodge, Feb. 29, 1792.

Oftentimes, in contemplating the history of this empire; the greatness of its power; the peculiarity of its condition; its vast extent,—one arm resting on the East, the other on the West; its fleets riding proudly on every sea; its name and majesty on every shore; the individual energy of its people; their noble institutions, and, above all, their reformed faith,—we are tempted to think that Heaven’s high Providence has yet in store for us some high and arduous calling.

Dr. Thomas Chalmers.

We are in general, in England, ignorant of foreign affairs, and of the interests, views, pretensions, and policy of other courts. That part of knowledge never enters into our thoughts, nor makes part of our education; for which reason we have fewer proper subjects for foreign commissions than any other country in Europe; and when foreign affairs happen to be debated in parliament, it is incredible with how much ignorance.

Lord Chesterfield: Letters to his Son, Feb. 9, 1748.

The English are to be distinguished from the Americans by greater independence of personal habits. Not only the institutions but the physical condition of our own country has a tendency to reduce us all to the same level of usages. The steamboats, the overgrown taverns, the speculative character of the enterprises, and the consequent disposition to do all things in common, aid the tendency of the system in bringing about such a result. In England a man dines by himself in a room filled with other hermits; he eats at his leisure; drinks his wine in silence; reads the paper by the hour; and in all things encourages his individuality and insists on his particular humours. The American is compelled to submit to a common rule: he eats when others eat; sleeps when others sleep; and he is lucky indeed if he can read a paper in a tavern without having a stranger looking over each shoulder.

J. Fenimore Cooper.

I know no reason we should give that advantage to the commonalty of England to be foremost in brave actions which the nobless of France would never suffer in their peasants.

In the social world an Englishman to-day has the best lot. He is a king in a plain coat. He goes with the most powerful protection, keeps the best company, is armed by the best education, is seconded by wealth; and his English name and accidents are like a flourish of trumpets announcing him. This, with his quiet style of manners, gives him the power of a sovereign without the inconveniences which belong to that rank. I much prefer the condition of an English gentleman of the better class to that of any potentate in Europe, whether for travel, or for opportunity of society, or for access to means of science or study, or for mere comfort and easy healthy relation to people at home.

They [the English] have no fancy, and never are surprised into a covert or witty word, such as pleased the Athenians and Italians and was convertible into a fable not long after; but they delight in strong earthy expressions, not mistakable, coarsely true to the human body, and though spoken among princes, equally fit and welcome to the mob. This homeliness, veracity, and plain style appear in the earliest extant works, and in the latest. It imparts into songs and ballads the smell of the earth, the breath of cattle, and, like a Dutch painter, seeks a household charm, though by pails and pans. They ask their constitutional utility in verse. The kail and herrings are never out of sight. The poet nimbly recovers himself from every sally of the imagination. The English muse loves the farm-yard, the lane, and market. She says, with De Staël, “I tramp in the mire with wooden shoes whenever they would force me into the clouds.” For the Englishman has accurate perceptions; takes hold of things by the right end, and there is no slipperiness in his grasp. He loves the axe, the spade, the oar, the gun, the steam-pipe; he has built the engine he uses. He is materialist, economical, mercantile. He must be treated with sincerity and reality,—with muffins, and not the promise of muffins; and prefers his hot chop with perfect security and convenience in the eating of it, to the chances of the amplest and Frenchiest bill of fare, engraved on embossed paper. When he is intellectual, and a poet, or a philosopher, he carries the same hard truth and the same keen machinery into the mental sphere. His mind must stand on a fact. He will not be baffled, or catch at clouds, but the mind must have a symbol palpable and resisting. What he relishes in Dante is the vice-like tenacity with which he holds a mental image before the eyes, as if it were a scutcheon painted on a shield. Byron liked “something craggy to break his mind upon.”

I stoutly maintained in a company, lately, that the English are the most barbarous people in the world. I cited a number of prominent facts; among others, that bull-baiting was lately defended and sanctioned in the grand talisman of the national humanity and virtue,—the Parliament.

John Foster: Journal.

Met a number of men one after another. My urbanity was not up to the point of saying “Good-morning,” till I had passed the last of them, who had nothing to attract civility more than the others, except his being the last. If a Frenchman and an Englishman were shown a dozen persons, and under the necessity of choosing one of them to talk an hour with, the Frenchman would choose the first in the row, and the Englishman the last.

John Foster: Journal.

He speaks to a people not easily impressed with new ideas, extremely tenacious of the old; with difficulty warmed, and as slowly cooling again. How unsuited then to our national character is that species of poetry which rises upon us with unexpected flights! where we must hastily catch the thought, or it flies from us! and, in short, where the Reader must largely partake of the Poet’s enthusiasm in order to taste of his beauties!

Oliver Goldsmith: Review of Odes by Mr. Gray: Lon. Mon. Rev., Sept. 1757.

I am not for whining at the depravity of the times, or for endeavouring to paint a prospect more gloomy than in nature; but certain it is, no person who has travelled will contradict me when I aver that the lower orders of mankind in other countries testify, on every occasion, the profoundest awe of religion; while in England they are scarcely awakened into a sense of its duties, even in circumstances of the greatest distress.

This dissolute and fearless conduct foreigners are apt to attribute to climate and constitution: may not the vulgar being pretty much neglected in our exhortations from the pulpit be a conspiring cause? Our divines seldom stoop to their mean capacities; and they who want instruction most, find least in our religious assemblies.

Oliver Goldsmith: Essays, No. XVII.

Whatever may be the merits of the English in other sciences, they seem particularly excellent in the art of healing. There is scarcely a disorder incident to humanity against which our advertising doctors are not possessed with a most infallible antidote. The professors of other arts confess the inevitable intricacy of things; talk with doubt, and decide with hesitation: but doubting is entirely unknown in medicine: the advertising professors here delight in cases of difficulty.

Oliver Goldsmith: Essays, No. XX., and Citizen of the World, Letter XXIV.

The English seem as silent as the Japanese, yet vainer than the inhabitants of Siam. Upon my arrival I attributed that reserve to modesty, which I now find has its origin in pride. Condescend to address them first, and you are sure of their acquaintance; stoop to flattery, and you conciliate their friendship and esteem. They bear hunger, cold, fatigue, and all the miseries of life, without shrinking; danger only calls forth their fortitude; they even exult in calamity; but contempt is what they cannot bear. An Englishman fears contempt more than death: he often flies to death as a refuge from its pressure; and dies when he fancies the world has ceased to esteem him. Pride seems the source not only of their national vices, but of their national virtues also. An Englishman is taught to love his king as his friend, but to acknowledge no other master than the laws which himself has contributed to enact. He despises those nations who, that one may be free, are all content to be slaves; who first lift a tyrant into terror, and then shrink under his power as if delegated from heaven.

Oliver Goldsmith: Citizen of the World, Letter IV.

How then are the English more free (for more free they certainly are) than the people of any other country or under any other form of government whatever? Their freedom consists in their enjoying all the advantages of democracy with this superior prerogative borrowed from monarchy, that the severity of their laws may be relaxed without endangering the constitution.

In a monarchical state, in which the constitution is strongest, the laws may be relaxed without danger; for though the people should be unanimous in their breach of any one in particular, yet still there is an effective power superior to the people, capable of enforcing obedience, whenever it may be proper to inculcate the law either towards the support or welfare of the community.

But in all those governments where laws derive their sanction from the people alone, transgressions cannot be overlooked without bringing the constitution into danger.

Oliver Goldsmith: Citizen of the World, Letter L.

Why are we so fond of talking about ourselves as “eminently a practical people”? Are we eminently a practical people? In our national works, for example; our public buildings, our public places, our columns, the lines of our new streets, our monstrous statues; do we come so very practically out of all that? No, to be sure; but we have our railroads, results of private enterprise, and they are great works. Granted. Yet, is it very significant of an eminently practical people that we live under a system which wasted hundreds of thousands of pounds in law and corruption before an inch of those roads could be made? Is it a striking proof of an eminently practical people having invested their wealth in making them, that in point of money return, in point of public accommodation, in every particular of comfort, profit, and management, they are at a heavy discount when compared with the railways on the opposite side of a sea-channel five and twenty miles across, though those were made under all the disadvantages consequent upon unstable governments and shaken public confidence? Why do we brag so?

Household Words.

It is often remarked by our neighbours on the Continent, and it is seldom denied among ourselves, that we are a nation of grumblers. Grumbling letters to the editor, for example, and grumbling articles in support of those letters, form two of the characteristics which are peculiar to English newspapers. Grumbling speeches, again, in virtue of their steady burden of complaint, secure a favourable reception for those patriots at our public meetings who have no oratorical recommendations of any sort to give them a personal claim on the attention of an audience. And a grumbling conversation is well known to everybody as the safe neutral ground on which two Englishmen, strangers to each other, can generally contrive to meet with the completest sense of ease and comfort. Unquestionably we are a race of grumblers; and grumbling is one of the very few national defects which we happen to be clever enough to discover for ourselves.

Household Words.

I do not know a finer race of men than the English gentlemen. Instead of the softness and effeminacy which characterize the man of rank in most countries, they exhibit a union of elegance and strength, a robustness of frame and freshness of complexion, which I attribute to their living so much in the open air and pursuing so eagerly the invigorating recreation of the country.

England, after Germany, is in literature the only nation whose genius comes from the north without having passed through Greece or Rome. She has the superiority of originality. This originality has been a little discoloured by the Bible in Milton and by the Latinity of Horace in Pope, the English Horace. But her veritable giant, Shakspeare, was born, like Antæus, from himself and from the soil. He has impregnated the Anglo-Saxon literary genius with a northern sap, savage, potent, which it can never lose. The free institutions of this nation and her compulsorily naval situation have given to her incontestable genius the multiple character of her aptitudes. He has need to compensate the pettiness of her territory by an immense and strong personality. The citizen of Great Britain is a patriarch in his home, a poet in his forests, an orator in his public places, a merchant at his counter, a hero in his navy, a cosmopolite on the soil of his colonies, but a cosmopolite carrying with him to every continent his indelible individuality. In the ancient races there are none to resemble him. One cannot define him, in politics or in literature, but by his name—the Englishman is an Englishman.

Alphonse Lamartine.

They passed then from the high-road into a long succession of green pastures, through which a straight public path conducted them into one of those charming lanes never seen out of this bowery England,—a lane deep sunk amidst high banks, with overhanging oaks, and quivering ash, gnarled with elm, vivid holly, and shaggy branches, with wild convolvulus and creeping woodbine forcing sweet life through all. Sometimes the banks opened abruptly, leaving patches of greensward, and peeps through still sequestered gates, or over moss-grown pales, into the park or paddock of some rural thane; new villas or old manor-houses on lawny uplands, knitting, as it were, together England’s feudal memories with England’s free-born hopes,—the old land with its young people: for England is so old, and the English are so young!

Lord Edward Bulwer-Lytton.

Our constitution had begun to exist in times when statesmen were not much accustomed to frame exact definitions.

Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay.

We said that the history of England is the history of progress; and, when we take a comprehensive view of it, it is so. But when examined in small separate portions, it may with more propriety be called a history of actions and reactions. We have often thought that the motion of the public mind in our country resembles that of the sea when the tide is rising. Each successive wave rushes forward, breaks, and rolls back; but the great flood is steadily coming in. A person who looked on the waters only for a moment might fancy that they were retiring. A person who looked on them only for five minutes might fancy that they were rushing capriciously to and fro. But when he keeps his eye on them for a quarter of an hour, and sees one sea-mark disappear after another, it is impossible for him to doubt of the general direction in which the ocean is moved. Just such has been the course of events in England. In the history of the national mind, which is, in truth, the history of the nation, we must carefully distinguish between that recoil which regularly follows every advance and a great general ebb. If we take centuries, if, for example, we compare 1794 with 1660 or with 1685, we cannot doubt in which direction society is proceeding.

Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: Sir James Mackintosh’s Hist. of the Revolution, July, 1835.

So many choice qualities should meet in the English as might render them, in some measure, the muster of the perfections of other nations.

I do not doubt but England is at present as polite a nation as any in the world; but any man who thinks, can easily see that the affectation of being gay and in fashion has very near eaten up our good sense, and our religion. Is there anything so just as that mode and gallantry should be built upon exerting ourselves in what is proper and agreeable to the institutions of justice and piety among us? And yet is there anything more common than that we run in perfect contradiction to them? All which is supported by no other pretension than that it is done with what we call a good grace.

Sir Richard Steele: Spectator, No. 6.

They show that our forefathers had not learned our modern affectation of a liberalism so cosmopolitan as to shrink from celebrating in the loftiest strains the greatness, the glory, and the happiness of England.

Sir James Stephen.

It is allowed on all hands that the people of England are more corrupt in their morals than any other nation this day under the sun.

Jonathan Swift.