The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 8. Chesterfield: His personality and public services; His wit
Philip, fourth earl of Chesterfield, was one of the foremost English statesmen of his age; but he was so unlike an ordinary Englishman that his character has been much misunderstood by his countrymen. He thoroughly appreciated the French, and was appreciated by them in return. Sainte-Beuve considers him to have united the good qualities of the two nations, and he describes the Letters to his Son as a rich book, which, in spite of some objectionable passages, contains not a page without some happy observation worthy of being kept in remembrance. In any case, Chesterfield must be considered a unique personality. He was particularly unfortunate in his relations with Johnson, who was certainly not fair to him; and the cruel caricature in Barnaby Rudge of him as Sir John Chester, described “an elegant and polite, but heartless and unprincipled gentleman,” must have seriously injured his fame among many of those unacquainted with history. He was not unprincipled or heartless, and selfishness was by no means a marked feature of his character. His shining mental qualities were universally acknowledged, and he was accepted as a shrewd man of the world, with engaging manners; but we can learn something more than this about him from his letters.
Of Chesterfield’s abilities as a statesman, his country did not obtain the full benefit, largely in consequence of court intrigues; for, though the ablest statesman of his time, after Walpole (if Pitt be left out), he was persistently set aside. His time came when he was appointed lord lieutenant of Ireland in 1745. He held office for less than a year, but proved his power of governing in a dangerous time, by the measures which he took to prevent disturbances. He gained the gratitude of the people, and the memory of his rule during a critical period remained fresh for more than a century. He retained his interest in Ireland, and always considered the Irish as his countrymen, because he had ruled over them. He withdrew from public life, partly on account of ill health; and, in 1752, his deafness had become very serious. In 1757, he emerged from his retirement in order to effect a reconciliation between the duke of Newcastle and Pitt.
Chesterfield has the reputation of eloquence; but his was not unstudied. Horace Walpole denied that Chesterfield was an orator, because his speeches were written; yet, in a letter to Mann (15 December, 1743), he declared that “the finest oration [he] ever did hear” was one from Chesterfield—and this was delivered against Sir Robert Walpole. Chesterfield’s wit, like his speeches, was, to a certain extent, prepared; but it was the kind of wit which is the most agreeable form of wisdom.