The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

II. Historians, Biographers and Political Orators

§ 73. Brougham

The other great orator of Canning’s later years, and beyond, was Henry lord Brougham, whose oratorical powers, exercised, in one way or another, during a period of some years, are, together with his other gifts, to be described only by the word prodigious. His resources were infinite, and the aptness of his use of them unrivalled; but his forte—we should rather say his fortissimo—must have lain in conversation, in which his exuberance of life and spirit were altogether incomparable. His speeches, on the other hand, as Greville, whose pages sparkle with Broughamiana, happily puts it, were too long by reason of the perpetual bubbling-up of new ideas. And there was (can it be denied?) something else which interfered with his full success as an orator, as, of course in a profounder sense, it did with the completeness of his political career. He was, in public life, trusted by neither friend nor foe; and, with all his brilliancy and all his force, he conveyed an undefinable impression that he had no strong opinions on any subject that he took up for attack or defence. Yet, when all deductions have been made, the power and the versatility of his oratory, due, in no small measure, to the care which he bestowed upon his efforts, remain one of the wonders in the history of genius. The scornful fire of his invective burnt itself into the hearts and souls of its victims, and he was not less himself in long and elaborate discourses, on subjects outside the ordinary range of political controversy. His eloquence associated itself with his labours as a law reformer, with his services to education and the advance of science and with a vast miscellaneous literary productivity; but its fame outstripped that of all his other achievements, and will make him remembered when much that he did and all that he wrote will have fallen into oblivion.

One of the few speakers, whether on legal or on other themes, whom Brougham was unable to crush was John Singleton Copley, lord Lyndhurst, who, according to Greville, was master of the one thing, which, in the end, the house of lords preferred to everything else, and which Brougham could never compass—conciseness. Lyndhurst, whose career and views present certain points of resemblance to those of his friend Disraeli, made his way to eminence by an unusual union of qualifications, which included an oratory of rare polish and point. It showed itself to particular advantage in those annual reviews which adorned the close, and pointed the failure, of many a parliamentary session, and which, though Melbourne called them Lyndhurst’s exercitationes, were certainly not academical in the sense of innocuousness. On the judicial bench, he had excelled in summing up; and a famous judgment of his, though afterwards reversed on an appeal which he resisted in a second address of extraordinary ability, is described, by one who was no kindly chronicler (lord Campbell), as “by all accounts the most wonderful ever heard in Westminster Hall.”

Among later luminaries of the bar and bench who played a prominent part in English political life, it is impossible to pass by Sir Richard Bethell, afterwards lord Westbury, who combined with extraordinary acumen and lucidity of statement a gift of sarcastic innuendo which voice and manner rendered absolutely intolerable. Sir Roundell Palmer, afterwards first earl of Selborne, a refined scholar and devout churchman, who, as an equity pleader, was inferior neither to Westbury nor to Hugh McCalmont, afterwards first earl, Cairns, became one of the greatest judicature reformers of the age. Like Selborne, Cairns, though of an austere nature, was a most effective speaker in parliament (as in his defence of Ellenborough) and might have led his party had he chosen. Sir Alexander, afterwards lord, Cockburn, in the greatest crisis of lord Palmerston’s career, proved his most valuable ally, and rendered other political services at the close of a brilliant legal career.