Thomas Carlyle's "Hudson's Statue" is an extended vicious attack on the expansion of suffrage in England. Taking the voluntary donation of some twenty-five thousand pounds for the purpose of erecting a statue of George Hudson, a railway speculator (and ultimately, stock swindler), as a sign of the times, Carlyle warns that an expansion of suffrage will ultimately grant power to men like Hudson. "Hudson's Statue" is an explicitly political work, concerned as ii with the contemporary mores of British society. However, judged as a political work, it is puzzling. Carlyle vigorously argues against the alteration of England's political system, which would presumably mean that he favors the status quo. However, even a cursory examination reveals he is eminently dissatisfied with things as they are. What then is John Bull (here representing the great mass of the British populace) to do? On this matter of great practical import, Carlyle is perplexingly silent. Yet what the British populace does matters a great deal to Carlyle. He accords a great of significance to who they choose to esteem:
This also is certain, Nations that do their Hero-worship well are blessed and victorious; Nations that do it ill are accursed, and in all fibres of their business grow daily more so, till their miserable afflictive and offensive situation becomes a last unendurable to Heaven and to Earth, and the so-called Nation, now an unhappy Populace of Misbelievers (miscreants was the old name) bursts into revolutionary tumult, and either reforms or else annihilates itself. How otherwise? Know whom to honour and emulate and follow, know whom to dishonour and avoid, and coerce under, hatches, as a foul rebellious thing: this is all the Law and all the Prophets. All conceivable evangels, bibles, homiletics, liturgies and litanies, and temporal and spiritual law-books for a man or a people, issue practically there. Be right in that, essentially you are not wrong in anything; you read this Universe tolerably aright, and are in the way to interpret well what the will of its Maker is. Be wrong in that, had you liturgies the recommendablest in Nature, and bodies of divinity as big as an Indiaman, it helps you not a whit; you are wrong in all things.
1. This quotation suggests that the choices of individual British citizens (at least, whom they choose to bestow their hero worship upon) have a crucial effect upon the health and well being of the British state. Is this not a form of universal suffrage?
2. Earlier, Carlyle compares the munificent sum gathered to erect a statue for Hudson, to the indifference and inaction that characterizes the British public's attitude towards memorializing Oliver Cromwell. Is Cromwell Carlyle's suggestion of a worthy hero for Britain? How would Carlyle square Cromwell's heroism with his habit of setting Irish churches afire and negligently omitting to alert the parishioners inside?
3. Continuing with Carlyle's definition of heroism, what are we to make of his extended comparison between "the Bishop of our Diocese" with "Bobus of Houndsditch of our parts," a sausage maker? The Bishop, in Carlyle's opinion, is not particularly useful, but is nonetheless harmless, and thus far more deserving of his five thousand a year than Bobus, who adulterates his sausages, harming those who consume them. Yet in "Signs of the Times" Carlyle refers to "the Mendicant Friars of old times: outwardly full of holy zeal; inwardly not without stratagem, and hunger for terrestrial things." Clearly, Carlyle is aware that the priestly class contains (or has contained) far worse than his Bishop, just as the capitalist class contains far better than Bobus. Why, then does Carlyle choose to employ a slanted comparison?
4. Beyond a dire warning against universal suffrage, does Hudson's Statue contain any positive practical advice on the governance of Great Britain?
Last modified 23 October 2002