decorated initial 'T' homas Arnold, the paradigmatic liberal or Broad Church Anglican, was equally a Liberal in politics. He emphatically supported the Anti-Slavery Movement, and he supported the 1832 Reform Bill, though he clearly saw its limitations. It is therefore no surprise to read statements in his private correspondence about what he calls his "abhorrence of Conservatism," which turns out to derive from a kind of creative conservatism rather than any radicalism. As he explained in a letter to James Marshall dated 23 January 1840, "the principle of Conservatism has always appeared to me to be not only foolish, but to be actually felo de se [suicidal]: it destroys what it loves, because it will not mend it" (I, 346). Five years earlier, he explained to F. C. Blackstone,

My abhorrence of Conservatism is not because it checks liberty, — in an established democracy it would favour liberty; but because it checks the growth of mankind in wisdom, goodness and happiness, by striving to maintain institutions which are of necessity temporary, and thus never hindering change, but often depriving the change of half its value. [I, 431; 28 July 1835]

As he makes clear to Marshall, he does not believe in radicalism, which is based on a belief that striking at the root of ancient law and custom will create an earthly paradise. One reason he opposes radicalism lies in his Christian belief in Original Sin; another in his related conviction that reform and evolution provide the only viable modes of improving society. Therefore, "every new institution should be but a fuller development of, or an addition to, what already exists; and that if things have come to such a pass in a country, that all its past history and associations are cast away as merely bad, Reform in such a country is impossible" (I, 356).

His Liberal political convictions include the idea that the masses should have power greater than any other group or class, but that such power has to have check and balances, though not those envisioned by the framers of the American constitution. "I believe it to be necessary, and quite desirable," Arnold explains, "that the popular power in a state, should, in the perfection of things, be paramount to every other; but this supremacy need not, and ought not, I think, to be absolute; and monarchy, and an aristocracy of birth, — as distinguished from one of wealth or of office, — appear to me to be two precious elements which still exist in most parts of Europe, and to lose which, as has been done unavoidably in America, would be rather our insanity than our misfortune" (I, 356).

If Arnold sounds conservative by modern standards when advocating the continued (limited) power of aristocracy, he sounds very radical when, like early Carlyle, he complains of injustices committed by its members:

But the insolencies of our aristocracy no one feels more keenly than I do: the scandalous exemption of the peers from all ignominious punishments short of death. — so that for a most aggravated manslaughter a peer must escape altogether, as the old Lord Byron did, or as the Duchess of Kingston did, for bigamy: — the insolent practice of allowing peers to vote in criminal trials on their honour, while other men vote on their oath; the absurdity of proxy voting, and some other things of the same nature. [I, 357; to James Marshall, 23 January 1840]

According to a note by Stanley, Parliament did away with these particular excesses later in Victoria's reign, thus in some small way accommodating Arnold's belief in the need for necessary reform:

All theory and all experience show, that if a system goes on long unreformed, it is not then reformed, but destroyed. And so, I believe, it will be with our Aristocracy and our Church; because I fear that neither will be wise in time. But still, looking upon both as positive blessings — and capable — the latter especially —of doing good that can be done by no other means I love and would maintain both, not as a concession or a compromise, but precisely with the same zeal that I would reform both, and enlarge the privileges and elevate the condition of the mass of the community. [I, 357]

Here he sounds a note very much like that in Carlyle's French Revolution: drastic reformation is necessary now, for only such changes will protect it from inevitable revolt and destruction.

References

Stanley, Arthur Penrhyn. The life and correspondence of Thomas Arnold, D.D., late head-master of Rugby school, and regius professor of modern history in the University of Oxford. 4th ed. 2 vols. London: B. Fellowes, 1845.


Victorian Overview political history Thomas Arnold of Rugby

Last modified 6 August 2006