[In The Three Clerks, which details the fall of a brilliant young member of the civil service after he becomes involved in stock speculation and mismanagement of funds entrusted to him, includes a characteristic Trollopean wisdom statement about human motivation and actions, which he then follows by a prolonged non-Trollopean attack on a real political figure. — George P. Landow]

Men do not wish to rise by treachery, or to become great through dishonesty. The object, the ultimate object, which a man sets before himself, is generally a good one. But he sets it up in so enviable a point of view, his imagination makes it so richly desirable, by being gazed at it becomes so necessary to existence, that its attainment is imperative. The object is good, but the means of attaining it-the path to the object-ah! there is the slip. Expediency is the dangerous wind by which so many of us have wrecked our little boats.

And we do so more now than ever, because great ships, swimming in deepest waters, have unluckily come safe to haven though wafted there by the same pernicious wind. Every great man, who gains a great end by dishonest means, does more to deteriorate his country and lower the standard of his countrymen than legions of vulgar thieves, or nameless unaspiring rogues. Who has injured us so much in this way as he whose name still stands highest among modern politicians? Who has given so great a blow to political honesty, has done so much to banish from men's minds the idea of a life-ruling principle, as Sir Robert Peel?”

It would shock many were we to attribute to him the roguery of the Sadleirs and Camerons, of the Robsons and Redpaths of the present day; but could we analyse causes and effects, we might perhaps do so with no injustice. He has taught us as a great lesson, that a man who has before him a mighty object may dispense with those old-fashioned rules of truth to his neighbours and honesty to his own principles, which should guide us in ordinary life. At what point ordinary life ends, at what crisis objects may be considered great enough to justify the use of a dispensing power, that he has not taught us; that no Sir Robert Peel can teach us; that must unfortunately be left to the judgement of the individual. How prone we are, each of us, to look on our own object as great, how ready to make excuses for receiving such a lesson for our guide; how willing to think that we may be allowed to use this dispensing power ourselves—this experience teaches us in very plain language.”

Thrice in his political life did Sir Robert Peel change his political creed, and carry, or assist to carry, with more or less of self-gratulation, the measures of his adversaries. Thrice by doing so he kept to himself that political power which he had fairly forfeited by previous opposition to the requirements of his country. Such an apposition of circumstances is at any rate suspicious. But let us give him credit for the expression of a true belief; of a belief at first that the corn-laws should be maintained, and then of a belief that they should not; let us, with a forced confidence in his personal honesty, declare so much of him; nevertheless, he should surely have felt, had he been politically as well as personally honest, that he was not the man to repeal them.

But it was necessary, his apologist will say, that the corn-laws should be repealed; he saw the necessity, and yielded to it. It certainly was necessary, very necessary, very unavoidable; absolutely necessary one may say; a fact, which the united efforts of all the Peels of the day could in nowise longer delay, having already delayed it to the utmost extent of their power. It was essential that the corn-laws should be repealed; but by no means essential that this should be done by Sir Robert Peel.

It was a matter of indifference to us Englishmen who did the deed. But to Sir Robert Peel it was a matter of great moment that he should do it. He did it, and posterity will point at him as a politician without policy, as a statesman without a principle, as a worshipper at the altar of expediency, to whom neither vows sworn to friends, nor declarations made to his country, were in any way binding. Had Sir Robert Peel lived, and did the people now resolutely desire that the Church of England should be abandoned, that Lords and Commons should bow the neck, that the Crown should fall, who can believe that Sir Robert Peel would not be ready to carry out their views? Readers, it may be that to you such deeds as those are horrible even to be thought of or expressed; to me I own that they are so. So also to Sir Robert Peel was Catholic Emancipation horrible, so was Reform of Parliament, so was the Corn Law Repeal. They were horrible to him, horrible to be thought of, horrible to be expressed. But the people required these measures, and therefore he carried them, arguing on their behalf with all the astuteness of a practised statesman.

That Sir Robert Peel should be a worshipper of expediency might be matter of small moment to any but his biographer, were it not that we are so prone to copy the example of those whose names are ever in our mouths. It has now become the doctrine of a large class of politicians that political honesty is unnecessary, slow, subversive of a man's interests, and incompatible with quick onward movement. Such a doctrine in politics is to be deplored; but alas! who can confine it to politics? It creeps with gradual, but still with sure and quick motion, into all the doings of our daily life. How shall the man who has taught himself that he may be false in the House of Commons, how shall he be true in the Treasury chambers? or if false there, how true on the Exchange? and if false there, how shall he longer have any truth within him?

Related material


Trollope, Anthony. The Three Cerks. Project Gutenberg E-text prepared by Andrew Turek and revised by Joseph E. Loewenstein, M.D., and an anonymous Project Gutenberg volunteer.

J.B. Scenes from the Lives of [William James] Robson and [Leopold] Redpath illustrated: shewing the steps the tempter led them from Sobriety to Dissipation, from Honour to Criminality; including Reports of their Capture, Trial, and Prison Life. W. M. Clark, 1857.

Robb, George. White-Collar Crime in Modern England: Financial Fraud and Financial Fraud and Business Morality, 1845-1929. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

The nation was shocked anew by the exposure of John Sadleir's frauds at the Tipperary Joint-Stock Bank. As director of the bank, Sadleir had embezzled some £200,000. Another £400,000 was lost when the bank suspended payment. Sadleir had come to London in 1846 as an agent for Irish railway schemes. Augmenting his directorship of the Tipperary Bank, Sadleir became chairman if the London and County Bank and the Royal Swedish Railway Elected to Parliament he eas a spokesman for business interests and was eventually appointed a Lord of the Treasury. As it later transpired, Sadleir had buit his vaunted financial reputation on a series of monstrous impostures, Besides his embezzlements from the Tipperary Bank, he issued fictitious shares in the Swedish Railway to the extend of £150,000. While a member of the Irish Encumbered Estates Commission Sadleir also forged title deeds to a number of properties. Rumours of his misfeasance had forced his resignation from the Treasury and the London and County Bank, and the crash of the Tipperary Bank in January of 1856 laid bare his crimes. Sadleir immediately committed suicide, insiring Dickens to create the character of Mr. Merdle. On the very heels of Sadleir's demise, the Royal British Bank failed amid revelations that the bank manager, Hugh Cameron, and two directors, Humphrey Brown and Edward Esdaile, had wasted the bank’s resources in unsecured loans to themselves and their friends. [62] http://lawcollections.library.cornell.edu/bookreader/sat:2412/#page/57/mode/1up

Last modified 14 April 2016