John Morley, Victorian Eminence: “Such Men Are Not Found Today”

John Morley, Victorian Eminence: “Such Men Are Not Found Today”

Excerpt­ed from “Great Con­tem­po­raries: John Mor­ley, Giant of Old,” writ­ten for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. For the orig­i­nal arti­cle with end­notes and more images, click here. To sub­scribe to week­ly arti­cles from Hills­dale-Churchill, click here, scroll to bot­tom, and fill in your email in the box enti­tled “Stay in touch with us.” Your email address is not giv­en out and remains a rid­dle wrapped in a mys­tery inside an enigma.

Britain’s Antonine Age 

Churchill and Mor­ley in Court Dress, after WSC became a Privy Coun­cil­lor, May 1907. (Hills­dale Col­lege Press)

The colum­nist George Will quot­ed a famous line by Churchill: “The lead­er­ship of the priv­i­leged has passed away, but it has not been suc­ceed­ed by that of the eminent.” 

The rest of Churchill’s remark was worth includ­ing: “The pedestals which had for some years been vacant have now been demol­ished. Nev­er­the­less, the world is mov­ing on, and mov­ing so fast that few have time to ask, Whith­er? And to these few only a babel responds.”

By “priv­i­leged,” Will pre­sum­ably referred to the old aris­toc­ra­cy that gov­erned Vic­to­ri­an Britain, not the pam­pered elites who gov­ern us today. Churchill was refer­ring to John Mor­ley. “Such men,” he con­cludes sad­ly, “are not found today.”

Mor­ley was born in 1838, dur­ing a cen­tu­ry of peace, pros­per­i­ty and progress. This, Churchill tells us, “was the British Anto­nine Age… 

The French Rev­o­lu­tion had sub­sided into tran­quil­li­ty; the Napoleon­ic Wars had end­ed at Water­loo; the British Navy basked in the steady light of Trafal­gar, and all the navies of the world togeth­er could not rival its sedate strength. The City of Lon­don and its Gold Stan­dard dom­i­nat­ed the finance of the world. Steam mul­ti­plied the pow­er of man; Cot­to­nop­o­lis was fixed in Lan­cashire; rail­roads, inven­tions, unequalled sup­plies of supe­ri­or coal abound­ed in the island; the pop­u­la­tion increased; wealth increased; the cost of liv­ing dimin­ished; the con­di­tions of the work­ing class­es improved with their expand­ing numbers.

“Unquenchable racial animosity” 


John Mor­ley was born in Black­burn, Lan­cashire, the son of a doc­tor who want­ed him to become a cler­gy­man. Dis­en­chant­ed with the “High Church” and quar­rel­ing with his father, he left Oxford with­out an hon­ors degree and pur­sued Law. He was called to the bar by Lincoln’s Inn in 1873. A few years lat­er, to his “long and endur­ing regret,” he became a jour­nal­ist. From 1880 to 1883 he edit­ed the rad­i­cal-Lib­er­al Pall Mall Gazette.  

A strong sup­port­er of Glad­stone, Mor­ley in Par­lia­ment was a fear­less oppo­nent of State inter­ven­tion. It was wrong “to give the Leg­is­la­ture, which is igno­rant [and] biased in these things…the pow­er of say­ing how many hours a day a man shall or shall not work.” (One won­ders what he would say today to a gov­ern­ment that gov­erns everything.

After six years out of pow­er, Glad­stone returned in 1892 and made Mor­ley Chief Sec­re­tary for Ire­land. Churchill, then a Tory sup­port­er of the Sec­ond Boer War, nev­er­the­less admired Morley’s “fierce, mov­ing phras­es” of indictment: 

Thou­sands of our women have been made wid­ows; thou­sands of chil­dren are father­less…. The expen­di­ture of £150 mil­lion has brought mate­r­i­al hav­oc and ruin unspeak­able, unquenched and for long unquench­able racial ani­mos­i­ty, a task of polit­i­cal recon­struc­tion of incom­pa­ra­ble dif­fi­cul­ty, and all the oth­er con­se­quences which I need not dwell upon [in a] war of uncom­pen­sat­ed mis­chief and of irrepara­ble wrong.

Morley’s oppo­si­tion to adven­tures abroad pre­fig­ured his atti­tude toward a far greater war to come.

“A quality about his rhetoric”

In 1904 Churchill “crossed the floor” to the Lib­er­als, who swept into office in Jan­u­ary 1906. Mor­ley was Sec­re­tary of State for India when young Win­ston became Under-Sec­re­tary for the Colonies. In har­ness, they became friends, and Churchill was elo­quent in his praise: 

As a speak­er, both in Par­lia­ment and on the plat­form, Mor­ley stood in the front rank of his time. There was a qual­i­ty about his rhetoric which arrest­ed atten­tion. He loved the pageantry as well as the dis­tinc­tion of words, and many pas­sages in his speech­es dwell in my mem­o­ry…. His gifts of intel­lect and char­ac­ter were admired on all sides.

There is an affin­i­ty between their mutu­al com­bi­na­tion of firm­ness and mag­na­nim­i­ty toward colo­nial peo­ples. While oppos­ing law­less riot­ing, Mor­ley spon­sored the 1909 India Coun­cils Act, bring­ing Indi­ans to his Coun­cil and those of Madras and Bom­bay. This ear­ly step toward self-rule mir­rored Churchill’s views.  

“Awful Scene of Gloom and Dejec­tion”: The Lib­er­al Cab­i­net in “Punch” after the House of Lords referred Lloyd George’s 1909 bud­get to the coun­try (tan­ta­mount to pas­sage). Back row L-R: Richard Hal­dane, Win­ston Churchill (“Don’t let my feet touch the ground!”), David Lloyd George, H.H. Asquith, John Mor­ley. Front Row L-R: Regi­nald McKen­na, Lord Crewe (“My boy, they are deliv­ered into our hands!”), Augus­tine Bir­rell. (Car­toon by Edward Ten­nyson Reed, pub­lic domain)

 “Master of English prose” 

In 1908 the new prime min­is­ter, H.H. Asquith, moved Mor­ley to the Lords, where he fought for Lib­er­al reform bud­gets. He retained the India Office, but by 1910 yearned for retire­ment. Churchill plead­ed that he be kept in the Cab­i­net, so Asquith appoint­ed him Lord Pres­i­dent of the Coun­cil. There he cam­paigned for the 1911 Par­lia­ment Act, lim­it­ing the pow­ers of the House of Lords. 

Mor­ley linked young Win­ston to the father he wor­shipped, while adding qual­i­ties of his own. He was sol­id for “great doc­trines”: Free Trade, Irish Home Rule, a social safe­ty net. Churchill saw in him “a mas­ter of Eng­lish prose, a prac­ti­cal schol­ar, a states­man-author, a repos­i­to­ry of vast knowl­edge.” Despite their 35 years dif­fer­ence in age, they worked togeth­er  “in the swift suc­ces­sion of for­mi­da­ble and per­plex­ing events.” Even­tu­al­ly those events would sep­a­rate them.

“Gently, gaily almost, he withdrew…”

Pre­dictably, Mor­ley opposed con­ti­nen­tal entan­gle­ments, dis­trust­ing the sys­tem of alliances that impelled the world toward Armaged­don. He turned 75 in 1914, frail but not uncon­scious of what Churchill called “the mad­ness sweep­ing across Europe.” As Ger­many and France clanked towards bat­tle, the Lib­er­al Cab­i­net was divid­ed. But Germany’s inva­sion of Bel­gium, and the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a Ger­man fleet in the Chan­nel, turned opin­ion.  

Win­ston Churchill tried to assure Mor­ley that events gave them no choice. His paci­fist friend was sym­pa­thet­ic but unyield­ing. “You may be right,” he said. “But I should be no use in a War Cab­i­net. I should only ham­per you. If we have to fight, we must fight with sin­gle-heart­ed con­vic­tion. There is no place for me in such affairs.” There was no turn­ing him. “Gen­tly, gai­ly almost, he with­drew from among us,” Churchill wrote, “nev­er by word or sign to hin­der old friends or add to the nations bur­den.”

“I do not ask myself if I am a good European” 

Mor­ley was 80 when peace returned, but no less doubt­ful about the so-called “War to End Wars.” Like Churchill, he crit­i­cized Pres­i­dent Wil­son’s naïveté at Ver­sailles. He had always been a Lit­tle Eng­lan­der, a Home Ruler. He did not object to the new coun­tries cre­at­ed after the war. But he had no faith in a con­cert of nations to keep the peace. When asked in 1919 about the Covenant of the League of Nations, Mor­ley said: “I have not read it, and I don’t intend to read it. It’s not worth the paper it’s writ­ten on. To the end of time it’ll always be a case of ‘Thy head or my head.’ I’ve no faith in these schemes.” He was more right than he knew.

While Churchill had hope for Euro­pean pow­ers to keep the peace, Mor­ley remained scorn­ful. When a promi­nent Lib­er­al praised some­one as “a good Euro­pean,” Mor­ley quipped: “When I lay me down at night or rise in the morn­ing, I do not ask myself if I am a good Euro­pean.” Nations, he insist­ed, would always act in their own inter­ests. If that coin­cid­ed with the world’s, it was a mere lucky coin­ci­dence. When Ire­land erupt­ed again in 1921 he declared: “If I were an Irish­man I should be a Sinn Fein­er.” When asked, “And a Repub­li­can?” Mor­ley said “No.” Home Rule with­in the Empire was as far as he would go. 

“I foresee…Winston leading the Commons” 

Toward the end, Mor­ley seemed to accept Churchill’s view of him as a Vic­to­ri­an emi­nence, against which mod­ern politi­cians were no match. In post­war pol­i­tics, Mor­ley said, “One man is as good as another—or bet­ter.” Yet he still had hopes for his young col­league:  

I fore­see the day when Birken­head will be prime min­is­ter in the Lords with Win­ston lead­ing the Com­mons. They will make a for­mi­da­ble pair. Win­ston tells me Birken­head has the best brain in Eng­land…. But I don’t like Winston’s habit of writ­ing arti­cles, as a Min­is­ter, on debat­able ques­tions of for­eign pol­i­cy in the news­pa­pers. These allo­cu­tions of his are con­trary to all Cab­i­net prin­ci­ples. Mr. Glad­stone would nev­er have allowed it.

His pre­dic­tion would have required Churchill to change par­ties again. Churchill did, but Birken­head died young, in 1930. Still, Mor­ley was half right: Win­ston did lead the Commons…and the nation. Alas, that was in anoth­er war he would have hat­ed and feared. And, con­tra Mr. Glad­stone, Churchill kept writing—fortunately. Some of what he wrote was in trib­ute to his old friend. 

“Two hundred definitions of Liberty” 

Churchill con­sid­ered John Mor­ley “among the four most pleas­ing and bril­liant men to whom I have ever lis­tened…. There was a rich and pos­i­tive qual­i­ty about Morley’s con­tri­bu­tions, and a sparkle of phrase and dra­ma which placed him sec­ond to none….”

Mor­ley died in 1923, not to be replaced. Churchill mourned his loss: “The tidal wave of democ­ra­cy and the vol­canic explo­sion of the war have swept the shores bare.” No one bet­ter resem­bled or recalled “the Lib­er­al states­men of the Vic­to­ri­an epoch.” Mor­ley was not born to priv­i­lege; he earned it. He deployed “every intel­lec­tu­al weapon, of the high­est per­son­al address, and of all that learn­ing, cour­tesy, dig­ni­ty and con­sis­ten­cy could bestow.”

Churchill wrote: “Each suc­ceed­ing gen­er­a­tion will sing with con­vic­tion the Har­row song, ‘There were won­der­ful giants of old.’ Cer­tain­ly we must all hope this may prove to be so.” 

Mor­ley pro­nounced the epi­taph for his age in May 1923, four months before he died. His words sound more like 2023:  

Present par­ty des­ig­na­tions have become emp­ty of all con­tents…. Vast­ly extend­ed State expen­di­ture, vast­ly increased demands from the tax­pay­er who has to pro­vide the mon­ey, social reform regard­less of expense, cash exact­ed from the tax­pay­er already at his wits’ end—when were the prob­lems of plus and minus more des­per­ate?  

Pow­er­ful ora­tors find “Lib­er­ty” the true key­word. But then I remem­ber hear­ing, from a learned stu­dent, that of “lib­er­ty” he knew well over 200 def­i­n­i­tions. Can we be sure that the “haves” and the “have-nots” will agree in their selec­tion of the right one? We can only trust to the growth of respon­si­bil­i­ty; we may look to cir­cum­stances and events to teach their lesson.

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