HL Deb 27 June 1873 vol 216 cc1466-77

in proposing an Address, praying Her Majesty to take into her gracious consideration the institution of an Order of Merit, by which Her Majesty would be enabled to bestow a sign of her royal approbation on men who have deserved well of their country in science, literature, and art, said, that when in February last a proposal to allow British subjects to wear foreign decorations was made to the House by his noble Friend opposite (Lord Houghton), he expressed his concurrence in the answer given by the noble Earl the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. He (Earl Stanhope) then said that he deemed it of great importance to maintain the principle that the Queen alone was the fountain of honour; but at the same time he expressed his great regret that no means appeared to exist among us of distinguishing the men who had deserved well of their country, or who had attained eminence in other walks of life than civil or military service. That was no new opinion of his, arising only out of that debate. For many years past he had felt the same regret, and awaited only what he thought a favourable opportunity of submitting that question to the judgment of the House. Orders of Knighthood in their earliest origin were, it might be said, confederacies for military objects, arising from the wars in the East between the Christians and the Saracens. One of those early institutions—the Knights of Malta—continued, as their Lordships knew, to live, or at least to linger, until nearly their own times. Subsequently there arose other Orders of Knighthood rewarding military services in wars between the divers Christian States. Civil services were for the most part only by slow degrees acknowledged. Still more tardy had. been the recognition by any State of merit in literature, art, or science, which, indeed, in a less civilized state of society, were held of small account. Poets, for example, in this country were for some time regarded as an inferior rhyming race, whose principal distinction was the Poet Laureateship, and their principal employment to extol in birthday odes the virtues of the reigning King and Queen. Only by degrees had juster ideas on these points prevailed, and at present there was scarcely a State of any importance on the Continent which had not admitted the right to decorations to the men of eminence in art, science, and literature. England only, he believed, among the nations of Europe was on these points, he must say, discreditably lagging in the rear. As regarded those foreign nations, he would not weary the House by going over the States of small extent or more recent formation, but would confine himself to those four which, in conjunction with England, used to be surnamed the Five Great Powers. First, as to France. There, as was well known, the Legion of Honour was in its very nature comprehensive. There, an artist like Delaroche, or a man of science like Cuvier, was decorated with the same riband that rewarded a diplomatist like Talleyrand or a statesman such as Thiers. There, as he would venture to assert, a most healthful spirit of emulation was engendered by a distinction which was open to all, and which required no passport of birth, but only the proof of merit. Passing to Austria, he had received much information from that most accomplished statesman, Count Beust, who now so worthily represented the Court of Vienna in this country. He learnt from him that of the various Austrian Orders only one, that of Maria Theresa, was strictly confined to military service. To the others, men of literature and science were freely admissible. As instances might be mentioned, Professor Mittermeyer, of Heidelberg, and a poet at Vienna of great fame throughout Germany, and less known in England than perhaps he deserved to be, Grillparzer, who had attained old age, and was celebrating the anniversary of his birth with his friends, when, by a graceful attention of the Emperor, he was gladdened by receiving the Grand Cross of the Francis Joseph. Much the same, as far as he could learn, was the case in Russia. No Order was specially reserved for men of art and science, but they could find a place in others side by side with the men who had served the State in administration and in warfare. In Prussia of late years the greatest zeal in this cause had been shown. There was an Order entitled Pour le Mérite, founded by Frederick the Great, who had appropriated it to military service in the field; but the late King of Prussia, by a decree, dated May 31, 1842, extended the Order, or rather formed a new class in it, for men who had attained eminence in any branch of knowledge or of art. The number of these, exclusive of honorary members from foreign countries, was fixed at 30, and it was added in the decree—"The study of theology is in accordance with its spirit excluded from this Order." Here, perhaps, there was much to be said on both sides. On the one hand it might seem hard that eminence in theology should not be rewarded as eminence in different branches of study; on the other hand, it was certain that, wherever religious jealousies were rife, a minister would be exposed to constant misconstruction, as if he sought to promote a particular doctrine, while he ought only to consider the claims of eloquence and learning. He was not concerned, however, at present to argue that particular point one way or other; he had mentioned it only as part of the information which he was desirous of affording. He now came to the case of England, and here he would venture to assert that, so far as concerned the recognition of literature, science, and art, we, far from advancing, had actually retrograded. He would go through our different stars and crosses. The Order of the Garter was, as their Lordships' knew, confined to Peers. The instances of Commoners holding it since the Revolution—Sir Robert Walpole, who received it before he was created a Peer —Lord North and Lord Castlereagh, as eldest sons of Peers—were very few. It had been refused by both Mr. Pitt and Sir Robert Peel. The same might be said of the Orders of the Thistle in Scotland, and St. Patrick in Ireland. As to the Bath, originally the reward of naval and military services, it had been extended to diplomatists and statesmen, but was not now extended to men in other walks of life. That had not been always so, for a red riband was formerly granted to men of science, and it added to the dignity with which Sir Joseph Banks used to preside over the Royal Society. No similar instance could be given at the present time, and it was this fact which justified him in saying that in this respect, far from advancing, we had, in truth, gone back. The inequality of the present system had also been strikingly shown by the decoration of the Bath being conferred only a few weeks since on Professor Owen, a man, he need not say, of the greatest eminence in the science of Palæontology, but who was eligible only as the holder of an office in the Civil Service—namely, at the British Museum. Now suppose that a man of equal eminence in the kindred study of Geology, Sir Charles Lyell, had been marked out for the like honour from the Crown; then as not holding an office he would not be eligible. Was not this single fact sufficient to make out the case against the present rules? Here were two men equally great in science; the one eligible for distinction because he filled an office, the other not eligible because without place or salary he had laboured in the same cause as an independent man. His object would be equally attained by the foundation of a new Order, or by the creation of a new class of the existing Order of the Bath, conferable upon distinguished men of literature, science, and art; and it would be for the advisers of the Crown to consider which course was preferable. He could not see why one or other of these courses should not be pursued. If done, he believed, the effect would be to give a great encouragement to the progress of literature, science, and art in this country, and that a befitting means would be thereby supplied to the State to reward distinguished men who had hitherto been neglected by it. In the debate referred to, the noble Earl opposite (Earl Granville) spoke slightly of the value of Orders, and cited the remark made of Lord Castlereagh by Prince Metternich at the Congress of Vienna, undecorated in the midst of diplomatists brilliant with stars and ribands—"Mafoi! c'est bien distinguâ." But from whom did the disparagement of Orders in that debate proceed? Who was the noble Earl who spoke so slightingly of them? Why, a Knight of the ancient and illustrious Order of the Garter. Was it then seemly in a Knight of that illustrious Order, in a man who had attained the highest distinction that Order could confer, to blame other men who, in reward of honourable labour, sought in a lesser field a like distinction? For the noble Earl to adopt such a tone was something like one of the merchant princes of London—a Rothschild, say, or a Baring—holding forth on the worthlessness of wealth. Members of this House were ambitious of earning a red or blue riband by public service; and why should it be discreditable for the poet or artist to nourish a similar ambition? To condemn Orders altogether would partake too much of that utilitarian spirit which, unhappily, was only too characteristic of the present age. If admitted in this case it might be applied to other cases also. Why might not the standard of England itself be described as only a piece of silk, red or blue, with some devices embroidered upon it and stuck at the end of a pole? Yet, this was the standard which had never waved without affording protection to all entitled to it, and which thousands had died for in battle rather than surrender. Much had been said out-of-doors of the difficulty there would be in selecting men for this distinction. He admitted that there would be a difficulty; but the First Lord of the Admiralty had to select lieutenants from cadets, and captains of ships from lieutenants, while the abolition of purchase in the Army had increased the responsibility of the Commander-in-Chief with regard to appointments. The difficulty of selection would not be greater in that than in other cases, and he might add that both the late Prime Minister and the present, Mr. Disraeli and Mr. Gladstone, both men of literary attainments and corresponding reputation, would be peculiarly qualified to select the proper men. In the establishment of such an Order three rules, however, would be essential, and those would lessen the difficulty of selection. It might be right in already established Orders, as in the Garter, to consider political partizanship or party fidelity, but the new Order of Merit should be open to all parties and to all or nearly all professions and ranks, while the person admitted must be left quite free to vote against the Minister who had recommended him. Next, the number, whether confined to a single class, or, as he would rather advise, extended to two, should, as in Prussia, be limited; for otherwise there would be constant solicitation to add one more, instead of, when once filled, leaving only vacancies to be supplied. Thirdly, the Order should not carry with it any change of title, as distinct from the name of the recipient. In some cases knighthood would be welcomed; but not unfrequently men who had attained great celebrity by a particular name were unwilling to change it, however slightly. This was the case with Mr. Hallam, when offered a Baronetcy by Sir Robert Peel, and was one of the motives, though not the only one, which led Mr. Grote to decline the peerage offered him by Mr. Gladstone. The change of title might, when consistent with the merits of the case, and agreeable to the feelings of the person concerned, be effected by a separate act of favour from the Crown. With these rulers he had no fear as to the working of the measure. Such was the case which he desired to lay before the House. Whatever might be thought of the manner in which he had treated it, he was sure that the object itself would receive careful consideration from the advisers of the Crown. In the course of his public life he bad been greatly struck by the contrast between the contempt and disdain often felt for literature and science by underlings in office, and the respect and attention almost invariably shown them by those men of higher mark at the head of public affairs. He was sure that the Ministers of Her Majesty would carefully consider this object, and he should rejoice if they felt it within their sphere of duty to concede it. If not, he would appeal to the House at large to put an end to that feeling of dissatisfaction, that chafing at unequal right which existed to a large extent in the literary, artistic, and learned classes in England. He appealed to the House—and these should be his last words—to seek to do honour to those men who had done honour to their country. Moved that an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that Her Majesty would be pleased to take into her gracious consideration the institution of an Order of Merit by which Her Majesty would be enabled to bestow a sign of her royal approbation upon men who have deserved well of their country in science, literature, and art.—(The Earl Stanhope.)


admitted the force of the arguments so clearly urged by his noble Friend, and felt that in urging any arguments on the other side it was rather difficult to do so in the present Assembly; he, however, did not think sufficient reason had been shown for acceding to the Motion. He fully agreed in all that had been said respecting the deservings of distinguished men of science, literature, and art, of whom the country had good reason to be proud, and that he should be glad to see his way to doing something towards satisfying the aspirations of the noble Earl; but he feared that the difficulties of dispensing a new Order of Merit such as that suggested were by far greater than the noble Earl seemed to think. One of the existing Orders, that of the Garter, had been remarkable for the distinguished persons who had possessed it, yet one of the things which gave it its charm was its mediaeval character, and nobody would think of proposing that such an Order should now for the first time be created for the purpose of being distributed in the manner in which it was now generally done. No doubt there might be some advantage for a time in the creation of new Orders by despotic Sovereigns. For instance, no one could doubt that when the despotic head of an Empire like Napoleon I., with his great military genius, instituted the Lâgion d' Honneur, it inspired his troops with a spirit of emulation which facilitated his achievements; but the importance of these Orders somewhat diminished as time went on. It was some years since he lived in France, but he found the Lâgion d' Honneur much depreciated, not when given for eminent services, but because almost every third or fourth person one met in the streets displayed that red riband. He did not mean to say that that would be the case if the Order the noble Earl desired were established; but he thought that the creation of such Orders and their too free distribution might have the same effect. He agreed with his noble Friend that if an Order of Merit were established it must be irrespective of political opinions, and open to every profession in which distinction was sought, leaving the recipient thoroughly independent of the influence of party; but he saw difficulties in the practical working of it, and he was not sure that they were not greater in a country having the inestimable advantage of representative institutions than in one of a more despotic character. Their Lordships would all admit that the Prime Minister was overworked to a very great degree, and he doubted the wisdom of adding to his duties and obligations; yet it appeared to him impossible for any other person, with regard to an Order of Merit distributed among every class of the community, to assume the duty of administering it. In other countries it might be all very well for those who had already received honours to recommend those to whom they should be given; but in this country that would be a sort of close corporation which would infallibly break down. Literary pensions had given rise in innumerable cases to criticism and dissatisfaction, and promotion in the Admiralty was not an analogous ease, for the First Lord was bound to acquaint himself with the merits of the officers under him. His noble Friend had mentioned Mr. Gladstone and Mr. Disraeli as men of literary eminence themselves entitled to distinction, but all Prime Ministers, though good Prime Ministers, were not equally competent judges. Sir Robert Walpole had a supreme contempt for the whole class of literary men, yet under the Motion he would have had to decide who was the best poet, the best historian, and the best jurist. He (Earl Granville) believed a Prime Minister would be above political considerations; but in the working of our institutions he was not sure whether, out of two men of equal attainments, the one who had written ably and successfully on the Ministerial side would not have the preference, unless the case were a very glaring one. The difficulties of instituting new Orders of this kind were enormous. He agreed to a certain extent with his noble Friend that it was illogical to confine rewards to servants of the Crown; but it should be remembered that it was the object of the State to tempt the best men into the public service, and that a certain number of rewards distributed among them increased the consideration in which they were held. It was a very different thing for the head of a representative Government to select virtuous, eminent, and distinguished persons from the whole community. He knew that many were anxious to obtain some such recognition of great services to the public, but he doubted whether men like Lord Macaulay and Sir Charles Lyell would derive the slightest increased consideration from an Order of that character; while, if mistakes were made, as was certain to happen in comparing different walks in life, there would be outcry and dissatisfaction. He did not complain of the noble Earl having brought the subject forward, or of the manner in which he had treated it. It was a matter, of course, quite open to discussion, and that House was perfectly qualified to express their opinion upon it. All he could say at present on the subject was that the Government saw no means of giving practical effect to the noble Earl's views, and therefore he could not agree to the Motion.


said, that as one who had taken some interest in the question of foreign decorations, he desired to say a few words on the question. He approached the consideration of the question with great diffidence, and although he admitted the existence of many objections could not withhold his support from the Motion of the noble Earl (Earl Stanhope). The discussion raised by himself (Lord Houghton) on a former occasion was useful, as having elicited the fact that the objection to wearing foreign decorations rested simply on the order of one of the Departments of the State, not countersigned by the Sovereign or even by the Prime Minister, and that there existed no legal penalty or disqualification on the subject. The matter under discussion, however, was a perfectly distinct question, and he must urge that it was advisable to keep the noble Earl's proposition altogether distinct from the question of the acceptance by Englishmen of foreign orders. The objections just urged by his noble Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs were very obvious, and it was doubtless easier to reward public servants than to select men distinguished in art, science, and literature; but if the proposal of the noble Earl were carried out, he believed the advantages that would accrue would considerably outweigh the defects comprised in those objections. Were such an Order established, probably the men who had most influenced the minds of their countrymen would hardly come under the cognizance of those who distributed decorations. Three men in the lifetime of their Lordships had guided and influenced the mind of England. The generation from which he came was under the moral and philosophical influence of Coleridge, under whose genius the literature of the time was almost transformed. The following generation, perhaps, not so patently, but in a great degree, was under the influence of Mr. Thomas Carlyle, whose writings had influenced not only the philosophy, but the practical statesmanship, of our time, and had even affected the structure of the English language. There had since been the influence of Mr. John Stuart Mill. He would not say that no one of these three men would in all probability have been offered or accepted any decoration; but it was not by these high superiorities that the question must be tried, but by the ordinary eminences in science, literature, and art. In addition to the arguments for the Motion urged by the noble Earl opposite, he would urge the evil to both parties of isolating literature from our political and social system, and the importance of bringing literary men into brotherhood with men of different conditions and ranks, thereby doing much to secure the maintenance of the orders of society and a community of interests among all classes. It was also desirable to take a step which would indicate the importance of art and literature, and would show that the well-being of a nation did not depend on active pursuits alone. Moreover, if by any recognition of the merits of science and art they could keep more prominently before the nation those qualities upon which the dignity, prosperity, the power and the mind of the nation depended for their development, a great good would be effected. The noble Earl said that he would be equally satisfied with the institution of a new Order, or with the extension of some existing Order for the purpose; but he (Lord Houghton) would, for his part, much prefer the latter, one effect of which would be to bring men of literature and science to a position of greater social dignity, and tend to put them upon a greater degree of equality with their Lordships than at present. The Order of the Bath had been extended to all civil officers under the Crown, and that measure though denounced at the time, as exercised in an unscrupulous manner and to lessen the dignity of the Order, had been received with public favour. Many men of political distinction had received decorations, but the fact that Mr. Gladstone and Mr. Disraeli went about the world entirely undecorated argued caprices and inconsistencies in the distribution of Orders such as could hardly be equalled if they were extended to literature and science. He had had the honour of being present at the dinner given by the late King of Prussia to the Ordre de Mérite, which had maintained the French name it derived from its founder's Gallican proclivities, and he was much impressed at seeing an academy, as it were, of every kind of mental distinction gathered round an intellectual Sovereign. He believed the difficulty of selection would be less than in the distribution of rewards in the public service, for the Minister, though he might make mistakes, which attended the distribution of all honours and rewards, would be guided, not only by his own opinion, but by the distinct affirmation of the public, which would point out the men fit to receive the distinction; and, overworked as Mr. Gladstone was, he was sure his own classical mind and love of literature could have no more grateful task than the recognition of intellectual eminence. If, as his noble Friend seemed to think, these Orders were declining in estimation, why had the Order of the Star of India and that of the Victoria Cross been created? The diffusion of education and the general system of competitive examination had laid the foundation for a great intellectual hierarchy, of which the institution proposed would be the proper consummation. A considerable amount of knowledge and capacity had been made a requisite, perhaps in an exaggerated form, for the public service. If that were a sound policy, why should there not be a distinct recognition of mental eminence?


said, he must contend that the recognition of literary and scientific men as a separate class was undesirable. To attach them to the institutions of their country they required no special honours or rewards as a class, as had been attempted by foreign countries, and with very poor success. He had no wish to create in them a class feeling, which would tend to diminish their feeling themselves to be fellow-citizens who were doing good work in their country, and resting their reputation on their merits alone. The Victoria Cross was the reward of an act of bravery as to which there could be no dispute; but a selection of literary and scientific men would be much more difficult; while the limitation of the number would involve serious heart-burnings, and temporary popularity instead of solid merit would be likely to gain the distinctions. The wisest course was, he thought, to leave matters in their present position, and instead of attempting to give to literary and scientific, men a new distinction of doubtful value, to allow them to enjoy, as they had hitherto done, that unbought honour which sprang from the admiration and gratitude of their countrymen.


said, he was of opinion that if the object which it was proposed by the Motion to attain were to be effected at all, it would be better done by the extension of the Order of the Bath, than by the creation of any new Order. The Order of the Bath, he might add, was with a very few exceptions, given only as a reward for distinguished naval and military services; but in 1846, when the Government of his noble Friend Earl Russell came into office, the question of extending the Order to civilians eminent in literature and art was very carefully considered, and it was determined that it would not be expedient to take that course. He was at the time at the Head of the Colonial Department, and he could state that, in company with himself, some of the most distinguished literary men concurred in that view. The Government of Sir Robert Peel had, he believed, previously arrived at a similar conclusion. The reasons given by his noble Friend the Secretary for Foreign Affairs, in opposition to the Motion, were in his opinion quite sound. The practical difficulties in the way of giving distinctions, such as those under discussion, to literary men in our existing state of society would, he had no doubt, be found to be most formidable, and he must, therefore, express his satisfaction at the decision which the Government had come to on the subject.

On Question? Resolved in the Negative.