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Memoirs of William Hazlitt
Ch. II: 1791-95

Chap. I 1778-1811
‣ Ch. II: 1791-95
Ch. III 1795-98
Ch. IV 1798
Ch. V 1798
Ch. VI 1792-1803
Ch. VII 1803-05
Ch. VIII 1803-05
Ch. IX
Ch. X 1807
Ch. XI 1808
Ch. XII 1808
Ch. XII 1812
Ch. XIV 1814-15
Ch. XV 1814-17
Ch. XVI 1818
Ch. XVII 1820
Ch. XX 1821
Ch. I 1821
Ch. II 1821-22
Ch. III 1821-22
Ch. IV 1822
Ch. V 1822
Ch. VI 1822
Ch. VII 1822-23
Ch. VIII 1822
Ch. IX 1823
Ch. X 1824
Ch. XI 1825
Ch. XII 1825
Ch. XIII 1825
Ch. XIV 1825
Ch. XV 1825
Ch. XVI 1825-27
Ch. XVII 1826-28
Ch. XVIII 1829-30
Ch. XX
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As an author—Letter to the Shrewsbury Chronicle (1791)—Personal reminiscences—Correspondence with his father.

From 1791 it is that I must date my grandfather’s entrance into the field as a political champion. He was now thirteen, and his love of truth and liberty was outraged by the proceedings which had then recently taken place at Birmingham against Dr. Priestley, his father’s friend and correspondent, and the idol of Coleridge and Lamb. He composed a letter expressive of his views, and sent it to the editor of the Shrewsbury Chronicle, who inserted it:—

“Mr. Wood,

“Tis really surprising that men—men, too, that aspire to the character of Christians—should seem to take such pleasure in endeavouring to load with infamy one of the best, one of the wisest, and one of the greatest of men.

“One of your late correspondents, under the signature of ΟΥΔΕΙΣ, seems desirous of having Dr. Priestley in
chains, and indeed would not perhaps (from the gentleman’s seemingly charitable disposition) be greatly averse to seeing him in the flames also. This is the Christian! This the mild spirit its great Master taught. Ah! Christianity, how art thou debased! How am I grieved to see that universal benevolence, that love to all mankind, that love even to our enemies, and that compassion for the failings of our fellow-men that thou art contracted to promote, contracted and shrunk up within the narrow limits that prejudice and bigotry mark out. But to return;—supposing the gentleman’s end to be intentionally good, supposing him indeed to desire all this, in order to extirpate the Doctor’s supposedly impious and erroneous doctrines, and promote the cause of truth; yet the means he would use are certainly wrong. For may I be allowed to remind him of this (which prejudice has hitherto apparently prevented him from seeing), that violence and force can never promote the cause of truth, but reason and argument or love, and whenever these fail, all other means are vain and ineffectual. And as the Doctor himself has said, in his letter to the inhabitants of Birmingham, ‘that if they destroyed him, ten others would arise, as able or abler than himself, and stand forth immediately to defend his principles; and that were these destroyed, an hundred would appear; for the God of truth will not suffer his cause to lie defenceless.’

“This letter of the Doctor’s also, though it throughout breathes the pure and genuine spirit of Christianity, is, by another of your correspondents, charged with
sedition and heresy; but, indeed, if such sentiments as those which it contains be sedition and heresy, sedition and heresy would be an honour; for all their sedition is that fortitude that becomes the dignity of man and the character of Christian; and their heresy, Christianity. The whole letter, indeed, far from being seditious, is peaceable and charitable; and far from being heretical, that is, in the usual acceptance of the word, furnishing proofs of that resignation so worthy of himself. And to be sensible of this, ’tis only necessary, that any one laying aside prejudice read the letter itself with candour. What, or who, then, is free from the calumniating pen of malice, malice concealed, perhaps, under the specious disguise of religion and a love of truth?

“Religious persecution is the bane of all religion; and the friends of persecution are the worst enemies religion has; and of all persecutions, that of calumny is the most intolerable. Any other kind of persecution can affect our outward circumstances only, our properties, our lives; but this may affect our characters for ever. And this great man has not only had his goods spoiled, his habitation burned, and his life endangered, but is also calumniated, aspersed with the most malicious reflections, and charged with everything bad, for which a misrepresentation of the truth and prejudice can give the least pretence. And why all this? To the shame of some one, let it be replied, merely on account of particular speculative opinions, and not anything scandalous, shameful, or criminal in his moral character. ‘Where I see,’ says the great and admirable Robinson,
‘a spirit of intolerance, I think I see the great Devil.’ And ’tis certainly the worst of devils. And here I shall conclude, staying only to remind your anti-Priestlian correspondents, that when they presume to attack the character of
Dr. Priestley, they do not so much resemble the wren pecking at the eagle, as the owl, attempting by the flap of her wings, to hurl Mount Etna into the ocean; and that while Dr. Priestley’s name ‘shall flourish in immortal youth,’ and his memory be respected and revered by posterity, prejudice no longer blinding the understandings of men, theirs will be forgotten in obscurity, or only remembered as the friends of bigotry and persecution, the most odious of all characters.


His brother John painted a miniature portrait of him as he appeared at this time—a beautiful youth, with the hair flowing over his shoulders, and his exquisitely-formed hands displayed to advantage. It was the second time he had sat to an artist. While he was with his father in America, a portrait of him was taken, as I have already stated, by somebody whose name I have not been able to recover (1783 was too early for John), representing the future philosopher and critic, anno ætatis five. It is a miniature of the smallest dimensions, adapted for a brooch. The features are infantile; yet is the man in the child to my apprehending.

At the age of fifteen my grandfather entered the
Unitarian College, Hackney, where he was under the immediate care and control of a
Mr. Corrie. A little before this he had begun to turn his attention to political and metaphysical questions. But at this early stage I must let him tell his own story in his own words:—

“When I was about fourteen (as long ago as the year 1792), in consequence of a dispute one day, after coming out of Meeting, between my father and an old lady of the congregation, respecting the repeal of the Corporation and Test Acts and the limits of religious toleration, I set about forming in my head (the first time I ever attempted to think) the following system of political rights and general jurisprudence.” With this explanation he introduces his ‘Project for a New Theory of Civil and Criminal Legislation,’ written in maturer years.

“It was this circumstance,” he goes on to tell us, “that decided the fate of my future life; or rather, I would say, it was from an original bias or craving to be satisfied of the reason of things, that I seized hold of this accidental opportunity to indulge in its uneasy and unconscious determination.”

He was at this time studying for the Church under Mr. Corrie’s more especial superintendence. Mr. Corrie found his pupil rather backward in many of the ordinary points of learning, and, in general, of a dry, intractable understanding. My grandfather at last disclosed to Mr. Corrie the fact that, although he appeared somewhat deficient in other matters, he thought he could do a little in a different way; and he hinted at what he was
about—this system of his. Mr. Corrie very kindly invited him to put his ideas down on paper, which he did.

My grandfather says further:—

Mr. Corrie, my old tutor at Hackney, may still have the rough draught of this speculation, which I gave him with tears in my eyes, and which he good-naturedly accepted in lieu of the customary themes, and as a proof that I was no idler; but that my inability to produce a line on the ordinary school topics arose from my being involved in more difficult and abstruse matters. He must smile at the so oft-repeated charge against me of florid flippancy and tinsel.

“If from those briars I have since plucked roses, what labour has it not cost me? The Test and Corporation Acts were repealed the other day.

“How would my father have rejoiced if this had happened in his time, and in concert with his old friends, Dr. Price, Dr. Priestley, and others!

“I began with trying to define what a right meant; and this I settled with myself was not simply that which is good or useful in itself, but that which is thought so by the individual, and which has the sanction of his will as such. . . . . The next question I asked myself was, what is law, and the real and necessary ground of civil government? The answer to this is found in the former statement. Law is something to abridge, or more properly speaking, to ascertain, the bounds of the original right, and to coerce the will of individuals in the community. . . . .”


I cannot afford room for further details respecting this piece of literary history, but the whole is printed among the works, and it certainly deserves respectful attention as Mr. Hazlitt’s earliest essay upon any subject. It preceded, by about five years, the commencement of his second labour, which was still more recondite and ambitious. I mean, of course, that he had written it out in a rough draught which he gave to his tutor; the essay, as it appears among the ‘Literary Remains,’ was not actually written till 1828.

The three letters which I subjoin were written during his stay at Hackney, and partially bear upon this question:—

“London, October 6th, 1793.
“Dear Father,

“I received your very kind letter yesterday morning. With respect to my past behaviour, I have often said, and I now assure you. that it did not proceed from any real disaffection, but merely from the nervous disorder to which, you well know, I was so much subject. This was really the case, however improbable it may appear. Nothing particular occurred from the time I wrote last, till the Saturday following. On the Wednesday before, Corrie had given me a theme. As it was not a subject suited to my genius, and from other causes, I had not written anything on it; so that I was not pleased to hear his bell on Saturday morning, which was the time for showing our themes. When I came to him, he asked me whether I had prepared my theme. I told him I had not. You should have a very good
reason indeed, sir, says he, for neglecting it. Why really, sir, says I, I could not write it. Did you never write anything, then, says he? Yes, sir, I said; I have written some things. Very well, then, go along and write your theme immediately, said he. I accordingly went away, but did not make much progress in my theme an hour after, when his bell rang for another lecture. My eyes were much swollen, and I assumed as sullen a countenance as I could, intimating that he had not treated me well. After the lecture, as I was going away, he called me back, and asked me very mildly if I had never written, anything. I answered, I had written several things. On which he desired me to let him see one of my compositions, if I had no objection. I immediately took him my ‘Essay on Laws,’ and gave it to him. When he had read it, he asked me a few questions on the subject, which I answered very satisfactorily, I believe. Well, sir, says he, I wish you’d write some more such things as this. Why, sir, said I, I intended to write several things which I have planned, but that I could not write any of them in a week, or two or three weeks. What did you intend to write? says he. Among other things, I told him that I intended to enlarge and improve the essay he had been reading. Ay, says he, I wish you would. Well, I will do it then, sir, said I. Do so, said he; take your own time now; I shall not ask you for it; only write it as soon as you can, for I shall often be thinking of it, and very desirous of it. This he repeated once or twice. On this I wished him a good morning, and came away, very well pleased with
the reception I had met. The Greek class which I have been in this week consists of two old students,
J. Mason, and myself. I think that I translate more correctly, and much better, than any of them. The other day Mason was laughing at me while I was translating a passage, on account of my way of speaking. Says Corrie to him, Mr. Mason, you should be sure you can translate yours as well as Mr. Hazlitt does his, before you laugh at your neighbours.

“I believe I am liked very well by the students, in general. I am pretty intimate with one of them, whose name is Tonson. F. Swanwick has been hitherto in a different class; but on applying to Corrie, he has been put into the same class with me. Farewell!

“I am your affectionate son,
“W. Hazlitt.”

“Sunday evening.
“Dear Father,

“I received your letter safely on Monday. On the preceding Saturday I finished the introduction to my essay on the ‘Political State of Man,’ and showed it to Corrie. He seemed very well pleased with it, and desired me to proceed with my essay as quickly as I could. After a few definitions, I give the following sketch of my plan:—

“‘In treating on the political state of man, I shall, first, endeavour to represent his natural political relations, and to deduce from these his natural political duties and his natural political rights; and, secondly, to
represent his artificial political relations, and to deduce from these his artificial political duties, and his artificial political rights.’ This I think an excellent plan. I wish I could execute it to my own satisfaction. I hope, however, to do it tolerably by Christmas. I have already got the greatest part of the ideas necessary, though in a crude and undigested state; so that my principal business will be to correct and arrange them., But this will be a terrible labour, and I shall rejoice most heartily when I have finished it.

Corrie seemed much pleased with some of my translations this week.

“I passed the Ass’s Bridge very safely and very solitarily on Friday. I like Domine (that is the name by which Dr. Rees goes here) and his lectures very much.

“I am your affectionate son,
“William Hazlitt.”

“Dear Father,

“I was sorry to hear from your two last letters that you wish me to discontinue my essay, as I am very desirous of finishing it, and as I think it necessary to do so. For I have already completed the two first propositions, and the third I have planned, and, shall be able to finish in a very short time: the fourth proposition, which will be the last, will consist only of a few lines. The first section you know I have done for some time; and the first and fourth propositions are exactly similar to the first, second, and fourth of the second section, so
that I have little else to do than to alter a few words. The third will consist principally of observations on government, laws, &c., most of which will be the same with what I have written before in my ‘Essay on Laws.’ My chief reason for wishing to continue my observations is, that by having a particular system of politics, I shall be better able to judge of the truth or falsehood of any principle which I hear or read, and of the justice or the contrary of any political transactions. Moreover, by comparing my own system with those of others, and with particular facts, I shall have it in my power to correct and improve it continually. But I can have neither of these advantages unless I have some standard by which to judge of, and of which to judge by, any ideas or proceedings which I may meet with. Besides, so far is my studying this subject from making me gloomy or low-spirited, that I am never so perfectly easy as when I am or have been studying it.

With respect to themes, I really think them rather disserviceable than otherwise. I shall not be able to make a good oration from my essay. It is too abstruse and exact for that purpose. I shall endeavour to write one on Providence, which will, I think, be a very good subject. I shall certainly make it my study to acquire as much politeness as I can. However, this is not the best place possible for acquiring it. I do not at all say that the fellows who are here do not know how to behave extremely well, but the behaviour which suits a set of young fellows, or boys, does not suit any other society. This circumstance, however, is of very little
consequence, as little else is necessary to politeness than ease and a desire of pleasing.

“I forget to tell you that Corrie has not returned me the first part of my essay.

“I am, dear father,
“Your affectionate son,
“William Hazlitt.”

I shall leave Mr. Hazlitt to speak for himself as much as possible henceforth. He says:—

“When I was quite a boy, my father used to take me to the Montpelier tea-gardens at Walworth.* Do I go there now? No; the place is deserted, and its borders and its beds o’erturned. I unlock the casket of memory, and draw back the warders of the brain; and there this scene of my infant wanderings still lives unfaded, or with fresher dyes. I see the beds of larkspur with purple eyes; tall hollyhocks, red and yellow; the broad sun-flowers, caked in gold, with bees buzzing round them; wildernesses of pinks and hot-glowing peonies; poppies run to seed; the sugared lily and faint mignionette, all ranged in order, and as thick as they can grow; the box-tree borders; the gravel walks; the painted alcove, the confectionery, the clotted cream—I think I see them now.

“When I was a boy I lived within sight of a range of

* Here we seem to have just a glimpse of an early experience of London life. This passage has led me to conjecture that at this time the Rev. W. Hazlitt was residing provisionally in or near Walworth; but I have no more distinct evidence of such a fact.

lofty hills,* whose blue tops blending with the setting sun had often tempted my longing eyes and wandering feet. At last I put my project in execution, and on a nearer approach, instead of glimmering air woven into fantastic shapes, found them huge lumpish heaps of discoloured earth.

“In the library of the family where we were brought up [he means in his father’s library] stood the Fratres Poloni;† and we can never forget or describe the feeling with which not only their appearance, but the names of the authors on the outside inspired us. Pripscovius, we remember, was one of the easiest to pronounce. The gravity of the contents seemed in proportion to the weight of the volumes; the importance of the subjects increased with our ignorance of them. The trivialness of the remarks, if ever we looked into them, the repetitions, the monotony, only gave a greater solemnity to the whole, as the slowness and minuteness of the evidence adds to the impressiveness of a judicial proceeding. We knew that the authors had devoted their whole lives to the production of these works, carefully abstaining from the introduction of anything amusing or lively or interesting. In the folio volumes there was not one sally of wit, one striking reflection. Such was the notion we then had of this learned lumber; yet we would rather have this feeling again for one half-hour

* The Wrekin.

† Polonorum Fratrum Bibliotheca quos Unitarios vocant, viz., Faustus Socinus, Jo. Crellius, Jo. Slichtingius, et J. L. “Wolzogenius, Opera, quæ omnia simul juncta totius Novi Testamenti explicationem complectuntur. 1656, 5 vols, folio.

than be possessed of all the acuteness of
Bayle or the wit of Voltaire!

“It was my misfortune perhaps to be bred up among dissenters, who look with too jaundiced an eye at others, and set too high a value on their own peculiar pretensions. From being proscribed themselves, they learn to proscribe others; and come in the end to reduce all integrity of principle and soundness of opinion within the pale of their own little communion. Those who were out of it, and did not belong to the class of Rational Dissenters, I was led erroneously to look upon as hardly deserving the name of rational beings.

“For many years of my life I did nothing but think. I had nothing else to do but solve some knotty point, or dip in some abstruse author, or look at the sky, or wander by the pebbled sea-side—
To see the children sporting on the shore,
And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.
I cared for nothing, I wanted nothing. I took my time to consider whatever occurred to me, and was in no hurry to give a sophistical answer to a question—there was no printer’s devil waiting for me. I used to write a page or two perhaps in half a year, and remember laughing heartily at the celebrated experimentalist,
Nicholson, who told me that in twenty years he had written as much as would make three hundred octavo volumes. If I was not a great author, I could read with ever fresh delight, ‘never ending, still beginning,’ and had no occasion to write a criticism when I had
done. If I could not paint like
Claude, I could admire ‘the witchery of the soft blue sky,’ as I walked out, and was satisfied with the pleasure it gave me. . . . I had no relations to the state, no duty to perform, no ties to bind me to others; I had neither friend nor mistress, wife or child. I lived in a world of contemplation, and not of action. This sort of dreaming existence is the best.

“I tried to read some of the dialogues in the translation of Plato [by Taylor], but I confess I could make nothing of it; the logic was so different from ours!

“I never could make much of Cicero, except his two treatises on Friendship and Old Age, which are most amiable gossiping. I see that Canning borrowed his tautology from Cicero, who runs on with such expressions as, ‘I will bear, I will suffer, I will endure.’ This is bad enough in the original; it is inexcusable in the copy. Cicero’s style, however, answered to the elegance of his finely-turned features; and in his long, graceful neck you may trace his winding and involuted periods.”

In them Mr. Hazlitt said that he did not believe “more than he could help.”

He mentions being present, when he was sixteen, at “a large party composed of men, women, and children, in which two persons of remarkable candour and ingenuity were labouring (as hard as if they had been paid for it) to prove that all prayer was a mode of dictating to the Almighty, and an arrogant assumption of superiority. A gentleman present said, with great simplicity and naïveté, that there was one prayer which
did not strike him as coming exactly under this description; and being asked what that was, made answer, ‘The Samaritan’s—Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.’ This appeal by no means settled the sceptical dogmatism of the two disputants, and soon after the proposer of the objection went away; at which one of them observed, with great marks of satisfaction and triumph—‘I am afraid we have shocked that gentleman’s prejudices.’ This did not appear to me at that time quite the thing, and this happened in the year 1794.”

About this time he wandered about in many places alone; and oh! yet not alone. He visited Burleigh, and saw its pictures for the first time—he went there twice afterwards. He also undertook (it must have been about now) a pilgrimage to Wisbeach, in Cambridgeshire, “to see the town where his mother was born, and the poor farmhouse where she was brought up, and the gate, where she told him that she used to stand, when a child of ten years old, and look at the setting sun!” These are his own very words, put down five-and-twenty years afterwards; and seventy years afterwards, I, transcribing them, find my eyes filling with tears, at recollections so affecting—so nearly being personal!

Till his dying day, he retained in his heart and in his mind a lifelike and fond remembrance of the happy days at Wem.

“If I see a row of cabbage-plants, or of peas or beans coming up, I immediately think of those I used so carefully to water of an evening at Wem, when
my day’s tasks were done, and of the pain with which I saw them droop and hang down their leaves in the morning’s sun. Again, I never see a child’s kite in the air, but it seems to pull at my heart. It is to me ‘a thing of life.’ I feel the twinge at my elbow, the flutter and palpitation with which I used to let go the string of my own, as it rose in the air and towered among the clouds.”