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May 16 1812: Southey to Bedford



On May 16 1812, Robert Southey again writes to his friend Grosvenor Charles Bedford about the assassination of  Spencer Perceval. He is still weeping. The letter demonstrates the centrality of the idea of the established church in Southey's thinking. For him, it is the necessary institution for society. He firmly believes that concessions to Catholics will weaken the established church and lead to societal chaos. Southey's support for the established church is not based on religious belief. He candidly admits that he cannot subscribe to the articles of faith of the church. Coleridge, a far more sophisticated thinker, will develop the same preoccupations and fears of Southey, in a more nuanced way, with his idea of the clerisy. Coleridge envisioned the  clerisy as a national class or order that will maintain "culture" and learning of the nation. The idea has its origins in a conception of the established church. Both writers are grappling with ways to organize society to allow for order, security but also for the advance of "civilization" which is being mutated into a concept of "culture".  As professional men of letters, they both have vested interests in such a "culture." In fairness, they are also more finely attuned -- sometimes overly so -- to the ideological fissures created abroad by the French Revolution.  In addition, Southey is also preoccupied by the "convulsions" caused by the "inevitable tendency of the manufacturing system" which many fear is giving birth to a world of Luddite extremism and violence not much removed from the chaos and violence that Southey associates with the French Revolution. Southey's letter is reproduced below. 

Keswick, May 16. 1812.
My dear Grosvenor,

I have myself so strong a sense of Mr. Perceval's public merits, that I cannot help writing to you to say how much I wish that a statue might be erected to him. This could only be done by subscription; but surely such a subscription might soon be filled, if his friends think it advisable. Suggest this to Herries; and if the thing should be begun, when the list has the proper names to begin with, put mine down for five guineas, which could not at this time be better employed.

The fit place for this statue would be the spot where he fell. Permission to place it there would no doubt be obtained, and the opposition made to it would only recoil upon his political enemies.

I have often been grieved by public events, but never so depressed by any as by this. It is not the shock which has produced this; nor the extent of private misery which this wretched madman has occasioned, though I can scarcely refrain from tears while I write. It is my deep and ominous sense of danger to the country, from the Burdettites on one hand, and from Catholic concessions on the other. You know I am no high-church bigot; it would be impossible for me to subscribe to the Church Articles. Upon the mysterious points I rather withhold assent than refuse it; not presuming to define in my own imperfect conceptions what has been left indefinite. But I am convinced that the overthrow of the Church establishment would bring with it the greatest calamities for us and for our children. If any man could have saved it, it was Mr. Perceval. The repeal of the Test Act will let in Catholics, and invite more Dissenters. When the present Duke of Norfolk dies, you will have Catholic members for all his boroughs. All these parties will join in plundering the Church. No man is more thankful for the English Reformation than I am; but nearly a century and a half elapsed before the evils which it necessarily originated had subsided.

As for conciliating the wild Irish by such concessions, the notion is so preposterous, that when I know a man of understanding can maintain such an opinion, it makes me sick at heart to think upon what sandy foundations every political fabric seems to rest!

I have strayed on unintentionally. Go to Herries, and if he will enter into my feelings about the statue, let no time be lost. God bless you!

R. S.

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