I rarely admire conservatives. However, in reading 19th Century English history, I grudgingly make an exception for Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington. His dry wit and clear-sightedness make him unusual among people of any political opinion.
That’s not to say that he would have been an easy person to spend time around. As both a general and a politician, he liked praise, was physically vain, and always conscious of his class superiority. A contemporary description said that he was socially condescending to his intellectual equals, and intellectually condescending to his social equals, which must have made him a hard man to know or tolerate at times.
All the same, anyone with his sense of humor is hard for me to dislike altogether. Although his most well-known quote is probably, “Publish and be damned!”(to a writer who threatened to publish an account of his involvement with the famous courtesan Harriet Wilson), many of his quotes show a sardonic turn of mind.
Because of the way he dominated English public life in the first half of the nineteenth century, it is hard to be sure what he actually said and what was attributed to him. Probably, he did not explain that he was English despite being born in Ireland by remarking that being born in a stable doesn’t make you a horse, but I would like to think that he did. Probably, the same is true of his comment on some troops newly arrived in Spain: “I don’t know what effect these men will have on the enemy, but by God, they terrify me.”
However, he did comment on the first reform parliament, which brought in the first middle-class MPs with a snobbish, “I never saw so many shocking bad hats in my life,” and, when some French soldiers accidentally turned their backs on him at a diplomatic event, shrug off the unintentional insult with, “I have seen their backs before.” Since the apocryphal remarks have the same sort of sting, he could very well have said them, too.
Probably my favorite Wellington quote occurred when Caroline of Brunswick, the wife of George IV, reappeared in England for his coronation after years of scandalous behavior throughout Europe. Although Caroline was a stranger to personal hygiene and had many other unsavory habits, the Whigs championed her as a way of embarrassing the equally unpleasant Prince Regent. A group of Whig supporters stopped Wellington’s carriage in the streets and demanded that he acclaim Caroline as Queen.
“Very well, gentleman,” Wellington is reported to have said, “Since you would have it so, God Save Queen Caroline – and may all your wives be like her.”
But as enjoyable as such quotations are, what really makes Wellington remarkable was his pragmatism. Unlike most Conservatives – or people of any ideology, for that matter – he rarely seems to have mistaken his political convictions for reality when the two conflicted. He may have been a chauvinist who believed in the superiority of the English, but he could work with the sepoys of India or the Portuguese when he had to. Similarly, the Spanish guerrillas were hardly fighting the kind of war he had learned, but he was sensible enough to know that he needed them. And if he described his troops in the Peninsular War as “the scum of the earth,” he also immediately added, “it really is wonderful that we should have made them the fine fellows they are” and took care to keep them supplied and not to waste their lives in long sieges or battles where they were vastly outnumbered.
The same attitude is seen in his later political career. As a conservative cabinet minister and prime minister, Wellington was not a supporter of Catholic emancipation or parliamentary reforms. Yet he introduced Catholic emancipation, and, for a while considered leading a government to bring in reform because he realized that some action was inevitable. True, he granted the minimum of reform that was necessary to defuse the issues, but where other Tories stood on principle and refused any change whatsoever, Wellington knew some action was necessary.
For all his class prejudice and conceit, there is a kind of honesty in everything Wellington did. When he learned that Napoleon had outmaneuvered him in the Waterloo campaign, his first response was, “Napoleon has humbugged me, by God” – no attempt at denial or excuses, but perhaps a reluctant respect for his opponent. And, after the battle, in which tens of thousands were killed on both sides, he admitted that it was “the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life,” and, reflecting upon the loss of both friends and common soldiers, remarked, “Nothing except a battle lost can be half as melancholy as a battle won.”
Unlike Napoleon, Wellington never talked about glory, never wasted energy or lives in grandiose plans, and was only rarely wrong in his estimation of a martial or political situation. He would have been an easy man to dislike, but, I suspect, also one who was impossible not to respect.