190 years of The Spectator
21 May 1831
Lucretius tells us, in some famous lines, that it is a pleasant thing to watch the sea in a tempest, from the shore: it is a far more gratifying employment to be throwing out Manby’s lifesaving apparatus, and saving the sinking mariners from the wreck. We have more than once observed, that it is difficult to be a mere spectator in times like these. It is all very well, in the piping times of domestic content, to sit still and report progress; but when, as in the great business of Reform, everything is at stake, it is the duty of even neutrals to arm. It is sometimes criminal not to take a side — there are cases in which he that is not with us must be against us. Such is the grand struggle that is now agitating the country from its centre to its remotest corners. No man, or body of men, with the right feelings of citizens, unless in a state of extreme and woeful ignorance, can merely look upon the passage of the Great Measure as he would look upon any common spectacle. It would, in truth, be but a poor topic of consolation for us to reflect upon in later life, long after the Bill has passed, and when its beneficial consequences are spreading contentment and prosperity over the whole land, that we amused ourselves, at the moment of crisis, in watching the patriotic efforts of better citizens; and that, having more power of doing good than many others, we satisfied our conscience with doing less. No, no. In ordinary times, we consider ourselves of the Commissariat department, and confine our cares to supplying provisions for the camp; but who, when all is at issue, can stand upon a hill and gaze upon the varying fortunes of the battle?
When the Parliament is reformed and the Constitution renovated, we intend to have our names inscribed, like those of active churchwardens, upon the amended structure. We shall then, no other great cause demanding our aid, resume our former tranquil position, and return to the pleasant duties of ‘taking notes’ of events, instead of helping to guide them. We shall then once more be entitled to our old character of quiet and intelligent — of a pleasant companion, who knows all that is passing, and yet offends no one by taking up any side with uncomfortable warmth — misrepresenting no cause, and irritating no private feelings — an accurate observer for the gentlemen, a sage adviser for the ladies — a political thermometer, a fashionable barometer — with plenty to say and to tell on all sublunary subjects, from Russia to Rapeseed, from Raphael to a Ribbon. Those times of pleasant companionship with our public will soon return, and we shall hail them with delight — none will hang up all the signs of hostility with more genuine satisfaction than ourselves. But let us earn our repose.