Cache-Control: public, max-age=1024000 Mr Canning at the Clifford Street Club


There was in the last century, a debating Club, which boasted for a short time, a brighter assemblage of talent than is usually found to flourish in societies of this description. Its meetings, which took place once a month, were held at the Clifford-street Coffee-house, at the corner of Bond-street. The debaters were chiefly Mackintosh, Richard Sharp, a Mr. Ollyett Woodhouse; Charles Moore, son of the celebrated traveller; and Lord Charles Townshend, fourth son of the facetious and eccentric Marquis. The great primitive principles of civil government were then much discussed. It was before the French Revolution had "brought death into the world and all its woe."

At the Clifford-street Society, Canning generally took "the liberal side" of the above questions. His earliest prepossessions are well known to have inclined to this side; but he evidently considered the Society rather as a school of rhetorical exercise, where he might acquire the use of his weapons, than a forum, where the serious profession of opinions, and a consistent adherence to them, could be fairly expected of him. One evening, the question for debate was "the justice and expediency of resuming the ecclesiastical property of France." Before the debate began, Canning had taken some pains to ascertain on which side the majority of the members seemed inclined to speak; and finding that they were generally in favour of the resumption, he expressed his fears that the unanimity of sentiment would spoil the discussion; so, he volunteered to speak against it. He did so, and it was a speech of considerable power, chiefly in reply to the opener, who, in a set discourse of some length, had asserted the revocable conditions of the property of the church, which, being created, he said, by the state, remained ever after at its disposition. Canning denied the proposition that ecclesiastical property was the creature of the state. He contended that though it might be so in a new government, yet, speaking historically, the great as well as lesser ecclesiastical fiefs were coeval with the crown of France, frequently strong enough to maintain fierce and not unequal conflicts with it, and certainly not in their origin emanations from its bounty. The church, he said, came well dowered to the state, who was now suing for a divorce, in order to plunder her pin-money. He contended that the church property stood upon the same basis, and ought to be protected by the same sanctions, as private property. It was originally, he said, accumulated from the successive donations with which a pious benevolence ought to enrich the fountains, from which spiritual comfort ought to flow to the wretched, the poor, the forsaken. He drew an energetic sketch of Mirabeau, the proposer of the measure, by whose side, he remarked, the worst characters in history, the Cleons, the Catilines, the Cetheguses, of antiquity, would brighten into virtue. He said that the character of the lawgiver tainted the law. It was proffered to the National Assembly by hands hot and reeking from the cells of sensuality and vice; it came from a brain inflamed and distended into frenzy by habitual debauchery. These are, of course, but faint sketches of this very early specimen of Canning as a speaker. The humour and irony with which he delighted his auditors are indescribable. He displayed the same powers of pleasantry which, in maturer years, enlivened the dulness of debate, and softened the asperities of party. He was, indeed, less rapid, and more measured in his elevation; sometimes impeded in flow, probably, from too fastidious a selection of words; but it was impossible not to predict that at no very distant period he would rise into high distinction as a parliamentary speaker.

Canning was then the most handsome man about town; and his fine countenance glowed, as he spoke, with every sentiment which he uttered. It was customary during the debates at the Clifford-street Senate, for pots of porter to be introduced by way of refreshment. Canning, in his eloquent tirade against Mirabeau, handled the peculiar style of the Count's oratory with great severity. The president had, during this part of Canning's speech, given a signal for a pot of porter, which had been brought in and placed before him. It served Canning for an illustration. "Sir," said he, "much has been said about the gigantic powers of Mirabeau; let us not be carried away by the false jargon of his philosophy, or imagine that deep political wisdom resides in tumid and decorated diction. To the steady eye of a sagacious criticism, the eloquence of Mirabeau will appear to be as empty and vapid as his patriotism. It is like the beverage that stands so invitingly before you,—foam and froth at the top, heavy and muddy within."

John Timbs
Club Life of London Vol. I
London, 1866