CHAPTER XV. THE BATTLE OF WATERLOO, 1815.
"Thou first and last of fields, king-making victory." - BYRON.
England has now been blest with thirty-seven years of peace. At no other period of her history can a similarly long cessation from a state of warfare be found. It is true that our troops have had battles to fight during this interval for the protection and extension of our Indian possessions and our colonies; but these have been with distant and unimportant enemies. The danger has never been brought near our own shores, and no matter of vital importance to our empire has ever been at stake. We have not had hostilities with either France, America, or Russia; and when not at war with any of our peers, we feel ourselves to be substantially at peace. There has, indeed, throughout this long period, been no great war, like those with which the previous history of modern Europe abounds. There have been formidable collisions between particular states; and there have been still more formidable collisions between the armed champions of the conflicting principles of absolutism and democracy; but there has been no general war, like those of the French Revolution, like the American, or the Seven Years' War, or like the War of the Spanish Succession. It would be far too much to augur from this, that no similar wars will again convulse the world; but the value of the period of peace which Europe has gained, is incalculable; even if we look on it as only a truce, and expect again to see the nations of the earth recur to what some philosophers have termed man's natural state of warfare.
No equal number of years can be found, during which science, commerce, and civilization have advanced so rapidly and so extensively, as has been the case since 1815. When we trace their progress, especially in this country, it is impossible not to feel that their wondrous development has been mainly due to the land having been at peace. [See the excellent Introduction to Mr. Charles Knight's "History of the Thirty Years' Peace."] Their good effects cannot be obliterated, even if a series of wars were to recommence. When we reflect on this, and contrast these thirty-seven years with the period that preceded them, a period of violence, of tumult, of unrestingly destructive energy, - a period throughout which the wealth of nations was scattered like sand, and the blood of nations lavished like water, - it is impossible not to look with deep interest on the final crisis of that dark and dreadful epoch; the crisis out of which our own happier cycle of years has been evolved. The great battle which ended the twenty-three years' war of the first French Revolution, and which quelled the man whose genius and ambition had so long disturbed and desolated the world, deserves to be regarded by us, not only with peculiar pride, as one of our greatest national victories, but with peculiar gratitude for the repose which it secured for us, and for the greater part of the human race.
One good test for determining the importance of Waterloo, is to ascertain what was felt by wise and prudent statesmen before that battle, respecting the return of Napoleon from Elba to the Imperial throne of France, and the probable effects of his success. For this purpose, I will quote the words, not of any of our vehement anti-Gallican politicians of the school of Pitt, but of a leader of our Liberal party, of a man whose reputation as a jurist, a historian and a far-sighted and candid statesman, was, and is, deservedly high, not only in this country, but throughout Europe. Sir James Mackintosh, in the debate in the British House of Commons, on the 20th April, 1815, spoke thus of the return from Elba: -
"Was it in the power of language to describe the evil. Wars which had raged for more than twenty years throughout Europe; which had spread blood and desolation from Cadiz to Moscow, and from Naples to Copenhagen; which had wasted the means of human enjoyment, and destroyed the instruments of social improvement; which threatened to diffuse among the European nations, the dissolute and ferocious habits of a predatory soldiery, - at length, by one of those vicissitudes which bid defiance to the foresight of man, had been brought to a close, upon the whole, happy beyond all reasonable expectation, with no violent shock to national independence, with some tolerable compromise between the opinions of the age and reverence due to ancient institutions; with no too signal or mortifying triumph over the legitimate interests or avowable feelings of any numerous body of men, and, above all, without those retaliations against nations or parties, which beget new convulsions, often as horrible as those which they close, and perpetuate revenge and hatred and bloodshed, from age to age. Europe seemed to breathe after her sufferings. In the midst of this fair prospect, and of these consolatory hopes, Napoleon Bonaparte escaped from Elba; three small vessels reached the coast of Provence; our hopes are instantly dispelled; the work of our toil and fortitude is undone; the blood of Europe is spilt in vain -
"'Ibi omnis effusus labor!'"