On the Death of Queen Victoria

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Editor’s note: The following address was delivered by Sir Henri Charles Wilfrid Laurier, 7th Prime Minister of Canada, to the Canadian Parliament on February 8, 1901 (extracted from The World’s Famous Orations, Vol. 5).

We have met under the shadow of a death which has caused more universal mourning than has ever been recorded in the pages of history. In these words there is no exaggeration; they are the literal truth. There is mourning in the United Kingdom, in the Colonies, and in the many islands and continents which form the great empire over which extend the sovereignty of Queen Victoria. There is mourning deep, sincere, heartfelt in the mansions of the great, and of the rich, and in the cottages of the poor and lowly; for to all her subjects, whether high or low, whether rich or poor, the queen, in her long reign had become an object of almost sacred veneration.

There is sincere and unaffected regret in all of the nations of Europe, for all the nations of Europe had learned to appreciate, to admire, and to envy the many qualities of Queen Victoria, those many public and domestic virtues which were the pride of her subjects.

There is genuine grief in the neighboring nation of seventy-five million inhabitants, the kinsmen of her own people, by whom at all times and under all circumstances her name was held in high reverence, and where, in the darkest days of the Civil War, when the relations of the two countries were strained almost to the point of snapping, the poet Whittier well expressed the feeling of his countrymen when he exclaimed:

“We bowed the heart, if not the knee,
To England’s Queen, God bless her.”

There is wailing and lamentation among the savage and barbarian peoples of her vast empire, in the wigwams of our own Indian tribes, in the huts of the colored races of Africa and of India, to whom she was at all times the Great Mother, the living impersonation of majesty and benevolence. Aye, and there is mourning also, genuine and unaffected, in the farmhouses of South Africa, which have been lately and still are devastated by war, for it is a fact that above the clang of arms, above the many angers engendered by the war, the name of Queen Victoria was always held in high respect, even by those who are fighting her troops, as a symbol of justice, and perhaps her kind hand was much relied upon when the supreme hour of reconciliation should come.

Undoubtedly we may find in history instances where death has caused perhaps more passionate outbursts of grief, but it is impossible to find instances where death has caused so universal, so sincere, so heartfelt an expression of sorrow. In the presence of these many evidences of grief which come not only from her own dominions, but from all parts of the globe; in the presence of so many tokens of admiration, where it is not possible to find a single discordant note; in the presence of the immeasurable void caused by the death of Queen Victoria, it is not too much to say that the grave has just closed upon one of the great characters of history.

What is greatness? We are accustomed to call great those exceptional beings upon whom heaven has bestowed some of its choicest gifts, which astonish and dazzle the world by the splendor of faculties, phenomenally developed, even when these faculties are much marred by defects and weaknesses which make them nugatory of the good.

But this is not, in my estimation at least, the highest conception of greatness. The equipoise of a well-balanced mind, the equilibrium of faculties well and evenly ordered, the luminous in sight of a calm judgment, are gifts which are as rarely found in one human being as the possession of the more dazzling though less solid qualities. And when these high qualities are found in a ruler of men, combined with purity of soul, kindness of heart, generosity of disposition, elevation of purpose, and devotion to duty, this is what seems to me to be the highest conception of greatness, greatness which will be abundantly productive of happiness and glory to the people under such a sovereign. If I mistake not, such was the character of Queen Victoria, and such were the results of her rule. It has been our privilege to live under her reign, and it must be admitted that her reign was of the grandest in history, rivaling in length and more than rivaling in glory the long reign of Louis XIV, and, more than the reign of Louis XIV, likely to project its luster into future ages.

If we cast our glance back over the sixty-four years into which was encompassed the reign of Queen Victoria, we stand astonished, however familiar we may be with the facts, at the development of civilization which has taken place during that period. We stand astonished at the advance of culture, of wealth, of legislation, of education, of literature, of the arts and sciences, of locomotion by land and by sea, and of almost every department of human activity.

The age of Queen Victoria must be held to be on a par with the most famous within the memory of man. Of course, of many facts and occurrences which have contributed to make the reign of Queen Victoria what it was, to give it the splendor which has created such an impression upon her own country, and which has shed such a luminous trail all over the world, many took place apart and away from her influence. Many events took place in relation to which the most partial panegyrists would, no doubt, have to say, that they were simply the happy circumstance of the time in which she lived. Science, for instance, might have obtained the same degree of development under another monarch .

It is also possible that literature might have flourished under another monarch, but I believe that the contention can be advanced, and advanced truly, that the literature of the Victorian age to a large extent reflected the influence of the queen. To the eternal glory of the literature of the reign of Queen Victoria be it said, that it was pure and absolutely free from the grossness which disgraced it in former ages, and which still unhappily is the shame of the literature of other countries. Happy indeed is the country whose literature is of such a character that it can be the intellectual food of the family circle; that it can be placed by the mother in the hands of her daughter with abundant assurance that while the mind is improved the heart is not polluted. Such is the literature of the Victorian age. For this blessing, in my judgment, no small credit is due to the example and influence of our departed queen. It is a fact well known in history, that in England as in other countries, the influence of the sovereign was always reflected upon the literature of the reign. In former ages, when the court was impure, the literature of the nation was impure, but in the age of Queen Victoria, where the life of the court was pure, the literature of the age was pure also. If it be true that there is a real connection between the high moral standard of the court of the sovereign and the literature of the age, then I can say without hesitation that Queen Victoria has conferred, not only upon her own people, but upon mankind at large, a gift for which we can never have sufficient appreciation.

Queen Victoria was the first of all sovereigns who was absolutely impersonal — impersonal politically, I mean. Whether the question at issue was the abolition of the Corn Laws, or the war in the Crimea, or the extension of the suffrage, or the disestablishment of the Irish Church, or Home Rule in Ireland, the queen never gave any information of what her views were upon any of these great political issues. Her subjects never knew what were her personal views, though views she had, because she was a woman of strong intellect, and we know that she followed public events with great eagerness. We can presume, indeed we know, that whenever a new policy was presented to her by her prime minister she discussed that policy with him, and sometimes approved or sometimes, perhaps, dissented.

But that is not all. The most remarkable event in the reign of Queen Victoria — an event which took place in silence and unobserved — the most remarkable event in the reign of the late queen was the marvelous progress in Colonial development, development which, based upon local autonomy, ended in colonial expansion. What has been the cause of that marvelous change? The cause is primarily the personality of Queen Victoria. Of course the visible and chief cause of all is the bold policy inaugurated many years ago of introducing parliamentary constitutional government, and allowing the Colonies to govern themselves.

But, sir, it is manifest that self-government could never have been truly effective in Canada had it not been that there was a wise sovereign reigning in England, who had herself given the fullest measure of constitutional government to her own people. If the people of England had not been ruled by a wise queen; if they had not themselves possessed parliamentary government in the truest sense of the term; if the British Parliament had been as it had been under former kings in open contention with the sovereign, then it is quite manifest that Canada could not have enjoyed the development of constitutional government which she enjoys today . It is quite manifest that if the people of England had not possessed constitutional government in the fullest degree at home, they could not have given it to the Colonies; and thus the action of the queen in giving constitutional government to England has strengthened the throne, not only in England, but in the Colonies as well.

At the close of the Civil War, when the union of the United States had been confirmed, when slavery had been abolished, when rebellion had been put down, the civilized world was shocked to hear of the foul assassination of the wise and good man who had carried his country through that ordeal. Then the good heart and sound judgment of the queen were again manifested. She sent a letter to the widow of the martyred president — not as the queen of Great Britain to the widow of the president of the United States, but she sent a letter of sympathy from a widow to a widow, herself being then in the first years of her own bereavement. That action on her part made a very deep impression upon the minds of the American people; it touched not only the heart of the widowed wife, but the heart of the widowed nation; it stirred the souls of strong men; it caused tears to course down the cheeks of veterans who had courted death during the previous four years on a thousand battlefields.

I do not say that it brought about reconciliation, but it made reconciliation possible. It was the first rift in the clouds; and today, in the time of England’s mourning, the American people flock to their churches, pouring their blessings upon the memory of Britain’s queen. I do not hope, I do not believe it possible, that the two countries which were severed in the eighteenth century, can ever be again united politically; but perhaps it is not too much to hope that the friendship thus inaugurated by the hand of the queen may continue to grow until the two nations are united again, not by legal bonds, but by ties of affection as strong, perhaps, as if sanctioned by all the majesty of the laws of the two countries; and if such an event were ever to take place, the credit of it would be due to the wise and noble woman who thus would have proved herself to be one of the greatest of statesmen simply by following the instincts of her heart.

Sir, in a life in which there is so much to be admired, perhaps the one thing most to be admired is that naturalness, that simplicity in the character of the queen which showed itself in such actions as I have just described. From the first day of her reign to the last, she conquered and kept the affections of her people, simply because under all circumstances, and on all occasions, whether important or trivial, she did the one thing that ought to be done, and did it in the way most natural and simple.

She is now no more — no more? Nay, I boldly say she lives — lives in the hearts of her subjects; lives in the pages of history. And as the ages revolve, as her pure profile stands more marked against the horizon of time, the verdict of posterity will ratify the judgment of those who were her subjects. She ennobled mankind; she exalted royalty; the world is better for her life.

Sir, the queen is no more; let us with one heart say, Long live the king!

Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Raised in a home filled with books on Western civilization, P.G. Mantel became a lover of history at an early age. An amateur writer of verse, he makes himself useful as an editor for Men of the West.

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