Birthplace: London, England
Location of death: London, England
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, Kensal Green Cemetery, London, England
Race or Ethnicity: White
Executive summary: Instigated the Edinburgh Review
English writer and divine, son of Robert Smith, was born at Woodford, Essex (part of London), on the 3rd of June 1771. His father, a man of restless ingenuity and activity, "very clever, odd by nature, but still more odd by design", who bought, altered, spoiled and sold about nineteen different estates in England, had talent and eccentricity enough to be the father of such a wit as Sydney Smith on the strictest principles of heredity; but Sydney himself attributed not a little of his constitutional gaiety to an infusion of French blood, his maternal grandfather being a French Protestant refugee of the name of Olier. Sydney was the second of a family of four brothers and one sister, all remarkable for their talents. While two of the brothers, Robert Percy, known as "Bobus", afterwards advocate-general of Bengal, and Cecil, were sent to Eton, Sydney was sent with the youngest to Winchester, where he rose to be captain of the school, and with his brother so distinguished himself that their schoolfellows signed a round-robin "refusing to try for the college prizes if the Smiths were allowed to contend for them any more, as they always gained them." At some time during his Oxford career he spent six months in France, being duly enrolled for safety's sake in the local Jacobin club. In 1789 he had become a scholar of New College, Oxford; he received a fellowship after two years' residence, took his degree in 1792 and proceeded M.A. in 1796. It was his wish then to read for the bar, but his father would add nothing to his fellowship, and he was reluctantly compelled to take holy orders. He was ordained priest at Oxford in 1796, and became a curate in the small village of Nether Avon, near Amesbury, in the midst of Salisbury Plain. The place was uncongenial enough, but Sydney Smith did much for the inhabitants, providing the means for the rudiments of education, and thus making better things possible. The squire of the parish, Michael Hicks-Beach, invited the new curate to dine, was astonished and charmed to find such a man in such a place, and engaged him after a time as tutor to his eldest son. It was arranged that they should proceed to the university of Weimar, but, before reaching their destination Germany was disturbed by war, and "in stress of politics" said Smith, "we put into Edinburgh." This was in 1798. While his pupil attended lectures, Smith was not idle. He studied moral philosophy under Dugald Stewart, and devoted much time to medicine and chemistry. He also preached in the Episcopal chapel, where his practical brilliant discourses attracted many hearers.
In 1800 he published his first book, Six Sermons, preached in Charlotte Street Chapel, Edinburgh, and in the same year, married, against the wishes of her friends, Catharine Amelia Pybus. They settled at No. 46 George Street, Edinburgh, where, as everywhere else, Smith made numerous friends, among them the future Edinburgh Reviewers. It was towards the end of his five years' residence in Edinburgh, in the eighth or ninth storey or flat in a house in Buccleuch Place, the elevated residence of the then Mr. Jeffrey, that Sydney Smith proposed the setting up of a review as an organ for the young malcontents with things as they were. "I was appointed editor", he says in the preface to the collection of his contributions, "and remained long enough in Edinburgh to edit the first number (October 1802) of the Edinburgh Review. The motto I proposed for the Review was Tenui musam meditamur avena -- We cultivate literature on a little oatmeal. But this was too near the truth to be admitted, and so we took our present grave motto from Publius Syrus, of whom, none of us, I am sure, had ever read a single line." He continued to write for the Review for the next quarter of a century, and his brilliant articles were a main element in its success.
He left Edinburgh for good in 1803, when the education of his pupils was completed, and settled in London, where he rapidly became known as a preacher, a lecturer and a social lion. His success as a preacher, although so marked that there was often not standing room in Berkeley Chapel, Mayfair, where he was morning preacher, was not gained by any sacrifice of dignity. He was also "alternate evening preacher" at the Foundling Hospital, and preached at the Berkeley Chapel and the Fitzroy Chapel, now St. Saviour's Church, Fitzroy Square. He lectured on moral philosophy at the Royal Institution for three seasons, from 1804 to 1806: and treated his subject with such vigor, freshness and liveliness of illustration that the London world crowded to Albemarle Street to hear him. He followed in the main Dugald Stewart, whose lectures he had attended in Edinburgh; but there is more originality as well as good sense in his lectures, especially on such topics as imagination and wit and humor, than in many more pretentious systems of philosophy. He himself had no high idea of these entertaining performances, and threw them in the fire when they had served their purpose -- providing the money for furnishing his house. But his wife rescued the charred manuscripts and published them in 1850 as Elementary Sketches of Moral Philosophy.
With the brilliant reputation that Sydney Smith had acquired in the course of a few seasons in London, he would probably have obtained some good preferment had he been on the powerful side in politics. Sydney Smith's elder brother "Bobus" had married Caroline Vernon, aunt of the 3rd Lord Holland, and he was always a welcome visitor at Holland House. His Whig friends came into office for a short time in 1806, and presented him with the living of Foston-le-Clay in Yorkshire. He shrank from this banishment for a time, and discharged his parish duties through a curate; but Spencer Perceval's Residence Act was passed in 1808, and after trying in vain to negotiate an exchange, he quitted London in 1809, and moved his household to Yorkshire. The Ministry of "All the Talents" was driven out of office in 1807 in favor of a "no popery" party, and in that year appeared the first installment of Sydney Smith's most famous production, Peter Plymley's Letters, on the subject of Catholic emancipation, ridiculing the opposition of the country clergy. It was published as A Letter on the Subject of the Catholics to my brother Abraham who lives in the Country, by Peter Plymley. Nine other letters followed before the end of 1808, when they appeared in collected form. Peter Plymley's identity was a secret, but rumors got abroad of the real authorship. Lord Holland wrote to him expressing his own opinion and Grenville's, that there had been nothing like it since the days of Jonathan Swift. He also pointed out that Swift had lost a bishopric for his wittiest performance. The special and temporary nature of the topics advanced in these pamphlets has not prevented them from taking a permanent place in literature, secured for them by the vigorous, picturesque style, the generous eloquence and clearness of exposition which Sydney Smith could always command. In his country parish of Foston, with no educated neighbor within 7 miles, Sydney Smith accommodated himself cheerfully to his new circumstances, and won the hearts of his parishioners as quickly as he had conquered a wider world. There had been no resident clergyman in his parish for 150 years; he had a farm of 300 acres to keep in order; a rectory had to be built. All these things were attended to beside his contributions to the Edinburgh Review. "If the chances of life ever enable me to emerge", he nevertheless writes to Lady Holland, "I will show you I have not been wholly occupied by small and sordid pursuits." He continued to serve the cause of toleration by ardent speeches in favor of Catholic emancipation; his eloquence being specially directed against those who maintained that a Roman Catholic could not be believed on his oath. "I defy Dr. [Patrick] Duigenan", he pleaded, addressing a meeting of clergy in 1823, "in the full vigor of his incapacity, in the strongest access of that Protestant epilepsy with which he was so often convulsed, to have added a single security to the security of that oath." At this time appeared one of his most vigorous and effective polemics, A Letter to the Electors upon the Catholic Question (1826).
Sydney Smith, after twenty years service in Yorkshire, obtained preferment at last from a Tory minister, Lord Lyndhurst, who presented him with a prebend in Bristol cathedral in 1828, and afterwards enabled him to exchange Foston for the living of Combe Florey, near Taunton, which he held conjointly with the living of Halberton attached to his prebend. From this time he discontinued writing for the Edinburgh Review on the ground that it was more becoming in a dignitary of the church to put his name to what he wrote. It was expected that when the Whigs came into power Sydney Smith would be made a bishop. There was nothing in his writings, as in the case of Swift, to stand in the way. He had been most sedulous as a parochial clergyman. Doctoring his parishioners, he said, was his only rural amusement. His religion was wholly of a practical nature, and his fellow-clergy had reasons for their suspicion of his very limited theology, which excluded mysticism of any sort. "The Gospel", he said, "has no enthusiasm." His scorn for enthusiasts and dread of religious emotion found vent in middle life in his strictures on missionary enterprise, and bitter attacks on Methodism, and later in many scoffs at the followers of Pusey. Still, though he was not without warm friends at headquarters, the opposition was too strong for them. One of the first things that Lord Grey said on entering Downing Street was, "Now I shall be able to do something for Sydney Smith"; but he was not able to do more than appoint him in 1831 to a residentiary canonry at St. Paul's in exchange for the prebendal stall he held at Bristol. He was as eager a champion of parliamentary reform as he had been of Catholic emancipation, and one of his best fighting speeches was delivered at Taunton in October 1831 when he made his well-known comparison of the House of Lords, who had just thrown out the Reform Bill, with Mrs. Partington of Sidmouth, setting out with mop and pattens to stem the Atlantic in a storm. Some surprise must be felt now that Sydney Smith's reputation as a humorist and wit should have caused any hesitation about elevating him to an episcopal dignity, and perhaps he was right in thinking that the real obstacle lay in his being known as "a high-spirited, honest, uncompromising man, whom all the bench of bishops could not turn upon vital questions." With characteristic philosophy, when he saw that the promotion was doubtful, he made his position certain by resolving not to be a bishop and definitely forbidding his friends to intercede for him.
On the death of his brother Courtenay he inherited £50,000, which put him out of the reach of poverty. His eldest daughter, Saba , married Sir Henry Holland. His eldest son, Douglas, died in 1829 at the outset of what had promised to be a brilliant career. This grief his father never forgot, but nothing could quite destroy the cheerfulness of his later life. He retained his high spirits, his wit, practical energy and powers of argumentative ridicule to the last. His Three Letters to Archdeacon Singleton on the Ecclesiastical Commission (1837-39) and his Petition and Letters on the repudiation of debts by the state of Pennsylvania (1843), are as bright and trenchant as his best contributions to the Edinburgh Review. He died at his house in Green Street, London, on the 22nd of February 1845 and was buried at Kensal Green.
Sydney Smith's other publications include: Sermons (2 vols., 1809); The Ballot (1839); Works (3 vols., 1839), including the Peter Plymley and the Singleton Letters and many articles from the Edinburgh Review; A Fragment on the Irish Roman Catholic Church (1845); Sermons at St. Paul's... (1846) and some other pamphlets and sermons. Lady Holland says that her father left an unpublished manuscript, compiled from documentary evidence, to exhibit the history of English misrule in Ireland, but had hesitated to publish it. This was suppressed by his widow in deference to the opinion of Lord Macaulay. See also A Memoir of the Reverend Sydney Smith by his daughter, Lady Holland, with a Selection from his Letters edited by Mrs. [Sarah] Austin (2 vols., 1855).
Father: Robert Smith
Brother: Robert Percy ("Bobus")
Wife: Catharine Amelia Pybus (m. 1800)
Daughter: Saba (b. 1802, d. 1866)
Son: Douglas (d. 1829)
High School: Winchester School
University: BA, New College, Oxford University (1792)
University: MA, New College, Oxford University (1796)
Edinburgh Review Editor, 1802
Risk Factors: Gout
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