The Duke of Marlborough - Admiral Barrington
When this great man, at a very advanced age, was called to attend a council on the best mode of defence from a threatened invasion, he gave his opinion with his usual firmness and penetration. Afterwards he said that for above fifty years he had served his country and should be happy to do so still, but that he was aware his faculties were impaired.
At present, he added, he was fully conscious of his deficiency, but he feared the time might soon come when he should be no longer aware of it. He, therefore, made it his earnest request that he might never more be summoned to council, and that it elsewhere, on any occasion, he expressed an opinion, no importance should be attached or deference paid to it.
It is melancholy to reflect how low became the degradation of that mind, whose decaying powers were equal to such an act of magnanimity. After having had everything to gratify—first, as the finest, gayest man in Europe, then as its greatest general, and afterwards as its greatest negotiator and statesman—after all this, in a state of complete imbecility, an absolute driveller, he was actually exhibited by his servants to all who chose to give an additional fee after having stared at all the magnificence of Blenheim. In this manner my grandfather (then a lad just entered at Oxford) beheld the wreck of this great man, and has often described the melancholy spectacle to Lord Braybrooke.*
A similar instance of conscious decay and of magnanimity, perhaps even superior to the Duke of Marlborough, was at the same time mentioned. The late Admiral Barringtou, being called upon by the Admiralty to take the command of the Channel fleet, refused it, saying that his mental powers were so weakened that he was no longer equal to a situation of such importance, but that he thought himself still very well able to act under another, though not to command; he therefore requested to be second.*
In the course of the following year his weakness had so increased, that he quarrelled with the Admiralty for not placing him in that very situation for which he had himself told them he was unfit.
* "In life's last scene what prodigies surprize,
Fears of the brave, and follies of the wise !
From Marlborough's eyes the streams of dotage flow,
And Swift expires a driv'ler and a show."The Vanity of Human Wishes
It was the sagacious remark of Mr. Cobden to myself that great men should rarely be consulted or listened to in advanced age, because their authority increases whilst their mental powers decay.
** Admiral Barrington, a highly distinguished officer, was the brother of the Honourable Shute Barrington, Bishop of Durham, and great-uncle of the present Lord Barrington. The account which a surviving member of the family heard from the Bishop wag that, when the offer of the command of the Channel fleet was made to the Admiral, he asked whether it had been offered to Lord Howe, for he was the man who ought to have it.