Thursday, April 21, 2011


THE RIGHT MAN FOR THE RIGHT PLACE” is the title of a vicious cartoon, one of the very first that was published in Melbourne Punch (Vol. 1, 1855, p. 5). The subject is Captain Sir Charles Hotham, K.C.B., R.N. (1806–1855), Governor of Victoria from June 22, 1854, to December 31, 1855, whose disastrous administration ended when His Excellency died from a chill contracted whilst lighting the first fire at the Melbourne Gas and Coke Works.

Hotham’s cack-handed policy over the enforcement of prospecting licences on the Victorian goldfields led directly to the armed confrontation between diggers and troopers at Ballarat on December 3, 1854, an event of proto-national significance long since remembered as the “Eureka Stockade.” Despite his attempts to lay blame for the resulting loss of life at the feet of his officials, as well as blame for the swift and alarming radicalization of local politics, Hotham’s hold over the colony was permanently weakened.

THE RIGHT MAN FOR THE RIGHT PLACE” was the work of an apparently self-taught artist who signed himself “Quiz,” and collaborated in Melbourne with the workmanlike wood engraver Frederick Grosse (1828–1894). According to an entry in the diary of the critic James Smith (1820–1866), who edited Melbourne
Punch for seven years from 1859, the first issue of the paper was entirely illustrated by “Mr. Gill,” i.e. certainly not the more talented watercolorist and lithographer S[amuel]. T[homas]. Gill (1819–1880), so in the absence of any other even remotely likely candidate “Quiz” may be identified as the well-connected Melbourne architect and roué John Gill (ca. 1797–1866). Such was the very reasonable conclusion reached by Joan Kerr.

Here Sir Charles and Lady Hotham are shown embarking for England—the direction in which popular sentiment was by the middle of 1855 raucously urging them to go. Punch himself and one of the liveried coachmen are dumping the Hothams’ luggage onto the quay, including His Excellency’s hat-boxes (both naval and civilian), as well as a caged parrot. A label on the trunk reads “Sir C. Hotham/ England/ Not Wanted”—certainly a crude reference to his unpopularity, but possibly also recalling the debacle in 1854, when before his arrival and without his approval Toorak (Government House) was so expensively furnished on the Governor’s account that to pay for it he and Lady Hotham were soon afterwards obliged to sell their own furniture at public auction because “they were no longer wanted,” so said the chilly press announcement of that embarrassing public sale.

The Governor carries a small cash box—an allusion to his relentless official economies—while a figure incorrectly identified by Kerr as Sir Charles’s private secretary, Commander Joseph Kay, R.N., carries a basket of eggs from the government farm, and a beer keg inscribed “K.C.B.” Judging from his uniform, this figure almost certainly represents instead the Governor’s aide-de-camp and cousin, Lieutenant Richard Hotham.

The keg of beer is an especially biting allusion to the Queen’s Birthday Ball held on May 24, 1855, at Toorak. Those notoriously “meager hospitalities,” further marred by the provision by James Murphy the Melbourne brewer of cheap sour beer “of only the second quality!!!”—so Emily Childers confided to her diary on May 27, were pilloried in the press for at least six months, as this cartoon attests.

On the right, the dog growls at a rotund figure who, though he clasps one of the leather straps on the rear of the carriage, is actually fast asleep, and lolling precariously on the footboard. He was no doubt instantly recognizable to the readers of Melbourne
Punch, but for safe measure his identity is inscribed on the bundle that lies at his feet: “Haines/ Col. Sec./ Melbourne”—presumably he has dropped it. This is William Clark Haines, Hotham’s hand-picked senior civil servant or “colonial secretary,” who succeeded John Foster in December 1854, and in November 1855 took office as the first elected chief minister under the newly established constitution of Victoria.

Lady Hotham’s black veil is portentous but apparently coincidental: The Governor’s death on the last day of 1855 was sudden, unexpected, and postdated the publication of Melbourne
Punch by at least a month, possibly a little more.

Certainly the title “THE RIGHT MAN FOR THE RIGHT PLACE” was meant to drip with sarcasm. At least two inter-colonial newpapers, the
Colonial Times of Hobart (October 6, 1855) and the Daily Southern Cross in New Zealand (November 6, 1855) reprinted a long attack on the Governor in which the phrase reappears in quotation marks. According to both sources that article was originally printed in The Age, but curiously no trace of it has yet been found. “We want a Governor,” the quoted text concludes,

with the ability and experience of a Metcalfe, or with the suavity and submissiveness of an Elgin—one who could either govern himself, or who place himself in the hands of his advisers. Were Sir Charles Hotham a man of either character, he might still be popular; but he has not the capacity of the former of these statesmen, and he has too much self-conceit to retire into the position of “dignified neutrality” so respectably occupied by the other. In short, if we are to have “the right man for the right place,” the sooner he ceases to be Governor of Victoria, the better for himself, and the better for the colony.

(Lord Elgin succeeded Lord Metcalfe first as Governor of Jamaica in 1842, and then as Governor-General of Canada in 1847.)

Now, in 1855 the phrase “the right man for the right place” achieved widespread currency as the slogan of the Administrative Reform Association. In that context it was first coined in a speech to the House of Commons on January 15, 1855, by the archaeologist and Liberal member for Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire Austen Henry Layard (1817–1894).

Referring specifically to the appalling mismanagement of the Crimean War, which he had witnessed at first hand late the previous year, Layard said, “I have always believed that success would be the inevitable result if the two services, the army and the navy, had fair play, and if we sent the right man to fill the right place.” Sensing that he had successfully stumbled upon a memorable catch-phrase, as shrewd politicians generally do, Layard went on to repeat it endlessly—in speeches to his constituents, everywhere.

While this crisis over the conduct of the war led to the demise of the government of Lord Aberdeen, Layard was one of numerous Liberals voicing their dismay that the new ministry, that of Lord Palmerston, should in so many respects resemble the old one, and accommodate around the cabinet table so many of its former ministers.

Indeed, attempting batter back Layard’s attack upon the performance of the previous government, Lord Grey was forced to engage directly. In the North British Review (No. 45, May 1855, p. 162), His Lordship was reported as saying, “But in the midst of all our suffering and indignation let us endeavour to be just in our apportionment of blame, and let us take our own fair share—far the largest, as will presently appear. ‘The right man for the right place,’ is the cry of the hour; and a very good cry it is.”

Thus, in the midst of Sir Charles Hotham’s troubles in far-off Victoria, the clarion-call of “the right man for the right place” cropped up conspicuously in long-delayed press reports arriving from England by ship, generally in connection with bad news from the Crimea and as a sharp criticism of the composition of Lord Palmerston’s new administration, as well as the lack of any suitable, substantive change in Whitehall and Westminster. Citing
Lloyd’s Newspaper, for example, the Melbourne Argus (Thursday, May 24, 1855, p. 7), published the following digest of English news, in which the claims of merit as against aristocracy found ample resonance with colonial affairs:

ENGLISH EXTRACTS. / RIGHT MEN IN RIGHT PLACES—Mr. Layard, in his manly and instructive speech to the electors of Aylesbury,—they may be truly proud of such a representative, for he is marked, it is our belief, for the highest destiny,—Mr. Layard hit, in a few simple words, upon the simple want of the country,—right men in right places. Well, have we men so bestowed, in Lord Palmerston’s [new] cabinet? Assuredly not. All is there exclusive; all is almost lordly; all the old, old names at which the gorge of the country rises. Lord Russell returns to the cabinet; taking, with exemplary humility, a lieutenant’s place, under his own late lieutenant, now promoted. Very singular has been the fate of Lord John. The fabulous man of luck, who was pitched naked into the Thames on one side of Westminster bridge, and came up on the other arrayed in court suit with sword and diamond buckles,—such traditional naked, bedizened man is the very type of Lord John. He had all but stripped himself of his reputation; and presto! he is arrayed in all the solemn courtly character of a plenipotentiary extraordinary. The war settled one way or the other, either the Czar’s cannon spiked or the charge drawn,—Lord John returns, and, the city consenting, sits again the city’s member, with statesman eye watching those small outlying estates of Queen Victoria—her Majesty’s colonies. We are, therefore, to accept Lord John Russell as the right man in the right place. The Lord Lieutenancy of Ireland is very like the Lord Mayor’s coach; a piece of useless gilt lumber. The Earl of Carlisle is appointed to fill it. The Earl of Carlisle may be called the Amiable Weakness of the Lords: therefore we are also to accept him, when located in Phoenix Park, Viceroy of all Ireland, as the right man in the right place. We can hardly say as much for the remainder of Lord Palmerston’s cabinet. It wants new blood; it needs an infusion of the popular element; there are not the men of the people in it, but the men of the few families consecrated to the loaf and fish. Lord Palmerston has, we are convinced, disappointed the country; and, however his Ministry may be permitted to have a trial, it will not work well or long. Take his Lordship’s treatment of Mr. Layard as an instance of his Lordship’s liberality; for, strange to say, and by one of the contrarieties of human things, Lord Palmerston has had the character of a liberal forcibly fixed upon him, although his whole political life has shown him to be at heart rigidly conservative. Let Lord John Russell—events favoring him—bring in his Reform Bill to-morrow, and to-morrow Lord Palmerston would vote against it. And thus Lord Palmerston clings to the old Downing-street superstition that only admits to the priesthood a certain sacred set. He is evidently perplexed when dealing with a man of genius, whose best heraldry is in his doings, and not, as in the famous Stowe lanthorn, quartered in glass. Strangely, indeed, both by Lord Russell and Lord Palmerston, has Mr. Layard been treated. Lord John offers office, and then, on second thoughts, recalls the offer. Lord Palmerston does the same; but to make amends, proposes to Mr. Layard that he shall go into the Ordnance. “I know nothing of the ordnance,” said the guileless Mr. Layard; and, with strange conscientiousness, he refused the profitable compliment paid to his ignorance. He was then offered a secretaryship of the colonies; and again he refused the offer from a sense of unfitness. Had he been born a Grey, he would assuredly have been born with other instincts. However, Mr. Layard is only set aside for a time. The country will not suffer him to pass away from their watchfulness. Full soon, we are convinced of it, he will in himself illustrate his own words—the right man in the right place and that is, as Minister of War.

Among the many reform-minded men who took up Layard’s refrain was Thomas Carlyle, who, in an unsigned, excessively longwinded article in
Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country (Vol. 51, June 1855, p. 719), applied a rather more velvety texture to it:

Nobody pretends to say that the aristocracy is incompetent for public business; but what all persons, except the class immediately concerned, do maintain is, that there can be no hereditary aptitude for the affairs of State. They say that monopoly is the parent of incompetence, sloth, and corruption; that the market of public employment should be open to public competition; and, arguing from analogy, they are persuaded that until the avenues to office are practically free, the public has no chance of being well served.
It is more especially with reference to the heads of departments that the evil effects of monopoly are visible. If there are energy and intelligence in the direction of affairs, it is pretty certain that the same qualities will be found in the subordinate agents. But when the graduates for high office are chosen almost wholly from a particular class, it is manifest that the selection of the right man for the right place must depend upon the accident of the right man being found in the class to which the selection is confined.

Layard’s authorship of the slogan was implicitly acknowledged in many other places throughout 1855. For instance, according to the Lancet (Saturday, June 16, 1855, p. 616), “When a modern politician distinguished alike by his antiquarian researches and his disinterested patriotism, propounded the important doctrine of ‘The right man for the right place’ he might have added if legislating for hospitals ‘and at the right age.’” (The reference here was to Layard’s hugely popular publication of the excavations at Nineveh.)

However, over the ensuing decades the Layard provenance was gradually forgotten, perhaps because it was more and more thoroughly subsumed into the language—much assisted by its slightly bumptious, even colloquial air, in which the inverted commas might easily seem to stand for something far more vague than actual quotation marks, such as for example “so they say.” Certainly, as a political slogan with real bite “the right man for the right place” was endlessly, even comically misattributed in later decades, as it has been in successive editions of the
Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (including the latest).

However, among the few meticulous collectors of saws and sayings who actually got it right were Samuel Arthur Bent (
Short Sayings of Great Men, Boston: James Osgood and Company, 1882, p. 327) and William S. Walsh (Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities, Philadelphia: J. B.Lippincott Company, 1909, p. 976), according to whom:

McMaster’s “History of the People of the United States” (ii. 586) seems to credit this saying to Thomas Jefferson: “Jefferson’s reply was a discussion of the tenure of office, and soon forgotten. But one sentence will undoubtedly be remembered till our republic ceases to exist. No duty the Executive had to perform was so trying, he observed, as to put the right man in the right place. Mr. McMaster is using a dubious trick he learned from Macaulay,—that of substituting a paraphrase or an epigrammatic resume for a quotation. What Jefferson really said was as follows: “Of the various executive abilities no one excited more anxious concern than that of placing the interests of our fellow-citizens in the hands of honest men, with understanding sufficient for their station.” Letter to Elias Shipman, July 12, 1801,

which, it seems to me, is an excellent example of how to correct an especially egregious error.

Yet neither Bent nor Walsh ruled out another theory with equally respectable late eighteenth-century liberal provenance, which was that the meet and quotable wording is attributed to Talleyrand, who observed that “the art of putting the right man in the right place is perhaps the first in the science of government, but the art of finding a satisfactory position for the discontented is the most difficult.”

However, what Talleyrand actually said, and in due course published in the
Mémoires de la Classe des Sciences Morales et Politiques de l’Institut National, was this:

L’art de mettre les homines à leur place est le premier, peut-être, dans la science du gouvernement: mais celui de trouver la place des mécontents est, a coup sur, le plus difficile.

Not, I think, the same thing at all. Ever prudent, Walsh was careful to append to his article about “the right man for the right place” what he saw as a viable alternative, a curious passage from the
Memoirs of Sydney Smith:

If you choose to represent the various parts in life by holes upon a table of different shapes,—some circular, some triangular, some square, some oblong,—and the persons acting these parts by bits of wood of similar shapes, we shall generally find that the triangular person has got into the square hole, the oblong into the triangular, and a square person has squeezed himself into the round hole. The officer and the office, the doer and the thing done, seldom fit so exactly that we can say they were almost made for each other.

On this point, and probably no other, the melancholy Sir Charles and Lady Hotham, their staff, and the Governor’s numerous political enemies in the distant colony of Victoria might have been surprised to find each other in perfect agreement.

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