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Reign of William III. (Continued.) page 15


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In the midst of the affright of the commons the lords sent to remind them that though they had exhibited articles against Orford, they had exhibited none against the others accused, and that these noblemen were suffering from the delay in not being able to clear their characters. The commons, therefore, made haste to send up the charges against Somers. These charges were, his affixing the great seal to the carte blanche for the partition treaty, and afterwards to the treaty itself, and having made many unreasonable and exorbitant grants under it, especially of the forfeited estates in Ireland; of having himself received also great and unreasonable grants of manors, lands, tenements, &c., besides an additional pension of four thousand pounds. To these charges Somers returned the usual ministerial pleas in Buch cases. That he had been obliged by his office to pass those grants, and to affix the great seal at the command of the king, pleas which would excuse any offences of the kind, however enormous, and which are the only pleas which can be used in these cases from age to age, wheti the aristocracy about the king are enriching themselves on the national property. By these practices it is that our aristocracy have grown to what they are, and will never be kept from doing the like but by the power of an educated and enlightened people. Somers, therefore, whose character has been so highly extolled by some of our historians, was not ashamed to defend himself by these arguments, which have been in the mouths of all ministers from the days of Henry VIII., when the church and convent lands were thus filched away, to our own, in which the forests of Hainault and Epping, which should remain for parks to the vast metropolis, are fast melting away in the same aristocratic crucible. Somers, again, moreover, threw the blame on the king, asserting that the treaty was the king's own measure, which was only a reason, if it were an unpatriotic or unjust measure, why the chancellor should have delivered up the seals, and not made himself a party to it. As to his own grants, he, of course, did not think them at all exorbitant. He had only, he said, got the manors of Reigate and Howley, and the four thousand pounds a year, the pension being only such as several of his predecessors had received. As ministers never do consider it a crime to get grants of all the lands they can, notwithstanding their solemn oaths on entering office, Somers neither thought himself criminal for only getting the manors of Reigate and Howley, nor for affixing the great seal to the wholesale grants of Irish estates to the king's favourites of from one hundred thousand to two hundred and thirty thousand acres each, for which any minister alone ought to have been impeached. As to enrolling the treaty in the court of chancery, that, he said, was the duty of the prothonotary, as if the chancellor himself had no voice in the matter. All charges of abuse of his power in the court of chancery, of injurious delays and irregular proceedings, he utterly denied. He denied any knowledge of other minor matters, such as alienation of quit and other rents annexed to Windsor Castle; and as to participation in the piracy of captain Kydd, he contended that the fitting-out of that expedition by private funds was a good and patriotic action; that the authors and supporters of the plan were not accountable for Kydd's betrayal of his duty; by it they had lost their property, and for it Kydd had been justly punished. In this last article, undoubtedly, Somers had the most right on Iiis side. The whole of the chancellor's conduct in office and his defence go to convince us that, whilst he was far from being as rapacious and unjust as many who have filled that high and most important office, he was equally far from being that great character which lord Macaulay and others have laboured hard to make him appear.

The lords now demanded that the trial should proceed without any further delay, but the commons proposed that it should be conducted before a committee of both houses. This they probably did to throw an effectual bar in the way of the trial at all, for they appeared rather to desire to destroy the characters of the accused than to proceed to extremities. They were well aware that the accused nobles had a majority in their favour in their own house, and that to impeach them there was to fail. For the same reasons the lords refused to admit the commons to a share in the trial, because in their house there was a majority the other way. They replied, therefore, that such committees were contrary to custom in cases of impeachment for misdemeanour; that the only exception was that in the case of the earl of Danby and the five popish lords, and that the fate of it was sufficient warning to avoid such a precedent, for the committee could not proceed for altercations, and the affair could only be got rid of by dissolving parliament. The commons still argued for it, the lords persisted in their refusal, and at this moment the dispute was interrupted by the king calling on both houses to attend to the ratification of the new succession bill.

After this the contest regarding the mode of trial of the impeached nobles was renewed with unabated acrimony. In one of the conferences on the subject lord Haversham declared his opinion that the commons themselves really believed the accused lords innocent, "for there are," he said, "various other lords implicated in the very same business, and yet the commons make no charge against them, but leave them at the head of affairs near the king's person to do any mischief they are inclined to, and impeach others, when they are all alike guilty, and concerned in the same facts." This was a hard hit, for it was the simple truth, and the delegates of the commons, as they could not deny it, could only affect to take violent offence at it. They at once withdrew, with Sir Christopher Musgrave at their head, and reported this sally of lord Haversham to their own house, which thereupon, going into a fit of most virtuous indignation, voted that "Lord John Haversham had uttered most scandalous reproaches and most false expressions, highly reflecting upon the honour and justice of the house of commons." They demanded that lord Haversham should be charged before the lords; that the lords should do justice on him for this unpardonable offence against the commons; and that the commons would proceed no further in the matter of the impeachment till they had this satisfaction. Haversham offered to submit to trial, but insisted on the commons first proving that he had used the words attributed to him. There was fresh correspondence, but the lords cut the matter short by deciding that there should be no committee of both houses for regulating the trials of the impeached nobles.

The commons, however, on the 14th of June sent up their charges against the earl of Halifax, declining to proceed against Portland, as they said, out of respect to his majesty. Halifax they taxed with retaining a grant in Ireland without paying the value of it according to the law lately passed concerning those grants; with possessing another grant in the forest of Dean of waste timber, so used as to be very prejudicial to the navy; and with having held the offices of commissioner of the treasury and chancellor of the exchequer at the same time, contrary to the interests of the state; and with advising the two treaties of partition. To this he replied that his grant in Ireland was of debts and sums of money, and not of lands, and was allowed by the act regarding the confiscated estates; that his grant in the forest of Dean was only of weeding or throwing out of timbers, and could not be, therefore, prejudicial to the navy, though any one may see that it might be so by being grossly abused, as such grants always have been < and that he had never advised on the partition treaties but once, and that then he spoke his sentiments freely.

The lords now gave notice that they would proceed with the trials of the accused nobles, beginning with that of lord Somers first, as the commons had proposed, and called on the commons to make good their charge. On the other hand, the commons, still insisting on their right to have a voice in regulating the trials, made an order that no member of their house should appear at the pretended trial of the lord Somers. Notwithstanding, the lords gave notice that they would proceed on the 17th of June to the trial of Somers in Westminster Hall. The commons refused to attend, declaring that they were the only judges, and that the evidence was not yet prepared. This produced a violent debate in the lords, where the tory ministers supported their party in the commons; but the order for the trial was carried, followed by strong protests against it. On the day of the trial the lords sent a message to the commons to inform them that they were going to the hall, and the commons not appearing there, the lords again returned to their own house, and settled the question to be put; and again returning to Westminster Hall, the question was then put: - " That John lord Somers be acquitted of the articles of impeachment exhibited by the house of commons, and all things therein contained; and that the impeachment be dismissed." This was carried by a majority of thirty-five.

The commons, greatly enraged, passed a resolution that the lords had refused justice to the commons; that they had done their best to overturn the right of impeachment inherent in the house of commons, and to render impeachments impossible in future; that all the ill consequences which might attend the delay of supplies for the preservation of the public peace and the maintenance of the balance of Europe, would lie upon them, who, to secure impunity for their crimes, had endeavoured to create a breach betwixt the two houses. The lords replied by informing them that they had acquitted lord Somers, and had appointed the next Monday for the trial of the earl of Orford; that unless the commons prosecuted their charge against lord Haversham before the close of the session, they should adjudge him innocent; and they threw back on the commons the responsibility of the delays on the trials and the supplies, adding that their late votes reflected most unfoundedly on the justice and honour of the peers. They went on, and on the 23rd of June the articles of impeachment against the earl of Orford were read in Westminster Hall, and the commons not attending, he was in like manner acquitted; and on the following day those against the earls of Portland and Halifax were similarly dealt with, together with that of the duke of Leeds (Danby), which had lain seven years, and which they seized this opportunity to make an end of. The charge against lord Haversham, not being prosecuted by the commons, was dismissed too. Both houses ordered a narrative of these proceedings. They had arrived at a pitch of mutual animosity which appeared likely to endure for a long time; and the prosecutions of the commons, which might otherwise have taught a salutary lesson to both the crown and the rapacity of ministers, failed because they were too obviously based, not on patriotism, but on faction. The whigs recovered a great deal of their popularity by the evidently interested attacks of their opponents; and the commons perceiving that they had incurred the odium of the nation at large instead of its gratitude, they now endeavoured to regain their ground by pandering to the war-spirit against France which showed itself, and voted two million seven hundred thousand pounds for the service of the year, and thirty thousand seamen. They did not terminate the session, however, without another contest with the lords. They nominated a commission to examine the state of the public accounts. The lords altered the bill, and the commons rejected the alterations, and the king put an end to the renewed cavil by closing the session.

It had been a miserable session to the king. His health continued to fail, and, amid his endeavours to conceal the decay of his constitution, that his allies might not be discouraged, he had found his favourite minister violently attacked, himself by no means spared, and the session almost wholly wasted in party feud. It had, however, passed the succession bill, and now, to his agreeable surprise, voted him unexpectedly liberal supplies, and sanctioned his forming alliances against France. He now lost no time in appointing a regency; and gave the command of the ten thousand troops sent to Holland to Marlborough - an appointment, however despicable the man, the very best lie could have made in a military point of view. At the commencement of July he sailed for Holland, accompanied by the earls of Carlisle, Romney, Albemarle, general Auverquerque, and others, and landed on the 3rd of the month. The Scotch troops voted had arrived in Holland before him, and the ten thousand men from England and Ireland were just arriving, so that William appeared again amongst his countrymen at the head of a respectable army of his new subjects. When he presented himself, however, before the States-General the day after his arrival, his appearance was such as to create great alarm in all that saw him. In his energies they put the almost only trust of effectual resistance to France, and he was clearly fast sinking. He was wasted, pale, and haggard. The last session of parliament and the fierce dissensions which had been carried on betwixt the factions of whig and tory, neither of which looked to anything but the indulgence of their own malice, had done more to wear him out than a dozen campaigns. He might well declare that that had been the most miserable year of his existence. What strength he had left, however, he devoted unshrinkingly to the great object of his existence, the war for the balance of power. He expressed his great joy to be once more amongst his faithful countrymen; and, in truth, he must have felt it like a cordial, for around him in England he saw nothing but unprincipled strife of parties, none of which he could sincerely attach to his own person, in the moral integrity of none of which he could establish in his own mind any confidence. He told the States that he had hoped, after the peace of Ryswick, to have been able to pass his remaining days in repose, but that the changes which had taken place in Europe were such as no man could see the end of. He was still resolved, he said, notwithstanding this, to pursue the great object of the peace of Europe with unremitting zeal, whether it was to be achieved by negotiation or war; and he assured them of the active support of his English subjects. The States, in their reply, took care to express how much they depended on the courage and power of the English, and to compliment them on the great fame for valour which they had acquired in the late struggle.

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Pictures for Reign of William III. (Continued.) page 15

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