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Reign of George I page 14

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Walpole did not wait for a like humiliation. The next morning he waited on the king, and tendered his resignation of his places as first lord of the treasury and chancellor of the exchequer. The king, if he could be judged by his conduct, had formed no resolution of parting with Walpole. He handed again to him the seals, cordially entreating him to take them back, speaking to him in the kindest manner, and appearing as though he would take no refusal. But Walpole remained steady to his purpose, and, accordingly, his friends Methuen, Pulteney, lord Orford, and the duke of Devonshire, resigned a few days afterwards. Stanhope was then appointed first lord of the treasury and chancellor of the exchequer; Sunderland and Joseph Addison were made secretaries of state; Craggs, secretary at war; lord Berkeley, first lord of the admiralty; the duke of Newcastle, lord chamberlain; the duke of Bolton, lord lieutenant of Ireland; lord Cowper and the duke of Kingston retaining their old places.

The retired ministers showed for the most part a very hostile attitude and Pulteney denounced the new ministry as "a German ministry." Walpole, for a little time, affected a liberal conduct, declaring, when the supply of two hundred and fifty thousand pounds was voted, that, as he had before spoken in its favour, he should now vote in its favour, and would show by his proceedings that he never had intended to make the king uneasy, or to embarrass his affairs. But it was not in Walpole's nature to maintain this air of temperance long. He was as violent in opposition as he was able and zealous in office. Whether in or out of office, he was, in fact, equally unscrupulous. He very soon joined himself to Shippen, Wyndham, Bromley, and the other violent opponents of the reigning family; so that Shippen himself ere long said exultingly that he was glad to see that Walpole was no longer afraid of being styled a Jacobite.

Before Walpole thus threw off the mask of moderation - indeed, on the very day of his resignation, he introduced a well-matured scheme for the reduction of the national debt, which was, in fact, the earliest germ of the National Sinking Fund. Though the ordinary rate of interest had been reduced, by the statute of the 12th of queen Anne, to five per cent., the interest on the funded debt remained upwards of seven. The Long and Short Annuities were unredeemable, and could not be touched without the consent of the proprietors; but Walpole proposed to borrow six hundred thousand pounds at only four per cent., and to apply all savings to the discharge of the debts contracted before December, 1716. He proposed, also, to make some arrangement with the Bank and the South Sea Company, by which the Bank should lend two millions and a half, and the company two millions, at five per cent., to pay off such holders of redeemable debts as should refuse to accept an equal reduction.

In proposing the first of these measures, Walpole said that he now presented that bill as a country gentleman; but he hoped that it would fare no worse for having two fathers, expressing his confidence that his successor would take care to bring it to perfection. Stanhope, in fact, took up the matter in the same laudable spirit, not being averse to inaugurate a measure which his predecessor would have the honour of having originated. But Stanhope was no financier, and in the course of conducting those measures through parliament, Walpole could not avoid exposing the inferior financial abilities of his rival. Stanhope, stung by the act, fell into great anger and confusion; confessed his incapacity for the affairs of the treasury, which, he said, were remote from his studies and inclination, and on which account he would fain have kept his former situation. He then, however, made a severe retort on Walpole, who had been once expelled parliament for his peculations, saying, "he would endeavour to make up by application, honesty, and disinterestedness, what he wanted in ability and experience; that he would content himself with the salary and lawful perquisites of his office; and though he had quitted a better place, he would not quarter himself 011 any one else to make it up; that he had no brothers or other relations to provide for, and that upon his first entering into the treasury he had made a standing order against the late practice of granting reversions of places."

Every word of this harangue was a hard hit at Walpole, who, however, justified himself by declaring that he had done much which he had done in granting reversions of places, to defeat the boundless rapacity of some of the king's German ministers, but especially of Robethon, whom he characterised as "a mean fellow, of what nation he knew not, who was eager to dispose of places."

The new administration took measures to render themselves popular. They advised the king to go down to the house on the 6th of May, and propose a reduction of the army to the extent of ten thousand men, as well as an act of grace to include many persons concerned in the late rebellion. Walpole and his friends, on the contrary, did all in their power to embarrass the government. Lord Oxford was not included in the act of indemnity, and it was resolved now by his friends to have his trial brought on. Before this was effected, however, a violent attack was made on lord Cadogan. As ambassador at the Hague, he had superintended the embarkation of the Dutch troops sent to aid in putting down the rebellion. He was now charged with having committed gross peculations on that occasion. Shippen led the way in this attack, but Walpole and Pulteney pursued their former colleague with the greatest rancour, and Walpole declaimed against him so furiously that, after a speech of nearly two hours in length, he was compelled to stop by a sudden bleeding at the nose. Stanhope, Craggs, Lechmere, and others defended him; but such was the combination of enemies against him, or rather, against the ministers, that the motion was only negatived by a majority of ten.

Lord Oxford's case was brought at length to a termination also in his favour. His friends having complained of the hardship of keeping him without a hearing for nearly two years, the 24th of June was appointed for the trial to take place in Westminster Hall. The commons again met in committee to complete the evidence against him; but it was now found that Walpole, who was the chairman, and who had formerly pursued the inquiry with all eagerness, had suddenly cooled, and seldom came near the committee; and they therefore appointed a new one. In fact, he and Townshend, out of opposition, were doing that secretly which they could not do openly without loss of character - they were exerting themselves in favour of their old antagonist, and they soon hit on a scheme for bringing him off without any trial at all.

Accordingly, the peers assembled in the due form of trial in Westminster Hall on the appointed day. The king, the royal family, and the whole of the foreign ministers had attended to witness the proceedings. Oxford was brought from the Tower and placed at the bar, the executioner at his side with the axe, according to ancient custom. The articles of impeachment were read, and then the answer of the earl. Hampden opened the charge against him, and Sir Joseph Jekyllrose to support it, when the earl of Harcourt interposed, and stated that he had a motion to make. The peers, therefore, adjourned to their own house, where lord Harcourt observed that the impeachment ran to such a length that to go through the whole of the articles would draw out the trial to a prodigious time; that a peer was entitled on charges for misdemeanour only to sit at the bar, to have his liberty, and privilege of appearing in his place in parliament; but, mixed up as these charges of misdemeanour were with those of high treason, the earl would be deprived of these privileges through the whole course of the trial. He moved, therefore, that these charges should be separated, and that the two articles for high treason should be brought forward first; for, if the earl was condemned on these, he would forfeit both life and estate, and there would be an end of the matter. This motion was warmly resisted by Sunderland, Coningsby, Cadogan, and others, who were well aware that there was no evidence to convict Oxford of treason, but it was carried by a majority of eighty-eight against fifty-six.

But the result foreseen by the opposition took place when the resolution was reported to the commons. They immediately determined that it was an infringement of their privileges, and declined compliance with it. This was what Walpole and the then partisans, secret or open, of lord Oxford, had foreseen. They had a great model for their plan in the proceedings of the lords on the trial of lord Somers in 1701, when the commons, taking exception to the lords refusing a joint committee, declined to attend the trial; whereupon the lords, seizing on the fact of the commons not having appeared to prefer their charges on due notice, declared Somers acquitted, from lack of any charge against him, and the impeachment dismissed; and not only so, but the lords made use of the same stratagem to acquit the earls of Halifax, of Portland, of Orford, and finally the duke of Leeds, which had been hanging over him for six years. The opposition, well instructed by these precedents, proceeded precisely in the same manner, and with the same result. The commons refusing to attend in Westminster Hall on the day fixed, the lords returned to their own house, and passed a resolution declaring the earl of Oxford acquitted, an announcement received by the people with acclamation. The commons then demanded that Oxford should be excepted from the act of grace; but, notwithstanding, he was released from the Tower, and the commons never renewed the impeachment. Yet nothing is more certain than that Oxford richly deserved impeachment, for not only had he tampered greatly with the Jacobites, even during his confinement in the Tower, as Sir James Mackintosh discovered in the Stuart papers; he had, so late as September, 1716, written to the pretender, and that at the very time he was preparing his expedition, giving his advice as to the best mode of proceeding.

The session was closed very popularly with the act of grace. By it a whole crowd of political prisoners were liberated by their long confinement. The lords Carnwath, Widdrington, and Nairn came out of the Tower; seventeen gentlemen lying under sentence of death in Newgate, and twenty-six in Carlisle Castle, were liberated, and many others from the Fleet, the Marshalsea, and from the custody of messengers, About two hundred of the prisoners taken at Preston were set free from Chester Castle, and all those in the castles of Edinburgh and Stirling. Besides the earl of Oxford, lord Harcourt, Matthew Prior, and Thomas Harley were excepted. So much more liberal was the mercy of this act than those of former reigns, that an exulting pamphleteer blasphemously declared that "the clemency of king George was not only great, but even extended farther than that of God himself!" Yet it did not admit to its mercy a single individual of the clan Magregor, nor did it reverse the past attainders, nor restore the forfeited estates, the annual value of which in Scotland was about thirty thousand pounds, and in England forty-eight thousand pounds.

At the close of the session, also, the king raised Stanhope to the peerage by the title of viscount Stanhope - a promotion which left the leadership of the commons in the hands of Addison, Craggs, and Aislabie, who had not sufficient experience to supply the necessary weight and authority of that position. Both the government of Anne and of George were guilty of this political error of too soon removing their practical men, as Oxford, Harley, and St. John, from the commons, leaving it without government members of sufficient parliamentary tact or of intellectual ability to maintain the government interest there.

It might have been supposed that Europe, or at least the southern portion of it, was likely to enjoy a considerable term of peace. France, under a minor and a regent, appeared to require rest and recruiting of its population and finances more than any part of the continent. The king of Spain was too imbecile to have any martial ambition; and though his wife was anxious to secure the succession to the French throne in case of the death of the infant Louis XV., yet Alberoni, the prime minister, was desirous to remain at peace. This able churchman, who had risen from the lowest position, being the son of a working gardener, and had made his way to his present eminence partly by his abilities and partly by his readiness to forget the gravity of the clerical character for the pleasure of his patrons, was now zealously exerting himself to restore the condition of Spain. He boasted to Philip that, if he could remain five years at peace, he would make him the most powerful monarch in Europe. Bubb, the British minister at Madrid, bore testimony to the wonderful improvement which he had introduced into the trade, the finances, and the navy of the kingdom. He said Spain was actually relieved from a heavy expenditure by the loss of Italy and Flanders; that Alberoni had drawn income from Aragon and Catalonia, which had paid little or nothing before; that he had reduced the expenses of the kingdom one-half, and increased the revenues one-third more than any of the king's predecessors had enjoyed; so that, in a little time, Spain under Alberoni would become a very useful ally.

For a time these prospects continued. Alberoni showed the most friendly disposition towards England. During the invasion of the pretender he had avoided all open support of his claims, and had gone so far as to issue a proclamation declaring that it was his majesty's intention to give no countenance to the king's enemies; and Alberoni said to Bubb, his minister, "Next to God, the king my master looks up to yours." But this flattering state of things did not continue long. Alberoni's interest was to please the queen, who ruled rather than the poor invalid king, and she had causes of antagonism which clashed with his schemes of peace. She exerted herself all in her power to undermine the government of the regent of France through the duke of Maine and other malcontents, and Alberoni was obliged to go with her. Again, the emperor had never acknowledged the title of Philip as king of Spain, but continued to appropriate that title to himself, and to confer that of the prince of Asturias on his infant son, who, however, died during this year, the celebrated Maria Theresa being also born during it. The emperor, moreover, assembled around him at Vienna a number of Spanish exiles, and conferred on them the title of a Spanish council of state; and under the peace of Utrecht he held all the former Spanish dominions in Italy. These causes maintained an ill feeling towards Austria; and, besides these, the queen, as a princess of Parma, claimed the eventual succession of one of her sons to that duchy, and to Tuscany; and, continued Mr. Bubb, writing to secretary Stanhope, "the absolute command over Spain will belong to the highest bidder for the queen's son. This is the grand and the only maxim, which has never changed since I have been here."

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