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Reign of George I page 22

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On the 8th of December parliament met, and Walpole propounded his plan for maintaining the public credit, which was to Šn graft nine millions of the public stock into the Bank of England, the same quantity with the East India Company, on certain conditions, leaving twenty over millions to the South Sea. The advantages of this scheme, the simple one of government redeeming its own undoubted debts, and giving the holders their original securities, it is difficult at this time to perceive. The plan was, however, adopted by both houses, but never carried into execution, another law, as will be seen, superseding it. Nor could the security offered by Walpole's scheme prevent the opposition from falling with all its fury on this monstrous business. Tories, Jacobites, and disappointed whigs all united in an attack upon it. Shippen moved an amendment on the address from the commons to the king, implying a severe censure on ministers and all concerned in it. A violent debate ensued, during which lord Molesworth declared that he would have the directors of the company treated as the Romans treated parricides - he would have them sewn up in sacks and flung into the Thames.

Shippen's amendment, by the influence of Walpole, was rejected by two hundred and sixty-one against one hundred and three; but the next day the storm broke out with increased fury, and a clause was carried, demanding "the punishment of the authors of the present misfortunes." Three days afterwards it was also carried that the directors should forthwith lay before the house an account of all their proceedings, and a bill was introduced "to prevent the infamous practice of stock-jobbing."

The intervening Christmas recess had no influence in abating the spirit of vengeance against the company. Sir Joseph Jekyll brought in a bill to restrain the directors from leaving the kingdom, obliging them to deliver in upon oath a short account of the value of their estates, and offering rewards to discoverers and informers against them. The directors petitioned the house to be allowed to be heard by counsel in their defence, but this night of every British subject was denied them, and after a violent debate the bill was carried through both houses. A secret committee of inquiry was appointed to draw forth all the arcana of the subject, and the most violent enemies of the company, such as Jekyll, Molesworth, and Broderick, were put upon it. Broderick was made chairman.

This committee commenced its labours by examining Mr. Knight, the cashier of the company, and agent of its most secret proceedings. Knight could not stand more than one examination, but escaped to France, carrying with him the register of the company, called the "green book." On this discovery the house was thrown into the most violent excitement. The doors were ordered to be locked, and the keys to be laid on the table. General Ross, one of the secret committee, declared that they "had discovered a train of the deepest villany and fraud that hell ever contrived to ruin a nation." Without requiring any other proof than this assertion, four of the directors, who were members of the house, were immediately expelled, their papers seized, and themselves taken into custody. Other directors and their papers were seized soon afterwards.

In the house of lords on the 24th of January, 1721, five other directors who had been called before them were arrested and their papers seized. By what had been drawn from them, it appeared that large sums had been given to people in high places to procure the passing of the South Sea Bill. Lord Stanhope rose and expressed his indignation at such practices, and moved that any transfer of stock for the use of any person in the administration without a proper consideration was a notorious and dangerous corruption. The motion was seconded by lord Townshend, and carried unanimously. The examination being continued on the 4th of February, Sir John Blunt refused to answer their lordships, on the plea that he had already given his evidence before the secret committee. A vehement debate arose out of this difficulty, during which the duke of Wharton, a most profligate young nobleman, and president of the " Hell-fire Club," made a fierce attack on Stanhope, accused him of fomenting the dissensions betwixt the king and his son, and compared him to Sejanus, who had sown animosities io the family of Tiberius, and rendered his reign hateful to the Romans. Stanhope, in replying to this philippic, was so transported by his rage, that the blood gushed from his nostrils. He was carried from the house, and soon afterwards expired. Thus one of the wickedest men whom the nation had ever produced actually killed one of the best and ablest ministers which it ever possessed. The ability and integrity of Stanhope had rescued the country from many foreign complications, and his integrity and disinterestedness stood forth conspicuously amid the corruptions of this great South Sea mania. Wharton, having by this unprincipled onslaught deprived the country of one of its most valuable lives, returned to his debaucheries, which involved him in treason and attainder, and curtailed his own worthless existence.

Lord Townshend succeeded as secretary of state to Stanhope. Aislabie, who had been deep in the iniquities of the South Sea affair, was compelled to resign his post as chancellor of the exchequer, to which Walpole succeeded. Meantime the secret committee continued its labours indefatigably. They sate nearly every day from nine in the morning till eleven at night, and on the 16 th of February they presented their report to the house. This revealed a scene of the most astounding infamy. The committee, owing to Knight having eloped with the register, and to other books being falsified, and some altogether destroyed, had had many difficulties to contend with; but, through rigorous cross- examination of the directors and accountants, they had managed to make out that, in order to get the South Sea Bill passed, they had made over stock to different influential individuals to the amount of upwards of one million two hundred thousand pounds. Sir John Blunt, Mr. Gibbon, Mr. Chester, Mr. Holditch, and Mr. Knight, the cashier, who had eloped, had the disposal of this stock, and they had given to the earl of Sunderland, at the request of Mr. Craggs, senior, fifty thousand pounds; to the duchess of Kendal, ten thousand pounds; to the countess of Platen, another of the king's mistresses, ten thousand pounds; to the two nieces of the countess of Platen, ten thousand pounds; to Mr. Craggs, senior, thirty thousand pounds; to Charles Stanhope, Esq., secretary of the treasury, and a relative of lord Stanhope, ten thousand pounds; to the Swordblade Company, fifty thousand pounds. Still more monstrously Charles Stanhope had received a difference or profit of two hundred and fifty thousand pounds through Sir George Caswal and Company, but that his name had been altered in their books to Stangape; that Aislabie, chancellor of the exchequer, had accounts with merchants, as brokers, to the amount of seven hundred and ninety-four thousand four hundred and fifty- one pounds, and that he had advised the company to make their second subscription by their own authority, and without any warrant, a million and a half instead of a million; that, on the third subscription,

Aislabie's list amounted to seventy thousand pounds, Sunderland's to a hundred and sixty thousand pounds, Craggs's to six hundred and ninety-five thousand pounds, and Stanhope's to forty-seven thousand pounds; and that, on the pawned stock which had been sold, there was, by the means of Mr. Knight, a deficiency of four hundred thousand pounds.

Bad as this was, it was far from reaching the bottom of this sink of iniquity. This report was followed by six others, full of monstrous details, and concluding with that of the absconding of Knight, who had been a depository of the deepest secrets, and often the sole agent in them, so that they were left in the dark as to many transactions. On the very day that this last report was being read in the house died one of the accused, James Craggs, secretary of state. His complaint was smallpox; but the state of mind induced by this exposure is supposed to have rendered the malady fatal. Craggs was considered a man of great business talents, and with a high love of literature and literary men. He was a friend of Pope, and his name remains in the eulogy of Pope's verse. It will always exist, however, equally conspicuous in the history of this transaction as that of one extremely corrupt in principle. His father, who was postmaster-general, was so shamefully involved in the same dishonest proceedings, that he took poison.

Charles Stanhope, whose name had been altered in the company's books, as we have said, to Stangape, escaped on examination in the house by a majority of three, though clearly guilty, but from respect for the memory of his deceased relative, the upright lord Stanhope. Aislabie's case was the next, and was so palpably bad that he was committed to the Tower, and expelled the house, amid the ringing of bells, bonfires, and other signs of rejoicing of the city of London. The bulk of his property, moreover, was seized. This was some compensation to the public, which had murmured loudly at the acquittal of Stanhope. Sunderland's case was the next, and he escaped by the evidence against him being chiefly second-hand, or resting on the word of Sir John Blunt, who now was a man of lost credit. He was acquitted by a majority of two hundred and thirty-three against one hundred and seventy-two. As to the king's mistresses, their sins were passed over out of a too-conceding loyalty; but no favour was shown to the directors, though some of them were found to be much poorer when the scheme broke up than they were when it began. Amongst them was Mr. Gibbon, the grandfather of the historian, who afterwards exposed the injustice of many of these proceedings, though at the time they were considered as only too merited. The directors were disabled from ever again holding any place, or sitting in parliament; and their estates, amounting to upwards of two millions, were confiscated for the relief of the sufferers by the scheme. When some allowance was pleaded for on their behalf out of these large forfeitures, they were jestingly offered twenty pounds, and sometimes a single shilling. One of them, who had, in his elation, talked of feeding his horses on gold, was now told that he might do that himself, for he should have as much gold as he could eat, and no more. But whilst this conduct appears to us inhuman, the public at the time only deemed their treatment too lenient. Petitions were poured in, demanding condign punishment on these "monsters of pride and covetousness;" "these cannibals of 'Change Alley;" "these infamous betrayers of their country." Some treated it as a national grievance that no blood was shed, and demanded that they should all be hanged, and that speedily.

Sunderland, who in reality is represented to have lost a very heavy sum by the bubble, was compelled by public opinion to resign his position as premier and first lord of the treasury, in which he was succeeded by Walpole. He still, however, continued a favourite with the king, and to his influence it was attributed that lord Cadogan was placed at the head of the army, and lord Carteret succeeded to secretary Craggs.

Amid the general discontent, the house of commons was careful in voting the supplies to avoid anything like extravagance; yet amid this caution the court made a demand of seventy-two thousand pounds as a subsidy to Sweden. This was received with a very ill grace, being In addition to the deaths of Stanhope and Craggs followed that of the earl of Sunderland, who departed on the 19th of April. Notwithstanding his having a tendency to enrich himself at the country's cost - a pretty common failing of ministers - Sunderland appears to have been a blunt, outspoken, but able and straightforward minister, By the deaths of these leading men, Walpole was left entirely in the ascendant. He received his commission of first lord of the treasury on the 2nd of April, and from this period down to 1742, he continued to direct the government of this country. His great concern was now to restore the public credit. He drew up, as chairman of the committee of the commons, a report of all that had been lost in the late excitements, and the measures adopted to remedy the costs incurred. Amongst these were the resolutions of the house respecting the seven and a half millions the directors of the South Sea Company had agreed to pay to government; more than five had been remitted, and we may add that on the clamorous complaints of the company, the remainder was afterwards remitted too. The forfeited estates had been made to clear off a large amount of encumbrance, the credit of the company's bonds had been maintained, and thirty-three per cent, of the capital paid to the proprietors. Such were the measures adopted by the commons, and these being stated in the report to the king, a bill was brought in embodying them all. Many of the proprietors, however, were not satisfied. They were very willing to forget their own folly and greediness, and charge the blame on the government. On the second reading of Walpole's bill, they thronged the lobby of the house of commons; tumultuously calling on the members as they passed, and presented papers both written and printed, saying, "Do justice to the annuitants, who lent their money on parliamentary security." The tumult was so great, that the justices of peace for Westminster and the constables were sent for before the house proceeded to business. Sir John Ward presented a petition from the proprietors of the redeemable fund, praying to be heard by counsel or in their own person. Walpole, however, put and carried a motion for adjournment, and the riot in the lobby and about the house becoming only the more determined, the riot act was read, and the most noisy of the crowd arrested, who cried out, "You first pick our pockets, and then send us to gaol for complaining." The next day the bill was carried, and gradually produced quiet; but Walpole himself did not escape without severe animadversions. He was accused of having framed his measures in collusion with the bank, palpably one more item in the list of expenses and troubles which the Hanoverian affairs of the king had involved us in. Lord Molesworth opposed it at great length, contending that we were wasting money that would never be repaid by our trade in the Baltic, where at the present time hemp seemed almost the only commodity from that quarter needed. This was merely a play upon the idea that the authors and abettors of the South Sea bubble were many, and ought to be hanged. The subsidy was granted and with a clear eye to his own interest; but he had been as strenuously vindicated from the charge, and on the whole the vigour and boldness with which he encountered the etorm and quelled it, deserve the highest praise, and may well cover a certain amount of self-interest, from which few ministers are free.

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