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Reign of George II page 14

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But violent and lowering as was the storm which burst now on the head of Walpole, some of the members comparing him to Piers Gaveston and Hugh Le Despenser, and almost every other royal minion that they could call to mind, a light broke in a quarter where no one expected it, and the force of the opposition attack was paralysed, to their own astonishment. Edward Harley, the brother of the late lord Oxford, rose and said, that he had opposed the measures of the administration because he thought them wrong, and he did now avow that he considered the state of the nation was deplorable from misgovernment, but that he was not prepared to lay the whole blame of these measures on one man. The man now under censure was not one who had any claims on his forbearance, but he desired to be guided by facts and evidence, and not by private opinions and feelings. "A noble lord," he said, "to whom I had the honour to be related, has often been mentioned in this debate. He was impeached and imprisoned: by that imprisonment his years were shortened, and the prosecution was carried on by the honourable person who is now the subject of your question, though he knew at that very time that there was no evidence to support it. I am now glad of this opportunity to return good for evil, and do that right honourable gentleman and his family the justice that they denied to mine." With that he left the house, followed by his relative, Robert Harley.

This took the opposition by surprise, but that surprise was greatly heightened when Shippen, "the thorough Shippen," as he was called, also declared that he would not join in the ruin of the assailed minister. He declared that he never followed any dictates of self-interest, and cared little who was in or out, unless he could see a prospect of different measures; but that he regarded this movement only as the attempt to turn out one administration in order to bring another in. He would therefore have no concern in it; and with that he withdrew, followed by thirty-four of his party.

This was a terrible blow to the designs of the opposition, and it has been attempted to account for the conduct of Shippen by this statement - That shortly before this time Walpole had discovered the correspondence of a friend of Shippen's with the pretender, which put his head in danger; that Shippen had waited on Walpole, and solicited his clemency in the matter, which Walpole had readily granted, with the remark - " Mr. Shippen, I cannot hope that you will vote with my administration, for with your principles I have no right to expect it; but I only require, that whenever any question is brought forward in the house affecting me personally, you will recollect the favour I have now granted you." But the conduct of Shippen is snfficiently clear without this explanation. He was an honest and determined tory and Jacobite. Money was the last thing which would influence him. Walpole himself declared that he was almost the only man that he could not purchase. "I will not say," he often observed, "who may be corrupted, but I will say who is incorruptible, and that is Will Shippen." He refused a bribe of one thousand pounds from the prince of Wales. It was a matter, therefore, of the simplest political common sense which guided him and his friends. He was bent on restoring the pretender; but he and his fellow Jacobites knew that this was only an attempt of the discontented whigs to turn out Walpole, and to preserve pretty much the same measures; that led to no result desired by the Jacobites, and therefore they would have no concern in it. Carte, the Jacobite historian, says, in a letter to the pretender, that the motion " was set on foot by the duke of Argyll and the party of the old whigs, without either concerting measures with the tories or consulting them about it, so that when it was moved in the commons, Sir John Hynde Cotton and Sir Watkin Williams were forced to go about the house to solicit their friends to stay the debate, which they were vexed should be brought on without their concurrence; and all they could say could not prevent Will Shippen and twenty-three others of the tories leaving the house in a body. All prince Frederick's servants, and party also, except Lyttleton, Pitt, and Granville, left the house; so that, though there were above five hundred members present, when the question came to be put there were not above four hundred."

Another reason has been assigned for the terrible breakdown of this charge. It is said that Sir Robert had, some time before, addressed a letter to the pretender with the object of softening the asperity of his partisans in England, and that this had so raised the hopes of James, that Walpole was actually intending to come round, that he had ordered his followers to avoid anything which should shake his power. Whatever the causes, the fact was striking; and the opposition having concluded its onslaught upon him, he rose to make his reply. It was an occasion which demanded the utmost exertion of his powers, and he put them forth. Walpole's speech on this day has justly been deemed his masterpiece. He divided his assailants into three classes - tories, disaffected whigs, styling themselves patriots, and boys. Passing lightly over the tories, he fell with all his trenchant bitterness on the so-called patriots. He declared that they were patriots, not from any real patriotic feeling, but solely from disappointment and discontent. They did not want any change of masters, but merely of men; they wanted merely to occupy the places of those in power. Their principles being the same, why, unless this were the case, did they not coalesce, and support those principles? Why swell the ranks of the enemies of their own principles? Did not a whig administration naturally deserve the support of the whigs, as a tory administration demanded the support of tories?

On this point Walpole was unassailable - he struck his enemies in their weak place; but when he inquired why they combined against one man, though of their own principles, his ground gave way beneath him. They accused him of corruption, he said, and he denied it, and appealed to the character of his supporters as equal or superior to, that of their opponents in the house. But here all would know better. They knew that Walpole had corrupted the house more systematically and deeply than any man who ever went before him. He attacked them on the ground of patriotism, however, with better success: all the world knew, quite as well, the nature of their patriotism. "Gentlemen," he said, "have talked a great deal of patriotism - a venerable word when duly practised. But I am sorry to say that of late it has been so much hackneyed about, that it is in danger of falling into disgrace. The very idea of true patriotism is lost, and the term has been prostituted to the very worst of purposes. A patriot, sir! why, patriots spring up like mushrooms. I could raise fifty of them in the four-and-twenty hours. I have raised many of them in one night. It is but refusing to gratify an unreasonable or an insolent demand, and up starts a patriot! I have never been afraid of making patriots, but I disclaim and despise all their efforts. But this pretended virtue proceeds from personal malice and disappointed ambition. There is not a man amongst them whose particular aim I am not able to ascertain, and from what motive they have entered into the lists of opposition."

He next proceeded to take the charges made against him in succession, and first those regarding his foreign policy. He complained, and justly, that his enemies had travelled back over the whole diplomacy of Europe for thirty years, and made him responsible for the whole. Whatever had been the doings of former ministers, and ministers of totally opposite principles and views, had all been piled upon his shoulders. But why should he be made amenable for the measures of the tories, for the schemes and delinquencies of Oxford and of Bolingbroke? Even when they came down to a time in which he had done his part, they insisted on his having done all and everything. "I am called," he said, "repeatedly and insidiously, prime and sole minister. Admitting, however, for the sake of argument, that I am prime and sole minister in this country, am I, therefore, prime and sole minister of all Europe? Am I answerable for other countries as well as for my own? Many words are not wanting to show that the particular views of each court occasioned the dangers which affected the public tranquillity. Yet the whole is charged to my account. Nor is this sufficient: whatever was the conduct of England, I am equally arraigned. If we maintained ourselves in peace, and took no share in foreign transactions, we are reproached for tame- ness and pusillanimity. If, on the contrary, we interfered in the disputes, we are called Don Quixotes and dupes to all the world. If we contracted guarantees, it was asked, why is the nation wantonly burdened? If guarantees were declined, we were reproached with having no allies."

He then ran through the different treaties, from that of Utrecht to the Spanish convention, showing that some of these were entered into before he had any influence in the state, and defending the later ones from the attacks upon them. He declared that he had honestly endeavoured to preserve peace, and that, had Spain as honestly performed her contracts, peace would have been preserved. As to his endeavouring to maintain the alliance with France, he contended, justly, that France was not to be considered the eternal enemy of England, but that in some respects she was the most valuable ally that we could have. " But," he continued, "if England had, at this crisis, to carry on the war single-handed, that was owing to a variety of causes over which the British government had no control; and as to his concern in the matter, he was not the foreign minister, and had had no voice in the cabinet in foreign affairs. Sweden now corrupted by France; Denmark tempted and wavering; the landgrave of Hesse-Cassel almost gained; the king of Prussia, the emperor, and the czarina, with whom alliances were negotiated, all dead; the Austrian dominions claimed by Spain and Bavaria; the elector of Saxony hesitating whether he shall accede to the general confederacy planned by France; the court of Vienna irresolute and indecisive; - in this critical juncture, if France enters into engagements with Prussia, and if the queen of Hungary hesitates and listens to France, are all or any of these events to be imputed to English counsels? And if to English counsels, why are they to be attributed to one man?"

Walpole had much cause of just self-defence in the foreign view of affairs, for he had done all in his power to maintain peace and amicable alliances; the war had been forced on him by the opposition. When he came to domestic affairs, he was on tenderer ground. There, he contended, if guilty, his guilt was shared by the whole cabinet, whilst it was notorious that he had long ruled the cabinet and swayed the king. He was forced, in this part of his defence, hardily to assert what was to all men's knowledge utterly false and untenable. He declared that no expenses had been incurred but such as had been sanctioned by parliament; but, then what a parliament! One with a permanent, paid majority, doing just what he dictated. He declared that he had practised no bribery, no corruption, - an assertion to make the walls of the house laugh! And he added, that if some members had been deprived of their commissions it was the will of the king to do it, who certainly had the right - a very lame reason, for it did not remove the known fact, that these acts were direct punishments for opposition to government, and especially to the excise scheme.

Walpole contrived to blunt the force of Sandys' charges regarding the invasions of the Sinking Fund, showing that Sandys had exaggerated, and that within the last seventeen years eight millions of the national debt had been paid off by the application of that fund, and that no less than seven millions taken from the fund had been applied to the relief of the agricultural interest, thus keeping down the land-tax. As to the South Sea scheme, he reminded them, truly, that it was no project of his; that he had opposed it and warned the nation against it, and had been called on by the king and the whole public to remedy the fatal consequences of it; that he had been called to the helm when the finances were in the most miserable condition; and he appealed to them, confidently, whether thöy were not wonderfully improved? whether peace had not been preserved till recently amidst the resistant efforts of a violent opposition? If the conduct of the war on sea or land had not answered expectation, he observed that he was neither admiral nor general, and they were to have great allowance made for them, seeing that the opposition would not permit us to have an efficient army or navy. He concluded by again denying that he had either become corrupt himself or had corrupted others; that he had sought no honours, but had refused them, except the ribbon of the order of the garter, which it would have been disrespectful to his majesty to have declined. He defended some promotions to members of his own family, and finally called on all who were desirous to maintain the rights and prerogatives of the crown, and the honourable exercise of a ministerial discretion, to reject the motion before the house.

It was four o'clock in the morning when Walpole concluded his masterly defence, and the motion was instantly rejected by two hundred and ninety votes against one hundred and six. Whilst Sir Robert had been thus fiercely assailed in the commons, the storm was raging against him with equal fury in the lords. Carteret introduced the motion, which was eagerly supported by the dukes of Argyll and Bedford, the earls of Sandwich, Westmoreland, Berkshire, Carlisle, Abingdon, and Halifax, and by lords Haversham and Bathurst. It was singular that whilst Berkshire, Lichfield, and Bathurst were voting against Walpole in the peers, their sons in the commons were voting for him. The dukes of Newcastle and Devonshire, the lord chancellor, Sherlock, bishop of Salisbury, the earl of Isla, brother to Argyll, and lord Hervey, as warmly defended Walpole, and the motion was rejected by one hundred and eight to fifty-nine. The prince of Wales attended the debate, but did not vote, nor did lord Wilmington and other peers holding places under government, whence they obtained the cognomen of " sneakers." A fiery protest, said to have been penned by the indefatigable hater, lord Bolingbroke, was signed by thirty-one peers.

The immediate effect of the attack appeared to be to strengthen the minister, and that considerably; his levee the next morning was more crowded than had ever been known, and he seemed to sway the cabinet with uncontrolled power. But thinking men foretold that the blow would tell in the end, when the momentary enthusiasm was gone off; and Walpole himself seemed to be of the same opinion. The attack, in truth, was but the first outbreak of the storm which, kept up by the implacable spirit of a powerful opposition, was sure to bear him down at last.

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