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Reign of George II page 3


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On the retirement of Townshend, Walpole reigned supreme and without a rival in the cabinet. Henry Pelham was made secretary-at-war; Compton, earl of Wilmington, privy seal. He left foreign affairs chiefly to Stanhope, now lord Harrington, and to the duke of Newcastle, impressing on them by all means to avoid quarrels with foreign powers, and maintain the blessings of peace. With all the faults of Walpole, this was the praise of his political system, which system, on the meeting of parliament in the spring of 1731, was violently attacked by Wyndham and Pulteney, on the plea that we were making ruinous treaties, and sacrificing British interests, in order to benefit Hanover, the eternal millstone round the neck of England. Pulteney and Bolingbroke carried the same attack into the pages of the " Craftsman," but they failed to move Walpole, or to shake his power.

The cause of the pretender sunk in proportion to the peace throughout Europe and the prosperity at home. From 1728 to 1740 it was at a very low ebb, and lost the few marked men who had moved in it. Three of the chief leaders died about this time - Mar, Wharton, and Atterbury. Mar died at Aix-la-Chapelle in May, 1732, having outlived the respect of all parties, and perhaps most so of his own. Wharton continued his vicious life in Italy, France, and Spain, sometimes pretending that he had deserted the Jacobite cause, and entreating for restoration. When refused, he again joined the pretender's party openly, ran through the remains of his fortune, and died in most miserable circumstanced at Pöblet, in Catalonia, in the monastery there. He put on the monastic habit a short time before his death, according to the practice of penitents, and the monks said that he became a sincere convert to the doctrines of holy church. He finished his infamous career on the 31st of May, 1731, and was buried in the convent church, where a plain slab in a remote aisle marks the resting-place of the last, and, though much to say, possibly the worst of the Whartons.

Atterbury, as the pretender's prospects declined, retired to Montpellier, in the south of France, but was induced by James to return and take the management of his affairs in Paris, which he did, and continued in that unsatisfactory office till his death in February, 1732, in the seventieth year of his age. His body was brought over to England to be buried in Westminster Abbey, but was not allowed to pass without the coffin being opened and searched for secret papers. So low was the Jacobite interest now fallen, that Sir Robert Walpole said that, if ever the Stuarts came again, it must be through the lowest people, for the chiefs were all dead or discouraged.

Such was the peace abroad and the prosperity of the country at this time, that there occur few events worthy of record. Of those which took place in 1731, the most remarkable was an act abolishing the use of Latin in all proceedings of the courts of justice, and the next the renewal of the charter of the East India Company. If the country was peaceful and prosperous, however, it was neither free from corruption nor from the need of extensive reform. The very system of Walpole which produced such a show of prosperity, that an old Scotch secretary of state asked the minister what he had done to make the Almighty so much his friend, was built on the most wholesale bribery and corruption. It was, in fact, a purchased domestic peace. In social life the example of the government produced the like dishonesty. There was a fearful expose of the proceedings of a charitable corporation for lending small sums of money to the industrious poor at legal interest; and Sir Robert Sutton, the late ambassador at Paris, was found so deeply implicated in the frauds and extortions practised on those they were employed to benefit, that he was expelled from the house.

There was also an inquiry into the state of the public prisons of London, which opened up a most amazing scene of horrors. It was found to be a common practice of the warders to connive at the escape of rich prisoners for a sufficient bribe, and inflicting the most oppressive cruelties on those who were too poor to pay heavy fees. One captain M'Phaedris, the report of a committee of the house of commons states, having refused to pay some exorbitant fees, had irons put upon his legs which were too little, so that, in putting them on, his legs had like to have been broken. He was dragged away to the dungeon, where he lay without a bed, loaded with irons so close riveted that they kept him in continual torture, and mortified his legs. The wretched prisoner became lame and nearly blind from this atrocious usage, and having petitioned the judges to hear his case, they found it fully borne out, and reprimanded the gaoler, but declared that they could not give the prisoner any relief, because it was not in term time!

Another report details more general horrors: - "The committee saw in the women's sick wards many miserable objects without beds, on the floor, perishing with extreme want, and in the men's sick ward yet much worse. On giving food to these poor wretches, though it was done with the utmost caution - they being allowed at first the smallest quantities, and that of liquid nourishment - one died. The vessels of his stomach were so disordered and contracted for want of use, that they were totally incapable of performing their office, and the unhappy creature perished about the time of digestion. Upon his body a coroner's inquest sate, - a thing which, though required by law to be always done, hath, for many years, been scandalously omitted in this gaol - and the jury found that he died of want. Those who were not so far gone, on proper nourishment being given them, recovered, so that not above nine have died since the 25th of March last, the day the committee first met there, though before, a day seldom passed without a death; and, upon the advancing of the spring, not less than eight or ten usually died every twenty-four hours."

It was high time for a Howard to commence his researches into such regions.

The year 1732 was distinguished by little of importance. The opposition, led on by Pulteney, attacked the treaty of Vienna, by which the Pragmatic Sanction had been approved of, and which, they contended, might lead us into a continental war some day, or into a breach of the public faith, of which, they asserted, this ministry had perpetrated too many already. They assailed the standing army, but were answered that there was yet a pretender, and many men capable of plotting and caballing against the crown. The king was so incensed at Pulteney for his strictures on the army, that he struck his name out of the list of privy councillors, and ordered that all commissions of the peace which he held in different counties should be revoked. Amongst the most adulatory supporters of the government was lord Harvey, the " lord Fanny "of Pope. This lord Harvey was a young man of ability, but of such a miserable constitution that he was obliged to live only on asses' milk and biscuits. Once a week he indulged himself in an apple, and he took an emetic daily. He contended that the writers who attacked government ought to be put down by force, and in his own person he attempted to put this in practice; for Pulteney being suspected by him of having written a scarifying article on him in the "Craftsman," he challenged him, and both combatants were wounded. Plumer very justly contended that scribblers ought to be left to other scribblers.

On the 1st of June the king prorogued parliament, and soon after set out for Hanover, leaving the queen regent as before. During his residence in Germany the decree of the Pragmatic Sanction was ratified by the Diet, thus enabling the princess Maria Theresa to succeed to the throne of Austria. This celebrated queen, and afterwards empress, was about to be married to the duke of Lorraine, who in the preceding year had made a visit to England, and had been greatly struck by the wealth and prosperity of the country, and the kind and courteous spirit of the people. During George's sojourn in Germany this summer, he took under his protection a considerable number of the protestants of the archbishopric of Saltzburg, who, spite of the treaty of Westphalia, which guaranteed liberty of conscience to all Germany, were suffering a severe persecution. Numbers of these poor people were allowed to cross over to England, where they were supported by a grant of parliament, and sent off principally to the American colony of Georgia, founded by the benevolent general Oglethorpe.

The parliament session of 1733 opened with loud complaints that Spain had not yet made compensation for t'he depredations committed on our merchants during the last war, and the king was compelled to admit that the meeting of the commissioners of the two powers had been delayed, and that no satisfactory result was yet arrived at. Spain, having got the main question of peace or war settled with England and France, showed no disposition to make restitution of even seizures made before proclamation of war. She contended that the greater part of the British merchants who had suffered loss had been concerned in a smuggling trade with her colonies, and that nearly all trade to those colonies, except the supply of negroes under the Assiento, was smuggling. There was a loud demand upon Walpole to insist on plain terms for throwing open the trade to the Spanish main, and for satisfaction for past damages. But Walpole knew that such a course rendered a war hazardous. The usual trade to the Spanish colonies had been conceded in the preliminaries, but Spain did not practically allow it, and Walpole was by no means inclined to create fresh differences with that proud, poor, and unmanageable nation.

Ministers were even, in the present state of peace, at their wits' end for means of paying the ordinary demands upon them, and Walpole was about introducing measures which of themselves raised a turmoil in the public mind. The pension bill and the standing army evoked much heat of opposition, but the measures which excited the most sensation were the open breach of faith regarding the sinking fund, and a bill for extending the excise over fresh articles.

The sinking fund was established in 1717 by Stanhope and Walpole himself. During the reign of George I. that fund had been held sacred, but in this reign and since 1727, there had been several stealthy invasions of it. These having been tolerated, Walpole had become bold by impunity, and now he proposed to take half a million from it for the current expenses of the year. The opposition raised a loud and just outcry at this breach of public faith, and Sir John Barnard, member for London, who had been brought up as a member of the Society of Friends, and was regarded at once as one of the most upright men and best financiers of the age, declared that not only ought this fund never to be touched for any other than its legitimate purpose, but that those who did invade it must expect the curses of posterity; that it was a poor, short-sighted expedient to ease ourselves by loading our posterity.

Pulteney had a fine opportunity of lashing Walpole, and exclaimed, "The right honourable gentleman had once the vanity to call himself the father of the sinking fund; but if Solomon's judgment was right, he who is thus for splitting and dividing the child, can never be deemed to be the real father." Walpole, however, had a powerful argument for the landed members, and informed them that if he were not allowed to borrow from the sinking fund, he must lay on a land tax of two shillings in the pound; and at that announcement all ideas of the dishonesty of robbing the fund set apart for justice towards posterity vanished, and the j bill was carried by a majority of one hundred and ten. This convenient door being once set open, the sinking fund became common ministerial prey, and sank into a farce and a delusion. The very next year one million two hundred thousand pounds, being the produce of the fund, was swooped up, and in 1735 and 1736 ministers could not even wait for its coming in, but mortgaged it and took it by anticipation; and thus continued the fate of the so-called sinking fund down to our time, when some efforts have been made to restore its legitimate action, but with little sensible effect. Walpole, at that time, justified his robbery by asserting that the public debt was a public blessing, and a grand guarantee for the protestant succession; that it was well known that if the pretender came in he would wipe out the debt, the bulk of which had been accumulated in opposing him, and therefore it was folly to reduce this security. The pretender was accordingly drawn in the allegory of Addison as a young man with a sword in one hand and a sponge in the other; and the fundholders fostered this notion by submitting in 1717 to a reduction of interest. Better, they thought, one per cent, less than the abolition of so convenient a market for speculating and jobbing.

But Walpole had another scheme for increasing the revenue, which was an extension of the excise. The excise duties were first levied under the commonwealth, and, as we have shown, were restored at the restoration and made a permanent property of the crown, in return for the exemption of the landed gentry from the feudal dues which they owed to the state by original tenure for the very possession of their demesnes. At the time of the bargain betwixt the aristocracy and Charles II., these duties amounted only to two hundred and ninety-four thousand nine hundred and fifty pounds; but in William's reign they rose to nearly one million annually, and in queen Anne's to nearly two millions. They had now reached three millions two hundred thousand pounds annually. It was whilst the public were feeling the gradual increase of this item of taxation very sensibly, that they were alarmed by the news, which the opposition sounded abroad with all diligence, that ministers were about immediately to bring fresh articles under the operation of this tax, which was levied on articles of popular consumption. At the very moment that the house of commons was discussing the question of the sinking fund Pulteney exclaimed, "But, sir, there is another thing, a very terrible affair impending! A monstrous project! Yea, more monstrous than has ever yet been represented! It i3 such a project as has struck terror into the minds of most gentlemen within this house, and of all men without doors! 1 mean, sir, that monstrous thing, the excise! - that plan of arbitrary power which is expected to be laid before this house in the present session!"

Mr. Pelham, on the part of the ministry, advised the house to wait till the plan was disclosed, and not to enter into debates about what they knew nothing. But the alarm was given, and it flew through the country with lightning rapidity. "A general excise is coming!" was the cry. "A tax on all articles of consumption! a burthen to grind the country to powder! a plot to overthrow the constitution and establish in its place a baleful tyranny!" The opposition had now got a most popular subject of attack on the ministry, and it prosecuted it vigorously. The "Craftsman" thundered incessantly on the subject, and the oppressive manner in which this tax had been collected, and the wide range of articles, used chiefly by the poor, on which it might be rapidly extended, fully justified the alarm. We may draw a lively idea of the feeling of even the most educated at that time against the excise laws, from the definition of excise given by Dr. Johnson in the first edition of his "Dictionary" in 1755: - "A hateful tax levied upon commodities, and adjudged not by common judges of property, but by wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid."

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Pictures for Reign of George II page 3

Gibraltar
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Debtor in the fleet prison
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Great seal of George II
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Riotous assembly outside the parliament house
Riotous assembly outside the parliament house >>>>
Entrance to the old house of London
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Death of the Duke of Berwick
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The Edinburgh mob
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George II
George II >>>>
Queen Caroline
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The prince of Wales
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Frederick the Great of Prussia
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Marie Theresa
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