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Reign of George II page 6

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On the 16th of April parliament was dissolved, and the elections were conducted with immense party heat. Each side did all in its power, by fair means and foul, to increase its adherents. Sir Robert used the persuasives for which he became so famous, that he boasted every man had his own price; and if we are to believe the journals of the day, the opposition were not at all behind him, as far as their ability went. They made ample use, too, of the Septennial Act, the Riot Act, the excise scheme, and the unrecompensed commercial claims on Spain. They declared the neutrality preserved under such circumstances disgraceful to the country, though they would have been the first to have denounced ministers had they gone to war. They gained several seats, but when the parliament met in January, it was soon discovered that though less, the majority was as steady as ever, and the opposition having tried their strength against it for a few times, became greatly depressed for a time. Bolingbroke, who till now had still cherished a hope of getting once more into the house of peers again, lost all hope. The speech of Walpole had sunk deep into his soul; it had damaged him essentially all over the country, and other circumstances completed his despair. He saw no prospect of shaking the power of Walpole, and lady Suffolk having retired into private life, cut off his last expectations of any favour at court.

There were not wanting symptoms that the withering philippic of Walpole had injured him with his own coadjutors. Still more damaging was the publication at this time of some of his correspondence with the secretary of the pretender, after his abrupt dismissal from James's service. These were calculated to make his further stay in England not only unpleasant, but dangerous. Pulteney advised him to withdraw for the good of his party, and Bolingbroke himself, in a letter a few years later, confessed that there were some in opposition who thought his name, and much more his presence in England, did them mischief. He therefore quitted the country, and settled himself at Chanteloup, in Lorraine. There were, moreover, symptoms of a disposition on the part of Pulteney to become reconciled to the Walpoles. Unusual civilities passed in the house betwixt Sir Robert and him.

He was, soon after the house rose, visited by Horace Walpole while on a journey at the Hague; but the momentary display of conciliation ceased, and the next session hostilities were renewed as fiercely as ever.

Whilst these affairs had been taking place in England, the emperor had been finding himself less and less able to contend against France and Spain. He had in vain exerted himself to engage the Dutch and English in his quarrel. He called upon them as bound by the faith of treaties; he represented the balance of power for which both Holland and England had made such sacrifices, as more in danger than ever; but none of these pleas moving Walpole or the Dutch, he threatened to withdraw his troops from the Netherlands, and make over that country to France. The Netherlands bad always been a European difficulty - a temptation to France, and, therefore, a bugbear to England, Holland, and Germany. So early as the days of Marlborough it had been deliberated whether it were not possible to unite it with Holland into one independent state, and thus form a bulwark against the encroachments of France. But Marlborough saw too clearly the antagonistic elements of Dutch and Belgian natures. He declared that not only the towns, but the country people of the Netherlands hated the Dutch; and so modern times have found it, when the project, afterwards again broached by lord Chesterfield, was tried by the allies, and failed.

The threat of the emperor did not move Walpole; he knew too well that it was but a threat. The emperor, therefore, turned his attention to overthrow, if possible, the unmanageable Walpole ministry. He was aware that the king and a certain portion of his cabinet, at the head of which was lord Harrington, were willing to help him, if Walpole would consent to it. He therefore sent over to London the abbe Strickland to work out this notable project. This abbe was a man without character or principle, who had been engaged in various matters, but none very- creditable.. He had been sent as a spy by the pretender against the English government, and by the English government against the pretender. He had managed to secure for himself, the bishopric of Namur, and was aspiring to a cardinal's hat. In England, however, his mission was not likely to succeed. None but foreigners profoundly ignorant of English politics would have dreamed of such an attempt. He managed to have a conference with Harrington, and was introduced to the king and queen; but Walpole was speedily aware of his real objects, and had him sent without delay out of the country. The queen wrote to the empress, assuring her that they had been deceived by false reports, and that the king would on no account engage in war.

The emperor was now compelled to come to terms. A treaty was to be entered into under the mediation of the maritime powers. As Fleury and Walpole, too, were bent on peace, they submitted to all the delays and punctilios of the diplomatists, and finally were rewarded by a peace being concluded betwixt the different parties on these terms: - Don Carlos was to retain Naples and Sicily, but he was to resign the possession of Parma and the reversion of Tuscany; Augustus was to remain king of Poland, and Stanislaus was > to receive as an equivalent the duchy of Lorraine, which, after his decease, was to devolve to the crown of France. This was an aim which France had had in view for ages, but which neither the genius of Richelieu nor of Mazarin could accomplish. It was rendered comparatively easy now, as, the young duke of Lorraine was about to marry the empress's only child, the princess Maria Theresa, and thus to succeed through her to the empire. Yet the duke ceded his patrimonial territory with extreme regret, and not till he had received in return the grand duchy of Tuscany, and a pension from France. The regnant grand duke of Tuscany, the last of the Medicis, was on the verge of death, and his decease took place in less than two years, when the duke of Lorraine was put in possession. France and Sardinia gave their guarantee to the Pragmatic Sanction, and Sardinia obtained, in consequence, No vara, Tortona, and some; adjoining districts. England appears to have looked on with strange apathy at this aggrandisement of France by the acquisition of Lorraine, but it was impossible to prevent it, except by a great war, and Walpole was not disposed for even a little one.

Escaped from this entanglement, Europe found herself involved in another. The government at Madrid threw the servants of the Portuguese minister there into prison, on the charge of having rescued a criminal from justice. The Portuguese ambassador appealed to the ambassadors of the other powers, and they all took up the quarrel on the ground that their common privileges were violated by the incarceration of the Portuguese attaches. The contention grew very hot. The ambassadors memorialised the Spanish government in decided terms, but the government would not give way. There appeared every prospect of the quarrel growing into one betwixt the different nations. The court of Lisbon, therefore, sent over to London Don Antonio D'Alzevedo to claim the assistance of its ally, king George. The king of Portugal had a clear right to demand the protection of England, and there could be no refusing it. Consequently, five ships of the line were dispatched to Lisbon; but Walpole gave to the admiral, Sir John Norris, strict injunctions to avoid hostilities if possible, and to endeavour to restrain the Portuguese; whilst he sent a plain declaration to the court of Madrid, that England must and would defend its ally in case of attack. The sailing of this fleet produced a great effect both at Paris and Madrid. Cardinal Fleury strongly urged the Spanish court to avoid a collision, and harmony was soon restored betwixt the two peninsula courts without coming at all to blows.

In all these transactions England still found Fleury the same upright and conciliatory manager of affairs for France; but not so Chauvelin, the French secretary of state. This man was as captious and hostile to England as Fleury was friendly and fair. He was not only strongly anti-Anglican, but he endeavoured to do this country the most essential injury by promoting the objects of the pretender. He was in secret correspondence with him, and on one occasion made a singular mistake, that showed that he was as incautious as rancorous. Delivering some papers to the English ambassador, there was found amongst them one of James's letters to himself, which lord Waldegrave at once dispatched to Walpole, and thus discovered the true animus of the man. Walpole, in his usual way, instead of making a stir about this, thought it best to buy up the services of the knave. He entrusted lord Waldegrave to offer him a bribe - a good tempting one for a Frenchman - not less than five thousand pounds or ten thousand pounds, so as to secure his interest, if not his friendship. Even five thousand pounds would, as Walpole observed, make a great show in French crowns. Chauvelin, probably, feared that there might be some snare in this, for, though he showed an inclination to take the bait, he finally declined it, and commenced a more bitter course of hostility to England than ever. Walpole, therefore, took another mode of silencing him. He availed himself of a secret correspondence with Fleury to demonstrate to him the mischievous effect which the hostility of Chauvelin might have on the relations of the two countries; and it is probable that the dismissal of this antagonist from his office, which took place in a few months, was, more or less, in consequence of these representations.

As harmony was restored on the continent, so harmony characterised, to a wonderful degree, the opening of the British parliament in January, 1736. The king congratulated the country on the happy turn which affairs had taken on the continent, and said that he trusted the same peace and good-will would manifest themselves in the domestic affairs of the realm. All appeared likely to realise this wish. A congratulatory address was carried without a division, and without a syllable of dissent. But the peace was hollow - the calm only preceded a storm.

The first debate arose on the subject of drunkenness and gin. Drunkenness, a very ancient and esteemed vice in this country, had of late years appeared to grow rapidly, and to assume more horrible features from the increasing use of gin. Sir Joseph Jekyll was especially concerned at the excess of this vulgar vice, and at the misery which it was diffusing amongst the lowest classes of society in large towns, and especially in London. The justices of Middlesex presented a joint petition to the house of commons, representing the alarming pitch to which the evil had grown; that it had already destroyed thousands of the people since gin became a cheap liquor; that it was undermining labour, exciting to all sorts of crime and debauch; and that it was now sold by so many persons of inferior trades, that it was brought preeminently into the way of journeymen, apprentices, and servants.

Sir Joseph Jekyll proposed in committee that a heavy tax should be laid on this pernicious liquor, which should put it out of the reach of the working classes - namely, a duty of twenty shillings per gallon on all sold retail, and fifty pounds yearly for the license to every retailer. This benevolent man had not arrived at the grand truth, that nothing hut a sound education will ever effectually root out this or any other vice, and that to tax a crime is only to stop up one vent of it, and to occasion its bursting out in half-a- dozen other places. Every man acquainted at all with matters of revenue, though wholly inexperienced in the science of morals, could have told him that his tax would only drive the trade out of the hands of the licensed dealers into those of smugglers. Sir Robert Walpole saw this clearly; and though he would not oppose the bill for this purpose, he predicted that parliament would soon be called upon to modify its provisions. The small duties heretofore levied on this article had brought in about seventy thousand pounds annually; and, as the excise had been made over to the crown, this sum went to the civil list. Walpole demanded, therefore, that whatever deficiency of this sum should be produced by the new regulations should be made up to the civil list.

The whole measure excited a great clamour out of doors. It was regarded as an invidious attempt to abridge the comforts of the people, whilst those of the wealthy remained untouched. The clause proposed by Walpole to protect the revenue was assailed with much fury both in and out of the house. It was said that the minister was quite indifferent to the morals of the people on the one hand, or to their enjoyment on the other, so that the revenue did not suffer. The bill passed, as did also a fresh mortmain act, in addition to the numerous ones already on the statute-book.

An event which gave great offence to the dissenters, and threw them into the ranks of opposition, also occurred now. We have seen that Stanhope was anxious to have attempted the abolition of the Test Act in 1719. He was told that it was not yet the proper time; he must wait for "a more favourable opportunity." This "favourable opportunity" became the great cant phrase for putting off the dissenters whenever they urged the justice of this concession. They had been long steady and zealous supporters of government. In the hotly-contested election of 1734 they had shown themselves most active friends of the ministry, and had issued declarations, pledging themselves to vote for the ministerial candidates. But in return for this important support, they did not fail to repeat their solicitations for relief from the pressure of the Test Act. The reply of Walpole was always the same, that he was favourable to their claims, but that the time was not yet come. The patience of the dissenters was exhausted, and Dr. Chandler replied, "You have so repeatedly returned us this answer, that I trust you will allow me to ask when the time will come?" Walpole was thrown off his guard by the point- blank query, and exclaimed, in momentary pique, "Never!"

He must have rued the word ere it was well out of his mouth. The dissenters were now aware that they had been systematically hoaxed. They retired in disgust, and gave their indignant interest to the opposition. To recover himself a little, Walpole supported a bill for giving the quakers relief in the recovery of tithes. As they could not conscientiously pay them, they were harassed by serious law processes, and the object was to enable the recovery of them by a simple distraint, without power of imprisoning the defaulters. But it was soon declared by the church and tory parties that this was a direct attack upon the privileges of the church. Petitions were poured in from all sides, setting forth that" such a law would be extremely prejudicial to the clergy, and place the established church on a worse footing than any other portion of his majesty's subject. It would have been difficult to prove how exempting the bodies of defaulters, and taking their goods by a very simple, prompt, and effectual means, was injurious to the church, except it regarded vengeance as one of its privileges. It would, in truth, have been almost as much a relief to the clergy as to the quakers. The house of commons saw this, and passed the bill, but the attack was renewed in the peers. The lawyers were set upon it, and lords Talbot and Hardwicke, the lord chancellor and lord chief justice, criticised its wording, and opposed it with all their power. Gibson, bishop of London, exerted himself conspicuously to engage the rest of the bench against the bill, and it was thrown out. Walpole was greatly irritated by this defeat. He was under heavy obligations to the quakers, who in Norfolk had always zealously supported him, and that in many a fierce contest. He therefore sent for Gibson, and rated him soundly for his conduct. Nor did he satisfy himself with words. He had always consulted Gibson on ecclesiastical affairs, and he was considered so secure of the primacy on the death of archbishop Wake, that Whiston used to call him heir-apparent to the see of Canterbury; but from this moment his chance was lost. The archbishop died the next year, and Walpole, passing over the meddling Gibson, conferred the primacy on bishop Potter.

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