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the era of French aggrandizement. Executions followed
the rebellion, but there was no Bloody Assize. The
community must be defended. If a political motive were
to confer immunity on rebels, society would be at the
mercy of every brigand who chose to say that his object
in filling it with blood, and havoc was not plunder, but
anarchy or usurpation.

Four years afterwards Spain, galvanized into sudden
life and aggressiveness by the magic touch of the advent-
urer Alberoni, and finding her ambition crossed by Eng-
land, took up the Pretender's cause and sent a little
Armada against Great Britain. But the little Armada,
like the great Armada, encountered storms in the Bay
of Biscay, and the small force which it succeeded in
landing in Scotland was at once put to the rout.

George I. did not, like William III., try to form a gov-
ernment without respect of party. He at once frankly
threw himself into the arms of the party which had set
and alone could hold him and his house upon the throne.
All the places in the government were filled by Whigs.
The commissions of the judges still expired on the demise
of the crown, and the Tory Chief Justice Trevor was
dropped, nominally on the ground that his judgeship was
incompatible with a peerage. In a general election the
Whigs were completely victorious. Bolingbroke, Harley, 1715
and Ormonde, the Tory Commander-in-Chief who had
betrayed the allies to France, were impeached ; and justly, 1715
for if a packed parliament had approved the Treaty of
Utrecht, it had not approved the conspiracy with the
enemy, or the treacherous betrayal of the allies in the


field. Bolingbroke fled and ratified his own condemnation
by entering the service of the Pretender, from which, how-
ever, finding himself a clever knave among fanatical fools,
he was presently compelled to withdraw. Ormonde also
fled abroad. Harley, less deeply compromised, perhaps
also more phlegmatic, stayed and outlived the storm.

1718 Tory policy was reversed. The Occasional Conformity
Act and the Schism Act were repealed. The Treaty of
Utrecht, which could not be repealed, was condemned.

Presently the Lords, to prevent another swamping crea-
tion, such as that by which the treaty had been carried,
proposed to limit the king's power of creating more peer-
ages to six. This would have closed the book of the
British peerage as the Golden Book of Venice had been
closed. It would have clipped the prerogative and the
influence of the crown, shut the door against ambition,
and abolished the only means of compelling the House
of Lords in an extreme case to bow to the national will.

1719 The Bill was thrown out by the Commons after affording
a fine theme for the grand debating club. The opposi-
tion made a hit by saying that if the Bill passed the only
access to the temple of honour would be through a tomb.
Through what portal other than the tomb of a dead father
is the House of Lords entered by the successor to a heredi-
tary seat ?

Government, however, was now in the hands of the
Whigs. It was still in very serious danger from dis-
affection. Several years later, encouraged by the birth of
a son to the Pretender and by a commercial catastrophe
in England, the Jacobites were again at work, and Bishop
1722 Atterbury, the great high-church champion and enemy of
nonconformists, who had offered Bolingbroke to proclaim


the Pretender, was caught in a treasonable correspondence
which led to his banishment from the realm. The Whigs
consequently became the party of authority and repression.
They upheld the standing army. They passed a stringent
Riot Act to restrain the Tory mob which had begun to 1716
pull down meeting-houses. They left unrepealed, or
rather enhanced in stringency, the tax on newspapers and
the cheap press. They repealed the act passed in the
time of William, limiting the duration of parliament to 1716
three years, and extended the term to seven, which re-
mains the law at the present day. Factitious or secondary
reasons were given for this momentous change, such as
that it would reduce the influence of the Lords over the
Commons, and render less frequent the carnivals of cor-
ruption and riot which disgraced elections in those days.
But the real object was to lend stability to a tottering
government and guard it against the danger of being
wrecked, as the great Whig ministry of Anne had been
wrecked, by a Tory or high-church typhoon. Members of
the House of Commons were arraigned at the time, and
have since been arraigned, for voting themselves a term
longer than that for which they had been elected by their
constituents. Parliament was sovereign and was justified
in doing whatever the paramount interest of the state re-
quired. A dissolution would have been formally consti-
tutional, but it might have overturned the Hanoverian

The Tories and Jacobites, on the other hand, being out
of power and bent on the overthrow of the government,
took to courting the democracy, to declaiming against
standing armies, to agitating for short parliaments, to
posing as the champions of the liberties which in power


they had sought, and had they returned to power would
again have sought, to destroy. There was once more a
foreshadowing of that which is called Tory democracy in
our day. The leader of the party, Sir William Wynd-
ham, appears to have been a man of character and merit,
though it is difficult to believe that a partisan of the
Stuarts, in pandering to democracy, was sincere or had
any object other than the disturbance of the existing
1714 In the opening years of George I., the leadership of the
government was divided between Townshend and Stan-
hope, both of them able and honourable men of business.
Stanhope was a good though not a fortunate soldier, a
man of liberal mind, who would have carried further the
principle of religious toleration, extended it to the Roman
Catholics, and repealed the Corporation and Test Acts
as well as the Schism Act and the Occasional Conformity
Act. With them was Robert Walpole, whose parlia-
mentary ability and knowledge of finance were making
themselves powerfully felt. Ministers soon had trouble,
as their successors were destined to have, about Hanover,
the union of which with the British crown drew Great
Britain into continental complications, deprived her of the
advantages of her insular position, and forced her to be
a military as well as a maritime power. The Act of Set-
tlement, anticipating the accession of another foreigner to
the British throne, had restrained his departure from the
kingdom, but that restriction had been removed. Far
better it would have been to provide that a foreigner suc-
ceeding to the British throne should give up his foreign
dominions. On a Hanoverian question it was that the
two ministers first fell out. Townshend was ultimately


dismissed, carrying Robert Walpole with him into opposi- 1716
tion. Stanhope was left at the head of the government,
with Sunderland, a man of ability but slippery, as his
partner, and kept that position practically till he died.

A great financial crisis brought to the front Walpole,
who, with Townshend, had just rejoined the ministry,
and decided that he should be head of the state. The
grasping desire of growing suddenly rich without labour,
which is the root of all gambling, gave birth to the South 1720
Sea Bubble, a counterpart of the Mississippi scheme in
France, of the tulip mania in Holland, and a precursor of
the English railway mania of later days. The govern-
ment, lured by the fancy, which has taken more than one
form, of conjuring away public debt without paying it,
entangled itself with the projects of the South Sea Com-
pany, which, in reliance on the profits of its trade, under-
took to finance a great body of government liabilities.
There was a fabulous inflation of South Sea stock. The
general spirit of speculation was set at work, and, having
no financial press to control it, gave birth to a number of
bubble companies, at last to one of which the object was
"thereafter to be disclosed," and was disclosed by the
disappearance of the projector with all the money. Then
came a terrible crash, with a tempest of public rage and
terror. Members of the government who had compro-
mised themselves were driven from place, and one of
them committed suicide. The foundations of public
credit were shaken, and commerce was in despair.
Robert Walpole's name as a financier stood the highest.
The general voice called for him. By bold and sagacious
measures he stayed the panic, restored public credit, 1721
revived commerce, and made himself master of the state


for twenty years. With Townshend, who at first was his
partner in the firm, he quarrelled, as it was his nature
to quarrel with any one with whom he shared power.
Townshend was eccentric enough, instead of going into
opposition, to withdraw to his country seat, devote him-
self to farm improvement, and introduce the culture of
turnips ; saying that he knew his temper was hot and
that he might be betrayed, as he had seen others betrayed,
into factiousness and departure from his principles.

Walpole is the first prime minister properly so-called.
Hitherto, the term had been branded as unconstitutional,
as well it might be, seeing that it meant little less than
king; nor was it even yet deemed inoffensive. George I.,
a German who was fifty-four when he came to England,
who spoke no English, w^ho had little knowledge of
English politics, and whose heart was in Hanover, where
he had everything his own way, left his minister to
govern England, lending him at the same time, so far as
appears, a steady support ; for though his ability was
small and his mind was narrow, he was a man of plain
sense and honour. He had mistresses, but they were
chosen, in fact, for their restful stupidity ; they pecu-
lated, but they did not seriously intrigue. His hapless
queen being a prisoner in Germany on a charge of infidel-
ity, there could be no court influence of that kind. All
sovereigns down to this time had presided in council,
Anne like the rest, though probably she dozed. George I.,
as he could not understand the discussion, let the prime
minister preside in his place. The prime minister ap-
pointed or dismissed his colleagues in the name of the
king. His government rested avowedly on a party which
accepted his guidance, was bound to support his measures,


looked to him to reward its support with patronage, and
was assembled by him in caucus at a crisis in the par-
liamentary battle. Party allegiance and submission to
party discipline were justified by the needs of that time.
To keep out the Stuart, with despotism and popery in
his train, a good citizen might well waive his personal
convictions on all minor issues if thereby united action
on the grand issue was to be secured. There was, in fact,
still on foot a dynastic war, though generally waged
without arms and on the floor of parliament ; a different
thing from the conventional division of a nation into two
camps, one of Blues, the other of Yellows, for the sake of
perpetuating the party system and maintaining the cease-
less competition for power.

We have now the cabinet and party system almost full
blown. The cabinet, though a body unknown to the
law, as it remains to this day, finally supersedes the old
constitutional Privy Council, the authority of which, and
its responsibility for the acts of the crown, the framers of
the Act of Settlement had in vain sought to revive by an
article which was presently repealed. The responsibility
of ministers for the acts of the king, another essential
part of the system, was becoming well established. Criti-
cisms on the king's speech would henceforth be held law-
ful, the speech being taken as that of the minister. " Let
the poor fellow alone," said George II. when he was told
that a counterfeiter of the speech from the throne should
be soon brought to condign punishment ; " I have read
both speeches, and I like the counterfeit the best." To
the completion of the system there was still lacking the
joint and several responsibility of the cabinet ministers,
which was not yet fully established.


Not that the king had become a mere cypher. He still
named his minister, though the ministry could not live
without a majority in parliament. He had still a voice
in the distribution of patronage, both civil and ecclesiasti-
cal. Ambition still sought his favour, and his mistresses
were able to make money by the sale of it, as the mis-
tresses of George I. did on an extensive scale. Above
all, he was still, by the forms of the constitution, and in
the eyes of the nation as well as in its liturgy, the ruler ;
and the day might come when he would again desire and
try to rule.

Unlike Bolingbroke, who, when he was leader of the
party, had taken a peerage, Walpole remained in the
House of Commons, thereby recognizing that house as
the seat of power. The peers, however, retained much
of the power which their own house had lost by the influ-
ence which, as territorial magnates, heads of the landed
interest, and masters of pocket boroughs, they exercised
over the House of Commons ; though no longer a fully
co-ordinate branch of the legislature, they had still, at
least on all subjects but money Bills, a voice in the
council of the nation.

Robert Walpole was the son of a squire with a good
estate in Norfolk. He had the tastes and habits of his
class ; was a keen fox-hunter, and opened his game-
keeper's letters first. He was thus in touch with the
landed gentry, while his financial skill and knowledge
of trade gained him the confidence and the political sup-
port of commerce. He was a staunch Whig ; had been
one of the managers of the impeachment of Sacheverell,
and felt the vengeance of the Tories in their day of tri-
1717 umph. Ejected for a time from the ministry in conse-


quence of a rupture between Stanhope and Townshend, he
had been recklessly factious in opposition ; had leagued
himself with Jacobites ; had attacked the standing army ;
had opposed the Mutiny Bill; and had voted against a
repeal of the Schism Act, which he had himself denounced
as worthy of Julian the Apostate. His morals were
loose, his conversation was more than coarse, and when
at Christmas he gathered his political followers round him
at Houghton, their orgies drove decency from the neigh-
bourhood. But he was strong, clear-headed, and sagar
cious, all in the highest degree. In the House of
Commons he rose with a hale and lusty frame, a
genial and cheery countenance. He was a master of
debate ; thoroughly understood the material interests of
the country ; and though he grasped power unscrupulously
and monopolized it jealously, when it was in his hands he
used it well.

The political ideal of such a man was not likely to be
high. Walpole, in fact, had no ideal. The aim of his
policy was to maintain the Revolution settlement by
keeping the house of Hanover on the throne. For this
he saw that peace with foreign powers, with France above
all, was indispensable, since enemies abroad were sure to
ally themselves with the Jacobite enemy at home. Peace,
therefore, he did his best to maintain; and not only
between England and foreign powers, but, so far as he
could, among the masters of Europe, ever wrangling for
territory, ever disputing about rights of succession, and ever
on the verge of war. In this his skill as diplomatic helms-
man was taxed to the uttermost, and did not fail. The
Spanish tempest raised by Alberoni had been encountered
and dispelled by Stanhope. In cultivating friendship with


France, the government of George I. was greatly helped
by the change which had taken place in that country.
Louis XIV., the fanatical champion of legitimacy and

1715 Catholicism, had been succeeded by the Regent Orleans,
a sybarite who cared little for Catholicism and thought
only of the prospect of his own succession to the throne,
which might be disputed by the Spanish Bourbon, and
with a view to which he desired the friendship of Eng-
land. So far had the fury of religious war abated, that
the Regent's minister, Dubois, owed the cardinal's hat,
under which his wickedness grinned, partly to British

1726 influence at Rome. Fleury, who succeeded Dubois as
minister, was also pacific, as beseemed a septuagenarian,
and his heart had been won by Walpole's brother, Horace
Walpole, the British ambassador at Paris, who had been
far-seeing enough to pay him a visit on the day of his
transient disgrace.

The enemy to be disarmed at home was the squire, the
member of the October Club, to whom Bolingbroke had
shown game, and who, hating nonconformists and the
commercial interest, had supplied the strength of the
Jacobite or Tory party. Him also Walpole tried to win
over by reduction of the land-tax, which he always had in
view, as well as by general conciliation. Still it was on
the boroughs, a number of them in the power of the
crown or close and venal, the commercial classes, and
the nonconformists that Walpole's government mainly

Walpole's motto was " Let Rest " ; not the worst of
mottoes for a nation which had been politically distracted
for a century. Content to give industry and commerce,
the natural sources of prosperity, fair play, with such help


as finance or diplomacy could afford them, he shrank from
all organic change or renewal of political strife. He
would willingly have gratified the nonconformists who
supported him by the repeal of the Corporation and Test
Acts ; but this he could not have done without provok-
ing a conflict with the Tory parsons which, having been
singed by the flames of the Sacheverell conflagration, he
had steadfastly determined to avoid. He therefore put
off the nonconformists with a pretext for delay, and at
last, pressed to name his time, said frankly that the time
would be never. An Annual Indemnity Act, however, 1727
did for the dissenters almost as much as would have been
done by the repeal of the Test Act. Walpole tried to
amend the tithe law for the relief of the Quakers, hun-
dreds of whom had been imprisoned and some had died
in prison ; but the bishops and clergy were too strong for
him. Against the catholics the law, sharpened on the
defeat of James II., was made more vexatious by the
imposition of the protestant oath of abjuration, and in
one year a special tax was levied upon their property and
that of the nonjurors. The motive was their assumed
sympathy with the catholic Pretender. Walpole was
no bigot or persecutor. He partook of the religious
laxity of his age. It must be borne in mind that all
this time catholics were persecuting where they had the
power; that tidings of protestants or heretics, deprived
of their liberty of worship, burnt alive, hanged, sent to
the galleys, or driven into exile, were still coming in
from catholic lands. Stanhope in 1691 had seen in
Majorca twenty-seven heretics and Jews burnt; he was
to see twenty more next day, and another "festival" of
the same kind if he would stay a few days longer. Eng-


land was still the asylum of the persecuted for conscience'
sake, and their industries were her rich reward.

Stanhope had rid the Whig government of the organ of
hostility to it and to all measures of toleration retained
by the clergy in convocation. That body, having long
ceased to be assembled for its original purpose as the
legislature and self -taxing assembly of the clerical estate,
had continued to exist as the cockpit of clerical war and
a field for the attacks of the high church and Tory par-
sons on the Liberal bishops who were appointed by the
Whigs. The Bangorian controversy waged between the

1717 High Church and the Low Church on a vast scale and
with intense heat, though, as those who have explored its
records say, without any definite issue, furnished a plausi-
ble ground for the final suppression of the assembly. A
little dust, to use Hallam's phrase, was scattered over the
angry insects. The license of the crown necessary to
enable convocation to proceed to business was thenceforth

1717 withheld, and convocation practically ceased to exist till

1850 it was called to a feeble life by the high church move-
ment of our own times. The established church was thus
distinctly stamped as a department of the state.

That Walpole was himself corrupt there is no reason to
believe. From his paternal estate, his official salaries, and
his fair gains on the stock exchange he may well have had
enough to pay for his palace at Houghton, his revelries
there, and his gallery of pictures, without dipping his
hands into the public purse. A committee of inquiry

1742 after his fall searched with all the energy of hatred for
proofs of his corruption and found none. To sustain his
government, to keep the house of Hanover on the throne,
to uphold Revolution principle against Jacobite opposition


or conspiracy, he used without scruple or remorse the vast
and, according to our ideas, in part most objectionable,
influence at the command of the crown ; its nomination
boroughs ; the places and pensions, of which a scandalous
number were held by members of the House of Com-
mons ; the borough votes of an army of excisemen which
increased with the revenue ; and patronage, military as
well as ecclesiastical and civil. He dismissed officers of
the army for voting against him. He bribed the political
press. He bribed ambition with peerages ; vanity with
the Bath, a new order of knighthood. Probably he
gave money bribes to public men. Among the men of
honour, as they styled themselves in that century, to
receive a political bribe was not dishonourable ; and a
nobleman into whose hand a minister had slipped a bill
for three hundred pounds, though he refused the bill, did
not feel insulted by the offer, but rather feared that the
minister might be insulted by the refusal. All this was
bad, but the choice was between this and the Stuart. In
the nation at large, at least in its political classes, the
party of the Revolution was in a minority; so that the prime
minister had to keep the pyramid balanced on its point.
To lower the tone of public life was hardly in Walpole's
power. The worst that can be said of him is that he
shared the general lowness of tone, or let himself down to
it, and told young men at their entrance into public life
that they would soon have to give up being Spartans and
reformers. But he might well scorn the patriotism of his
day. " Patriots ! " he said, " I can make any number of
them in a moment ; it is but refusing an unreasonable or
insolent demand, and up starts a patriot." " If you will
not take the seals," said Walpole to Yorke, " Fazakerley

VOL. II вАФ 12


will." "Why, Fazakerley is a Jacobite." "No doubt;
but if you have not taken the seals by one o'clock, at two
Fazakerley will be Lord Keeper and the staunchest Whig
in England."

The charge of having failed to patronize men of letters
as the statesmen of Anne had done, will not bear heavily
on Walpole's memory. He was scholar enough to lose
a bet about a quotation from Horace and to give im-
pertinence the lie direct in Latin ; but he was a man of
business and might mistrust his own literary judgment.
Perhaps he feared that in patronizing one man of letters he
would be in danger of provoking the jealous resentment
of two. It is doubtful whether English literature has
ever owed much to government patronage. Walpole did
probably the best he could by respecting the freedom of
the press and abstaining from government prosecutions
for libel, though libels on government were many and
fierce. His employment of hacks was not wise ; they
degraded him without doing him any good.

In financial and commercial legislation Walpole moved
on the lines on which the greatest statesmen in that de-
partment have moved since. Free trade was his policy.
He took off in one year export duties on a hundred and
six articles of British manufacture, and import duties on
thirty-eight articles of raw material. He introduced the
system of warehousing foreign goods duty free. He re-
1760 duced the land tax ; he reduced the interest on the debt.
From the fallacy of the sinking fund he could hardly be

Online LibraryGoldwin SmithThe United kingdom; a political history → online text (page 59 of 84)