Goldwin Smith.

The United kingdom; a political history online

. (page 63 of 84)
Online LibraryGoldwin SmithThe United kingdom; a political history → online text (page 63 of 84)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

The loss was a gain in disguise, so far as military
strength, commercial profit, or real greatness was con-
cerned. The colonists had refused to contribute 'to
imperial armaments or submit to imperial legislation.
Trade with them, instead of being diminished by their
emancipation from the colonial system, greatly and rap-
idly increased. To suppose that Great Britain could
have held even a nominal suzerainty over them to this
hour would be absurd. The parting was sure to come.
What was deplorable was the manner of the parting,
which entailed a deadly schism of the race, and left a
long train of bitterness and mutual animosities behind.
The children of Spain in the new world, though Spain
was a far worse mother than England, forgave or forgot ;
but the children of England cherished against her a per-
sistent hatred. Much is due to the retention of Canada
and the continued presence of Great Britain on the
American continent as a political and military power
in antagonism to the United States. For this, how-
ever, Americans have themselves to thank. There were
at the time Englishmen who would gladly have with-
drawn from the American continent altogether ; and had
it been a mere question of policy, those counsels might
have prevailed. But policy was controlled by honour.
Instead of closing the civil war with amnesty, the vie-


torious party in America chose to expel the vanquished,
and thousands of loyalists, Tories, as their enemies called
them, testified by going into exile their unshaken attach-
ment to the mother country. For these a home was to
be found under the British flag, and it was found in
Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. Congress
rejecting or evading by an ironical reference to the States
a claim for indemnity, Great Britain gave the loyalists
indemnity to the extent of three millions and a half.

A struggle, calamitous in itself and in its result, closed
not ingloriously to Great Britain. War with France,
Spain, and Holland was not a war with kinsmen, and
the spirit of the nation rose again to the combat with
its ancient foes. By the repulse of Spain from Gibraltar, ^733
by her defeat in the first battle of St. Vincent, and by 178O
Rodney's victory over France in the West Indies the 1782
honour of the flag at least was saved. Of all the parties
concerned the French monarchy in the end suffered most.
The reward of its vindictive and hypocritical league with
American rebellion was bankruptcy followed by revolution.

George III. had thrown himself vehemently into the
war, and had struggled to the last against the recogni-
tion of colonial independence. For the protraction of
the contest the king was personally responsible. He
might well feel that with the interest of imperial suprem-
acy in America was bound up that of prerogative at
home. Chatham had said that three millions of Britons,
if they were made slaves, would be fit instruments .for
making slaves of the rest. Yet in fact no great depres-
sion of the monarchy ensued on this defeat, and the
course of events soon took the opposite turn.

A few years afterwards commenced the British coloni-


zation of Australia, the way to which had been shown
by Cook. A convict ship was not a Mayflower^ nor was
Botany Bay a Massachusetts ; but in time the taint was
worked off, and in another hemisphere the loss of colonies
was repaired.

The worst political consequence of the American cata-
strophe was the legislative secession of Ireland. The state
of the island under the combined operation of religious
intolerance embodied in penal law, commercial restric-
tions, an alien church establishment, and a government
of patronage and corruption had few parallels in the
annals of misfortune. It had been treated as an alien
dependency, the commerce and manufactures of which,
in conformity with the cruel fallacies of the day, were
to be repressed in the interest of those of the imperial
country; the growth of industrial life and of all its
influences, social as well as material, being repressed at
the same time. Artificial encouragement of the linen
trade was a poor compensation for prohibition of the
natural trade in wool. The mass of the population
were now cottiers, little above the condition of serfs.
They were ground down by the landlord, or, as the
landlord was often an absentee, by his middleman, who
screwed out his rack-rent, and by the tithe-proctor, who
collected tithes for the clergy, also often non-resident, of
a hostile church. Refuge there was none ; other indus-
tries having been ruined by the restrictions on manu-
factures and trade, there was left to the peasants only
the land, for which they competed with the eagerness of
famishing men. In addition to all these burdens the
peasant had to bear that of paying the priests of his
own religion, to which he faithfully clung, while the


priests, fitted by celibacy for a lot of poverty and danger,
continued their ministrations in face of the penal law,
and were the only guides and comforters of the oppressed
people. The prohibition of trade bred a general habit
of smuggling. The persecution of the popular religion
made the people and their guides see enemies of reli-
gion in government and law. These are the pleas for
Irish lawlessness, which, however, had been not less in
the time of the clans. Illicit enlistment for the catholic
armies of the continent was constantly going on, and
must have carried off much of the best blood and sinew
of the country. All catholics being excluded from the
Irish parliament and from the franchise, the laws were
made by an assembly avowedly hostile to the mass of the
population. Persecution was still the rule of Europe.
In Ireland there was many a Huguenot who had fled
from his catholic persecutor. What was singular and
especially hard in the Irish case was that it was a per-
secution of the vast majority by a minority resting on
external power. Persecution in Ireland was also two-
fold, for the Anglican hierarchy insisted upon imposing
on the Presbyterian colonists of the north religious dis-
abilities which, combined with the blighting of trade,
drove many of them across the Atlantic. The coinci-
dence of a division of race with a division of religion,
and of the two with the internecine struggle for land,
put a terrible gulf between the gentry and the peasantry,
while of the gentry many were squireens or middlemen,
as tyrannical and insolent as they were worthless. Such
a combination of curses the world has seldom seen.
For food the peasant was being driven to the barbar-
ous and precarious potato. Sometimes there was actual


famine. Swift in hideous satire proposed that babies
should be used as food. In time the feeling of in-
creased security among the dominant sect and race
relaxed the practical rigour of the penal laws, and the
1746 Lord-Lieutenancy of Chesterfield, a free-thinker, was a
golden era. This was the sole improvement.

But it was not from the enslaved that revolt came;
they, thoroughly quelled by their last great overthrow,
had sunk into the apathy of despair, and stirred not in
1715 or in 1745, though each time the alarm of the domi-
nant minority produced a fresh spasm of oppression.
The revolt came from the ruling race, galled by the
commercial restrictions, incensed at the abuse of pat-
ronage and the pension list, full of their chartered rights
as Britons, and stimulated by American example. In
striking against the short-sighted avarice of the British
trader the Irish parliament had reason and justice on its
side, in striking for legislative independence it was in
the awkward position of a minority, holding by virtue
of its connection with the imperial country a monopoly
of power with which it did not mean to part. Swift
out of mischief, Molyneux and Lucas inspired by a more
genuine patriotism, had written in favour of legislative
independence. The success of the American rebellion
and the prostration of Great Britain set the spirit of
disunion at work. North made commercial concessions
on what, for that day, was a liberal scale. But these
did not satisfy the Irish patriots. Under pretence of
1778- defending the island against French invasion, they raised
^"^^^ a force of fifty thousand volunteers, and demanded the
severance of the two bonds of dependence, Poynings's
Act, passed in the reign of Henry VIL, which put Irish


legislation under the control of the English privy council,
and the Act of George I., affirming that the parliament
of Great Britain had power to legislate for Ireland. A
moderate regular force would probably have sufficed to
put down the volunteers with their somewhat bombastic
and very bacchanalian leaders. But the British govern-
ment was hard pressed by opposition at home as well as
by a host of enemies abroad; it gave way and granted
Ireland legislative independence. Grattan, the eloquent 1781
chief of Irish patriotism, in a passionate burst of rheto-
ric adored the risen nation before a parliament from which
five-sixths of that nation were excluded. The only con-
stitutional link now left between the two islands was the
crown. But the crown had its nomination boroughs in
Ireland; it had a vast fund of patronage, both civil and
ecclesiastical; and an Irish patriot was seldom a Cato.
Above all, the oligarchy of protestant landowners was
at heart conscious what, if the tyrannical arm of Great
Britain were really withdrawn, its fate would be. Great
Britain held by the ears the wolf by which Irish oligarchy
would have been devoured.

Against such a course of scandals, parliamentary and
administrative, as that which ended in the American cata-
strophe and Irish secession, if political life was left in the
nation, reaction was sure to come. In the British nation
political life was left. Public wrath had found utterance in
the Letters of " Junius," whose keen and glittering weapon 1709-
was sometimes the sword of patriotic indignation, though 1772
more often it was the dagger of personal malice. Mystery,
combined with daring personalities, invested a writer
whose excellence is not far beyond the reach of a clever
journalist of the present day, with an exaggerated interest,

VOL. II — 16


SO that even Burke spoke of him with awe. A far grander
and nobler advocate of reform was Burke himself, with his

1770 " Thoughts on the Present Discontents," denouncing as the
source of the evil court influence, which, with its merce-
nary phalanx of king's friends, and its vast patronage,
parliamentary and official, had taken the place of preroga-
tive. Burke's remedy was the revival of party, which he
idealizes as a body of men united on a particular principle
for the promotion of the national interest, while he would
no doubt have found for it a practical basis in his own,
that is the Rockingham, connection. To diminish court
influence Burke moved for an economical reform, abolish-
ing sinecure offices, setting a limit to pensions, reducing
the preposterous expenses of the royal household, and
retrenching a civil list on which there was a debt of
six hundred thousand pounds contracted partly by waste,
partly, there can be little doubt, by the administration
of the king's golden pills. Dunning actually carried, in

1780 the House of Commons, a resolution that " the influence
of the crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to
be diminished." Chatham proclaimed the necessity of a

1770 reform of parliament, proposing, not to abolish the rotten
boroughs, an attempt which, bad as the system might be,
he appears to have deemed hopeless, but to increase the
representation of the counties, which, though in the
hands of the local aristocracy and squires, was compara-

1780 tively open and pure. The Duke of Richmond proposed
annual parliaments and universal suffrage, showing that
when an aristocrat does break away from the policy of
his class he is apt to break away from it with a ven-
geance, not the less if he is a magnate of the first order
and feels that his own position is in any event secure.


Not Liberalism only, but Radicalism was championed
in parliament by Wilkes and Sawbridge, outside the
House by Home Tooke, a clergyman self-unfrocked,
a man of character, force, and learning, the leading spirit
of a society for upholding the Bill of Rights. This, too, is
the natal hour of political powers outside parliament, the
Platform, the Stump as Americans call it, and Organized
Agitation. At Middlesex elections, where Wilkes was 1768
the candidate, the platform would bellow its loudest.
It spoke in accents infinitely more august and mem-
orable by the mouth of Burke, rendering his account to
his constituents and defining the true duties of a mem-
ber of parliament as those of a representative, not a dele-
gate, on the hustings at Bristol. The counties, with their 1777
electoral meetings of freeholders, were organizations ready
formed for political action. When the scandals had reached
their height, a meeting of the freeholders of Yorkshire, the
greatest of these constituencies, was held at York, and was 1780
addressed by the leading men of the district. The example
was followed by twenty-eight other counties. Presently
the movement burst through the limits of the county or
borough and became national. An association to promote
economical reform was set on foot with a central com- i780
mittee, and advantage was taken of the right to petition
guaranteed by the Bill of Rights to bring moral pressure
to bear upon parliament. Borough-mongers, sinecurists,
and king's friends began to quake.

The immediate outcome, however, was not great. The
association for economical reform was compromised, as
organized agitations are apt to be, by the violence of some
of its members, which gave occasion to its enemies to rep-
resent it as a seditious attempt to overawe the legisla-


ture and make the people instead of parliament supreme.
When, from promoting economical reform, it proceeded to
take up the reform of parliament, it laid itself open to
a charge of departure from its original object, which lost
it some adherents. Reform of the representation nothing
short of absolute terror could wring from the patrons of
boroughs. To them such reform was political death, while
economical reform was loss of that which made political
life worth living. Dunning's victory was not sustained,
court influence and corruption presently turning the scale

1780 against him. Burke's motion for economical reform was
allowed to pass ; but when his party came into power,
and the patronage was theirs, his scheme was cut down

1782 so that the result was only a reduction of seventy-eight
thousand pounds a year, to which Burke himself, being
then Paymaster, nobly added a renunciation of the irregu-
lar emoluments of that office. It was, however, a substan-

1782 tial gain when contractors were prohibited from sitting
in the House of Commons, the votes of excisemen, said
to turn seventy elections, were taken away, and a limit
was put to the granting of pensions. The practice of
deciding election petitions by a party vote, from which
the American Congress is not yet free, had been abol-

1770 ished by Grenville, who passed an Act referring those cases
to a judicial committee of the House. The House of
Commons had renounced its usurped power of disquali-
fying for election. After a violent contest between the
House and the city of London, a by-plot to the drama
of Wilkes, brought on by a futile attempt of the House to
punish a printer for publishing its debates, the liberty of

1771 reporting and printing the debates had been practically
conceded. This no doubt made members more respon-


sible to their constituents and tore away the mask from
self -prostitution. On the other hand, when the reporter
comes in deliberation must go out. Interchange of
thought, suggestion, modification, or withdrawal, such as
deliberation requires, become impossible when every word
is taken down. Members speak not to the House but to
the reporters. From that time, at all events, the House
has been not so much a national council as an oratorical
battlefield of party, though its debates may furnish a test
of ability and give impressive utterance to the opinions of
the country.

Liberty of opinion ultimately gained an important step
by the agitation of these times. In the course of the
political conflict the law of libel had been brought under
discussion, and the right of the jury to pronounce on the
character of the alleged libel as well as on the fact of pub-
lication had been asserted upon one side and denied upon
the other, Mansfield's strictly legal intellect taking the
illiberal side. For the present the legal decision was
suspended ; but the jury had morally won the day.

Obstructive prejudice was not confined to the court or
the patrons of boroughs. It was strong also, after its
kind, among the masses, who by their violent manifesta-
tions of it compromised the cause of reform. Roman
Catholics, of whom there were still many old families in
the north, laboured under a mass of accumulated disabili-
ties, such as, if the law had been strictly enforced, would
have deprived them of the rights not only of citizens, but
of parents, proprietors, and men; though it seems they
had practically been little molested, and had performed
their worship, educated their children, and transmitted
their estates in peace. Toleration having made way among


men of the world, a Bill abolishing some of the disa-
1778 bilities was carried by Sir George Savile, a steady and
most respectable advocate of liberal legislation. Here-
upon the old popular hatred of popery again broke out,
first in Presbyterian Scotland, where it was most intense,
and afterwards in England. A great anti- Catholic Asso-
ciation was formed under Lord George Gordon, a protes-
tant maniac, who ended by turning Jew. The presentation
by him of a monster anti- Catholic petition was followed
1780 by a frightful uprising of the mob of London. For three
days the great city was in the hands of an infuriated and
intoxicated rabble which revelled in destruction, arson,
and every kind of outrage, though, British savagery hav-
ing limits, nobody was hanged in a lamp iron, nor were
any heads carried on pikes. Authority was paralyzed and
the metropolis was saved by the decision of the king, who
took it upon himself to order the troops to fire. The
ministers had hesitated and by their hesitation shown
their fear of public sentiment and their respect for the
letter of the law. So strong was still the feeling against
the religion of Bloody Mary and Guy Fawkes, that even
the reform of the calendar, carried by the free-thinking
1761 Chesterfield, was denounced, not only because it robbed
the people, as they said, of eleven days, but because the
reformed calendar bore the name of a pope. The Lord
George Gordon riots would make it far from clear that in
the existing condition of popular intelligence the Duke
of Richmond's scheme of annual parliaments and universal
suffrage,, or anything approaching to that scheme, could
work well. In fact, this and other disturbances threw
back the cause of reform.

On the fall of North the Tory king was compelled to go


back to the hated Whigs, and the government was formed 1782
by Rockingham, with Burke again as his prompter and
Fox as his foreign minister. But Rockingham died, and 1782
there ensued a struggle in the cabinet for supremacy
between Shelburne, who leaned to the court, and Fox.
Shelburne for an hour became prime minister. He repre- 1782
sented Chatham's general policy and had a young Pitt at
his side. This man is an enigma. He seems highly en-
lightened for his day ; he is a sound economist and a
pioneer of free trade. His policy towards America is
liberal; he is against coercing her. Afterwards he
wishes to heal the rupture with her, as a family quarrel
now at an end, to renew the family connection, and ami-
cably share the family inheritance. There appears to
be much about him most excellent. Yet he is intensely
disliked and mistrusted. He is nicknamed Malagrida,
after a Jesuit of sinister visage. By Burke he is com-
pared to a serpent with two heads. Nobody cares to act
with him. Pitt, though he has been his chancellor of the
exchequer, does not, when he becomes prime minister
himself, take him into the cabinet. Fox was evidently
resolved to break with him. This he did on a pretext
connected with the treaty of American independence, and
Shelburne's ministry fell.

Against a return of the detested Whigs to power, by
which the king was now confronted, he battled long and
hard. He even offered the prime ministership to Pitt,
who was then but twenty-three. At last he for the time
bowed his neck to the yoke.

There followed under the nominal premiership of the 1783
Whig Duke of Portland, a coalition of Fox and North
revolting to men of principle and to the nation. Fox had


not only opposed North's policy with the utmost violence,
he had denounced him personally as one who in every
public or official transaction had shown himself void of
every principle of honour and honesty, one with whom he
could never have any connection, and with whom, if. he
allied himself, he would be content to be called the most
infamous of mankind. The memory of such language
could not be buried by saying that quarrels were transient
and friendship was eternal. Nor can the infamy of such
a coalition cast a shade upon any union of statesmen who,
though previously differing in opinion, have respected the
characters of each other. The basis upon which the coali-
tion was formed, and which was supposed to palliate its
flagrancy, was cabinet government, withdrawing all real
power from the king, as opposed to government by depart-
ments with the king supreme. Composed as the House
of Commons then was, each of the leaders was able to
bring his contingent with him, and the coalition had a
large majority in the House, though from the first it was
condemned by the country. The king hated all the
Whigs politically ; Fox he hated personally as a profligate
while he was himself morally pure, and as the corrupter
of his son; North he hated as a deserter. The coalition
was bent on stripping him of power ; he was bent on
tripping up the coalition.

Before long the king found his opportunity, and the
1783 coalition fell, putting an end by its fall for many a day to
the dominion of the Whig houses, which beginning under
William III., and interrupted only by the brief triumph
of Toryism at the end of the reign of Anne, had lasted
for ninety years. The occasion of the catastrophe was an
India Bill. While the orb of British empire had been


contracted in the west it had been vastly enlarged in the
east, and that career of conquest had begun which, des-
tiny leading on the conquerors step by step, has ter-
minated in the sovereignty of Hindostan. Upon the
collapse of the Mogul power at the death of Aurungzeb, 1707
India had fallen into a wild and bloody anarchy, the
satraps breaking loose from the central power and war-
ring with each other, while the country was swept by the
murderous and devastating raids of the Mahratta horse-
men. Order had perished, nationality there had never
been ; in place of nationality there was only caste. Trad-
ing companies which had factories on the coast were con-
strained in self-defence to become military powers. But
the ambition of Dupleix, who was at the head of the
French, aspired to nothing less than the empire of Hindo-
stan, towards which he was advancing with great strides,
while the British power was brought by his intrigue and
force to the verge of destruction. It was saved and
brought out of the struggle victorious, alike over French
and native enemies, by Robert Clive, who, in the hour
of extreme peril, left the desk of a merchant's clerk to 1748
surpass Cortez and Fizarro in arms, while he far surpassed
them both in counsel. By Clive was acquired a dominion
as large as France, and really independent, though nomi-
nally subject to the phantom of Mogul empire at Delhi.
Political dominion in the hands of a company of traders or
their agents and clerks could hardly fail to be used for the
purposes of illicit gain. It led to oppression, corruption,
rapine, and the accumulation of scandalous wealth. These

Online LibraryGoldwin SmithThe United kingdom; a political history → online text (page 63 of 84)