Thomas Babington Macaulay Macaulay.

Critical, historical, and miscellaneous essays online

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the Attorney-General, Mr. Grenville, and Lord Mul-
grave, divided against Mr. Pitt. But the devoted
adherents who stood by the head of the government
without asking questions were sufficiently numerous to
turn the scale. A hundred and nineteen members
voted for Mr. Fox's motion ; seventy nine against it.
Dundas silently followed Pitt.

That good and great man, the late William Wilber-
force, often related the events of this remarkable night.
He described the amazement of the House, and the
bitter reflections which were muttered against the
Prime Minister by some of the habitual supporters of
government. Pitt himself appeared to feel that his
conduct required some explanation. He left the treas-
ury bench, sat for some time next to Mr. Wilberforce,
and very earnestly declared that he had found it im-
possible, as a man of conscience, to stand any longer
by Hastings. The business, he said, was too bad.
Mr. Wilberforce, we are bound to add, fiilly believed
that his friend was sincere, and that the suspicions to
which this mysterious affair gave rise were altogether

Those suspicions, indeed, were such as it is painftil
to mention. The friends of Hastings, most of whom,
t is to be observed, generally supported the adminis-
ti*ation, affirmed that the motive of Pitt and Dundas
was jealousy. Hastings was personally a favourite
with the King. He was the idol of the East India




Company and of its servants. If he were absolved by
the Commons, seated among the Lords, admitted to the
Board of Control, closely allied with the strong-
minded and imperious Thurlow, was it not almost
certain that he would soon draw to himself the entire
management of Eastern affairs ? Was it not possible
that he might become a formidable rival in the cabinet ?
It had probably got abroad that very singular commu-
nications had taken place between Thurlow and Major
Scott, and that, if the First Lord of the Treasury was
afraid to recommend Hastings for a peerage, the Chan-
cellor was ready to take the responsibility of that step
on himself. Of all ministers, Pitt was the least likely
to submit with patience to such an encroachment on
his ftmctions. If the Commons impeached Hastings, all
danger was at an end. The proceeding, however it
might terminate, would probably last some years. In
the mean time, the accused person would be excluded
from honours and public employments, and could
scarcely venture even to pay his duty at court. Such
were the motives attributed by a great part of the
public to the young minister, whose ruling passion was
generally believed to be avarice of power.

The prorogation soon interrupted the discussions
respecting Hastings. In the following year, those
discussions were resumed. The charge touching the
spoliation of the Begums was brought forward by
Sheridan, in a speech which was so imperfectly re-
ported that it may be said to be wholly lost, but which
was, without doubt, the most elaborately brilliant of all
the productions of his ingenious mind. The impression
which it produced was such as has never been
equalled. He sat down, not merely amidst cheering,
but amidst the loud clapping of hands, in which the

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Lords below the bar and the strangers in tlie gallery
joined. The excitement of the House was such that
no other speaker could obtain a hearing; and the
debate was adjom*ned. The ferment spread fast
through the town. Within four and twenty houi-s,
Sheridan was offered a thousand pounds for the copy-
right of the speech, if he would himself correct it for
the press. The impression made by this remarkable
display of eloquence on sevire and experienced critics,
whose discernment may be supposed to have been
quickened by emulation, was deep and permanent.
Mr. Windham, twenty years later, said that tlie speech
deserved all its fame, and was, in spite of some faults
of taste, such as were seldom wanting either in the
literary or in the parliamentary performances of Shei'-
idan, the finest that had been delivered witliin the
memory of man. Mr. Fox, about the same time, being
asked by the late Lord Holland what was the best
speech ever made in the House of Commons, assigned
the first place, without hesitation, to the great oration
of Sheridan on the Oude charge.

When the debate was resumed, the tide ran so
strongly against the accused that his friends were
coughed and scraped down. Pitt declared himself for
Sheridan's motion ; and the question was carried by a
hundred and seventy-five votes against sixty-eight.

The Opposition, flushed with victory and strongly
supported by the public sympathy, proceeded to bring
forward a succession of charges relating chiefly to pecun-
iary transactions. The friends of Hastings were dis-
couraged, and, having now no hope of being able to
avert an impeachment, were not very strenuous in
their exertions. At length the House, having agreed
to twenty articles of charge, directed Burke to go




before the Lords, and to impeach the late Governor-
Greneral of High Crimes and Misdemeanours. Has-
tings was at the same time arrested by tlie Serjeant-at-
arms and carried to the bar of the Peers.

The session was now within ten days of its close. It
was, therefore, impossible that any progress could be
made in the 'trial till the next year. Hastings was
admitted to bail ; and further proceedings were post-
poned till the Houses should re-assemble.

When ParUament met in the following winter, the
Commons pix)ceeded to elect a committee for manag-
ing the impeachment. Burke stood at the head ; and
with him were associated most of the leading members
of the Opposition. But when the name of Francis was
read a fierce contention arose. It was said that Fran-
cis and Hastings were notoriously on bad terms, that
they had been at feud during many years, that on one
occasion their mutual aversion had impelled them to
seek each other's lives, and that it would be improper
and indelicate to select a private enemy to be a public
accuser. It was urged on the other side with great
force, particularly by Mr. Windham, that impartiality,
though the first duty of a judge, had never been reck-
(Mied among the qualities of an advocate ; that in the
OTdinary administration of criminal justice among the
English, the aggrieved party, the very last person who
ought to be admitted into the jury-box, is the ])rosecu-
tor ; that what was wanted in a manager was, not that
he should be fi-ee from bias, but that he should be able,
well informed, energetic, and active. The ability and
information of Francis were admitted; and the very
animosity with which he was reproached, whetlicr a
virtue or a vice, was at least a pledge for his energy
and activity. It seems difficult to refute these argii-




ments. But tlie inveterate hatred borne by Francis to
Hastings had excited general disgust. The House
decided that Francis should not be a manager. Pitt
voted with the majority, Dundas with the minority.

In the mean time, the preparations for the trial had
proceeded rapidly ; and on the thirteenth of February,
1788, the sittings of the Court commenced. There
have been spectacles more dazzling to the eye, more
gorgeous with jewellery and cloth of gold, more attrac-
tive to grown-up children, than that which was then
exhibited at Westminster; but, perhaps, there never
was a spectacle so well calculated to strike a highly cul-
tivated, a reflecting, an imaginative mind. All the
various kinds of interest which belong to the near and
to the distant, to the present and to the past, were col-
lected on one spot and in one hour. All the talents
and all the accomplishments which are developed by
liberty and civilisation were now displayed, with every
advantage that could be derived both from co-operation
and from contrast. Every step in the proceedings car-
ried the mind either backward, through many troubled
centuries, to the days when the foundations of our con-
stitution were laid ; or far away, over boundless seas
and deserts, to dusky nations living under strange stars,
worshipping strange gods, and writing strange charac-
ters from right to left. The High Court of Parliament
was to sit, according to forms handed down from the
days of the Plantagenets, on an Englishman accused of
exercising tyranny over the lord of the holy city of
Benares, and over the ladies of the princely house of

The place was worthy of such a trial. It was the
great hall of William Ruftis, the hall which had re-
sounded with acclamations at the inauguration of thirty


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kings, the hall which had witnessed the just sentence
of Bacon and the just absolution of Somers, the hall
where the eloquence of Strafford had for a moment
awed and melted a victorious party inflamed with just
resentment, the hall where Charles had confronted the
High Court of Justice with the placid courage which
has half redeemed his fame. Neither military nor civil
pomp was wanting. The avenues were lined with
grenadiers. The streets were kept clear by cavalry.
The peers, robed in gold and ermine, were marshalled
by the heralds under Garter King-at-arms. The judges
in their vestments o£ state attended to give advice
on points of law. Near a hundred and seventy lords,
three fourths of the Upper House as the Upper House
then was, walked in solemn order from their usual
place of assembling to the tribunal. The junior Baron
present led the way, George Eliott, Lord Heathfield,
recently ennobled for his memorable defence of Gibral-
tar against the fleets and armies of France and Spain.
The long procession was closed by the Duke of Norfolk,
Earl Marshal of the realm, by the great dignitaries, and
by the brothers and sons of the King. Last of aU
came the Prince of Wales, conspicuous by his fine per-
son and noble bearing. The grey old walls were hung
with scarlet. The long galleries were crowded by an
audience such as has rarely excited the fears or the em-
ulations of an orator. There were gathered together,
from all parts of a great, free, enUghtened, and prosper-
oos empire, grace and female loveUness, wit and learn-
ing, the representatives of every science and of every
art. There were seated round the Queen the fair-
haired young daughters of the House of Brunswick.
There the Ambassadors of great Kings and Common-
vrealtlis gazed with admiration on a spectacle which no


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Other country in the world could present. There Sid-
dons, in the prime of her majestic beauty, looked with
emotion on a scene surpassing all the imitations of the
stage. There the historian of the Roman Empire
thought of the days when Cicero pleaded the cause of
Sicily against Verres, and when, before a senate which
still retained some show of freedom, Tackus thundered
against the oppressor of Africa. There were seen side
by side the greatest painter and the greatest scholar of
the age. The spectacle had allured Reynolds from
that easel which has preserved to us the thoughtful
foreheads of so many writers and statesmen, and the
sweet smiles of so many noble matrons. It had induced
Parr to suspend his labours in that dark and profound
mine from which he had extracted a vast treasure of
erudition, a treasure too often buried in the earth, too
often paraded with injudicious and inelegant ostentation,
but still precious, massive, and splendid. There ap-
peared the voluptuous charms of her to whom the heir
of the throne had in secret plighted his faith. There
too was she, the beautiftil motlier of a beautiftil race,
the Saint Cecilia, whose dehcate features, lighted up by
love and music, art has rescued from the common de-
cay. There were the members of that brilliant society
which quoted, criticized, and exchanged repartees,
under the rich peacock-hangings of Mrs. Montague.
And there the ladies whose lips, more persuasive than
those of Fox himself, had carried the Westminster elec-
tion against palace and treasury, shone around Georgi-
ana Duchess of Devonshire.

The Serjeants made proclamation. Hastings ad-
vanced to the bar, and bent his knee. The culprit
was indeed not unworthy of that great presence. He
had niled an extensive and populous countrj', had




made laws and treaties, had sent forth armies, had set
up and pulled down princes. And in his high place
he had so borne liimself, that all had feared him, that
most had loved him, and that hatred itself could deny
him no title to glory, except virtue. He looked like
a great man, and not Hke a bad man. A person small
and emaciated, yet deriving dignity from a carriage
which, while it indicated deference to the court, indi-
cated also habitual self-possession and self-respect, a
high and intellectual forehead, a brow pensive, but
not gloomy, a mouth of inflexible decision-, a face pale
and worn, but serene, on which was written, as legi-
bly as under the picture in the council-chamber at
Calcutta, Mens cequa in ardms; such was the aspect
with which the great Proconsul presented himself to
his judges.

His counsel accompanied him, men all of whom
were afterwards raised by their talents and learning
to the highest posts in their profession, the bold and
strong-minded Law, afterwards Chief Justice of the
King's Bench ; the more humane and eloquent Dallas,
afterwards Chief Justice of the Common Pleas ; and
Plomer who, near twenty years later, successftilly con-
ducted in the same high court tlie defence of Lord
Melville, and subsequently became Vice-chancdlor and
Master of the Rolls.

But neither the culprit nor his advocates attracted
so much notice as the accusers. In the midst of the
blaze of red dmpery, a space had been fitted up with
green benches and tables for the Commons. The
managers, with Burke at their head, appeared in full
dress. The collectors of gossip did not feil to remark
that even Fox, generally so regardless of his appear-
ance, had paid to the illustrious tribunal the compli-^


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ment of wearing a bag and sword. Pitt had refused
to be one of the conductors of the impeachment ; and
his commanding, copious, and sonorous eloquence was
wanting to that great muster of various talents. Age
and blindness had unfitted Lord North for the duties
of a public prosecutor ; and his friends were left with-
out the help of his excellent sense, his tact, and his
urbanity. But, in spite of the absence of these two
distinguished members of the Lower House, the box
in which the managers stood contained an array of
speakers such as perhaps had not appeared together
since the great age of Athenian eloquence. There
were Fox and Sheridan, the English Demosthenes
and the English Hyperides. There was Burke, igno-
rant, indeed, or n^Ugent of the art of adapting his
reasonings and his style to the capacity and taste of
his hearei's, but in amplitude of comprehension and
richness of imagination superior to every orator,
ancient or modern. There, with eyes reverentially
fixed on Burke, appeared the finest gentleman of the
age, his form developed by every manly, exercise, his
fiatce beaming with intelligence and spirit, the ingen-
ious, the chivalrous, the high-souled Windham. Nor,
though siuTOunded by such men, did the youngest
manager pass unnoticed. At an age when most of
those who distinguish themselves in Ufe are still con-
tending for prizes and fellowships at collie, he had
won for himself a conspicuous place in parliament.
No advantage of fortune or connection was wanting
that could set off to the height his splendid talents
and his imblemished honour. At twenty-three he
had been thought worthy to be ranked with the vet-
eran stati^men who appeared as the delegates of the
British Commons, at the bar of the British nobility




All who stood at that bar, save him alone, are gone,
culprit, advocates, accusers. To the generation which
is now in the vigour of Ufe, he is the sole representa-
tive of a great age which has passed away. But
tliose who, within the last ten years, have listened
with delight, till the morning sun shone on the tapes-
tries of the House of Lords, to the lofty and animated
eloquence of Charles Earl Grey, are able to form some
estimate of the powers of a race of men among whom
he was not the foremost.

The charges and tlie answers of Hastings were first
read. Tlie ceremcmy occupied two whole days, and
was rendered less tedious than it would otherv\'ise have
been by the silver voice and just emphasis of Cowper,
the clerk of the court, a near relation of the amiable
poet. On the third day Burke rose. Four sittings
were occupied by his opening speech, which was in-
tended to be a general introduction to all the charges.
With an exuberance of thought and a splendour of dic-
ticMi which more than satisfied the highly raised expec-
tation of the audience, he described the character and
institutions <^ the natives of India, recounted the cir-
cumstances in which the Asiatic empire of Britain had
ori^ated, and set forth the constitution of the Com-
pany and of the English presidencies. Having thus
attempted to communicate to his hearers an idea of
Eastern society, as vivid as that which existed in his
own mind, he proceeded to arraign the administration
of Hastings as systematically conducted in defiance of
morality and public law. The energy and pathos of the
great oratiK* extorted expressions of unwonted admira-
tion from the stem and hostile Chancellor, and, for a
moment, seemed to pierce even the resolute heart of the
defendant. The ladies in the galleries, unaccustomed

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to such displays of eloquence, excited by the solemnity
of the occasion, and perhaps not unwilling to display
their taste and sensibility, were in a state of uncon-
trollable emotion. Handkerchiefs were pulled out ;
smelling bottles were handed round ; hysterical sobs and
screams were heard : and Mrs. Sheridan was carried
out in a fit. At length the orator concluded. Raising
his voice till the old arches of Irish oak resounded,
" Therefore," said he, " hath it with all confidence been
ordered, by the Commons of Great Britain, that I im-
peach Warren Hastings of high crimes and misde-
meanours. I impeach him in the name of the Com-
mons' House of Parliament, whose trust he has betrayed.
I impeach him in the name of the English nation, whose
ancient honour he has sullied. I impeach him in the
name of the people of India, whose, rights he has trod-
den under foot, and whose country he has turned into a
desert. Lastly, in the name of human nature itself, in
the name of botli sexes, in the name of every age, in the
name of every rank, I impeach the common enemy and
oppressor of all 1 "

When the deep murmur of various emotions had
subsided, Mr. Fox rose to address the Lords respecting
the course of proceeding to be followed. The wish of
the accusers was that the Court would bring to a close
the investigation of the first charge before the second
was opened. The wish of Hastings and of his coun-
sel was that the managers should open all the charges,
and produce all the evidence for the prosecution, be-
fore the defence began. The Lords retired to their
own House to consider the question. The Chancellor
took the side of Hastings. Lord Loughborough, who
was now in opposition, supported the demand of the
managers. The division showed which way the incli-




nation of the tribunal leaned. A majority of near
three to one decided in fiivour of the course for which
Hastings contended.

When the Couii; sat agam, Mr, Fox, assisted by Mr.
Grey, opened the charge respecting Cheyte Sing, and
several days were spent in reading }mpei*s and hearing
witnesses. The next article was that relating to the
Princesses of Oude. The conduct of this part of the
case was intrusted to Sheridan. The curiosity of the
public to hear him was unbounded. EUs sparkling and
highly finished declamation lasted two days ; but the
Hall was crowded to suffocation during the whole time.
It was said that fifty guineas had been paid for a single
ticket, Sheridan, when he concluded, contrived, with
a knowledge of stage effiBct which his father might have
envied, to sink back, as if exhausted, into the arms of
Burke, who hugged him with the energy of generous

June was now far advanced. The session could not
last much longer; and the progress which had been
made in the impeachment was not very satisfactory.
There were twenty charges. On two only of these had
even the case for the prosecution been heard ; and it
was now a year since Hastings had been admitted to

The interest taken by the public in the trial was
great when the Court began to sit, and rose to the
height when Sheridan spoke on the charge relating to
the Begums. From that time the excitement went
down &st. The spectacle had lost the attraction of
novelty. The great displajrs of rhetoric were over.
What was bdiind was not of a nature to entice men
of letters from tiieur books in the morning, or to tempt
ladios who had left the masquerade at two to be out of

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bed before eight. There remained examinations and
cross-examinations. There remained statements of
accounts. There remained the reading of papers, filled
with words unintelligible to English ears, with lacs and
crores, zemindars and aumils, sunnuds and perwannahs,
jaghires and nuzzurs. There remained bickerings, not
always carried on with the best taste or with the best
temper, between the managers of the impeachment and
the counsel for the defence, particularly between Mr.
Burke and Mr. Law. There remained the endless
marches and countermarches of the Peers between
tlieir House and the Hall : for as often as a point of
law was to be discusse^l, their Lordships retired to
discuss it apart ; and the consequence was, as a Peer
wittily said, that the judges walked and the trial stood

It is to be added that, in the spring of 1788, when
the tibial commenced, no important question, either of
domestic or foreign policy, occupied the public mind.
The proceeding in Westminster Hall, therefore, nat-
urally attracted most of the attention of Parliament
and of the country. It was the one great event of that
season. But in the following year the King's illness,
the debates on the Regency, the expectation of a change
of ministry, completely diverted public attention from
Indian affairs ; and within a fortnight after George the
Third had returned thanks in St. Paul's for his recov-
ery, the States-General of France met at Versailles.
In the midst of the agitation produced by these events,
the impeachment was for a time almost forgotten.

The trial in the Hall went on languidly. In the
session of 1788, when the proceedings had the interest
of novelty, and when the Peers had little other busi-
before them, only thirty-five days were given to




the impeacliment. In 1789, the Regency Bill occupied
the Upper House till the session was far advanced.
When the King recovered the circuits were beginning.
The judges left town ; the Lords waited for the return
of the oracles of jurisprudence ; and the consequence
was that during the whole year only seventeen days
were given to the case of Hastings. It was clear that
the matter would be protracted to a length unprece-
dented in the annab of criminal law.

In truth, it is impossible to deny that impeaclunent,
though it is a fine ceremwiy, and though it may have
been useful in the seventeenth century, is not a pro-
ceeding firom which much good can now be expected.
Whatever confidence may be placed in the decision of
the Peers on an appeal arising out of ordinary Utiga^
tion, it is certain that no man has the least confidence
in their impartiality, when a great public functionary,
charged with a great state crime, is brought to their
bar. They are all poUticians. There is hardly one
among them whose vote on an impeachment may not
be confidently predicted before a witness has been ex-
amined ; and, even if it were possible to rely on their
justice, they would still be quite unfit to try such a
cause as that of Hastings. They sit only during half
the year. They have to transact much legislative and

Online LibraryThomas Babington Macaulay MacaulayCritical, historical, and miscellaneous essays → online text (page 10 of 84)