William Edward Hartpole Lecky.

A history of England in the eighteenth century online

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a few years before, largely through the efforts of Granyille
Sharp. It was intended to be an asylum for freed negroes, and
at the same time a great trading centre for the civilisation of
Africa and the development of its resources ; and it was espe-
cially specified in the charter of incorporation, that the company
was on no account to deal in slaves or keep any persons in
slavery. It became the refuge of many negroes who had
obtained their freedom during the war of the American Re-
volution, and for some years it excited the sanguine hopes
of philanthropists. These hopes were, however, not fulfilled.

1 Clarkson, History of the Aboli- Romilly on this division. IA/e of

ttoncftke Slave Trade, ii. 163. Romilly, i. 425, 426. Clarkson, it.

■ Ibid. ii. 148. 212-3
1 Bee an interesting letter of

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Mismanagement and various misfortunes retarded the develop-
ment of the colony, and it suffered very seriously from French
devastations during the great French war.

In 1792 the struggle passed through some new phases. The
earnestness of the popular movement against the slave trade
was shown by the multitude who, in all parts of England,
agreed to leave off the use of sugar, as being a product of
slave labour; by associations established in numerous provin-
cial towns, corresponding with the central Abolition Society in
London ; by numerous public meetings to protest against the
trade, and by the remarkable fact that in this year no less than
519 petitions were presented to Parliament for the abolition of
the trade, while there were only four against the abolition, and
one in favour of regulation. 1 On the other hand, both the
opposition of interest and the opposition of panic had manifestly
increased. The horrors of the St. Domingo revolt had sunk
deeply in the minds of men. The King and Royal Family were
extremely hostile. The public meetings and petitions, which
seemed now becoming for the first time an important normal
instrument in political struggles, were looked upon by leading
politicians with much aversion, as tending to overthrow the
independence of political judgment in Parliament and convert
the representatives into mere delegates, and the dislike to such
proceedings was much intensified by what was happening in
France. Pitt himself appears for a time to have been shaken
and dubious, 2 but when Wilberforce in April introduced a
motion for immediate abolition, he cast off his hesitation and
electrified the House by a speech which Fox, Windham, and
Grey concurred in pronouncing to be one of the most extra-
ordinary displays of eloquence they had ever heard. The debate
had extended till past six in the morning, when in a superb
peroration, which Wilberforce said seemed literally inspired, Pitt
predicted how, the slave trade being abolished, the tardy justice
of Europe would at last atone for the long agonies of Africa by
bringing to that benighted continent the light of civilisation
and knowledge; and as he spoke the rays of the rising sun
streamed suddenly through the windows of the House, and the
orator by a happy quotation at once applied the incident as an
1 Clarkson, ii. 352-355. ■ Wtlbcrforce's Life, i. 341-344.

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image and an omen of the future. 1 He concluded by declaring
with great emphasis that he would oppose any proposition which
tended to postpone even for an hour the abolition of the slave trade.

The House, however, thought otherwise. The policy of
gradual abolition was now proposed by Dundas, and it was
carried by 193 votes to 125. It was a policy which was also
adopted in Denmark, where the King had lately issued an
ordinance that after the year 1803 the trade should be no longer
tolerated in any of his colonies. Such a policy was evidently
acceptable to the majority in the House of Commons, and at
last, after much dispute, they agreed on the year 1796 as that in
which the trade should cease. When, however, the Bill was
sent up to the Lords, a demand for more evidence was raised
and carried, and the question was again adjourned.

Next year the French War broke out, and reforms of all
kinds became unpopular. It was in vain that Wilberforce
proposed a committee to consider the slave trade; a Bill for
regulating and limiting the importation of negroes into our
own colonies; a Bill for prohibiting the supply of slaves by
British merchants to foreign colonies. In the country and
in both Houses the cause was now associated with Jacobinism,
and the association was strengthened when the French Con-
vention in 1794 proclaimed the abolition of slavery in the
French colonies, and when Danton openly declared that a
great object of the measure was to produce a revolt among the
negroes in the English and Spanish colonies. The conditions
of the question were indeed profoundly altered, and Dundas
urged the extreme danger of taking any step which might be
offensive to colonial Legislatures at a time when the war was
raging. Wilberforce, however, succeeded in 1794 in carrying
his Bill for the abolition of the slave trade with foreigners,
through the Commons ; but in the Lords, Grenville, who had
hitherto been one of his most faithful supporters, refused to de-
fend it. The Duke of Clarence, Lord Abingdon, and Lord Thur-
*Iow led the opposition, and the Bill was easily defeated. In the
two following years his motions were defeated in the Commons,

1 4 Nos . . . primus eqnis Oriens afflavit anbelis,
Ulio sent rubens accendit lnmina Vesper.'

See Stanhope's Life of JPUt, ii. 145, 146.


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and in 1796 the interest on the subject was so languid that
Dolben's annual Bill was dropped, for want of a sufficient
attendance of members.

It was revived, however, in the following year, and though
Wilberforce was again beaten on a motion asking leave to
bring in a Bill to discontinue the trade within a limited time,
measures were introduced, principally by his opponents, for
regulating the conditions both of the slave trade and of slavery,
with a view to depriving them of some of their worst charac-
teristics. A parliamentary address was carried to the governors
of the colonies, calling on them to take means to promote the
welfare of the negroes, so that the trade should ultimately
become unnecessary, and some measures in this direction were,
shortly after, taken by the Legislatures of the Leeward Isles.
An Act of George II. which authorised the sale of slaves at the
suit of their master's creditors was repealed, and an Act was
passed securing a greater height between the decks of slave
ships. The strong feeling of the hour, however, was that the
darkest period of a colossal war was no time for abolishing a
lucrative trade, at the cost of irritating the colonial Legislatures
and immediately after the acquisition of many new slave colonies.
The majorities against Wilberforce were not large, but the
abstentions were very numerous, and in 1798 and 1799 his
t motion was again defeated. Thornton at this time introduced
* a measure prohibiting the purchase of negroes on the northern
j coast of Africa, on the ground that it frustrated the good that
I was expected from the Sierra Leone Colony. It was postponed
i in 1798. In 1799 it passed the Commons, but was defeated in
/ the Lords.

~~~~ The century thus terminated with the temporary defeat of
a cause which twelve years before seemed on the eve of triumph.
I have noticed in a former chapter the sequel of the struggle, 1
and it is not necessary to recur to it. I will here only observe
how different a complexion the eighteenth century would have
presented to the historian if, in addition to the great Methodist
and Evangelical revival of religion, it had been distinguished,
as once appeared so probable, by the supreme philanthropic
achievement of the abolition of the slave trade. While admit-
> Vol. v. pp. 65-68.

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ting that the eighteenth century in England was not rich in
conspicuous social and political reforms, it should not be for-
gotten how many great causes had been almost conquered in
opinion in the early years of the Ministry of Pitt, and would
in all human probability have been speedily carried into effect,
if the fatal influence of the French Revolution and of the war
which it produced had not checked, blighted, and distorted the
natural progress. But for this influence, the closing years of
the century would probably have seen the abolition of the
English slave trade; a reform of Parliament; the removal of
the Test and Corporation Acts from the Statute-book, and an
immense reduction both of debt and of taxation. The great
industrial transition which has been described might have been
accomplished with comparatively little suffering, if it had not
occurred when the French War had raised corn to a famine
price and absorbed all the attention of the legislators; and it
was the introduction from France of the revolutionary spirit
into Ireland that for the first time made the Irish problem
almost insoluble.

But in spite of the sudden and most disastrous blight which
thus fell on so many promising causes, the eighteenth century
deserves, I think, a more honourable place than has usually
been assigned to it in the history of England. A century was
certainly not without the elements of greatness, which witnessed
the victories of Marlborough; the statesmanship of Chatham
and his son; the political philosophy of Burke and Adam
Smith ; the religious movement of Wesley and Whitefield ; the
conquest of India ; the discovery of Australia ; the confirma-
tion of the naval, and the establishment of the manufacturing,
supremacy of England. In this century religious persecu-
tion practically ceased, and the form of the Constitution was
thoroughly established. Whatever may be said against the
English statesmen which it produced, it is at least certain that
they carried England safely through the long period of a dis-
puted succession ; maintained free institutions when they were
extinguished in almost every country in Europe ; transformed
Scotland from a scene of utter anarchy into a highly civilised
country ; kept the name of England for many successive gene-
rations very high among the nations of the world, and preserved

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her in the closing yean of the century from the most dangerous
revolutionary epidemic of modern times. The period from the
Restoration to the accession of the House of Hanover was a
period of great selfishness and corruption in the higher spheres
of Government, but from the accession of George II* the
standard appears to have almost steadily risen. Factious, reck-
less, and corrupt statesmen often appeared conspicuously on
the scene ; but it is remarkable how very rarely such men have
succeeded, for any considerable time, in acquiring a really con-
trolling and dominant influence in English politics. No one,
I think, who follows with care the confidential correspondence
of English statesmen and diplomatists during the latter half
of the century, can fail to be struck with the essential honesty
with which English policy appears to have been conducted, and
with the fidelity with which, in the broad lines of their policy,
successive Governments represented and followed the opinion of
the country.

The standard of duty, however, in the professions was un-
doubtedly lower than at present. The spirit of reform was
less active. Many abuses, which would not now be tolerated
for a day, were almost unquestioned. There was much more
hardness and indifference to human suffering, and in the sphere
of politics there were grave and scandalous evils. The King
himself, during the administration of Lord North, was accus-
tomed to devote many thousands of pounds to the purchase of
borough seats. 1 Corruption at elections was constant and fla-
grant, and numerous sinecures and a lavish patronage were
maintained and employed for political purposes.

Yet even in these respects the picture has been often over-
charged. Some of the small borough seats were either pur-
chased by public men who wished to secu&e their independence,
or were disposed of in a manner that was very conducive to the
interests of the country, and eminently honourable to their
patrons. Some, at least, of the sinecures were usefully em-
ployed in rewarding merit, or served the purpose of retiring
pensions to offices to which such pensions are now attached.
If the public revenue was not administered quite as scrupu-

1 Some decisive evidence of thishas Lyte in his report on the MSS. of the
lately been published by Mr. Maxwell Marquis of Abergavenny.

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lously as at present, it is at least true that there was little
absolute malversation, and the taxation was in general moderate
and equitable, and singularly free from those unjust exemptions
and privileges which were so general on the Continent.

The question, indeed, whether the standard of patriotism,
of public duty, and of public honour has risen in England
since the eighteenth century, is one which it appears to me far
from easy to answer. It by no means follows that, because a
nation has advanced in intelligence and even in morality, there
must be necessarily a corresponding improvement in its govern-
ing and political class, for the improvement in the nation may
be more than counterbalanced by the degradation of the suf-
frage. In one respect, the superiority of the English Parlia-
ments of the eighteenth century will scarcely be disputed.
With the doubtful exception of the small and short-lived Jaco-
bite party, those Parliaments contained no party which was not
in harmony with the general interests of the Empire, and did
not sincerely desire its greatness and its prosperity. Corrup-
tion was very widely spread and very undisguised, but political
corruption takes many forms, and each age has its charac-
teristic vices. A democratic age, in which power is chiefly won
by appeals to the great masses of the population, is likely to be
an age of high moral profession, and it will be free from many
of the prevalent evils of an aristocratic Government. The
avowed cynicism; the disregard in foreign politics for the
rights of nations ; the open subordination of political interests
to personal and family pretensions ; the many forms of petty
corruption which so often meet us in the eighteenth century,
have wholly disappeared or greatly diminished; but another
and a not less dangerous family of vices has much tendency to
increase. Cant and hypocrisy ; the combination of mean action
and supersaintly profession ; the habitual use of language that
does not represent the real sentiments and motives of the
speaker; the habit of disguising party and personal motives
under lofty and high-sounding professions ; the sacrifice of the
most enduring interests of the nation, for the purpose of rais-
ing a popular cry or winning immediate applause ; the syste-
matic subordination of genuine conviction to popular favour —
these are some of the characteristic vices of a democratic age.

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In such an age the demagogue takes the place of the old syco-
phant. Bribery is applied not to individuals, but to classes.
Dexterous appeals to ignorance, passion, and prejudice become
supreme forms of party management. Questions of vast and
dangerous import are unscrupulously raised for the purpose of
uniting a party or displacing a Government ; and a desire to
trim the bark to every gust of popular favour produces apo-
stasies, transformations, and alliances compared with which the
coalition of Pox and North will appear very venial. No modern
statesman would attempt to bribe individuals, or purchase
boroughs like Walpole, or like North ; but we have ourselves
seen a minister going to the country on the promise that, if he
was returned to office he would abolish the principal direct tax
paid by the class which was then predominant in the consti-
tuencies. Irish politics have long since ceased to be conducted
by ennobling borough owners and pensioning members of Par-
liament, but the very impulse and essence of their most power-
ful popular movement has been an undisguised appeal to the
cupidity and the dishonesty of the chief body in the electorate.
Lofty maxims and sacred names are invoked in Parliament
much more frequently than of old; but he who will observe
how questions of the most vital importance to the Constitution
of England and the well-being of the Empire have in our gene-
ration been bandied to and fro in the party game ; how cyni-
cally the principles of one year have sometimes been abandoned
in the next ; how recklessly prominent politicians have sought
to gain their ends by setting the poor against the rich, and
planting in the nation deadly seeds of class animosities and
cupidities, may well learn to look with tolerance and with
modesty upon the England of the past


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ch. xxit. DISCONTENT OF FLOOD, 801


IRELAND, 1782-1789.

The victory which had been achieved by the Irish popular party
in 1782 was a great one, but many elements of disquietude were
abroad. An agitation so violent, so prolonged, and so successful,
could hardly be expected suddenly to subside, and it is a law of
human nature, that a great transport of triumph and of* grati-
tude must be followed by some measure of reaction. Disap-
pointed ambitions, chimerical hopes, turbulent agitators thrust
into an unhealthy prominence, the dangerous precedent of an
armed body controlling or overawing the deliberations of Par-
liament, the appetite for political excitement to which Irish-
men have always been so prone, and which ever grows by
indulgence, the very novelty and strangeness of the situation,
all contributed to impart a certain feverish restlessness to the
public mind. Unfortunately, too, one of the foremost of Irish
politicians was profoundly discontented. Flood, who had been
the earliest, and, for a long period, by far the most conspicuous
advocate of the independence of the Irish Parliament, found him-
self completely eclipsed by a younger rival. He had lost his seat
in the Privy Council, his dignity of Vice-Treasurer, and his
salary of 3,500Z. a year, but he had not regained his parliamen-
tary ascendency. All the more important constitutional questions
were occupied by other, and usually by younger, men. He was
disliked by the Government and distrusted by the Parliament.
Even his eloquence had lost something of its old power, and by
too frequent speaking in opposition to the sense of the House,
he had often alienated or irritated his hearers.

Telverton was made Attorney-General, and Burgh Prime
Sergeant, but the Government had no wish to restore Flood to

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his office, though they were willing to replace him in the Privy
Council. Their intentions, however, in this respect were frus-
trated by a curious blunder. One of the most remarkable facts
in this period of Irish history is the number of false steps which
were due, not to any miscalculations of leading statesmen, but
simply to the carelessness of subordinate officials. We have
already seen that the insertion of Ireland in four or five very
insignificant British Acts, at a most critical moment and in de-
fiance of the warnings of the viceroy, had been one of the chief
circumstances in creating the violent demand for independence,
and that, in the opinion of Lord Carlisle, this insertion was due to
pure inadvertence, official draughtsmen having probably copied
the forms of previous Acts. 1 In 1782 the Government at last
consented, after a long struggle, to accept the Bill making the
judges removable only by the address of the two Houses of
Parliament in Ireland, and to relinquish the disputed clause
making the concurrence of the Irish Privy Council indispensable ;
but the Bill had scarcely been returned from England, when
Shelburne wrote in much alarm to Portland that he had dis-
covered that, ' by a mere mistake of the Council Office,' the very
clause which was the subject-matter of dispute had been inserted,
though * it was not intended to have been adopted by the
Committee of Privy Council/ and he begged the Lord Lieutenant
to take such measures that no bad consequences should follow
from the error. 2 In the dealings with Flood a much more
serious mistake was made. The Lord Lieutenant thought it
very desirable to enter into negotiation with him, and he wished
to be authorised in the course of this negotiation, if he thought
it expedient, to offer Flood a seat in the Privy Council ; but a
clerk by some strange mistake sent the nomination which was
meant to be conditional, and at the option of the Lord lieutenant,
directly to the ' Gazette/ and it was from this source that Flood
first learnt the intentions of the Ministers. He refused to accept
the position, and the Lord Lieutenant spoke with very justifiable
irritation of the great injury that was done to the public service
by the premature disclosure.* Portland regarded Flood with
much dislike. * His ambition/ he said, ' is so immeasurable that

1 See voL iv. p. 540. * May 8, 1782. Shelburne to Portland.

• June 8, 1782. Portland to Shelburne.

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c*. zxnr. SIMPLE REPEAL. 803

no dependence can be placed upon any engagement he may be
induced to form.' l

The question of the sufficiency of the measures that had been
taken for securing the constitutional independence of the Irish
Parliament, had been raised in a discussion on the clause of
the Address, which stated that * there will no longer exist any
constitutional question between the two nations that can dis-
turb their mutual tranquillity/ Flood described this clause as
superfluous and possibly dangerous, but he refused to divide
against it, and the only two members who voted for its omission
were Sir Samuel Bradstreet the Recorder of Dublin, and an able
lawyer named Walshe, who first raised in Ireland the question
of the adequacy of what was termed ' simple repeal.' The
nature of this question may be stated in a few words. The
Irish Parliament in 1 782 had asserted its own independence of the
British Legislature, and the British Parliament had responded
by repealing the Declaratory Act of George I., which asserted
the legislative and judicial power of Great Britain over Ireland.
It was contended by the two lawyers I have mentioned, that as
a matter of law this measure was insufficient to annul the
assumed right of the British Parliament to legislate for Ireland.
The Declaratory Act had not made the right, and therefore its
repeal could not destroy it. Long before that Act had passed,
the right of the English Parliament to legislate for Ireland had
been asserted by Coke and other great authorities — had been fre-
quently exercised and had been frequently acquiesced in. If it
existed then, it existed still, and although as a matter of ex-
pediency the English Parliament had withdrawn its assertion, it
was open to it at any time to renew it. No lawyer, it was said,
would assert that the assumed right of Great Britain to legislate
for Ireland could be taken away by implication. * The repeal
of a declaratory statute is not in construction of law a repeal
or renunciation of the principle upon which that statute was
founded.' It leaves the legal right exactly as it was before the
Declaratory Act had passed. Nothing but an Act of the British
Parliament expressly relinquishing or disclaiming the right to
legislate for Ireland could be legally sufficient. Ireland must
not rest content with * a constructive freedom/ She must obtain
1 August 9, 1782. Portland to Townsend.

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such an explicit renunciation from Great Britain as would put
an end to all further controversy and cavil, and become a
perpetual charter of her freedom. The language of Fox in
moving the repeal of the Act of George I. seemed to draw
some distinction between external and internal legislation, and
to foreshadow an attempt to retain some part of the former.

These arguments were at first treated in the Irish Parlia-
ment with much contempt, and were regarded merely as the
quibbles of lawyers, and, although Flood soon after adopted

Online LibraryWilliam Edward Hartpole LeckyA history of England in the eighteenth century → online text (page 32 of 64)