VIII. THE HEROES RETIRE

As the French Revolution advanced, Charles James Fox found himself in a diminishing minority in Parliament and in the country. Many of his allies were won to the view that England must join Prussia and Austria in fighting France. After the execution of Louis XVI Fox himself turned against the Revolution, but he still opposed entry into the war. When war came nevertheless, he consoled himself by drinking, by reading the classics, and by marrying (1795) his (and Lord Cavendish’s, Lord Derby’s, and Lord Cholmondeley’s) former mistress, Mrs. Elizabeth Armstead, who paid his debts.158 He welcomed the Peace of Amiens (1802), traveled in France, was acclaimed there with civic and popular honors, and was received by Napoleon as a patriot of civilization. In 1806 he served as foreign secretary in a “Ministry of All the Talents”; he labored to keep the peace with France, and decisively supported Wilberforce’s campaign against the slave trade. When he learned of a plot to assassinate Napoleon he sent the Emperor a warning through Talleyrand. Had Fox’s health not broken down, he might have found a means of reconciling Bonaparte’s ambition with England’s security. But in July, 1806, he was disabled by dropsy. A succession of painful operations failed to stay the progress of the disease; he made his peace with the Established Church, and on September 13 he died, mourned by his friends and his enemies, and even by the King. He was the most widely loved man of his time.

The younger Pitt, prematurely old, preceded him to the Abbey’s vaults. He too found that he could bear the pace of political life only through the occasional amnesia of drink. The precarious sanity of George III was a constant problem; any serious conflict of views between King and minister might throw the crowned head out of balance and bring in a regency by the Prince of Wales, who would sack Pitt and call in Fox. So Pitt abandoned his plans for political reform, and withdrew his opposition to the slave trade, when he found that on these, as on many other matters, George was fretfully resolved to perpetuate the past. Pitt concentrated his genius on economic legislation, in which he served the rising middle class. Much to his distaste, he led England in war against what he called “a nation of atheists.”159 He did not do well as a war minister. Fearing a French invasion of Ireland, he tried to appease the Irish with a program of parliamentary union and Catholic emancipation; the King balked, and Pitt resigned (1801). He returned (1804) to head his second ministry; Napoleon proved too much for him; and when the news came of the French victory at Austerlitz (December 2, 1805), which made Napoleon master of the Continent, Pitt broke down in body and spirit. Seeing a large map of Europe, he bade a friend, “Roll up that map; it will not be wanted these ten years.”160 He died January 23, 1806, honorably poor, and only forty-six years old.

Life took longer to destroy Sheridan. He had joined with Burke and Fox in the defense of America and the battle of Hastings; he supported Fox in applauding the French Revolution. Meanwhile that wife whose charm and gentle nature were favorite themes among his friends, and who had put her beauty on the hustings to help him win a seat in Parliament, died of tuberculosis in her thirty-eighth year (1792). Sheridan broke down. “I have seen him,” said an acquaintance, “night after night cry like a child.”161 He found some consolation in the daughter she had borne him; but she died in the same year. During those months of grief he faced the task of rebuilding the Drury Lane Theatre, which had become too old and weak for safety; and to finance this operation he incurred heavy liabilities. He had accustomed himself to luxurious living, which his income could not maintain; he borrowed to continue that style. When his creditors came to dun him he treated them like lords, entertained them with liquor, courtesy, and wit, and sent them away in a humor that almost forgot his debts. He remained active in Parliament till 1812, when he failed of re-election. As a member of the House he had been immune to arrest; now his creditors closed in upon him, appropriated his books, his pictures, his jewels; finally they were about to carry him off to jail when his physician warned them that Sheridan might die on the way. He succumbed on July 7, 1816, in his sixty-fifth year. He was rich again in his funeral, for seven lords and one bishop bore him to the Abbey.

The half-mad King survived them all, survived even the triumph of England at Waterloo, though he knew it not. By 1783 he recognized that he had failed in his attempt to make the ministers responsible to him rather than to Parliament. The long struggles with the House of Commons, with America, and with France proved too much for him, and in 1801, 1804, and 1810 he relapsed into insanity. In his old age the people came to recognize his courage and his sincerity, and the popularity that had been denied him in his days of strife came to him at last, tinged with pity for a man who had seen England suffer so many defeats and was not permitted to witness her victory. The death of his favorite daughter, Amelia (1810), completed his divorce from reality; in 1811 he became incurably insane as well as blind, and he remained in seclusion, under guard, till his death (January 29, 1820).

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