THE SCANDAL OF THE SOUTH SEA BUBBLE ROUSED THE HOPES OF THE Tories. Their revival as a political force seemed imminent. The Government had been thoroughly discredited, and the exiled Bolingbroke was hopefully intriguing with his supporters in England. A brilliant and vitriolic bishop, Francis Atterbury, of Rochester, was spinning a new web of secret contacts with the Jacobites in France. The Hanoverian régime had been hit in its most delicate spot, the financial credit of the Government.
One man only amid the crash and panic of 1721 could preserve the Whig monopoly. He was Robert Walpole, now established as the greatest master of figures of his generation. Soon he was to become a Knight of the Garter, one of the few Commoners to hold the honour. This Norfolk squire, who hunted five days a week, had risen to prominence as Secretary at War in the days of Marlborough. He had been imprisoned in the Tower after the Whig defeat of 1710, and since his release had been a leading figure of the Whig Party in the House of Commons. He had already been Chancellor of the Exchequer for three years but he and his brother-in-law, Townshend, had resigned in 1717 in protest at the excessive pliancy of certain Whigs to the Hanoverian foreign policy of the King. Walpole had witnessed the disastrous effect on the Whig Party of the public impeachment of Sacheverell. He had no intention of repeating the mistake. The political crisis was quickly ended. A Jacobite plot was swiftly and silently supressed. Atterbury was convicted of treason by a Bill of Pains and Penalties, and quietly pushed into exile without the chance of using his brilliant gifts as an orator and pamphleteer. At the same time Walpole did not prevent the pardon and return of Bolingbroke. There is a story that at Dover Atterbury met Bolingbroke returning from France and remarked, “My lord, we are exchanged.”
Walpole, on becoming head of the Government, immediately turned to financial reconstruction. He was First Lord, or Commissioner, of the Treasury, for the great office of Lord Treasurer had been abolished and its powers placed in the hands of a commission. The last sections of the National Debt taken over by the South Sea Company were portioned out between the Bank of England and the Treasury. The Sinking Fund he had instituted in 1717, whereby a sum of money was set aside from the revenue each year to pay off the National Debt, was put into operation. Within a few months the situation improved and England settled down again under another edition of Whig rule.
With a business man at the head of affairs the atmosphere of national politics became increasingly materialistic. Walpole realised that the life of his Government depended on avoiding great issues that might divide the country. He knew that a mass of hostile opinion smouldered in the manor-houses and parsonages of England, and he was determined not to provoke it.
By careful attention to episcopal appointments, delicately handled by his friend Edmund Gibson, the Whig Bishop of London, Walpole increased the preponderance of his party in the House of Lords. He refused a comprehensive measure of toleration for the Dissenters, for this might have introduced religious strife into the world of politics. But while unwilling to legislate broadly on grounds of principle he took care that his Dissenting supporters who accepted office in local government in defiance of the Test Acts were quietly protected by annual Acts of Indemnity. Any sign of Tory activity was greeted by Walpole with the deadly accusation of Jacobitism. But he was by nature kindly, and though he had the lives of some of his Tory opponents in his hands he never used his power to the shedding of blood.
“The charge of systematic corruption,” Burke wrote, “is less applicable to Sir Robert Walpole than to any other Minister who ever served the Crown for such a length of time.” He had no illusions about the virtue of his supporters; but he knew there was a point beyond which corruption would not work. There was a limit to the mercenary nature of the men with whom he dealt, and it was plain that in the last resort they would be moved to vote by fear or anger rather than according to their interests. Anything tending to crisis must be avoided as the plague. For the rest, by pensions to the German mistresses and by a liberal Civil List he could be assured of the continued enjoyment of the royal confidence.
Walpole’s object was to stabilise the Hanoverian régime and the power of the Whig Party within a generation. Taxation was low; the land tax, which was anxiously watched by the Tory squires, was reduced by economy to one shilling. The National Debt decreased steadily, and an overhaul of the tariff and the reduction of many irksome duties stimulated and expanded trade. By an entente with France and by rigid non-intervention in European politics Walpole avoided another war. He was the careful nurse of England’s recovery after the national effort under Queen Anne. But men remembered the great age that had passed and scorned the drab days of George I. A policy of security, prosperity, and peace made small appeal to their hearts, and many were ready to attack the degeneration of politics at home and the futility of England abroad.
A high-poised if not sagacious or successful opposition to Walpole persisted throughout the twenty-one years of his administration. It drew its force from the association of those Whigs who either disliked his policy or were estranged by exclusion from office with the Tories in the shades. Very attractive, these Tories in the shades! Romantic, enveloped in lost causes, based upon the land, its past and its fullness, “the gentlemen of England,” as Bolingbroke had extolled them in the days when he was sapping Marlborough’s strength, were still the core of the nation. Dignity, morale, passion in subjection, the sense of tradition, the Old World—and then, in a fancy perhaps growing fainter every year, the rightful King!
Bolingbroke had offered an alliance, but Walpole had refused to allow him to regain his place in the House of Lords. The younger Whigs, like William Pulteney and John Carteret, were too clever to be allowed to shine in Walpole’s orbit. Nor could they weaken his hold on the House of Commons while he exercised the patronage of the Crown. There was no hope except to undermine his position with the King. A series of appeals to the German ladies by flattery and cash followed. Walpole was always quicker in satisfying their cupidity than his opponents. The Parliamentary Opposition gathered round the Prince of Wales. It was the Hanoverian family tradition that father and son should be on the worst of terms, and the future George II was no exception. The Government depended on the King; the Opposition looked to his son. All had an interest in the dynasty. But for the strong support of Caroline, Princess of Wales, Walpole would have been in serious danger. Indeed, on the accession of George II in 1727 he suffered a brief eclipse. The new King dismissed him. But the Opposition leaders failed to form an alternative Government. The titular head of their stop-gap administration had to get Walpole to write the royal speech at the opening of George II’s first Parliament. Secure in the confidence of Queen Caroline, Walpole returned to office and entrenched himself more firmly than before.
There had always been a danger that discontented, ambitious members of his Government would play on the King’s interest in Hanoverian affairs. They would espouse the causes dear to the royal heart—the ancestral home, the great Continental scene, the Grand Alliance, the wars of Marlborough. This lure of European politics was too much for several of the men around Walpole. He meant to do as little as possible: to keep the peace, to stay in office, to juggle with men, to see the years roll by. But others responded to more lively themes. Walpole was forced to quarrel. His own brother-in-law, Charles Townshend, was dismissed at the end of 1729. He then entered into close co-operation with a man of limited intelligence and fussy nature, but of vast territorial and electoral wealth—Thomas Pelham Holles, Duke of Newcastle. Newcastle became Secretary of State because, as Walpole said, he himself “had experienced the trouble that a man of parts gave in that office.” By his enemies Walpole was now mockingly called the “Prime Minister”—for this honourable title originated as a term of abuse. The chances of a successful Opposition seemed to be gone for ever. With every weapon of wit and satire at their command, the brilliant young men who gathered round Bolingbroke and the surviving mistress of George I, the Duchess of Kendal, herself a subscriber to Bolingbroke’s newspaper The Craftsman, could make no dint on the dull, corrupt, reasonable solidity of the administration.
However, in 1733 a storm broke. Walpole proposed an excise on wines and tobacco, to be gathered by Revenue officers in place of a duty at the ports. The measure was aimed at the vast smuggling that rotted this source of the revenue. Every weapon at their command was used by the Opposition. Members of Parliament were deluged with letters. Popular ballads and pamphlets were thrust under the doors. National petitions and public meetings were organised throughout the land. Doleful images were raised of the tyranny of the Excisemen. The Englishman’s castle was his home; but this citadel would be invaded night and day by Revenue officers to see whether the duty had been paid. Such was the tale—then novel. It was spread among the regiments of the Army that their tobacco would cost them more, and one officer reported that he could be sure of his troops against the Pretender, but not against Excise. The storm swamped the country and alarmed the Government majority in the House of Commons. The force of bribes was overridden by fear of expulsion from the enclosure in which they were distributed. Walpole’s majority dwindled; his supporters deserted him like sheep straying through an open gate. Defeated by one of the most unscrupulous campaigns in English history, Walpole withdrew his Excise reform. After a near division in the House of Commons he uttered the famous saying, “This dance can no longer go.” He crawled out of the mess successfully, and confined his revenge to cashiering some of the Army officers who had helped his opponents. The violence of his critics recoiled upon themselves, and the Opposition snatched no permanent advantage.
Bolingbroke now despaired of ever achieving political power, and in 1735 he retired once more to France. Those Whigs who were out of office grouped themselves round Frederick, the new Prince of Wales. He in his turn became the hope of the Opposition, but all they could produce was an increased Civil List for this ungifted creature. Their arrogance showed Walpole that people were growing tired of his colourless rule. One of his sharpest critics was a young Cornet of Horse named William Pitt. He was deprived of his commission for his part in the attack. In 1737 Walpole’s staunch ally, Queen Caroline, died. There was steadily growing a reaction, both in the country and in the House of Commons, to the interminable monopoly of political power by this tough, unsentimental Norfolk squire, with his head for figures and his horror of talent, keeping the country quiet, and, though it was only an incident, feathering his own nest.
At long last the Opposition discerned the foundation of Walpole’s ascendancy, namely, the avoidance of any controversy which might stir the country as a whole. Their campaign against the Excise, which appealed to popular forces outside Walpole’s command, pointed the path to his final overthrow. Supreme in the narrow circle of the Commons and the Court, Walpole’s name angered many and inspired no one. The country was bored. It rejected a squalid, peaceful prosperity. Commercial wealth advanced rapidly. Trade figures swelled. Still the nation was dissatisfied. There was something lacking; something which was certainly not Jacobite, but was certainly deeper than the discontent of ambitious, unemployed Whig politicians. All that was keen and adventurous in the English character writhed under this sordid, sleepy Government. Sometimes whole sessions of the House of Commons rolled by without a division.
All that was needed to destroy the mechanism of Walpole’s rule was an issue that would stir the country, and which would in its turn stampede the quiescent, half-squared Members of Parliament into a hostile vote against the Minister. The crack came from a series of incidents in Spanish America.
In 1713 the Treaty of Utrecht had granted the English the right to send one shipful of Negro slaves a year to the Spanish plantations in the New World. Such was the inefficiency of Spanish administration that it was easy to run contraband cargoes of Negroes in defiance of what was called the “Asiento contract,” and the illicit trade grew steadily in the years of peace. But when the Spanish Government at last began to reorganise and extend its colonial government English ships trading unlawfully in the Spanish seas were stopped and searched by the Spanish coastguards. Having in vain struggled for many years with inadequate weapons to put down, not slaving, but the smuggling of slaves along the coasts of the Spanish colonies, the guards were far from gentle when they managed to intercept an English vessel in the wide ocean. Profits were high, and merchants in London forced Walpole to challenge the right of search. A series of negotiations followed with Madrid.
The Directors of the South Sea Company were interested in these regions. Suppressing English interlopers was not in itself to their disadvantage, but they were themselves involved in dispute with Spain over payments due to the Spanish king under the Asiento contract for the annual ship. Driven to the verge of bankruptcy, they hoped to use the anti-Spanish feeling in London to avoid their obligations. They claimed they had suffered losses at the hands of the Spanish Fleet during the brief wars in 1719 and 1727. Other issues were involved. The ships that suffered most from seizure and molestation came usually from the English West Indian colonies, which had long traded for log-wood in Campeachy Bay and the Gulf of Honduras. Walpole and Newcastle hoped for a peaceful settlement. The preliminary Convention of Prado was settled and negotiated at Madrid in January 1739. Spain, also nearly bankrupt, was just as anxious to avoid war. She offered many concessions, and Walpole drastically reduced the claims of English merchants. But the Opposition would have none of it. The South Sea Company had been excluded from the preliminary Convention, and continued its quarrel with the Spanish Government independently of official negotiations. In May Spain suspended the Asiento and refused to pay any of the compensations agreed by the Prado Convention.
Meanwhile the Opposition in Parliament had opened a broad attack on the Government’s negotiations with Spain. Much was heard of the honour of England and the great traditions of Elizabeth and Cromwell, and there was vehement appeal to national prejudices and sentiments. A captain trading with the Spanish possessions, one Jenkins, was brought before the House of Commons to produce his ear in a bottle, and to maintain that it had been cut off by Spanish coastguards when his ship was searched. “What did you do?” he was asked. “I commended my soul to God and my cause to my country,” was the answer put in his mouth by the Opposition. Jenkins’s ear caught the popular imagination and became the symbol of agitation. Whether it was in fact his own ear or whether he had lost it in a seaport brawl remains uncertain, but the power of this shrivelled object was immense. A vociferous group of orators led by Pulteney became known ironically as the “Patriots.” Without troubling to study the terms of the preliminary agreement with Spain, the Opposition drove their attack home. As one of Walpole’s supporters wrote, “The Patriots were resolved to damn it before they knew a word of it, and to influence the people against it, which they have done with great success.” And, as the British envoy in Madrid, Benjamin Keene, put it to Walpole months later, “The Opposers make the war.”
The Spaniards might have ignored the bellicose Opposition in the British Parliament. Walpole and Newcastle were not strong enough to do so. If the country demanded war with Spain the Ministers were prepared to ride with them rather than resign. Spain had disarmed her Fleet after signing the Convention of Prado as proof of her sincerity. English ships in the Mediterranean had been ordered home, but after the storm at Westminster the orders were revoked in March. Walpole was further alarmed by the hostile attitude of France; but none the less he yielded ground slowly and steadily. On October 19, 1739, war was declared. The bells rang out from the London churches and the crowds thronged the streets shouting. Looking down upon the jubilant mob, the Prime Minister remarked sourly, “They are ringing their bells now, but soon they will be wringing their hands.” Now opened a mighty struggle, at first with Spain only, but later by the family compact between the Bourbon monarchs involving France. Thus began that final duel between Britain and her nearest neighbour which in less than a century was to see the glories of Chatham, the follies of Lord North, the terrors of the French Revolution and the rise and fall of Napoleon.
By sure degrees, in the confusion and mismanagement which followed, Walpole’s power, as he had foreseen, slipped from him. The operations of the ill-manned Fleet failed. The one success, the capture of Portobello, on the isthmus of Panama, was achieved by Admiral Vernon, the hero of the Opposition. Captain Anson’s squadron, filled up with Chelsea pensioners, disappeared into the Pacific. It inflicted little damage on the Spaniards. But in a voyage lasting nearly four years Anson circumnavigated the globe, charting as he went. In the course of it he schooled a new generation of naval officers. Meanwhile the tide of national feeling ran high. There were riots in London. The Prince of Wales appeared everywhere, to be cheered by opponents of the Government. A new tune was on their lips, with Thomson’s resounding words, “Rule, Britannia.”
In February 1741 an Opposition Member, Samuel Sandys, proposed an address to the King for the dismissal of Walpole. For the last time the old Minister outwitted his foes. He had made overtures to the Jacobite group in the Commons, even letting it be supposed that he would countenance a Jacobite Restoration. To the amazement of all, the Jacobites voted for him. The Opposition, in the words of Lord Chesterfield, “broke in pieces.” But under the Septennial Act elections were due. The Prince of Wales spent lavishly in buying up seats, and his campaign, managed by Thomas Pitt, brother of William, brought twenty-seven Cornish seats over to the Opposition. The electoral influence of the Scottish earls counted against Walpole, and when the Members returned to Wesminster his Government was defeated on an election petition (contested returns were in those days decided by the House on purely party lines) and resigned. It was February 1742. Sir Robert had governed England for twenty-one years. During the last days before his fall he sat for hours on end, alone and silent, brooding over the past in Downing Street. He was the first Chief Minister to reside at Number Ten. He had accomplished the work of his life, the peaceful establishment of the Protestant succession in England. He had soothed and coaxed a grumbling, irritated country into acquiescence in the new régime. He had built up a powerful organisation, fed and fattened on Government patronage. He had supervised the day-to-day administration of the country, unhampered by royal interference. The sovereign had ceased after 1714 to preside in person over the Cabinet, save on exceptional occasions—a most significant event, though it was only the result of an accident. Queen Anne had always, when in good health, presided on Sunday evenings over her Cabinet meetings at Kensington Palace. The Ministers regarded themselves as individually responsible to her and under faint obligations to each other. But George I could not speak English and had to converse with his Ministers in French or such dog-Latin as they remembered from Eton. Walpole had created for himself a dominating position in this vital executive committee, now deprived of its titular chairman. He tried to make himself supreme over his Ministers and establish in practice that rebellious colleagues were dismissed by the King. But he founded no convention of collective Ministerial responsibility. One of the charges against him after his fall was that he had sought to become “sole and Prime Minister.”
He had kept England at peace for nearly twenty years. Now he went to the House of Lords as Earl of Orford. His obstinate monopoly of political power in the Commons had put all men of talent against him, and in the end his policy enabled the Opposition to arouse the public opinion he had so assiduously lulled. He was the first great House of Commons man in British history, and if he had resigned before the war with Spain he might have been called the most successful.