It was through her brave championship, against a pack of office-seeking, warmongering enemies, that Walpole was able to give England twenty years of prosperity and peace. He was no saint; he was probably the most corrupt minister that England has ever had, but he was also one of the best. In that corrupt age only through corruption could wisdom rule.
As the youngest son of an old Norfolk family, Robert had been intended for the Church, and at Eton, where he was the contemporary of his future foe, Bolingbroke, this was the object of his studies. But the death of his older brothers made him heir to the family fortune; and as the family controlled three electoral boroughs, he had no trouble in turning successfully from theology to politics. Aged twenty-five, he entered the House of Commons as a Whig (1701). His connections, money, quick intelligence, and mastery of administrative finance won him appointment as secretary of war (1708). In 1712 the victorious Tories unseated him, and sent him to the Tower on a charge of corruption; but as the smell of sterling had become so constant and ubiquitous as to produce olfactory insensibility, he was soon released, soon re-elected, soon in office as first lord of the treasury (1715). Political complications led him to resign in 1717. In 1720 the collapse of the South Sea Company, and the justification of his warnings, convinced even his enemies that he was the man best equipped to lead England back to financial stability. As again first lord of the treasury (1721), he stopped the panic, as we have seen, by putting the Bank of England behind the company’s obligations; gradually the entire £7,000,000 owed by it to the public was repaid.27 The grateful gamblers rewarded Walpole with twenty-two years of power.
The accession of George II briefly interrupted Walpole’s ascendancy. The new King had sworn unforgiving hostility to all who had served his father; he dismissed Walpole, and asked Sir Spencer Compton to form a new ministry. But Compton soon displayed and acknowledged the inadequacy of his talents; Caroline advised her husband to recall Walpole, who clinched the argument by promising King and Queen a larger allowance; Sir Spencer gratefully accepted an earldom, and Walpole resumed his rule. To him first the title “prime minister” was applied, originally (as with Christian, Puritan, and Methodist) as a term of abuse. And he was the first chief minister to make 10 Downing Street his official home.
His character sheds some light on the art of political success. He had only a year at university, and was weak in the educational equipment usual in British prime ministers. There was little elegance in his manners or his speech. “When he ceased to talk politics,” said Macaulay, “he could talk of nothing but women, and he dilated on his favorite theme with a freedom which shocked even that plain-spoken generation.”28 His son Horace did not hold it against him that he knew few books; “he knew mankind, not their writings; he consulted their interests, not their systems.”29 He had sufficient command of Latin to use it as his medium of communication with George I, for that king knew no English, and Walpole knew no German or French. He had all the qualities of John Bull except pugnacity: he was stout, bluff, hearty, good-natured, practical; he enjoyed dinners and drink, but would work hard when called upon; and perhaps it was also like John Bull that he rattled his purse instead of his sword.
He had almost no morals. He lived for years in open adultery, showing little respect for the suave decorum of aristocratic vice. He jested with Queen Caroline on her husband’s mistresses; after her death he advised her daughters to summon these maids of honor to distract the mind of the grieving King. He laughed at religion. When Caroline was dying he sent for the Archbishop of Canterbury. “Let this farce be played,” he proposed; “the Archbishop will do it very well. You may bid him be as short as you wish. He will do the Queen no hurt, any more than any good, and it will satisfy all the wise and good fools, who will call us atheists if we don’t pretend to be as great fools as they are.”30 He took no stock in noble motives or professions of unselfishness. Like Marlborough, he used public office to amass private wealth. He found political plums for his son Horace and other relatives. At a cost of £ 200,000 he built a magnificent mansion at his estate of Houghton, and adorned it with paintings valued by Horace at £40,000; he kept open house there for the entire county of Norfolk.31 He was as generous as John Bull because (if we credit his enemies) he could not clearly distinguish between John Bull’s funds and his own.
He used money to buy M.P.s as Richelieu had used it to buy armies, as Henri Quatre had used it to immobilize foes. Walpole employed it as a last resort, after all softer arguments had failed. The parliamentary corruption that had taken form under Charles II had reached the point where the House of Commons could be managed, for good or evil, only by massive lubrication. Walpole kept a secret reserve—even a special room—for the purchase of seats and votes and editors; it was alleged that he spent £50,000 annually in subsidizing periodicals to expound his point of view.32 In 1725 he prompted George I to establish the Most Honorable Order of the Bath, to consist of the sovereign, a grand master, and thirty-six knights companions; to Walpole, as to Napoleon, it seemed more economical to rule men with ribbons than with currency.
He used these corrupt methods to maintain England in prosperity and calm. His ends did not justify his means, but they revealed the better side of his character. He was a man of good will, resolved to keep his country on an even keel despite all the commotions of party politics, the crosswinds of class interests, the chauvinistic cries for war. It was his motto, he said, quieta (or tranquilla) non movere— to let sleeping dogs lie; and though this left his rule undistinguished by conquests or reforms, he earned the commendation of the judicious. His enemies had to admit that he was not vindictive or unforgiving, and that he was more trustworthy, even more trusting, in his friendships than could have been expected of one so familiar with the baser aspects of mankind.33 He had no far-flung schemes for glory, but he met each problem, as it arose, with such shrewdness, tolerance, and tact that England finally forgave him all his faults except his love of peace.
His economic legislation struck a compromise between the landowning gentry and the business class. He sought to reduce taxes on land, and supported extreme penalties for offenses against property. At the same time he welcomed the rise of capitalism. He favored merchants and manufacturers with export bounties and import dues, and seemed insensitive to the poverty of landless laborers in the villages and the growing proletariat in the towns; he appears to have felt that the maldistribution of wealth was an inevitable result of nature’s maldistribution of ability. Excepting those bounties and dues, he advocated, long before the French physiocrats and Adam Smith, a policy of free trade; in a single year he reduced the duties on 106 articles of export, on thirty-eight articles of import; he removed many restraints on the commerce of the American colonies; and he argued that the English economy would prosper best under a minimum of state regulation. Time justified his view; the national wealth grew rapidly, however ill-distributed; governmental revenues rose; and by handling them with parsimony and efficiency Walpole won praise as “the best commercial minister the country ever produced.”34
His most spectacular defeat came on his famous excise bill (1733). The smugglers of tobacco and wine were cheating the treasury of tariff dues, and burdening property with more than its share of taxes. To circumvent this form of private enterprise Walpole proposed an excise tax (a slice “cut out” for the government) to be levied on these articles wherever stored, and whenever sold, in England. Revenue officers (“excise men”) were authorized to search any house at any time, and persons found hiding dutiable goods were subjected to fines or imprisonment. Everybody concerned in the importation, smuggling, sale, or consumption of tobacco or wine rose in protest. Walpole’s opponents in the Commons denounced the tax, and the manner of its enforcement, as the arbitrary action of a tyrant, and a monstrous infringement of British liberty. “The members of Parliament,” as Frederick the Great put the matter, “told Walpole that he could pay them for their ordinary mischief, but that this proposal was beyond the limits of their corruption”35—or perhaps they hoped to replace him in control of public funds. Pamphlets in thousands of copies reviled the minister in enthusiastic billingsgate. Crowds surged around Westminster Hall, burned effigies of Walpole in dozens of bonfires, and tried to lynch him as he left St. Stephen’s Church; the nation was inflamed to the verge of revolution. Queen Caroline feared for the loyalty of the army, and trembled for the safety of the new dynasty. Walpole withdrew the measure, acknowledging defeat; and from that moment his power declined. His enemies gathered for the kill.