Meanwhile Bolingbroke’s propaganda shared with the bellicose spirit of a money-minded Parliament in ending Walpole’s long ascendancy. Basing his tenure on tranquillity preserved, the cautious minister shied away from foreign entanglements, agreed with Cardinal Fleury—who was ruling France on similar principles—to maintain as long as possible the peace established by the Treaty of Utrecht, and, for the rest, left the management of external relations to his able brother Horatio. But the retention of Gibraltar by England, and the rivalry between England and Spain for control of America and the seas, begot increasing violence as the years progressed. Both George I and his minister Stanhope, in January and June, 1721, had assured Philip V of Spain that England would give up Gibraltar as soon as the finances of Britain and the temper of Parliament improved; but the British public refused to countenance such a surrender.45 Let us follow now the English account of how England slipped into war; it will illustrate both the jingoism of the populace and the integrity of British historians.46
The South Sea Company, we are told, “grossly abused” the privilege accorded to England by Spain, of sending one trading ship per year to the Spanish possessions in the New World, and “a large illicit trade had sprung up,” partly managed, partly connived at, by the company. Spain retaliated by boarding English vessels suspected of smuggling. Robert Jenkins alleged that in one such case (1731) he had lost an ear; he preserved it, displayed it in Britain, and cried out for revenge. The Spanish confiscated some English ships engaged in licit commerce, and kept English prisoners in irons; English privateers captured Spaniards and sold them as slaves in the British colonies. Smuggling continued; the Spanish government protested; Walpole, reluctant to reduce the income of the struggling South Sea Company, temporized, though he dealt severely with smuggling along the English coasts. The English merchant class favored war, confident of naval superiority, secure against invasion, and hopeful of new markets and expanded trade. The people were excited with factual and fictitious tales of Spanish brutality; Englishmen who clamored for action were hailed as manly patriots, those who advised moderation were called lily-livered cowards. Jenkins showed Parliament his ear in a bottle (March, 1738), whereupon Pulteney, Pitt, and others of the opposition to Walpole made hot speeches about the honor of England.II In martial counterpoint the Spanish public denounced the English as heretical dogs, and swallowed a story that an English captain had made a noble Spaniard cut off and devour his own nose.
Both governments behaved sensibly. La Quadra, Spain’s chief minister, issued for public consumption a hot letter to Walpole, but privately informed him that Spain would welcome a negotiated settlement. Defying popular uproar, the British government signed with Spain the Convention of the Pardo (January 14, 1739), in which both sides made concessions, and a commission was made to settle all outstanding grievances. Half the Spanish public accepted the convention; nearly all England rose in anger against it. The South Sea Company complained that the convention would severely limit its income and dividends; and the English ambassador at Madrid was also an agent of the company. Moreover, the Asiento by which Spain allowed England to supply Negro slaves to Spanish America expired on May 6, 1739, and Philip V refused to renew the contract.49 Nevertheless, pursuing his pacific policy, Walpole recalled the British fleet from the Mediterranean; then, wrongly suspecting that Spain was signing a secret alliance with France, he revoked the order, and bade the fleet protect Gibraltar. La Quadra protested; Walpole, yielding to the martial mood of Parliament and people, broke off negotiations; and on October 19, 1739, England declared war against Spain. The public, still calling Walpole a coward, rejoiced, and throughout England church bells rang. Now James Thomson wrote his stirring ballad “Rule, Britannia!” pledging that “Britons never will be slaves.”
Normally nothing so strengthens a government as a declaration of war, for then the loyal opposition muzzles its guns. But Walpole’s ministry was an exception. His enemies rightly felt that his heart was not in marching armies or in squadrons belching fire; they blamed all military reverses on his mismanagement, and ascribed a naval success at Portobello (on the Isthmus of Panama) solely to the genius of Admiral Vernon, who was a member of the opposition. In February, 1741, Samuel Sandys proposed to Parliament that the King be advised to dismiss his chief minister. The motion was defeated, but only by Walpole’s solicitation of Jacobite votes. He survived another year; nevertheless he realized that his time was up, and that the country wanted a change.
And he was exhausted. “He who in former years,” his son wrote, “was asleep as soon as his head touched the pillow … now never sleeps above an hour without waking; and he who at dinner always forgot that he was minister, and was more gay and thoughtless than all his company, now sits without speaking, and with his eyes fixed, for an hour together.”50 New elections returned a Parliament overwhelmingly hostile; it defeated him in a minor matter, and on February 13, 1742, he resigned. Too old to face the tumult of the Commons, he easily persuaded George II to make him Earl of Orford, and as such he sank upward into the House of Lords. He had feathered his nest for his fall.
He died, after suffering stoically a long and painful illness, on March 18, 1745, aged sixty-eight. England bade goodbye to peace, and set out, with Pitt after Pitt, to conquer the world.