1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Halifax, Charles Montague, Earl of

HALIFAX, CHARLES MONTAGUE, Earl of (1661–1715), English statesman and poet, fourth son of the Hon. George Montague, fifth son of the first earl of Manchester, was born at Horton, Northamptonshire, on the 16th of April 1661. In his fourteenth year he was sent to Westminster school, where he was chosen king’s scholar in 1677, and distinguished himself in the composition of extempore epigrams made according to custom upon theses appointed for king’s scholars at the time of election. In 1679 he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, where he acquired a solid knowledge of the classics and surpassed all his contemporaries at the university in logic and ethics. Latterly, however, he preferred to the abstractions of Descartes the practical philosophy of Sir Isaac Newton; and he was one of the small band of students who assisted Newton in forming the Philosophical Society of Cambridge. But it was his facility in verse-writing, and neither his scholarship nor his practical ability, that first opened up to him the way to fortune. His clever but absurdly panegyrical poem on the death of Charles II. secured for him the notice of the earl of Dorset, who invited him to town and introduced him to the principal wits of the time; and in 1687 his joint authorship with Prior of the Hind and Panther transversed to the Story of the Country Mouse and the City Mouse, a parody of Dryden’s political poem, not only increased his literary reputation but directly helped him to political influence.

In 1689, through the patronage of the earl of Dorset, he entered parliament as member for Maldon, and sat in the convention which resolved that William and Mary should be declared king and queen of England. About this time he married the countess-dowager of Manchester, and it would appear, according to Johnson, that it was still his intention to take orders; but after the coronation he purchased a clerkship to the council. On being introduced by Earl Dorset to King William, after the publication of his poetical Epistle occasioned by his Majesty’s Victory in Ireland, he was ordered to receive an immediate pension of £500 per annum, until an opportunity should present itself of “making a man of him.” In 1691 he was chosen chairman of the committee of the House of Commons appointed to confer with a committee of the Lords in regard to the bill for regulating trials in cases of high treason; and he displayed in these conferences such tact and debating power that he was made one of the commissioners of the treasury and called to the privy council. But his success as a politician was less due to his oratorical gifts than to his skill in finance, and in this respect he soon began to manifest such brilliant talents as completely eclipsed the painstaking abilities of Godolphin. Indeed it may be affirmed that no other statesman has initiated schemes which have left a more permanent mark on the financial history of England. Although perhaps it was inevitable that England should sooner or later adopt the continental custom of lightening the annual taxation in times of war by contracting a national debt, the actual introduction of the expedient was due to Montague, who on the 15th of December 1692 proposed to raise a million of money by way of loan. Previous to this the Scotsman William Paterson (q.v.) had submitted to the government his plan of a national bank, and when in the spring of 1694 the prolonged contest with France had rendered another large loan absolutely necessary, Montague introduced a bill for the incorporation of the Bank of England. The bill after some opposition passed the House of Lords in May, and immediately after the prorogation of parliament Montague was rewarded by the chancellorship of the exchequer. In 1695 he was triumphantly returned for the borough of Westminster to the new parliament, and succeeded in passing his celebrated measure to remedy the depreciation which had taken place in the currency on account of dishonest manipulations. To provide for the expense of recoinage, Montague, instead of reviving the old tax of hearth money, introduced the window tax, and the difficulties caused by the temporary absence of a metallic currency were avoided by the issue for the first time of exchequer bills. His other expedients for meeting the emergencies of the financial crisis were equally successful, and the rapid restoration of public credit secured him a commanding influence both in the House of Commons and at the board of the treasury; but although Godolphin resigned office in October 1696, the king hesitated for some time between Montague and Sir Stephen Fox as his successor, and it was not till 1697 that the former was appointed first lord. In 1697 he was accused by Charles Duncombe, and in 1698 by a Col. Granville, of fraud, but both charges broke down, and Duncombe was shown to have been guilty of extreme dishonesty himself. In 1698 and 1699 he acted as one of the council of regency during the king’s absence from England. With the accumulation of his political successes his vanity and arrogance became, however, so offensive that latterly they utterly lost him the influence he had acquired by his administrative ability and his masterly eloquence; and when his power began to be on the wane he set the seal to his political overthrow by conferring the lucrative sinecure office of auditor of the exchequer on his brother in trust for himself should he be compelled to retire from power. This action earned him the offensive nickname of “Filcher,” and for some time afterwards, in attempting to lead the House of Commons, he had to submit to constant mortifications, often verging on personal insults. After the return of the king in 1699 he resigned his offices in the government and succeeded his brother in the auditorship.

On the accession of the Tories to power he was removed in 1701 to the House of Lords by the title of Lord Halifax. In the same year he was impeached for malpractices along with Lord Somers and the earls of Portland and Oxford, but all the charges were dismissed by the Lords; and in 1703 a second attempt to impeach him was still more unsuccessful. He continued out of office during the reign of Queen Anne, but in 1706 he was named one of the commissioners to negotiate the union with Scotland; and after the passing of the Act of Settlement in favour of the house of Hanover, he was appointed ambassador to the elector’s court to convey the insignia of order of the garter to George I. On the death of Anne (1714) he was appointed one of the council of regency until the arrival of the king from Hanover; and after the coronation he received the office of first lord of the treasury in the new ministry, being at the same time created earl of Halifax and Viscount Sunbury. He died on the 19th of May 1715 and left no issue. He was buried in the vault of the Albemarle family in Westminster Abbey. His nephew George (d. 1739) succeeded to the barony, and was created Viscount Sunbury and earl of Halifax in 1715.

Montague’s association with Prior in the travesty of Dryden’s Hind and Panther has no doubt largely aided in preserving his literary reputation; but he is perhaps indebted for it chiefly to his subsequent influential position and to the fulsome flattery of the men of letters who enjoyed his friendship, and who, in return for his liberal donations and the splendid banqueting which they occasionally enjoyed at his villa on the Thames, “fed him,” as Pope says, “all day long with dedications.” Swift says he gave them nothing but “good words, and good dinners.” That, however, his beneficence to needy talent, if sometimes attributable to an itching ear for adulation, was at others prompted by a sincere appreciation of intellectual merit, is sufficiently attested by the manner in which he procured from Godolphin a commissionership for Addison, and also by his life-long intimacy with Newton, for whom he obtained the mastership of the mint. The small fragments of poetry which he left behind him, and which were almost solely the composition of his early years, display a certain facility and vigour of diction, but their thought and fancy are never more than commonplace, and not unfrequently in striving to be eloquent and impressive he is only grotesquely and extravagantly absurd. In administrative talent he was the superior of all his contemporaries, and his only rival in parliamentary eloquence was Somers; but the skill with which he managed measures was superior to his tact in dealing with men, and the effect of his brilliant financial successes on his reputation was gradually almost nullified by the affected arrogance of his manner and by the eccentricities of his sensitive vanity. So eager latterly was his thirst for fame and power that perhaps Marlborough did not exaggerate when he said that “he had no other principle but his ambition, so that he would put all in distraction rather than not gain his point.”

Among the numerous notices of Halifax by contemporaries may be mentioned the eulogistic reference which concludes Addison’s account of the “greatest of English poets”; the dedications by Steel to the second volume of the Spectator and to the fourth of the Tatler; Pope’s laudatory mention of him in the epilogue to his Satires and in the preface to the Iliad, and his portrait of him as “Full-blown Bufo” in the Epistle to Arbuthnot. Various allusions to him are to be found in Swift’s works and in Marlborough’s Letters. See also Burnet’s History of his Own Times; The Parliamentary History; Howell’s State Trials; Johnson’s Lives of the Poets; and Macaulay’s History of England. His Miscellaneous Works were published at London in 1704; his Life and Miscellaneous Works in 1715; and his Poetical Works, to which also his “Life” is attached, in 1716. His poems were reprinted in the 9th volume of Johnson’s English Poets.