Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Flood, Henry
FLOOD, HENRY (1732–1791), statesman and orator, illegitimate son of the Right Hon. Warden Flood, chief justice of the king's bench in Ireland, was born in 1732, and when sixteen entered Trinity College, Dublin, as a fellow commoner. After three years' residence he matriculated at Christ Church, Oxford, where he graduated M.A. 1752. He was admitted a member of the Inner Temple on 19 Jan. 1750, and for some time pursued the study of the law in England. He returned to Ireland in his twenty-seventh year, and having been elected a member for the county of Kilkenny in the Irish House of Commons, he took his seat on the opposition benches in 1759. Parliament was dissolved upon the death of George II in the following year, and Flood was returned for the borough of Callan in the place of James Agar, who was declared ‘not duly elected.’ It is generally asserted that Flood's maiden speech was an attack upon Primate Stone, who at that time was the recognised leader of the English party, and it is related that ‘during the first part of Mr. Flood's speech, his grace, who was in the House of Commons, and did not know precisely what part the new member would take, declared that he had great hopes of him; when Flood sat down his grace asserted, with some vehemence, that a duller gentleman he had never heard’ (Memoirs of the Earl of Charlemont, i. 157). His first speech, however, of which there is any authentic record was delivered on 12 Oct. 1763 (Caldwell, Irish Debates, 1766, i. 31–7). Owing to his eloquence and social position, Flood quickly became the most prominent leader of the popular party, and it was through his untiring exertions that a powerful opposition was at length organised within the Irish House of Commons. The principal objects which Flood kept steadily in view were the shortening of the duration of parliaments, the reduction of pensions, the creation of a constitutional militia, and the independence of the Irish legislature. But though these measures of reform were frequently brought forward, they were for many years rejected either by parliament or the privy council as a matter of course. For the first seven years of the new reign the political history of Ireland was uneventful, and in 1767 Flood contemplated entering the English House of Commons, but his overtures for a seat appear to have been unsuccessful (Letters to Flood, p. 42). In October 1767 Lord Townshend went over as the new lord-lieutenant. A different line of policy was adopted by the government, and in the following year the Octennial Bill was passed. With the aid of the undertakers, Flood was able successfully to oppose the ministerial scheme for the augmentation of the Irish army, and parliament was dissolved in May 1768. At the general election Flood was returned for the borough of Longford as well as for Callan, and elected to sit for the latter. About this time he became involved in a quarrel, arising out of the election contest for Callan, with James Agar of Ringwood, with whom he fought two duels. Agar challenged Flood on the second occasion in September 1769. They met in Dunmore Park, near Kilkenny, and the former was mortally wounded. Flood was formally tried at the Kilkenny assizes in April 1770, and a verdict of manslaughter in his own defence was duly returned. In order to break down the power of the undertakers, who were now in alliance with Flood and the popular party, Townshend strongly urged the government to call Flood to office. The advice was not taken, and when the new parliament met in 1769 the money bill was rejected, and a resolution declaring that it had been thrown out ‘because it did not take its rise in the House of Commons’ was carried by the opposition. On 26 Dec. parliament was suddenly prorogued, and was not summoned again for fourteen months. Flood now systematically opposed the government on every occasion, and devoted all his energies to obtain Townshend's recall. A series of papers relating to recent Irish politics, written by Langrishe, Flood, Grattan, and others, appeared from time to time in the ‘Freeman's Journal.’ These papers, which created a great sensation, were afterwards published in a collected form under the title of ‘Baratariana,’ with a dedication to Lord Townshend, written by Grattan. The contributions signed ‘Sindercombe,’ which have been attributed on insufficient grounds to Hugh Boyd, were written by Flood. Though powerful and well reasoned, they are laboured in style, and ‘certainly give no countenance to the notion started at one time that he was the author of the “Letters of Junius”’ (Lecky, Leaders of Public Opinion in Ireland, p. 75). Townshend was at length recalled in September 1772, and upon the appointment of the Earl of Harcourt as lord-lieutenant the government was conducted for a time on more liberal principles. Flood now ceased from opposition and vigorously supported the introduction of the absentee tax. Harcourt writing to North, 27 Nov. 1773, says: ‘Mr. Flood was violent and able in behalf of the bill in a degree almost surpassing everything he had ever uttered before’ (The Harcourt Papers, ix. 117). But in spite of his eloquence, and without any open hostility on the part of the government, the measure was defeated. After a long period of negotiation Flood in October 1775 accepted the post of vice-treasurer of Ireland, a sinecure worth 3,500l. a year. Flood contended that after Townshend's recall ‘the only way anything could be effected for the country was by going along with government and making their measures diverge towards public utility’ (Grattan, Life, i. 206); and he seems to have thought that by obtaining a seat in the Irish privy council he would be better able to influence the government for the good of the country. The history of his negotiations for office, as related in the letters of Harcourt and Blaquiere, is by no means creditable to him, and Harcourt, writing to North on 9 Oct. 1775, says: ‘Since I was born I never had to deal with so difficult a man, owing principally to his high-strained ideas of his own great importance and popularity. But the acquisition of such a man, however desirable at other times, may prove more than ordinarily valuable in the difficult times we may live to see, and which may afford him a very ample field for the display of his great abilities’ (The Harcourt Papers, ix. 361). After the general election in 1776 Flood was unseated for Callan, but was subsequently returned at a by-election for the borough of Enniskillen. During Harcourt's administration, and while Flood was in office, an embargo was placed on Irish exports for two years, and four thousand Irish troops, termed by Flood ‘armed negotiators,’ were sent to America. Both these measures were very unpopular, and to the latter Grattan afterwards referred when describing Flood as standing ‘with a metaphor in his mouth and a bribe in his pocket,’ and giving ‘a base suffrage against the liberty of America, the eventual liberty of Ireland, and the cause of mankind’ (Grattan, Life, iii. 94). When Buckingham became lord-lieutenant, Flood frequently absented himself from the meetings of the privy council, and rarely voted for the government in the House of Commons. He identified himself with the volunteer movement and became colonel of one of the regiments. In 1779, though still a minister, Flood spoke in support of the amendment to the address in favour of free trade. At length his attitude became so hostile to the government that at the request of the Earl of Carlisle, Buckingham's successor in office, he was in the autumn of 1781 removed from the post of vice-treasurer as well as from his seat in the privy council. When Flood once more took his seat on the opposition benches he found his popularity gone, and his place as leader of the popular party filled by Grattan. On 11 Dec. 1781, in a speech lasting three hours and a half, Flood maintained that the power of the Irish privy council to alter heads of bills before sending them to England rested solely on an erroneous decision of the judges in 1692, but the committee for inquiry for which he asked was refused by a considerable majority (Parl. Reg. i. 153–74). A few days afterwards he spoke in the debate on Yelverton's bill for the repeal of Poynings's law, and grievously complained that ‘after a service of twenty years in the study of a peculiar question it was taken out of his hands and entirely wrested from him.’ ‘The hon. gentleman (he added) was erecting a temple of liberty; he hoped therefore at least he should be allowed a niche in the fane.’ Whereupon Yelverton cleverly retorted that, as Flood seemed to think he had espoused this question, he would remind him that according to the law, ‘if any man married a wife and lives with her in constancy it was a crime to take her away from him; but if a man shall separate from his wife, desert and abandon her for seven years, another then might take her up and give her his protection’ (ib. p. 189). On 22 Feb. 1782 Flood supported Grattan's motion for an address to the king in favour of the independence of the Irish parliament, and in the same year an attempt was made by Montgomery in the House of Commons to obtain Flood's restoration to his old office of vice-treasurer. The Duke of Portland, who succeeded Carlisle as viceroy in April 1782, being anxious to enter into negotiations with Flood, asked for authority to offer him a seat in the Irish privy council, if he should deem it expedient. The nomination, which was intended to be at the option of the viceroy, was by some extraordinary mistake sent directly to the ‘Gazette,’ and Flood straightway refused to accept the nomination. Legislative independence having been obtained, Flood took up the subject of ‘simple repeal,’ and contended that the mere repeal of the Declaratory Act (6 Geo. I, c. 5) was not sufficient, but that an act of parliament expressly disclaiming the right to legislate for Ireland should be obtained without delay. In this view he was supported by the greater portion of the volunteers, and by this means Flood in some measure regained his old popularity. Grattan differed with him on the question as well as on the advisability of continuing the volunteer convention, and on 28 Oct. 1783, in the debate on Sir Henry Cavendish's motion for retrenchment in the expenses of the country, the famous collision between the two great Irish orators took place. The speeches of both were full of the bitterest personal invective. Flood, alluding to the grant which parliament had bestowed upon Grattan, referred to him as ‘the mendicant patriot who was bought by my country for a sum of money, and then sold my country for prompt payment,’ and concluded by saying that ‘if the gentleman enters often into this kind of controversy with me, he will not have much to boast of at the end of the session.’ While Grattan, after comparing Flood to an ‘ill-omen'd bird of night with sepulchral notes, a cadaverous aspect and broken beak,’ and asserting that neither minister nor people could trust him, concluded his speech with the following words: ‘I therefore tell you in the face of your country, before all the world, and to your beard, you are not an honest man’ (ib. ii. 35–43). The quarrel nearly ended in a duel. On their way to a hostile meeting at Blackrock they were arrested and bound over to keep the peace. On 1 Nov. Flood was allowed to make a further speech in vindication of his character, in which he gave an explanation of his political conduct during the whole of his parliamentary career (ib. pp. 61–70). With this incident their friendship of twenty years terminated, but though they never became reconciled, they successfully co-operated in opposing Orde's Commercial Propositions in 1785. At the general election a few months previously Flood had been returned with Curran for the borough of Kilbeggan. In November 1783 the volunteer convention met in Dublin, and Flood was appointed assessor to the committee appointed to draw up a scheme of parliamentary reform. The Bishop of Derry brought forward the question of extending the franchise to the Roman catholics, but was successfully opposed by Flood and Charlemont. At length a comprehensive plan of reform which had been drawn up by Flood, and gave no political rights to the Roman catholics, was agreed to on 28 Nov. 1783. On the following day Flood brought forward the measure in the Irish House of Commons. The house, however, refused to receive the bill by 157 to 77 (Journals of the Irish House of Commons, xi. 144), and, resenting the interference of the volunteers, passed a resolution that it had ‘now become indispensably necessary to declare that this house will maintain its just rights and privileges against encroachments whatsoever’ (ib.) The volunteer convention was dissolved; but in March of the following year Flood again brought forward the Reform Bill. Though supported by petitions from twenty-six counties, it was rejected on the question of committal by a majority of 74 (Parl. Reg. iii. 13–23, 43–85). Meanwhile, in October 1783, Flood was returned to the English House of Commons as one of the members for Winchester, having purchased his election from the Duke of Chandos for 4,000l. His English career was a failure. As Grattan remarked, ‘he misjudged when he transferred himself to the English parliament; he forgot that he was a tree of the forest too old and too great to be transplanted at fifty’ (Grattan, Miscellaneous Works, 1822, p. 118). On 3 Dec. he took part in the debates for the first time, and made a lengthy speech against Fox's East India Bill (Parl. Hist. xxiv. 56–9). The subject was one of which he had little knowledge, and by want of tact he managed to prejudice both sides of the house against him. In a curious passage Wraxall thus refers to Flood's speech: ‘The slow, measured, and sententious style of enunciation which characterised his eloquence, however calculated to excite admiration in the sister kingdom, appeared to English ears cold, stiff, and deficient in some of the best recommendations to attention. Unfortunately, too, for Flood, one of his own countrymen, Courtenay, instantly opened upon him such a battery of ridicule and wit, seasoned with allusions or reflections of the most personal and painful kind, as seemed to overwhelm the new member’ (Memoirs, 1884, iii. 185–6). Having had a misunderstanding with the Duke of Chandos, Flood was not returned again for Winchester at the general election in 1784. After two unsuccessful contests for the borough of Seaford he obtained the seat upon petition. On 15 Feb. 1787 he spoke at great length against the treaty of commerce with France (Parl. Hist. xxvi. 425–38, 465), and on 4 March 1790 asked for leave to introduce a bill for the reform of parliament, providing for the addition of one hundred new members, to be elected by the resident householders in every county. Fox ‘owned that he thought that the outlines of the present proposition the best of all which he had yet heard suggested,’ but Pitt's motion for an adjournment was carried, and Flood's bill was consequently lost (ib. xxviii. 452–79). At the general election in 1790 Flood was not returned to either parliament. He retired to his seat at Farmley in the county of Kilkenny, where he died on 2 Dec. 1791, in the fifty-ninth year of his age, and was buried in the family vault at Burnchurch near Farmley. Flood married, on 13 April 1762, Lady Frances Maria Beresford, the sixth daughter of Marcus, first earl of Tyrone. There was no issue of the marriage. His widow survived him many years, and died at Clifton on 18 April 1815. By his will he left a considerable amount of property to Trinity College, Dublin, after his wife's death, for the establishment of a professorship of Irish, the maintenance of a prize fund for the best compositions in English, Irish, Greek, and Latin, and for the purchase of Irish books and manuscripts. The validity of the will was contested, and the gift to Trinity College having been declared void, as being contrary to the law of mortmain, John Flood of Flood Hall, a nephew of Chief-justice Flood, was successful in establishing his claim to the property in question.
Flood was a man of ample fortune and many social qualities. Possessing brilliant conversational powers, delighting in field sports and private theatricals, genial and frank in manner, he was popular in all classes of society. In his youth Flood had a fine figure and a handsome countenance; but in later life he was somewhat gaunt in appearance, and was described by Wraxall as ‘a man of the most forbidding physiognomy.’ With the exception, perhaps, of Malone, Flood was the first great orator which Ireland produced. His speeches, though too laboured and sententious, were remarkable for the closeness of their reasoning. As a master of grave sarcasm and fierce invective he had no equal, while his readiness of reply, his extensive knowledge of constitutional questions, and his consummate mastery of parliamentary tactics, made him a most formidable opponent to the government in the Irish House of Commons. Curran declared that ‘Flood was unmeasurably the greatest man of his time in Ireland.’ In Grattan's opinion Flood ‘had faults; but he had great powers, great public effect. He persuaded the old, he inspired the young; the Castle vanished before him. On a small subject he was miserable. Put into his hand a distaff, and like Hercules he made sad work of it; but give him the thunderbolt, and he had the arm of Jupiter’ (Grattan, Miscellaneous Works, 1822, p. 118). Flood was identified with all the great measures of Irish reform in his time; but though he was prepared to give complete religious toleration to the Roman catholics in Ireland, he consistently refused to give them any political power. Though he cannot be charged with corruption in accepting office, Flood committed a grave error in judgment in doing so, which proved fatal to his reputation. Moreover, instead of resigning when he found that he had over-estimated his influence with the government, he clung to office as long as he was able. His long silence during the debates on the many constitutional questions which he had vigorously supported when in opposition is an indelible stain upon his political character. The loss of his popularity had a perceptible influence on his nature, and his career from the time of taking office was that of a soured and disappointed man. A portrait of Flood ‘speaking in the Irish House of Commons’ was exhibited in the Loan Collection of National Portraits of 1867 (Catalogue, No. 796). An engraving from a drawing by Comerford will be found in Barrington's ‘Historic Memoirs’ (1833), ii. opp. 106, and a lithograph of the portrait, in the possession of the university of Dublin, forms the frontispiece to Flood's ‘Memoirs.’
While at Oxford Flood wrote some English verses on the death of Frederick, prince of Wales, which were published in ‘Epicedia Oxoniensia,’ &c. (1751), pp. 127–8. While preparing for his parliamentary career he translated several speeches of Demosthenes, and other portions of the classics; but his manuscripts were all destroyed shortly after his death. The authorship of ‘A Letter to the People of Ireland on the Expediency and Necessity of the Present Associations in Ireland in favour of our own Manufactures, with some Cursory Observations on the effects of a Union,’ Dublin, 1799, 8vo, has been attributed to him. His ‘sepulchral verses’ on Dr. Johnson are to be found in Boswell's ‘Life of Johnson’ (G. B. Hill's edition), iv. 424–5. He was the author of the following works: 1. ‘An Ode on Fame and the First Pythian Ode of Pindar’ (anon.), London, 1775, 4to. 2. ‘Speech of the Right Hon. Henry Flood in the House of Commons of Great Britain, Feb. 15, 1787, on the Commercial Treaty with France,’ Dublin, 1787, 8vo. 3. ‘Speech and Proposition of the Right Hon. Henry Flood in the House of Commons of Great Britain, March 4, 1790, for a Reform in the Representation of Parliament,’ London, 1790, 8vo.[Warden Flood's Memoirs of Henry Flood (1838); Original Letters, principally from Lord Charlemont … to the Right Hon. Henry Flood (1820); Lecky's Hist. of England, vol. iv. chap. xvi. xvii., vol. vi. chap. xxiv.; Lecky's Leaders of Public Opinion in Ireland (1871), pp. 63–103; Froude's English in Ireland (1881), vols. ii. iii.; Memoirs of the Life and Times of Henry Grattan, vols. i. ii. iii.; Hardy's Memoirs of the Earl of Charlemont (1812); Charles Phillips's Curran and his Contemporaries (1857); Wills's Irish Nation (1875), iii. 171–90; Webb's Compendium of Irish Biography (1878), pp. 207– 210; Dublin University Mag. vii. 652–72, viii. 80–112; Dublin Review, xiii. 100–55; Monthly Review, xcvii. 187–99; Burke's Landed Gentry (1879), i. 574–5; Gent. Mag. 1791, vol. lxi. pt. ii. pp. 1163–4, 1224–32, 1792 vol. lxii. pt. i. pp. 44–8, 1793 vol. lxiii. pt. i. p. 477, 1813 vol. lxxxv. pt. i. p. 473; Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. viii. 101–3, 189–90, 259, x. 305, xi. 171; Official Return of Lists of Members of Parliament, pt. ii. pp. 168, 184, 659, 665, 670, 674, 675, 681; Watt's Bibl. Brit.]