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Memoirs of a Trait in the Character of George III. of these United Kingdoms/Chapter 13

CHAPTER XIII.


All prospect of any further reliance on a Commission of Longitude, presided at, and controlled, by two individuals at enmity with the Claimant, being thus extinguished; the general and fair report which their Sovereign had acquired of a high sense of equity, may be conceived to have led the Father and Son, after suitable reflection, to decide on an application to that quarter in their desponding situation. John Harrison being wholly domestic, was probably not much acquainted with Dr. Demainbury, a Swiss by birth, his Majesty's astronomer at Richmond; a gentleman of scientific abilities, but chiefly known at present by his marriage with the sister of John Horne Tooke having exposed him to some illiberal epithets from the popular demagogue, Wilkes, when they were pointedly opposed in politics.[1] A similarity of pursuits, William Harrison being no mean proficient in astronomy, having brought on an intimacy with the Doctor, who would be disposed to check the oppressive conduct of his opponent at Flamstead Hill, and who knowing the sentiments his Majesty expressed in conversation on a subject in which he took uncommon interest, could safely predict the result, were a statement of John Harrison's case to be addressed to himself in such a form, that he could, with the gracious permission of his Master,[2] read, or otherwise submit it to him: a letter accordingly, adapted to explain the unmerited and insurmountable difficulties—the dilemma into which the Applicant had got by relying on the famous act of Parliament, so often quoted, was transmitted to the Doctor;[3] the immediate consequence of which was that the King sent for the junior Harrison to Windsor, and interrogated him closely on this recapitulated case of his Father. They seem to have risked injuring their plea, by the strong language applied to the conduct of the Commissioners of Longitude; but the treatment they complained of, did not require much precaution to expose. The party business into which the proceedings of their Boards had wholly deviated from the time when it was probable that the candidate would achieve the discovery sought, was commented on in the Preface, as likewise, the disgracefully oppressive conduct of the Nobleman who figures in these MEMOIRS as if he had not a drop of "the milk of human kindness" in his composition, nor yet the commonest sense of equity; for many a pothouse oracle would have allowed some consideration to the fact that the Commissioners themselves (as we are justified in repeating it) had invariably interpreted, and by the tangible logic of pecuniary advances, had always led the Claimant to construe the 12th of Queen Anne consonant to what afterwards appeared to be the opinion of the Crown Lawyers.—The pretence of attaching no importance to the repeated refusals of the loan of the Timekeeper, by excluding them from their minutes, could influence no one outside of the apartment where this oppression, so remarkably disgraceful towards a man of his years, was sanctioned, and least of all George 3rd, who understood the subject, and whose resentment might have been anticipated, had he been present at their conferences with closed doors. Although not acquainted with the origin of Lord Morton's indefensible conduct, the King could not respect a majority at the Commission of Longitude, which had so long been implicitly ruled by so overbearing a character; by whom in fact, though not in form, all the powers of these public functionaries were exercised. The spirit of his oppressive resolves seemed, after his demise, to have been fully transmitted to the predominent party at the Board, or how could they with any regard to decency, require that the Timekeeper, last completed, should be tried by Dr. Maskelyne, and no one else?

Among the printed tracts which this remarkable affair gave occasion for, on the part of the Claimant, was one published two or three years before the date of the letter to Dr. Demainbury, and in the argument the following passage occurs.

This was all the answer he could ever obtain on these points, while the late President of the Royal Society, who had great influence at the Board of Longitude, was avowing, in all companies, a resolution to insist on sending him to the most distant and inhospitable parts of the world, before he should receive the rest of the reward.

—After having ceased to be a Commissioner, and consequently having no more right to interfere with the concerns fit the Board than any other person outside the door of their apartment, it is impossible to divest such intermeddling of malevolent misgivings and the meanest personal enmity.

After having lost the brief authority with which he was armed, he could not desist from playing fantastic tricks before high heaven!

—We would omit the context; but if he did not "make the angels weep," this callous dishonour to the northern peerage surcharged with anguish the excellent old man, who had been above forty years dependant on the national pledge.—As the division on any disputed question before the Board is never stated on their minutes, it results that with the exception of Sir John Cust, the Manager may be allowed to have swept off the votes of the Admirals and the Civilians (and the Lunar junta were always on satisfactory terms with their good friend.) How this Nobleman of limited understanding, and of very dubious scientific pretensions, could drive the world before him, in this way, is a point, which the Author, leaving to more competent pens, finds that though the inventor of the Timekeeper compromised his provision for the different effects of heat and cold as much us he could; yet as the 12th of Queen Anne had prescribed a voyage to the tropics for the final adjudication of the reward, it followed, that if necessitated to give the compensation part of his machine a bias to counteract one climate more than another, his attention must have been directed to the equinoctial line, rather than to the arctic circle.[4] Hence his Majesty's reasoning as probably the reader will, and finding that the ex-president, then deceased, but who seemed to have left the Prophet's mangle to the party at the Board jealous of the mechanics, had insisted on William Harrison and a Timekeeper being sent to Hudson's Bay, testified his indignation at so gross a departure from the original implied compact with any person who should undertake the discovery of the Longitude. "These people have been cruelly treated;" he was heard to say, as if interlocuting with himself; he then turned towards the applicant, addressing him by his surname, with this remarkable and laconic intimation—"By God, Harrison, I will see you righted:"—an expression the author would have felt reluctant to quote, had he thought it came under the description of common, or prophane swearing; a weakness, which, amidst the most gross and exaggerated pervertions of his colloquial intercourse, the low satirist Wolcot, otherwise, Peter Pindar, never imputed to this injured monarch: whose well known christian piety, we should add, sufficiently indicates that the words were not lightly used, but became, in their intention (Deo volente) a pledge, the redemption of which may justly excite the curiosity of the public.—This gracious interview, by the encouragement it afforded, was retained in memory to a late period by William Harrison, whose longevity exceeded that of his Father. It showed that the loftiest station in the community, and the most remote disparity of relative circumstances prevented not "George the good" from participating in the well founded anxiety of two individuals situated as these were, by having sacrificed every other prospect in life to that of accomplishing this national desideratum.

The application for a trial of the Timekeeper at the Observatory in Richmond Park, coinciding with his Majesty's desire to appreciate the merits of the machine by his own inspection, he chose it should be of six weeks duration, the usual period of a voyage to the West Indies, that having been the standard prescribed by the Act of 1714, which he reprobated so sinister a deviation from, without the consent of the Candidate. Nor was he more favourable to the published report of proceedings at Flamstead Hill; since it was manifestly unjust to make the Inventor responsible for an uncontrolled examination by a Lunar Candidate, when he distinctly showed the unfitness of the Timekeeper, at that period, for such a test. Indeed his Majesty's desire to try the one recently completed was of itself presumptive evidence of his dissatisfaction with the conduct of the Commissioners, to whom he was setting an example of probity towards the claimant, which, under the domination of the Earl of Morton they seem entirely to have lost sight of: nor once to have reflected that he had his rights as well as the public.

The Watch having been previously prepared, instead of being entrapped from the Inventor, without any knowledge of the schemes of the Manager, and his unsuccesful Lunar associate, as in the former instance, the arrangement was soon made. The King took the key of one of the three locks attached to the box in which the machine was kept; the Astronomer, or his representative, had the second, and William Harrison, who attended on behalf of his Father, the third key. This disposition of concerns however may be rather considered as intended to constrain the parties to due attendance at the meridian hour, than as meant for a check, which there was little occasion for when all wished well to the result. It had been widely different at Greenwich, where, when judged of by their oyert acts, neither Lord Morton, nor Dr. Maskelyne, wished any good to a plan that interfered with their own more rational purposes.[5]

We are now to suppose the trial at Richmond commenced; the very first day, however, proved so inauspicious that the Timekeeper was found to have erred to a degree that would have rendered it quite useless for its intended purpose, and on the second day it was no better:—but if the reader anticipates a portion of that fretful impatience which usually characterizes the spoiled children of affluence, taking into account moreover the predisposing misfortune, that the subject of these pages had been early acknowledged heir apparent to the crown of a powerful empire, and that we do non expect from princes, in common that practical acquaintance with the world by which an Alfred, a Henri quartre, a Frederic III. or Cromwell, became conspicuous for an intimate knowledge of mankind, and for that self command, in a certain sense, which usually results from adversity: or from the necessity of appreciating the views and wants of others continually inculcated in private life;—assuredly, if he expects to find His Majesty, on the awkward discovery just mentioned, deemed it inexpedient, not without some resentment, to sacrifice his time and patience to so futile a purpose as this specimen of the machine promised, when also the third, and even the fourth day, led to the same conclusion, he either knew nothing of George the Third, or his assumptions were mediately derived from the worthless satirist before mentioned, whose turgid exaggerations of the colloquial intercourse of this 'friend of mankind, and of merit,' like the wares of his own razor vender, the public may thus be convinced were 'made to sell' without the least regard to the truth of their edge. In opposition to the doggrel hocus-pocus of Wolcot, who never was an auricular witness of what he pretended to recount, the present data coming in a regular form, show that this Monarch's deportment, in what may be called the private relations of society, would have been respected in proportion as it was known. Severe as the test described was, the sentiments of the King, or that most useful aggregate of qualities comprised in the term, steadiness, were not apparently shaken by so unlooked for a failure in the anticipated correctness of the machine; which he attributed to the mal-practices of some sinister agent he appeared anxious to discover: or to one of those accidents no human prudence could guard against—In brief, with a refinement on humanity equally creditable to his head and his heart, this Prince was willing to ascribe the default to any cause rather than a defect in the construction of the Timekeeper, which would have reduced its value below the utility of those commonly made for the pocket. For he rightly judged, that the aged mechanician, whose mind was wrapped up in the success, and consequent reputation of his discovery, would not long have survived the disgrace, had so unexpected a sequel been imputed to his incompetency for what he had undertaken.

The reader, if he has himself cherished and matured a scheme of magnitude, on which both fame and emolument depended; or if he has witnessed in others that inquietude, that anguish, comprehensively denoted when we repeat that 'hope deferred maketh the heart sick,' may fully conceive the painful suspense of John Harrison, as well as his solicitude to exculpate himself before so august an inspector of his deserts, who, when the insignia of royalty were laid aside, condescended to become the active and zealous friend of a humble man of science.

As the Timekeeper had been regulated, and its correctness ascertained, by the Inventor, before it was sent to Richmond, the question, of equal interest and difficulty, was how to account for so strange and ruinous an error, which continued unabated on the fourth day. At this time, William Harrison, who doubtless had conferred on the affair with his Father, suggested that the cause must be attraction. No sooner was the idea started, but his Majesty, on a sudden recollection, exclaimed he had found it out; and, in his ardour, instead of directing either of the persons before him to do that office, he hastened himself to open the door of a closet in the apartment, where appeared three most powerful combinations of loadstones, which it was unaccountably forgotten had been deposited there; and the effect of which left so unlocked for a disappointment no longer a mystery[6];—but it was not easy to say whether the relief to the father and son, or the pleasure to the King was greatest, at so satisfactory an explanation.

Four days, in this manner, proving abortive, the Examination recommenced; and it would appear that having calculated the regular calls on his time, his Majesty suffered no unnecessary engagement, or impediment, to interfere with his consistent purpose, which showed him punctual to the meridian hour, when the Timekeeper was to be compared with the astronomical clock, or with the sun; and the scrutiny proceeded as propitiously as could be desired for above three weeks, when an unexpected interruption occured.—William Harrison being in the daily practice of travelling between London and Richmond, injured his arm by some accident, in such a manner, that the wound festering, incommoded him much, besides the danger of irritating it; but he was not confined to the house, and it might have been suggested, that if he had taken lodgings near Kew Park, an easy walk to the observatory would not have prejudiced his recovery. But his Majesty understanding it would be equally inconvenient to Mr. Harrison to be separated from his family, or to remove them from town, acquiesced in his dutiful representation of the circumstance; gave up the month he had already attended as a nullity; and, with unequalled sauvity and condescension, (for where was the parallel in a crowned head ?) agreed, that as soon as the invalid found himself capable of renewing his attendance the trial should recommence de novo.

At that period, William Harrison, in a letter to his father in law,[7] after apprizing him of the accident, and consequent injury to his arm, continued as follows: "I informed his Majesty of it, who, with his usual goodness, was pleased to order our trial to be put off till my health should be sufficiently re-established."

We may pause here, to ask—Has the united diligence of a Hawkins and a Boswell, aided latterly by the industry and tact of Mr. Croker, elicited any particular in the life of 'our great lexicographer and moralist' of superior, nay, of equal interest to this most creditable TRAIT in George 3rd, totally unknown as it is, and might for ever have remained, but for a concurrence of fortuitous circumstances in the next century?[8]

The renewed examination, to which it may be superfluous to say, his Majesty attended with the same punctuality as before, proved, extremely favourable for the Timekeeper; and thence seemed a source of no small satisfaction to the royal astronomer. But as the contract he had imposed, on himself was for six weeks (the common length of a West India voyage) and a month had been fruitlessly lost, prior to the completion of that time, it would not be supposed the King felt any desire to deviate from the agreement, by extending the period settled. Those who would have reasoned thus, however, knew nothing of George 3rd, than whom no man was more consistent to his purpose; no calculation of the inconvenience to himself (which must have been frequent) was suffered to interfere with the important object he kept in view, and hence, at the expiration of the time in reference, he is found forthwith proposing to extend the six weeks to eight. Nay, when the eight weeks were concluded, this practical philosopher, vindicating the energy of his character, would have those eight weeks enlarged to ten; in order, as he said, to prevent any cavilling among those who held, with him, that the 12th of Queen Anne should be considered as defining the duration of the trial. Whether that was a proper one, or the contrary, had nothing to do with the question, after the Candidate had staked the labour of the prime of his life on the faith of this legislative pledge, with the encouragement and assistance of the Commissioners of Longitude.—From these ulterior circumstances the original appropriation of six weeks to the business reached fourteen—more than double what the contract called for, had not this correct philanthropist (and father of his people) interpreted it with a bearing wholly different from that which the Board had adopted by the former direction of the Earl of Morton: and this may recal the emphatical manner la which he declared to the representative of John Harrison, that he 'would see him righted.'



Notes

  1. Horne Tooke was at that time a noted Tory in his party opinions.
  2. George 3rd was no stranger to the person of John Harrison, whose fame and success had several years before given him a curiosity to see and converse with so extraordinary a subject; who being honoured with a message to that effect, waited on his Majesty at Buckingham House, attended by his Son. The particular date of this interview cannot be ascertained; the Author conjectures it to have been after the return from Barbadoes, as it appears to coincide in time, that the King was found surrounded by his then infant family—through whom the Old Man, plainly dressed, but with exemplary neatness, as he always was, passed unnoticed to so flattering a colioquy: while the Son, who, like most young men who do not know the world, had imagined it was necessary to be fine in order to be introduced to the King, having equipped himself with a laced suit, of the fashion of that day, and being mistaken by the royal children for a nobleman, they hung round him and caught his hand.—The conversations of those theologians and metaphysicians, Dr. Beattie, and the Chief Justice of Chester,[subnote 1] were preserved by such interlocutors, and Dr. Johnson's interview in the library was not lost to the public; but in this affair neither the Father nor Son having a tincture of letters, what passed between the Monarch and a genius so gifted in his own department is unknown. It may be presumed however to have been gratifying both to the Prince and the subject; and it is not unlikely that the recollection of the condescension our Mechanician experienced on this occasion contributed to the final resolution he took, when cut off from all hope of justice by the conduct of his personal enemies at the Board of Longitude, to address himself to that superior who was considered not less the support of the attribute in his palace than on Banco Regis.
  3. It is given as No. 2 in the Appendix.
  4. A circumstance unknown in the time of John Harrison, but which recent observations in the Polar Seas has brought to notice, and which might have had a material effect in a trial to that quarter, is that extreme cold has a considerable tendency to accelerate the motion of the chronometers taken out.
  5. The absurdity of each a train of precautions as Lord Morton projected for the examination of the Timekeeper, while the clock was left entirely out of the question, was abundantly ridiculous when the Astronomer Royal was regarded by John Harrison as his sworn enemy and rival; but under different circumstances, either with respect to the Clock, or the Watch, he could and would rely on the fair dealing of his neighbour, and felt not that anxiety with which he had been oppressed while a scrutiny, to be reported to the public (if unfavourable) was going on, for which his enemies had the meanness to take him wholly unprepared.—There was no necessity, at Richmond, for a scrupulous observance of those forms, (except as regarded the meridian hour) the neglect of which at Flamstead Hill, in the instance of the clock, was held up by the Author to unqualified, and to merited contempt, as he thinks. The present examination, in this point of view, coincided with that decorous observance so necessary and desirable to be be preserved towards the King, or his agents.
  6. The surprising neglect in not removing these loadstones, neither the King nor William Harrison appear to have thought otherwise than entirely accidental. It did not interrupt the civilities that passed between the family of the latter and the young folks of Dr. Demainbury. The probable cause of an oversight so totally ruinous as it might have proved, to the scrutiny commenced, was, that the Doctor being subject to fits of the gout, and his Son (a gentleman about the age of thirty) attending for him at those times, the pungency of an attack from that malady prejudiced the recollection of the Astronomer so much as to lead to this deficiency in the instructions he would give his representative: at the same time it becomes a remarkable illustration of the truism—on what casual incidents the most momentous concerns of an individual, and inclusively those of the public, often depend.
  7. This was Mr. Robert Atkinson, of Hatfield Chace, in Yorkshire, who, from the interest he took in the result of the trial, though not conversant with the subject, desired to know what was going on, and the letters having been preserved in the family, were presented to the Author some years ago.—Mr. Neale entitled his captivating work 'The Romance of History,' (avowedly as such) and there are passages in this narrative which strain belief, and might have brought the writer under the imputation of dabbling in the romance of regal biography, had not the discovery of these letters opportunely relieved him from this undesirable predicament. A caution in point may be recollected. Young Stanhope is advised by his Father to avoid asserting any thing which, though he might himself know it to be perfectly true, was too surprising to be credible without authentic support, and would expose his veracity to be questioned, which no man likes.
  8. Dr. Johnson benefitted the world by accident, it may be said, and not of afore-thought; for, according to Sir John, who expresses some astonishment at the circumstance, he could never be brought to acknowledge any higher motive for writing than money. It was to an occasion when he wanted the needful that we owe his Rasselas, and had he originally succeeded in procuring a place of £70 a year, in Ireland, he would never have been heard of. It is not too much therefore, to assume, that we are indebted to the physical wants of the author of the Rambler for the mental entertainment he dispenses; and, in this view, no disparity can be greater than the respective merits of the sovereign and the subject: yet while particulars of dubious importance, regarding the latter, continue to be diurnally recorded, a conduct which deserved to be treasured in the recollection of those that knew of it; and to have been immortalized by the pen of him who 'wrote for all ages,' as Ben Jonson said of his friend, is consigned to the obliterating waters of Lethe, like some play never heard of after the first night it was brought forward. If the repeated story of the Doctor's standing a few hours bareheaded at a book-stall in foul weather, by way of penance for his former offence to his Father, is placed in juxtaposition with the self denial of the King for days, weeks, and even months pending the present concern, can the biographers of the imitator of Juvenal find much to approve in the first instance, without acknowledging far more commendation due to the Monarch thus engrossed by humane and beneficial purposes, which called for most of the virtues that do honour to the cottage as well as to the palace. [These considerations are further illustrated at No. 7 in the Appendix.]



Subnotes

  1. George Hardinge, Esquire.