The administration of Walpole was the longest which has occurred since the days of Queen Elizabeth. He was probably the most dexterous party leader which England ever had; "equally skilled to win popular favor, to govern the House of Commons, and to influence and be influenced by public opinion."
Descended from an ancient and respectable family, he was born at Houghton, in Norfolkshire, on the 26th day of August, 1676. Part of his boyhood was spent at Eton, and he was for two years a member of the University of Cambridge; but in neither of these places did he give any indications of superior talents. In early life he was remarkable for nothing but his high spirits and dislike of study. The only benefit he seems to have obtained from his early education, was a facility which he acquired at Eton of conversing in Latin. This became to him afterward an important instrument of power. George I. could speak no English, and Walpole no German: so they compromised the matter when he was made Prime Minister; and all the communications between him and his master, involving the highest interests of the kingdom, were carried on in "very bad Latin."
The first impulse given to the mind of Walpole arose from his being elected a member of Parliament at the age of twenty-four. A vein was now struck which laid open the master principle of his character. It was a spirit of intense ambition. From this moment he laid aside all his sluggishness and love of ease; he threw himself at once into the arena of political strife; and the whole cast of his mind and feelings, as well as the character of the times, went to secure his early ascendency. He had naturally great force and penetration of intellect; a clear judgment; a dauntless spirit; a thorough knowledge of human nature, especially on its weak side; infinite dexterity in carrying on or counteracting political intrigues; a self-possession which never forsook him in the most trying circumstances; and a perfectly unscrupulous freedom in the adoption of every means that seemed necessary to the accomplishment of his designs. The only acquired knowledge which he brought with him into public life, was a thorough acquaintance with finance. It was precisely the knowledge that was needed at that juncture; and it laid the foundation, at no distant period, of the long and almost despotic sway which he exercised over English affairs.
On taking his seat in Parliament, in 1700, he joined himself to the Whig party, and in the year 1708 was brought into office as Secretary at War. Thrown out soon after by a change of ministry, which arose from the silly prosecution of Sacheverell, he was restored to office in 1714, when the Whigs came into power under George I.
From this time, for nearly thirty years, he was an active member of the government, during twenty of which he was Prime Minister. To this office he was called, by general consent, in 1721, on the explosion of the South Sea project, which filled the whole island with consternation and ruin. He had opposed the scheme and predicted its failure from the outset, though he had the sagacity to profit largely by speculating in the stock; and now that his predictions were fulfilled, every eye was turned to Walpole, as the only one fitted, by his financial skill, to repair the shattered credit of the country. He was made First Lord of the Treasury, and Chancellor of the Exchequer, on the second of April, 1721.
Walpole had now reached the summit of his ambition; and if he had only been just and liberal to his political associates, he might, perhaps, even in that faithless and intriguing age, have gone on to enjoy an undisputed supremacy. But his ambition was domineering and exclusive. He was jealous of every man in his own party, whose growing influence or force of character seemed likely to raise him above the station of a humble dependant. In about two years he quarreled with Carteret, one of the most gifted men of the age, who came in with him as Secretary of State, simply because he would allow of no colleague, but was resolved to rule at the council board as sole master. Within two years more, he endeavored to put Pulteney out of the way by a specious offer of the peerage; and thus made the most eloquent speaker in the House, before the time of Chatham, his enemy for life. Chesterfield was turned out from his station as Lord Steward of the Household, with circumstances of personal insult, because he was against the Excise Bill, which Walpole himself soon after abandoned. Others of the nobility, with a number of military officers, among whom was Lord Chatham, were treated with the same indignity. Thus he alienated from him, by degrees, nearly all the talent of the Whig party.
The Opposition which he had to encounter was, therefore, composed of singularly discordant materials. To his natural opponents, the Jacobites and Tories, was added a large body of disaffected Whigs, who took the name of "Patriots." Bolingbroke, after the pardon of his treasons by George I., and his return to England in 1725, though not restored to his seat in the House of Lords, and therefore unable to share in public debate, was the acknowledged leader of the Tories and Jacobites; and, by a coalition which he soon after made with Pulteney, became for nearly ten years the real head of the Opposition. He was qualified for this station by extraordinary abilities and matured experience. He was a veteran in the arts of popular delusion. Such was the ascendency of his genius over the strongest minds, that he could unite Wyndham and Pulteney in the same measures; and from his station behind the scenes, could move the machinery of Opposition with the greater coolness because he had no share in public measures. Men were thus brought into one body, under the strictest party discipline, who could never have acted together for a moment on any other subject. They comprised a large part of the talent of the kingdom; and were engaged for years in the struggle to put Walpole down, animated, in most instances, not only by an intense desire for office, but by personal resentment and a spirit of revenge.
It was certainly a proof of consummate ability in Walpole, that he was able to stand for a single year against such an Opposition. That he sustained himself, to a considerable extent, by the systematic bribery of the leading members of Parliament, there can be no doubt. Nor is he to be tried by the standard of the present day on that subject. Charles II. commenced the system; it was continued under his successor; and when William III. was placed on the throne by the Revolution of 1688, he found it impossible to carry on the government without resorting to the same means. "It was not, therefore," as remarked by Cooke in his History of Party, "the minister who corrupted the age; his crime was that he pandered to the prevailing depravity." But bribery alone could never have given Walpole so complete an ascendency. A ministerial majority, even when part of its members are bribed, demand of their leader at least plausible reasons for the vote they give. Against such an Opposition as he had to encounter, nothing but extraordinary talents, and a thorough knowledge of affairs, could have maintained him for a single month at the head of the government. And it is a remarkable fact, as to the leading measures for which he was so vehemently assailed, his Excise Bill, Wood's Patent, a Standing Army, Septennial Parliaments, the Hanover Treaty, and the Spanish Convention, that the verdict of posterity has been decidedly in his favor. Lord Chatham, who in early life was drawn under the influence of the Opposition leaders by their extraordinary talents and specious pretensions to patriotism, publicly declared, at a later period, that he had changed his views of the principal measures of Walpole.
But while posterity have thus decided for Walpole, on the main questions in debate between him and the Opposition, they have been far from awarding to him the honors of a great statesman. He undoubtedly rendered a most important service to his country, by the skill and firmness with which he defeated the machinations of the Jacobites, and held the house of Brunswick on the throne. It was not without reason that Queen Caroline, on her dying bed, commended, not Walpole to the favor of the King, but the King to the protection and support of Walpole. Still, it is apparent, from the whole tenor of his conduct, that in this, as in every other case, he was governed by the absorbing passion of his life, the love of office. "He understood," says Lord Campbell, "the material interests of the country, and, so far as was consistent with the retention of power, he was desirous of pursuing them." We have here the key to every measure of his administration—"the retention of power!" It was this that dictated his favorite maxim, ne quieta moveas, because he felt that change, however useful, might weaken his hold on office. Hence his scandalous treatment of the Dissenters, whom he deluded for years with solemn promises of deliverance from the galling yoke of the Test Act, and thus held them as firm supporters of his ministry in the most trying seasons; but when driven at last to say, "When will the time come?" he answered, as he always meant, "Never!" He was afraid of the High Church party; and he chose rather to break his word, than to venture on what he acknowledged to be a simple act of justice. It was so in every thing. He would run no personal risk to secure the most certain and valuable improvements. He would do nothing to provide against remote dangers, if it cost any great and immediate sacrifice. He therefore did nothing for the advancement of English institutions. He was the minister of the Present, not of the Future. His conduct in respect to the Spanish war furnishes a complete exhibition of his character, and has covered his memory with indelible disgrace. He knew it to be unnecessary and unjust—"the most unprovoked and unjustifiable war," as a great writer has observed, "in the English annals." Any other minister, rather than be forced into it by the popular clamor, would have instantly resigned. But in the words of Lord Mahon, who was disposed, in general, to judge favorably of Walpole, "He still clung unworthily to his darling office; thus proving that a love of power, and not a love of peace (as has been pretended), was his ruling principle. It was a sin against light. No man had a clearer view of the impending mischief and misery of the Spanish war. On the very day of the Declaration, when joyful peals were heard from every steeple of the city, the minister muttered, 'They may ring the bells now; before long they will be wringing their hands.' Yet of this mischief and misery he could stoop to be the instrument!"
The selfish and temporizing policy of Walpole, on this occasion, proved his ruin. The war, which he never intended should take place, and for which he had, therefore, made no preparation, proved disastrous to the English; and the Opposition had the art to turn the popular odium with double violence upon the minister, for the failure of a measure which they had themselves forced upon him. The circumstances attending his fall from power will be detailed hereafter, in connection with his speech on a motion for his removal from office. He resigned all his employments on the 11th of February, 1742, and died about three years after, just as he was entering his sixty-ninth year.
The age of Walpole was an age rather of keen debate than impassioned eloquence. If we except Lord Chatham, whose greatest efforts belong to a later period, we shall find but little in the leading orators of the day that was lofty or imposing. They were emphatically business speakers, eagerly intent upon their object, but destitute of any principles or feelings, which could raise them above the level of the most selfish minds, engaged in a desperate struggle for office and power. We find, therefore, in their speeches, no large views, no generous and elevated sentiments, none of those appeals to the higher instincts of our nature, which are the crowning excellence of our English oratory. Any thing of this kind would have been laughed down by Walpole, as sheer affectation. Even patriotism, which is too often a limited and selfish virtue, he regarded as mere pretense. "Patriots," says he, "spring up like mushrooms! I could raise fifty of them within the twenty-four hours. I have raised many of them in a single night. It is but refusing to gratify an unreasonable or an insolent demand, and up starts a patriot!" The reasonings of that day were brief and pointed; with no attempts at philosophy; with but little breadth of illustration; with scarcely any disposition to discuss a subject in its principles. Parliamentary speaking was literally "a keen encounter of the wits," in which the ball of debate was tossed to and fro between men of high talent, who perfectly understood each other's motives, and showed infinite dexterity in twisting facts and arguments to serve a purpose. It was the maxim of the day, that every thing was fair in politics.—The best speeches abounded in wit and sarcasm, in sly insinuations or cutting invective, all thrown off with a light, bold, confident air, in racy English, and without any apparent effort. The language of debate approached as near to that of actual conversation, as the nature of the topics, and the flow of continuous discourse, would permit. It was direct and idiomatic; the language of men who had lived in the society of Addison and Swift; and who endeavored to unite the ease and simplicity of the one with the pungency and force of the other. It is a style of speaking which has always been a favorite one in the British Senate; and notwithstanding the examples of a loftier strain of eloquence in that body since the days of Chatham, it is still (though connected with more thorough discussion) the style which is cultivated by a majority of speakers down to the present day in both houses of Parliament.