The Rise of Walpole
1. Robert Walpole
Robert Walpole was born in 1676. He was the fifth of nineteen children, but by the death of the eldest son he became heir to his father at the age of twenty-two. His father, another Robert Walpole, was a Norfolk squire and a Member of Parliament, with landed property worth over £2,000 a year. Robert the elder combined politics with farming and hunting, and taught his son to share in all his doings. And, when he was twenty-four, young Robert married the wealthy and beautiful grand-daughter of a Lord Mayor, and on his father's death, soon afterwards, succeeded both to his estate and to his seat in Parliament.
Under Anne he held more than one public office, and learned at least one lesson which he never forgot. The Whig Government in which he served prosecuted Dr. Sacheverell, a Tory clergyman, for preaching against the Revolution of 1688. The prosecution succeeded, but caused such a storm of popular fury that Walpole would never, to the end of his days, do anything against the Church of England.
When the Tories came into power, in Anne's last years, he would not join them: in fact, he led the opposition to their policy. So, to make him harmless, they imprisoned him in the Tower on a charge of corruption, which he considered baseless. But the chief result was that, when he came out, he opposed them more violently than ever. He attacked their doings both at home and abroad, particularly the Acts against Dissenters and the Treaty of Utrecht. And he was still opposing them when Anne died.
But the accession of George I brought back the Whigs to office; and Walpole now became Paymaster of the Forces, which meant wealth, and played a leading part in Parliament, which meant power, and was presently raised to be First Commissioner of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer, which meant a chief place in the Ministry. Owing to a squabble among the Whigs, he was, indeed, soon out of office again, and attacking the Government as hotly as ever. But in 1720 he rejoined it, and for the next twenty years he was really the leading statesman in England. Thus the Age of Walpole now really began.
In appearance and tastes Walpole was a thorough country squire. He was hale and hearty. His manner was frank, genial, even boisterous. His laughter was natural and jolly; so said friend and foes alike, though his foes added that his "everlasting half-smile" was also half a sneer. He loved field sports; he drank deeply; he hunted all his life, even when he had grown heavy and stout; and he used the language of the stable and the hunting-field in the Council Chamber and the Parliament Hall.
Yet he was neither uneducated nor without artistic tastes. He certainly spoke with a strong Norfolk accent; he considered authors (not without reason) "needy scribblers" who could be hired to defend any cause; and he despised musicians as "a pack of fiddlers." But his talk and his letters were sprinkled with Latin quotations as well as sporting phrases, and of pictures he was not only a keen but a judicious collector.
Yet again, he was a first-rate financier, extraordinarily clever at figures, and an excellent man of business. And, lastly, he had that comfortable temper which concerns itself far more with present facts than with future chances. So he had interests in common with both Tory squires and Whig merchants, and a temper specially suited both to his nation and to his age.
2. Sleeping Dogs
The Age of Walpole was not for England a time of stirring events, either at home or abroad. Rather it was a time of rest and preparation. It was a time of rest after the exhausting struggle with the France of Louis XIV, in the Netherlands and Spain, with which the Stuart period had closed. It was a time of preparation for that hardly less exhausting struggle with the France of Louis XV, in America and India, with which a new period was presently to open.
For various reasons the French Government just now did not want war; and, as Walpole was at least equally opposed to fighting, his rule was marked by almost uninterrupted peace. A Jacobite invasion and a commercial panic ushered it in; a commercial war, opening the way for a second Jacobite invasion, followed it; but in the interval there was rest and quiet. Peace, in fact, was the supreme object of Walpole's policy, for he saw that at the moment it was the one essential thing. The country required it, for it had just passed through the Revolution of 1688 and the long and wearing French war, and needed time to recover. The new dynasty, too, had reason to wish for it, for peace and prosperity, and the absence of heavy war taxes, might make its subjects willing to accept its rule, while war would certainly give its enemies opportunities for insurrection and invasion. So Walpole never meddled in European affairs if he could help it. He avoided at all costs a war with France, which would have meant a Jacobite rising supported by French arms. And he kept England, to the best of his power, steadily and peaceably minding her own business.
But this was not all. Peace meant the absence not only of war abroad but also of strife at home. And, if this was to be gained, no burning questions must be raised, no old wounds reopened, no old grievances revived: no class and no religious body of importance must be irritated. "Let sleeping dogs lie!" This famous phrase summed up the chief ideas of Walpole's policy at home and abroad.
Such a policy had, of course, its drawbacks. Few reforms can be made without arousing at least some opposition: many must cause for a time great popular excitement. And such reforms, speaking generally, Walpole's policy forbade him to attempt. He could make no change that might disturb the public peace: he must leave even undoubted evils alone till a more convenient season. So he dropped his plan of reforming the Customs system when the country grew excited. And—remembering Dr. Sacheverell—he never dared even to propose a repeal of the laws against Dissenters, though he fully admitted their injustice. Thus "Let sleeping dogs lie!" had to mean "Let ill alone!" as well as "Let well alone!" and so Walpole's rule was almost barren of reforming laws.
For this reason the Age of Walpole has earned a bad name in history. It has been abused as an age of low morals and widespread corruption; an age when high ideals and enthusiasms were scorned and admitted evils were contentedly accepted; an age in which the national character was degraded. And to some extent the charge is just. There was much corruption in the State, and against this Pitt and the "Patriots" presently protested. There was much sloth and half-heartedness in the Church, and against this John and Charles Wesley, George Whitefield, and other "Methodists," fought in the famous "Methodist Movement," which ended in establishing many new religious bodies outside the national church. And Walpole himself reformed neither Church nor State.
Only it must be remembered that Walpole did not create the abuses: he merely put up with them. He did not rejoice at political corruption, but—finding it the custom—he made use of it. He never said of men in general (as has been so often asserted) that "every man has his price," but he saw through and despised the hypocrites who pretended to be shocked at his bribery, and yet would have supported him if only he had bribed them largely enough. He was not even indifferent to the evils round him: only he thought that just then discord would be a greater evil still.
3. Commerce and Quarrels
If Walpole's age had no very exciting events, it was none the less a time of progress and prosperity, especially in commerce. To commerce, indeed, the habit of minding one's own business is peculiarly useful, and the development of trade was one of the chief features of the period. Almost all the leading questions of the day were commercial. Walpole himself came to power through the commercial panic known as the South Sea Bubble. His most famous scheme, the unsuccessful Excise Bill, was meant to help commerce by reforming taxation. And the Spanish war which caused his downfall sprang from disputes as to the commercial rights of Englishmen in Spanish lands.
For England had now really begun her career as a great trading nation. Marlborough's wars themselves had been fought largely to secure for Englishmen the right of trading with the Spanish colonies in the New World, from which Spain wished to shut out every foreigner. And of the gains made at the peace none were more prized than this. Spain certainly granted as little as she possibly could. One English ship of 600 tons might go once a year to Panama, and for thirty years the English South Sea Company alone might import slaves into the Spanish colonies; but that was all.
To Englishmen in the eighteenth century, however, as in the sixteenth, Spanish America seemed to hold boundless wealth, nor did they much care what means they used to snatch a share of it. The one ship at Panama had to do the work of ten—for, as fast as her cargo was unladed by day, she was filled up again from other ships under cover of night. And elsewhere English ships sailed and English traders pushed their wares without even the pretence of a treaty right to justify them, but with all the insolent daring of Elizabeth's "sea dogs."
The Spaniards tried in vain to enforce their laws by violence: they succeeded only in provoking Englishmen to a violent revenge. So, while English prisoners worked in irons on Spanish soil, Spaniards were sold as slaves in English colonies. Meanwhile the Governments at home—in Spain and England—were apparently either unwilling or unable, or both unwilling and unable, to control their subjects. The English Government, especially, knew too well the value of the smuggling trade with South America to do anything more towards checking it than was necessary to put off actual war.
4. The South Sea Bubble
But, long before these quarrels ended in war, the South Sea Company brought trouble of another kind upon the country. The directors or managers of this trading association started in 1720 a great scheme in connection with the National Debt. The scheme was not in itself absurd, but the directors greatly exaggerated the profits that could be made by it. Public opinion exaggerated them still more.
And presently the idea that money could be made so easily produced a wild fever of "speculation" throughout the country. Money was lent to any and every company formed for trading or other purposes, every lender hoping for quick and enormous gains. Thousands readily paid seven or eight times the real value of a share in the South Sea Company itself. And, in the general excitement, many men (some merely foolish, but more dishonest) invited the public to subscribe largely also to other companies, which were always failures and often simply frauds. Sometimes, reckoning on the mad gambling spirit that possessed the nation, they did not even trouble to hide the folly of their schemes. One man asked for £1,000,000 to make a "wheel for a perpetual motion." Another proposed to import jackasses from Spain, "as if," some one said, "we had not plainly jackasses enough already!" And a third actually obtained thousands of pounds without even stating his purpose.
Such madness could only be short-lived, and the end soon came—the nation recovered its senses. Those who had paid so highly for shares in "bubble" companies were thankful to get even a little of their money back. And all the weak points in the South Sea Company's own scheme were exposed. But—short as the "bubble" was—its bursting ruined hundreds. Some of the king's ministers were found to have been guilty of bribery and corruption in the matter, and therefore were disgraced.
And it was to meet this crisis—which he had always prophesied—that Walpole was called back to power. For he was "the man who had no equal for figures," the only statesman, indeed, that business men trusted. His settlement of the matter did not, of course, do away with all the suffering—the foolish and the unfortunate still had room to grumble; but probably all that was possible was done.