The Rule of Walpole
1. Early Dangers
From 1721 to 1727 Walpole's power was never shaken. George I looked on him as a man who could "turn stones into gold," and resolved never to part with him while he was willing to serve. Yet he was not the only important minister. For three years Lord Cartaret looked after England's relations with foreign countries: then Walpole's own brother-in-law—Lord Townshend—seemed to hold the first place. "The firm," Walpole himself said, was "Townshend and Walpole," not yet "Walpole and Townshend."
And George I's death in 1727 threatened to destroy Walpole's power altogether. For George II, hating his father, also hated his father's ministers, and used to call Townshend "a choleric blockhead," the Duke of Newcastle "an impertinent fool," and Walpole himself "a rogue and rascal." Three things, however, saved the situation. The new minister could not even write the king's speech to Parliament without Walpole's help. Walpole himself pleased the new king by securing from Parliament a larger income for the Royal Family. Above all, the new queen, Caroline, who really guided her husband while seeming to obey him, believed that Walpole alone could govern England, and that his chief enemies were "the greatest liars and knaves in the kingdom."
So Walpole was once again, as Bolingbroke said, "the brazen image which the king had set up." And now he gradually turned out all those ministers who would not readily obey him. It was characteristic of him that he would never share power with others in any department of State business where he interfered at all. And as time went on he took one fresh department after another under his control, and overthrew every rival. Finally, in 1730, he quarrelled with Townshend, who managed foreign affairs, and Townshend's retirement left him practically supreme. But only three years later came the struggle over the famous Excise Bill.
2. The Greatest Struggle
The customs system in Walpole's days was both burdensome and wasteful. Enormous taxes had to be paid by merchants on the tea and coffee, wine and tobacco, which they brought into English ports. Thus trade was seriously hampered. Yet these taxes were constantly evaded. Bands of desperate smugglers, backed by the sympathy of all the country-side, took advantage of dark nights and rugged coasts to set the law at defiance, and brought the goods to land at places where there were no custom-houses to interfere with them. And, if the revenue officers tried to stop this and enforce the law, they ran great risk of injury to life or limb. Not unnaturally, they often preferred to accept a share of the smugglers' profits as a bribe to make them shut their eyes and hold their tongues. Thus, after all, the national Treasury gained but little.
There were two possible remedies. The taxes themselves might be lowered so much that smuggling to escape them would not be worth the risk of capture and punishment,—a plan which would mean, at first at any rate, a further loss to the Treasury. Or, the method of collecting the taxes might be altered: instead of "Customs," i.e. taxes paid at the port where the goods arrived, there might be an "Excise," i.e. a tax paid only when they were actually sold by the importers to buyers in the country, which would be far harder to escape. It was this second plan that Walpole adopted. He applied it successfully to tea and coffee, and afterwards to salt. Then he proposed to extend it to wine and tobacco. But here he met an unexpected difficulty.
For years his enemies had been increasing. Townshend, on leaving office, had retired quietly to Norfolk, and occupied himself with turnip growing and other useful agricultural experiments, which gained him the nickname of "Turnip Townshend."
But other ministers turned out by Walpole were less easily contented. They vowed revenge. They joined hands with Walpole's other enemies—with the Tories, with Bolingbroke (now back in England, but still kept out of his estates and out of Parliament by Walpole's influence), with William Pitt and the other young men who were always attacking Walpole's corruption. So the minister had to face a host of foes. They opposed him in Parliament. They reviled him in the Press, especially in their famous newspaper—The Craftsman—which perhaps first showed how great the influence of the Press might be. By speeches and pamphlets, by newspaper letters and caricatures, by every means they could think of, they tried to destroy his power and his reputation.
To these men the Excise scheme was a perfect godsend. For when the ordinary Englishman of Walpole's day heard the word "Excise" he thought at once of a despotic Government, fit only for slaves—or Frenchmen!—to endure, and of a host of meddling officials prying into every detail of his daily business. Walpole's scheme meant really neither one thing nor the other. But Englishmen, then, at any rate, could be worked up into such a state of excitement over a mere word that attempts to explain it would be simply useless.
Walpole's enemies well understood this, and they took full advantage of the people's ignorance. They represented Walpole's motives to be everything that they were not. They held him up to popular hatred as a tyrant and extortioner, seeking to destroy the liberties of England and enrich himself by wringing money out of his miserable fellow-countrymen.
Their plan succeeded to an extent which even now is hard to understand. It was not only that mobs gathered to threaten the ministers and assault Walpole, or that Walpole's effigy was burnt in countless bonfires. Even sober men joined in the campaign. The citizens of London actually asked to be heard in Parliament against the Bill, and their petition had so many signatures that a long train of coaches was needed to carry it to Westminster. And the feeling was almost as strong within as without the walls of Parliament. Many of Walpole's own followers, expecting his downfall and wishing to please his successors, deserted to the enemy. Further, not only the minister himself, but the king and queen who relied on his advice, were assailed with insults and abuse. Indeed, grave fears were felt that the struggle might actually overthrow the House of Hanover.
At last Walpole gave way. "This dance," he said—and the tears stood in his eyes—"it will no further go." He was still loyally supported by the king. He could still have carried the Bill through both Houses. But he could have enforced it only in the teeth of a popular resistance—only, perhaps, by the sword—and that his whole system of policy forbade. So the Bill was dropped.
3. The Fall of Walpole
The failure of the Excise Bill was Walpole's first great defeat, and his power survived it more than seven years; but in one sense it was the beginning of the end; at least, from this time onward the story of his rule is largely a story of misfortunes. True, it was in the very next year that he made his famous boast to the queen that, of the 50,000 men killed in Europe in the fighting as to who should be king of Poland, not one was an Englishman. And this proved that his power was still immense, for George II was always eager for war.
But even the revenge that Walpole took for his defeat over the Excise Bill strengthened his enemies. The Lord Steward—the famous Lord Chesterfield—and other ministers were dismissed for their opposition: even officers in the army lost their places. But the chief result was that Walpole's foes now included almost every leading politician of the day, except Walpole himself.
And in 1737 they allied with Frederick, Prince of Wales, who, in the fashion of his family, opposed his father's ministers. This strengthened them greatly, not because the prince himself was great, or good, or even respectable, but because he was the Hanoverian heir-apparent. For, now that they were leagued with him, Walpole could no longer attack them with his favourite weapon, the damaging charge that they were secretly Jacobites.
Soon, too, they had an even greater stroke of luck. For now the queen died, and in her Walpole lost his best supporter. It was through her that for ten years he had induced the king to accept his advice, however unwillingly, in all important matters. George, indeed, with the loyalty that was his greatest virtue, still supported his minister even when he disagreed with him; but there was no one now to make things easy by persuading him that after all he did not really disagree.
And meanwhile the growing ill-feeling between Spain and England was forcing Walpole on, against all his convictions, towards a war. Both nations were tired of mere peaceful wranglings, and longing for a fight. In March, 1738, a certain Captain Jenkins showed to a Committee of the House of Commons an ear, cut off his head, so he said, out of mere spite, by a Spanish officer seven years before, and "Jenkins's Ear" became at once a war-cry throughout the country. Walpole could please no one. His efforts for peace were abused in England as mean-spirited and humiliating. His preparations for war were resented in Spain as threatening and insulting.
At last, in 1739, he yielded to both people and Parliament, both prince and king, both his enemies and, to a large extent, his friends, and declared war. But the war proved his ruin. Except for one slight success, it was marked throughout by mismanagement and disaster.
Walpole himself was ill. He put no heart into the fighting. Every one knew that he really disapproved of it. So he grew weaker and weaker, till at last he found that he could no longer reckon on the support of a majority in the Commons. Then, in 1742, he accepted the Earldom of Orford, resigned his offices, and brought "The Age of Walpole" to an end.