Lectures on Modern History/The Hanoverian Settlement

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Lectures on Modern History by John Acton
XVI. The Hanoverian Settlement



The first thing is to consider by what steps a government came into existence entirely different from that of England in the seventeenth century, and unlike anything that had previously been known in Europe.

The old order terminates with the Bill of Rights and the Act of Settlement. What followed is not a development of that Act, but in contradiction to it. With the new dynasty there is a new departure. And the change was not effected by statute, but by that force which makes the law, and is above the law, the logic of facts and the opinion of the nation. The essential innovations, the cabinet, the premier, and government by party, are still without legislative sanction. The Act of Settlement was speedily unsettled. It separated the administration from the legislature by excluding placemen from the House of Commons; and it prohibited the king from visiting his foreign dominions without leave. And it required the king to be advised by the Privy Council, thereby rejecting a united cabinet, the exclusive organ of a party. Both William and, at that time, Marlborough preferred that all the leading men should be united in the administration. Before the Act of Settlement came into operation, during the reign of Anne, the idea of a united cabinet taken from the same party had prevailed, and at last even Harley could not be tolerated by the Jacobites. If Bolingbroke had not made it impossible for George I. to trust the loyalty of the Tories, the rising of 1715 would have been fatal to them. The new dynasty governed by the Whigs, that is, by one party, and by a cabinet, not by the council. As the king understood neither English nor English affairs, he very rarely presided. The cabinet decided in his absence, and then reported.

It is necessary to see what manner of man he was. A branch of the ancient Guelphic House reigned at Hanover, and had succeeded by politic and constant effort in consolidating half a dozen territories into one important principality. It was the most rising and prosperous of the German Houses. It acquired the ninth electorate in 1692; and it was manifestly appropriate when it was designated for the English succession, because the first elector, who had accomplished the greatness of his family, had married the youngest daughter of Elizabeth Stuart, the Princess Palatine, who in an evil hour was Queen of Bohemia. The Electress Sophia was a Calvinist. Her husband was a Lutheran. His predecessor, who died in 1678, had been a convert to Catholicism. Hanover had been the centre of reunion, and there were Lutheran divines there who, under the commanding influence of Leibniz, went further than Tract No. 90 in the direction of Rome. With their easy comprehension and impartial appreciation of religious systems, the Guelphs of Hanover were not representative Protestants. Some misgivings arose in the mind of William III., and it was thought that he looked with suspicious favour on the young Frederic William, the man who afterwards drilled the battalions which Frederic the Great led to victory. A Hanoverian statesman wrote, in alarm, that William seemed to prefer the Prussian prince, because he was a Protestant, to the Hanoverian, who was a Lutheran. The implication is that the Lutherans offered less resistance to Catholicism. But the fact also was that Sophia was a Stuart by the mother's side, and did not wish too loudly to proclaim that she was not a legitimist. There was a little ostensible hesitation; and the electress so managed that the crown should seem to be forced upon her. It was part of this decorous comedy that her son never learnt English—a circumstance of the utmost value, afterwards, to England. The Electress Sophia was not perhaps a very estimable, though a very intelligent princess. But she was eighty-four when the crown came within reach, and she died of rage at an unfriendly letter from Queen Anne, betraying her Jacobite propensity.

The elector, who ascended the throne of England two months after his mother's death, was neither a tyrant, nor a coward, nor a fool; he was only unintellectual and brutally selfish. There were ladies in his company who received English titles, and offended one part of the public by their morals and the remainder by their ugliness. One was created Duchess of Kendal, and Walpole said of her that she was Queen of England if ever there was one. But she sold her influence for money, amounting sometimes to £10,000, and Walpole at last complained to his master. The king laughed in his face, and replied, in his dog-Latin, that no doubt his minister also was paid by the people whom he recommended. There was a deeper taint on his reputation. He had married the only daughter of his neighbour and kinsman, the Duke of Celle, thereby securing the succession to his dominions. Her mother was not of royal birth, and she was treated so cruelly by her husband and by the Electress Sophia that she resolved to escape from her misery by flight. In her despair she accepted the assistance of Count Königsmarck, whom the envoy Stepney described as a profligate adventurer. The secret was betrayed; the princess was divorced, and spent the long remainder of her life at Ahlden, a remote country house which had belonged to her father. This was no more than had happened in many great families tried by the temptation of irresponsible monarchy, but there was a superadded tragedy; for Count Königsmarck disappeared and was never seen again. As part of the scheme to run away with the princess, he had transferred his services to Saxony, where he was made a general. For that reason, and still more for the persuasive supplications of his sister, the beautiful Aurora von Königsmarck, the Elector Augustus the Strong caused some inquiry to be made. It led to no result. But Aurora became the mother of the Marshal of Saxony, who defeated the English at Fontenoy, and conquered the Austrian Netherlands for the French. From the marshal was descended George Sand, the most famous Frenchwoman of the last generation. The Hanoverian government issued a lying report, but attempted no defence. Nobody doubted that Königsmarck had been made away with, and that the author of the crime was the King of England, whose proper destination therefore should have been not St. James's but Newgate, and indeed not Newgate but Tyburn. Such was the character that preceded the founder of our reigning line of kings, and such were the weapons in the hands of his dynastic foes.

His most dangerous enemy was the Prince of Wales; not the Stuart who held his court in Lorraine, but his own eldest son. For George II. believed in the prisoner of Ahlden; believed that his mother had been cruelly treated, wrongfully accused, and unjustly divorced, and was therefore able to see his father by an exceedingly clear light. Thence arose a bitter enmity between them, and that tendency to opposition in the princes of Wales which became a family tradition and a salutary factor in the Constitution.

George I. found that, as long as he respected English institutions, things went very well with him, and he made no attempt to overturn them. The fear that a sovereign who was nominally absolute in one place could never govern under a constitution in another proved to be unnecessary. His interests, and those of his continental advisers, were mainly continental. In political science he had long had the ablest counsellor in Europe at his elbow, Leibniz, the friend of the electress. And although that great man did not enjoy unbroken favour, it was not easy to be blind to the flood of light which he poured on every subject. Leibniz had been instrumental in securing the succession, and he abounded in expositions of constitutional policy. He professed himself so good a Whig that he attributed to that cause his unpopularity with many people in England, especially at Cambridge, and most of all at Trinity. He seems not to have known that his rival, Newton, was as good a Whig as himself, and indeed a much better one. It was characteristic of his mind ever to impute the broad divisions of opinion among men to ignorance or incapacity to understand each other. With a more scientific method, he thought that many disputes could be settled, and many adversaries reconciled. For many years it was his favourite occupation to show that there was no real cause for a breach at the Reformation, and that people called themselves Protestants not knowing what was really meant by Catholic. He assured the Catholics that the Confession of Augsburg, rightly understood, was sound Catholicism; and he assured the Lutherans that there was nothing in the Council of Trent with which they were forced, in consistency, to quarrel. With the same maxim, that men are generally right in what they affirm, and wrong in what they deny, he taught that Whig and Tory are alike necessary portions of truth, that they complete each other, that they need each other, that a true philosophy of politics includes the two. He also said that the past is a law for the future, and that the will of Providence consecrates those things which are permitted to succeed and to endure. This is pure conservatism. The Whig seeks that which ought to be elsewhere than in that which is. His standing purpose is to effect change, for the past is essentially Tory.

The influence of the most enlightened German on the new German dynasty was not favourable to party government, and would have combined better with the system of William III. They consulted an enlightened Englishman, and Lord Cowper drew up an important political paper, showing that the king ought to depend on the Whigs. Moreover, Bolingbroke, at the last moment, by his Stuart intrigue, compelled George I. to come in as the nominee of a party. To Bolingbroke's intrigues the House of Hanover owed that which it most needed, the prestige of victory. He had found comfort in the reflection that, although it might be impossible to prevent the heralds from proclaiming the new monarchy, the new monarch would soon make himself odious, and would be more easy to expel than to exclude. The mass of the people was Tory, and the majority of Tories were Jacobites. There was the assured co-operation of the sects discontented with the Union, and a part of the very small army would be held fast by the sullen anger of the Irish.

Lewis XIV., weary and inert, would not risk another war; but if he saw his opportunity to interfere, he was not likely to neglect it. The Pretender would be advised by his brother, Berwick, the victor of Almanza. The insurgent forces would be led by the Duke of Ormonde, who had succeeded Marlborough as commander-in-chief. Marlborough himself had advanced money for the Jacobite rising, and was so much suspected by the ministers that they would not let him take the command.

The hopefulness of the situation darkened somewhat before the time for action arrived. Lewis XIV. died, and the Regent, having Philip of Spain for a rival, required the good-will of England. Two miscreants, to whom James had offered £20,000 if they would shoot the king and the Prince of Wales, failed to earn their reward. The arrest of a leading Jacobite, Sir William Wyndham, so scared his partisans, that Ormonde, having sailed into Torbay, returned to St. Malo without landing. The Highlanders rose, but there was no Dundee and no Montrose to make them superior to regular troops. They fought with doubtful fortune at Sheriffmuir, while the Borderers, finding no support in Lancashire, surrendered at Preston. When James Stuart landed in Aberdeenshire, the struggle was over. Cadogan was approaching at the head of the Dutch auxiliaries, and the Pretender escaped by a back door from his own men, and made his way to Gravelines. He had proved unequal to the occasion, and was not gifted with political understanding. But he had been instructed by Fénelon, and had learnt from him the doctrine of toleration.

The strongest part of the case against the new order in England was the treatment of the Irish Catholics; and James saw the whole thing in the light of a religious conflict. Bolingbroke, who had been an oppressor of Nonconformists, and had no sympathy with the prince's motives, fell into disgrace. He was made responsible for the failure, and was suspected of having told secrets to the ambassador, Stair, in order to make his peace at home. He was allowed to return, and did far more harm to the House of Hanover as a loyal subject than he had done as a manager of insurrection.

Seven peers had been taken with arms in their hands; and, in order to avoid questions which might have injured their friends, they pleaded guilty, and threw themselves on the mercy of the king. As they were more guilty than the followers whom they had led to their destruction, they could not be pardoned. Some, amid universal applause, made their escape from the Tower, and only two were sent to the scaffold. At the last moment, when repentance did not avail, Derwentwater retracted the declarations of loyalty he had made at his trial, and died protesting his unswerving fidelity to the House of Stuart. The Tories were effectually ruined. The militant part of them had been crushed. The remainder had proved helplessly weak, and the last dying speech of their honoured champion was taken as a proof that they were traitors at heart, and that their professions of loyalty were interested and insincere. Parliament displayed an enthusiastic attachment to the dynasty and its ministers; they were ready for any expenditure, for any armaments, and a force of 16,000 men was raised, for the better security of the Whigs.

On this state of feeling the government introduced septennial parliaments. Under the Triennial Act a general election would have fallen due in 1717, too soon for safety after the Jacobite rising. Opinion in the country had not been impressed by recent events, by the utter weakness of the rebels, the overwhelming success of the government, the significant menace of the dying leader, so deeply as the House of Commons. The new establishment would be in peril with the constituencies, but safe with their representatives. This was so certain that the philosophic arguments, for legislative independence and for popular control, were superfluous. The victors secured their victory and perpetuated their power by extending their mandate from three years to seven. The measure strengthened the House of Commons, and prepared the long reign of the Whigs. The funds rose, and the king took advantage of the improved situation to spend some months in Hanover. There he had greater scope to devote himself to foreign affairs, and to bring the Englishmen who attended him under the influence of experienced foreigners. Thus, while the Tories were prostrate and the Whigs supreme, a schism arose between the ministers at Hanover and the ministers at home. Walpole and Townshend went out of office; Stanhope and Sunderland formed a new administration, which the South Sea Bubble overthrew, A great question of constitutional principle opened between them and their former colleagues. The enmity between the king and the Prince of Wales made it probable that the ministers who had the confidence of the father would be dismissed on his son's accession. George II., to carry out his purpose, would be obliged to swamp the House of Lords with new peers. To prevent this, it was proposed to limit the power of creation and to fix a maximum number. As the Septennial Act had increased the power of the commons, the Peerage Bill would, in their turn, have increased the power of the peers, against the crown on one hand, against the commons on the other. The Whigs were not prepared to diminish the House of Commons, and not yet afraid that it would become too powerful, exposed as it was to corruption, and elected, on a narrow franchise, by an uneducated constituency. Burnet, the typical Whig, had protested against such limitations as should quite change the form of our government, and render the crown titular and precarious.

Walpole defeated the Bill. It deprived government of one great means of influence, by abolishing the hope of a peerage. He was not prepared to sacrifice a legitimate species of patronage. He came back, thereupon, to office, but not to a principal office; and he was not a member of the Cabinet when the South Sea Company undertook to reduce the National Debt. They offered only eight and a half years' purchase; but the spirit of speculation was strong, and these bad terms were widely accepted. The shares of the Company rose from 130 to 1000. As there was so much capital seeking investment, rival enterprises were started, and were opposed by the South Sea Company. Their ruin destroyed its credit; and after large sums had been won, large sums were lost. Some had been impoverished, others enriched. The country had not suffered, but the ministry fell. Walpole inherited their power. The ground was cleared for his long administration. It lasted so long that he did more than any other man to establish the new system of government. He was more zealous to retain his power than to make heroic use of it, and was a good administrator but an indifferent legislator. In his time those things were best which were done outside of parliament. Walpole made it his business to yield to public opinion, and did it consistently in the three critical moments of his career—in Wood's Halfpence, in the Excise, and in the Spanish war. The same problem presented itself to a greater man in the present century, and was decided on the opposite principle. Guizot was himself persuaded that a measure of parliamentary reform was inevitable, since the opinion of the country was in its favour. But the opinion of parliament was against it, and he preferred to fall, together with the monarchy, in obedience to parliament, rather than to triumph by public opinion.

Walpole gave way in the affair of the Halfpence, that he might not alienate those through whom he governed Ireland. The coins were good. They were to contain twice the value of metal with which we are satisfied, and it was never shown that they did not. The gains of the contractor were exorbitant. He was able to pay a heavy fee to the Duchess of Kendal; and when the contract was revoked, he obtained an excessive compensation. His Halfpence are historic because Swift, in raising a tempest over the Irish grievance, employed the language of revolution and national patriotism, as it had never been heard. Again, the Excise Bill would have saved many hundreds of thousands of pounds to the State, when a hundred thousand was more than a million is now; but Walpole, in spite of his majority, yielded to the clamour outside. And he did the same thing in regard to the Spanish war, the last great crisis he encountered.

Walpole's main idea on taking the highest office, that which he proclaimed in his first king's speech, was to divert the country from frantic speculation to the legitimate profits of industry and trade. The two great openings for trade were with the Mediterranean and with Spanish America. That with the Mediterranean was somewhat neglected, as the government relied more on the friendship of the piratical Algerines than on the solid possession of Gibraltar and Minorca. George I. had written a letter to Philip V., dated 1st June 1721, in which he distinctly assured him of his "readiness to satisfy with regard to your demand relating to the restitution of Gibraltar, promising you to make use of the first favourable opportunity to regulate this article with consent of my parliament." The English ministry were not convinced of the importance of retaining Gibraltar, and fully expected to be in a position to give it up to Spain for an equivalent. Indeed, in January 1721, Stanhope had said to the French envoy that in a year, when the financial position of England was better and the temper of parliament improved, they would certainly give up Gibraltar, for the merest shadow of an equivalent, as the place was only a burden to them. But they had not counted on the determination of the English people to hold it at all costs. Philip, however, not perhaps without some reason, always regarded the engagement as precise, and treated the continued retention as an act of bad faith. In all that I have just said about Gibraltar, I have been quoting a recent writer in the Historical Review.

The South American trade presented infinite possibilities. It was pursued with difficulty against the resistance of the Spaniards, who had the law on their side. It was considered worth a war, and the strength of public feeling overcame the feeble scruples of the minister. The war ended disastrously, but before the end Walpole had been driven from office. It had been no part of his policy to promote prosperity by arms, but it was part of his policy, and the deciding part of it, to let the nation, in the last instance, regulate its own affairs. Peace was a good thing; but profit was also a good thing; and Walpole had no principle that made one a question of duty and the other a question of interest.

The constant lesson of the Revolution was that England preferred monarchy. But after the fall of Walpole it was observed that there was a new growth of republican sentiment, and that the country felt itself superior to the government. This was the natural result of the time known as the Robinocracy; not because he devised liberal measures, but because he was careful to be neither wiser nor more liberal than the public. He was quite content to preserve the government of the country by the rich, in the interest of their own class. Unlike Stanhope, his predecessor, he was unmoved by the intolerance of the laws in England, and especially in Ireland. He was a friend to Free Trade; but he suffered Ireland to be elaborately impoverished, for the benefit of English landlords. Slavery and the slave trade, which Bolingbroke had promoted, were not remedied or checked by this powerful Whig. The criminal Code, in his time, grew annually more severe; and I need enter into no details as to the treatment of prisoners and of the poor. Walpole was so powerful, and was powerful so long, that much of the responsibility for all these things is at his door. On this account, and not because he governed by patronage and pensions and ribbons and bribes, he was a false Whig.

Government by Party was established in 1714, by Party acting through the Cabinet. Walpole added to this the prime minister, the accepted head of the Party and of the Cabinet. As the king did not preside, the minister who did preside discharged many functions of the king. The power of governing the country was practically transferred. It was shared, not between the minister and the king, but between the head of the ministry and the head of the opposition. For Party implies the existence of a party which is out as well as a party that is in. There is a potential ministry ready for office whenever the majority is shifted. As Walpole remained twenty-one years in office, he ignored this part of the constitutional system. He never became a leader of opposition, and when he resigned, no such thing had been provided. "All the talents" were opposed to him, but they were not an organised opposition. They were discontented and offended Whigs, assailing ministers on no ground of principle. This form of opposition was instituted by Pulteney, when he quarrelled with Walpole. Pulteney founded the Craftsman, in which there was much good political writing. For Bolingbroke had returned to England, and as he was not allowed to resume his seat in the Lords, he could make his power felt only through his pen. As he was thoroughly cured of his Jacobite sympathies, the doctrine he proclaimed was a Toryism stripped of the reactionary element. He proposed to make the State dominate over all the interests—land, Church, trade, and the like. That this might be done, and the government by a class for a class abolished, he appealed to the crown. The elevation of the State over the dominant classes had been the part of intelligent Monarchy in every age. And it is the spell by which Bolingbroke transformed Toryism and introduced the party called the King's Friends, which became a power in the middle of the century, and was put an end to by Mr. Pitt, after losing America, and setting up an English rival to England. After the final fall of the Stuarts in 1746, this was the moving force of Toryism, and the illiberal spirit was seriously curbed. Macaulay goes so far as to say that the Tories became more liberal than the Whigs. But it was an academic and Platonic liberality that did not strengthen the constitution.

The Whigs, having added the unwritten clauses, exclusive government by party, cabinet instead of council, and premier instead of king, did nothing to discover defects to be reformed and principles to be developed. They became Conservatives, satisfied with defending the new dynasty and the institutions that accompanied it. One supreme change was absolutely essential to complete their system. For its essence was that the object of the law, which was liberty, should prevail over the letter of the law, which was restraint. It required that public opinion should control legislation. That could not be done without the liberty of the press; and the press was not free while it was forbidden to publish and to discuss the debates of parliament. That prohibition was strictly maintained. For near thirty years we know the debates, and even the divisions, chiefly through the reports of Bonnet the Brandenburg resident, and of Hoffmann the Austrian resident, who tell us much that is sought vainly in the meagre pages of Hansard. Then came the epoch of Dr. Johnson and his colleagues in Grub Street. But when the Whig reign ended, at the resignation of the great Commoner in 1761, the Whigs had not admitted the nation to the parliamentary debates.

The debates were made public in 1774. The unreported parliament of 1768, as it is called, is the first that was properly reported. The speeches were taken down by one of the members, Cavendish, the ancestor of the Waterparks. A portion has been printed and forgotten. The remainder is preserved in manuscript, and contains, in all, about two hundred and fifty speeches of Edmund Burke. It is of no little value to political students, inasmuch as Burke at his best is England at its best. Through him and through American influence upon him, the sordid policy of the Walpolean Whigs became a philosophy, and a combination of expedients was changed into a system of general principles.