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Whatever wish might be felt by the French Ministers to conceal their late negotiation, it did not long remain a secret to the British Ambassador, nor even to the British public. Before the close of January, we find King George agreeing, in his private correspondence with Lord North, that every letter from Paris added to the probability of a speedy declaration of war. Towards the middle of February we may observe Lord North pressed with questions, in the House of Commons, whether a treaty between France and America had not been actually signed. Lord North for some time remained silent: at length he answered, that the conclusion of such a treaty was possible, nay, too probable; but that officially he was not as yet apprised of it.*
No sooner had Parliament met again for business on the 20th of January, than the renewed vigour of Opposition was apparent. The Ministers found themselves assailed by many and various adversaries. First came a motion from Sir Philip Jennings Clerke, against raising troops by subscription without consent of Parliament. Next there was an Address to the Crown, proposed by Mr. Burke, against the employment of savages in the American war. Mr. Fox moved: "That no more of the "old corps be sent out of the kingdom." From the same indefatigable orator there proceeded also a renewal of the motion for General Burgoyne's orders and instructions; and a critical commentary on the distribution of our forces in America. All these attacks were borne by Lord North with his usual good humour, and encountered with his usual ability.
* The King toLord North, Jan. 31.1778. Appendix.—Parl. Hist. vol.xix. p. 775. Gibbon, in a private letter of the 23rd of February, was able to mention nearly the exact day (the 5th instead of the 6th), on which the treaties had been signed at Pari*.
There was one point, however, and that point of vital moment, on which, at this period, there was an utter disaccordance among the chiefs of Opposition. Lord Chatham, as we have seen, had declared himself strongly against allowing the independence of America; from that ground he had lately stated that he could not depart; he held it with no less firmness when the French war was impending, with no less firmness when that war had already commenced. Lord Rockingham, on the contrary, had even last Session, in the House of Lords, questioned the possibility, or therefore the prudence, of continuing to withstand the separation of our insurgent Colonies; and he was greatly confirmed in his unwillingness when he saw our ancient rival determined to engage against us. Before the close of January these two party leaders had come to a written explanation on the subject, each resolutely, though with many civil expressions of regret, adhering to his own opinion.*
Often as of late years they had acted in concert, it seems probable that the Earl and the Marquis continued to look upon each other more as rivals than as friends. But among Rockingham's own nearest followers there were several, and of no slight note, who hoped that the difference was seeming rather than real, and who deemed that at least a trial might be made. "Can you "blame Lord Chatham," said his son-in-law, Lord Mahon, to the Duke of Richmond, — " can you blame "Lord Chatham for desiring to keep the now distracted "parts of the empire together, and for attempting to "prevent such a disgraceful and fatal dismemberment of "this country?" The Duke answered as follows : — "So far from blaming Lord Chatham for wishing to pre"vent this separation, I highly applaud him for it, if he "has any kind of reason in the world to think that the "thing can be rendered practicable by any means what"ever. And so desirous am I," added the Duke, " that "this may be done, that if Lord Chatham thinks it right "to attempt it, and does attempt it, I will certainly be
* Of the three letters that passed, the first does not appear to be preserved ; the other two are printed in the Chatham Correspondence, vol. iv. pp. 489—493.
"the first to give him every support in my power; but "I must go one step farther, that if Lord Chatham, after "having fully and fairly attempted it, should fail in his "expectations, notwithstanding all the support that I "can give him, I, for my part, in order to put an end to "this war, and procure peace, will be contented with "getting less, if it is out of everybody's power to get "more."*
Throughout the country, indeed, there now began to prevail a great and growing desire that Lord Chatham might be restored to the head of affairs — to avert a war with the House of Bourbon, or to make that war triumphant as the last— and to preserve, if it yet could be preserved, the unity of the empire. Nor was that desire confined to those who had ever followed and revered him; it was no less shared by many once forward as his opponents and gainsayers. Lord Mansfield, for example, declared to Lord Holderness, even with tears, it is said, in his eyes, that the vessel was sinking, and that Lord Chatham must be sent for. Lord Bute, from his retirement, expressed a similar opinion to Sir James Wright, one of his private friends. Sir James Wright, who appears to have been an officious busy-body, repeated Lord Bute's saying, with great emphasis, to Dr. Addington, Lord Chatham's physician and friend; and Dr. Addington, understanding it as a kind of overture or scheme of coalition, conveyed it as such to Hayes. Lord Chatham dictated a few words of reply, with civil thanks for Lord Bute's good opinion, but adding that nothing but a real change — new counsels and new counsellors — could prevent the consummation of the public ruin. When this answer was shown to Lord Bute, he observed that, from the expression, "real "change," Lord Chatham seemed to imagine that Lord Bute had still some influence in the administration. He therefore wished Lord Chatham to be informed that ill health and family distresses had accustomed him to a perfectly retired life, to which he hoped to adhere as long as he lived; that his long absence from all sorts of
* Lord Mahon to the Earl of Chatham, February 11. 1778, as published in the Chatham Papers.
public business, and the many years which had intervened since he saw the King, prevented his knowing more of public affairs than he gathered from general conversation or the newspapers; that this total ignorance, notwithstanding his zeal for the country, love for the King, and very high opinion of Lord Chatham, put it out of his power to be of the least use in this dangerous emergency: but that from his heart he wished Lord Chatham every imaginable success in the restoration of the public welfare.
This transaction, which here I have much abridged, is only so far of importance that it gave rise, after Lord Chatham's death, to a keen controversy whether he or Lord Bute had sought the alliance of the other. In that war of pamphlets took part the sons of both the chiefs, Lord Mountstuart and William Pitt. Yet it seems quite clear that neither of the veteran statesmen had been in any degree to blame; and that the fault lay only in the over-zeal of the go-betweens, Sir James Wright and Dr. Addington, who could not afterwards agree in their accounts of their own gossiping interviews, and who at the time, beyond all doubt, misconstrued Lord Bute's private wishes into political overtures.*
Strange though it may be deemed, the fact is certain, that no man at this period could feel a stronger wish to see the Prime Minister displaced, and Lord Chatham called on to succeed him, than did Lord North himself. Even before the close of January he had informed the King, in his secret correspondence, how much his own judgment and feelings pointed to a resignation. In an upright spirit, however, he had resolved first to bring forward and to carry through the conciliatory proposals which he had announced, both to vindicate his own intentions and to clear the path for his successor.
Accordingly, on the 17th of February, Lord North rose in the House of Commons to unfold his scheme. His speech, which occupied two hours, was, even by his adversaries, praised as eloquent and able. In the first
* For an accurate summary and just judgment of this transaction, the reader may consult a critic, by no means friendly to Lord Chatham, in the Quarterly Review, No. cxxxi. p. 266.
place he reviewed his past career. He had never, he said, proposed any tax on the Americans; he had found them already taxed when, unfortunately,—he must still use that word, however it might be turned against him, — he had come into administration. His principle of policy had been to have as little discussion on that subject as possible, and to keep the affairs of America out of Parliament; thus he had neither proposed to repeal the tea-tax, nor yet by any especial means to enforce it. As to the Act enabling the East India Company to send teas to America on their own account, and with the drawback of the whole duty here, that was a regulation of which he had thought it not possible that the Americans could complain, since it was a relief instead of an oppression. His idea never had been to draw any considerable revenue either that way or any other from the Americans; his idea was that they should contribute in a very low proportion to the defence of our common empire. From the beginning he had been uniformly disposed to peace. The coercive Acts which he had framed were such as were called forth by the distemper of the time; and the results which they produced were such as he never designed, nor could in reason have expected. But as soon as he found that they had not the effect which he intended, he had come down to that House with a conciliatory proposition before the sword was drawn. That proposition was clear and simple in itself, but by a variety of discussions in and out of Parliament it was made to appear so obscure that it went out to America already condemned. Then ensued the war, the events of which had not answered his just hopes. The great and well-appointed force sent out, and amply provided for by Government, had hitherto produced by no means a proportionate effect. Considering all things, the events had been very contrary to his expectations. But to these events, and not to those expectations, he must make his plan conform. Still he would by no means have it thought that his present concessions were prompted by necessity. We were in a condition to carry on the war much longer. During the recess the country had most freely, of its own accord, raised more men. It might raise many more should its terms of peace be now rejected. The navy was never in greater strength;