Page images
PDF
EPUB

Lord North, on his part, continued to the end of the Session to express his earnest desire to resign. But he could no longer point with clearness to the choice of a successor. The small party which Chatham had headed, though comprising such names as Shelburne, Dunning, and Barre, could not hope to form a government of themselves since they had lost their chief. The Whigs, under Lord Rockingham, had, in great measure at least, committed themselves to the independence of America; and on that ground Lord North could not but deprecate their return to power. There was henceforth no great statesman to lead to that middle path, that course of conciliation without compromise, which Chatham had pointed out, and might perhaps have trodden. Under these altered circumstances, Lord North was gradually prevailed upon to remain in office. At the close of the Session he also complied with the King's desire, and greatly added, not indeed to the moderation of his councils, but to his resources of debate, by accepting or inviting the resignation of Lord Bathurst, and conferring the Great Seal, with a peerage, upon Thurlow.

It was likewise, at this juncture, that the King, without solicitation, showed his sense of Lord North's services by appointing him Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. To that office, at that time, was attached, besides the possession of Walmer Castle, the annual salary of 5000/. Henceforth, then, the official emoluments of Lord North, as First Lord of the Treasury, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, and as Lord Warden, exceeded 12,000/. a year. It might, perhaps, have been more thoroughly consistent with his amiable and upright character, had he, at so difficult a crisis, and while kept in office in his own despite, refrained from so great remuneration. Already, during the past Session, there had appeared in the House of Commons a strong distaste to large official profits. A motion had been made by Mr. Gilbert to lay a tax of no less than one-fourth on the incomes of placemen and pensioners; this tax to continue during the continuance of the American war. Let the reader, if he can, picture to himself the horror and surprise, on this occasion, of such men as Mr. Rigby! — The motion was affirmed in Committee by a majority of eighteen; next day, on bringing up the Report, it was, after great exertions, rescinded by no more than six. In like manner a Bill from Sir Philip Jennings Clerke, to exclude contractors from the House of Commons, unless their contracts were obtained by a public bidding, was carried through the first division, and barely negatived on the second. *

In the course of these last debates some strong instances of disadvantageous bargains were adduced by Sir Philip. These might, perhaps, be questioned; but who, in the present day at least, will deny the truth of his general remarks?—"It is impossible not to perceive that giving "these contracts to Members is an arrant job, and creates "a dangerous influence in this House; for the more "money is raised on the public the greater is the profit "to these gentlemen. . . . We should not hear one Mem"ber rise up and assure the House that he sells his coals "as cheap as any merchant in London; another should "not engage to furnish coats, another should not contract "to supply shoes! I never heard of there being any "tailors or shoemakers in this House." To such arguments Lord George Gordon, in a maiden speech, added some personal abuse. "The Noble Lord in the blue "riband (Lord North) is himself the greatest of all "contractors; he is a contractor for men, a contractor "for your flock, Mr. Speaker, a contractor for the "representatives of the people. . . . Oh, let that Noble "Lord 'turn from his wickedness, and live!'"

The latter part of the Session was also marked by the return of General Burgoyne to England, and his reappearance in the House of Commons. On a motion by Mr. Vyner he had an opportunity to deliver, in vindication of his conduct, an able speech. His reception by the Government was by no means such as he had hoped. The King refused to admit him to his presence, and when, hereupon, the General asked for a Court Martial, or Commission of Inquiry, he was reminded that, according to precedents, a prisoner on parole could not be tried. Under such circumstances Burgoyne, perhaps too eagerly and warmly, threw himself into the arms of

* Parl. Hist. voL xix. pp. 873. 1088.

Opposition. They, on their part, in pursuance of the tactics too common in such cases, no sooner found him disposed to join them, than they viewed him with altered eyes. From censures of his conduct they passed over to declare that his first instructions had been faulty, and his ill reception undeserved. With Lord North he continued on a footing of courtesy and respect, but he did not spare Lord George Germaine. Certainly some allowance should be made for his excited feelings, when his painful position is considered; when all he asked was the speediest opportunity to defend himself before some competent tribunal, and then abide its judgment. "I "provoke a trial!" he cried. "Give me inquiry! I put "the interests that hang most emphatically by the heart- "strings of man—my fortune—my honour—my head— "I had almost said my salvation,—upon the test!"*

But this Session of Parliament was not wholly engrossed by financial or American affairs. It is also memorable for the relaxation which it sanctioned of the Penal Code against the English Roman Catholics. For a long time they had suffered in silence. At length, on the 1st of May in this year, a most loyal and dutiful Address was presented to the King from the principal members of their body, declaring not merely their obedience to the Government, but their attachment to the Constitution. "Our exclusion," say they, " from many "of its benefits has not diminished our reverence to it. "... We beg leave to assure Your Majesty that we "hold no opinions repugnant to the duties of good "citizens. And we trust that this has been shown "more decisively by our irreproachable conduct for "many years past, under circumstances of public dis"countenance and displeasure, than it can be manifested "by any declaration whatever." A few days afterwards Sir George Savile, seconded by Dunning, brought in a Bill to relieve the Roman Catholics from some at least of the penalties upon them. The objects of the proposed

* Parl. Hist. vol. xix. p. 1194. In reply, Lord George Germaine was provoked to some personalities. He declared that Monsieur St. Luc, a Canadian officer, to whose testimony on some points Buri;oyne appealed, had in conversation said to him of the General "C esi un brave homme, mats lourd comme tin Attemand!"

repeal were these: — The punishment of priests or Jesuits who should be found to teach or officiate in the services of their Church; such acts being felony in foreigners and high treason in natives of the realm. The forfeitures of Popish heirs who had received their education abroad, and whose estates went to the next Protestant heir. The power given to the son or other nearest relative, being a Protestant, to take possession of his father's or kinsman's estate during the life of the rightful owner. And the debarring of Roman Catholics from the power of acquiring legal property by any other means than by descent. Some of these penalties, said Dunning, had now ceased to be necessary, and others were at all times a disgrace to human nature. They were imposed (this, indeed, is the only palliation for them) in the reign of William, when the people had so lately escaped the danger, and were still impressed with the dread, of Popery. It might be said in their defence that in general they had not been put in execution, but in some instances they had; and Sir George Savile declared himself cognisant of cases in which Romanists were living, not only under terror, but even under pecuniary payments to informers, in consequence of the powers that the law conferred.

The period of proposing the repeal of these penalties was no doubt happily chosen. AH men felt that this was no time to make new malcontents. All men, in Parliament at least, felt that rigours such as these were utterly unjustifiable. Thurlow, then still Attorney-General, and other zealous friends of the Church, gave the measure their support. Henry Dundas, the Lord Advocate of Scotland, who was already rising into fame as a speaker and a statesman, regretted only that the measure would afford no relief in his own country. The Act now sought to be repealed having passed before the Union did not apply to Scotland; the Scotch, however, had a statute passed by their own Parliament in nearly the same terms as the English; and for the repeal of this Scottish Act, Dundas promised to move in another Session. With such support the Bill passed, it may be said, unanimously through both Houses. Almost the only whisper of opposition came from a zealous Whig, Bishop Hinchcliffe of Peterborough.

From the unanimity on this occasion within the walls of Parliament it would scarcely have been supposed that forty years were still to pass before the Roman Catholics attained the enjoyment of equal civil rights — or that this question would, beyond any other, prove to be the stumbling block of successive Ministries, the battle-cry of successive elections. While the measure of relief was still in progress there was little or no ferment out of doors. But the year had not closed before it was apparent that the animosity against the Papists had not died away—it was only sleeping. With no misconduct whatever on their part, real or imputed, a few zealots found it easy to rouse the feeling and renew the cry. It was in Scotland that the ferment rose, both the soonest and the highest, because it was to Scotland only that the still expected measure would apply. The Synod of Glasgow and some others passed Resolutions for opposing any Bill in favour of the Roman Catholics to the north of Tweed. At Edinburgh, and several other Scottish towns, Associations were formed for the defence of the Protestant interest. To produce and keep alive the popular impression neither the press nor yet the pulpit were neglected. The members of the obnoxious persuasion in the capital of Scotland could not keep their houses without terror, nor yet walk the streets without insult. The same system of insult and threat was soon extended to all those who were supposed to favour them. Thus the cry was loud against Dr. Robertson, the justly esteemed historian. And why? Because to his other merits he added that of toleration.

To the annals of the two next years it will belong to tell how from Scotland these ferments spread to England; how from threats and murmurs they ripened into riots. Meanwhile it may be noticed that, though the malcontents were many, they were long without a leader. No man with the slightest claim to be a statesman would afford them the slightest countenance. At length they found a congenial tool and mouth-piece in one who had to recommend him at least rank and youth and earnestness of purpose. This was Lord George Gordon, a younger

« PreviousContinue »