The undefined nature, too, of that power which the Company exercised in India, and the uncertain state of the Law, vibrating between the English and the Hindoo codes, left such tempting openings for injustice as it was hardly possible to resist. With no public opinion to warn off authority from encroachment, and with the precedents set up by former rulers all pointing the wrong way, it would have been difficult, perhaps, for even more moderate men than Hastings, not occasionally to break bounds and go continually astray.
To all these considerations in his favor is to be added the apparently triumphant fact, that his government was popular among the natives of India, and that his name is still remembered by them with gratitude and respect.
Allowing Mr. Hastings, however, the full advantage of these and other strong pleas in his defence, it is yet impossible, for any real lover of justice and humanity, to read the plainest and least exaggerated history of his government, [Footnote: Nothing can be more partial and misleading than the coloring given to these transactions by Mr. Nicholls and other apologists of Hastings. For the view which I have myself taken of the whole case I am chiefly indebted to the able History of British India by Mr. Mill—whose industrious research and clear analytical statements make him the most valuable authority that can be consulted on the subject.
The mood of mind in which Mr. Nicholls listened to the proceedings of the Impeachment may be judged from the following declaration, which he has had the courage to promulgate to the public:—"On this Charge (the Begum Charge) Mr. Sheridan made a speech, which both sides of the House professed greatly to admire—for Mr. Pitt now openly approved of the Impeachment. I will acknowledge, that I did not admire this speech of Mr. Sheridan."] without feeling deep indignation excited at almost every page of it. His predecessors had, it is true, been guilty of wrongs as glaring—the treachery of Lord Clive to Omichund in 1757, and the abandonment of Ramnarain to Meer Causim under the administration of Mr. Vansittart, are stains upon the British character which no talents or glory can do away. There are precedents, indeed, to be found, through the annals of our Indian empire, for the formation of the most perfect code of tyranny, in every department, legislative, judicial, and executive, that ever entered into the dreams of intoxicated power. But, while the practice of Mr. Hastings was, at least, as tyrannical as that of his predecessors, the principles upon which he founded that practice were still more odious and unpardonable. In his manner, indeed, of defending himself he is his own worst accuser—as there is no outrage of power, no violation of faith, that might not be justified by the versatile and ambidextrous doctrines, the lessons of deceit and rules of rapine, which he so ably illustrated by his measures, and has so shamelessly recorded with his pen.
Nothing but an early and deep initiation in the corrupting school of Indian politics could have produced the facility with which, as occasion required, he could belie his own recorded assertions, turn hostilely round upon his own expressed opinions, disclaim the proxies which he himself had delegated, and, in short, get rid of all the inconveniences of personal identity, by never acknowledging himself to be bound by any engagement or opinion which himself had formed. To select the worst features of his Administration is no very easy task; but the calculating cruelty with which he abetted the extermination of the Rohillas—his unjust and precipitate execution of Nuncomar, who had stood forth as his accuser, and, therefore, became his victim,—his violent aggression upon the Raja of Benares, and that combination of public and private rapacity, which is exhibited in the details of his conduct to the royal family of Oude;—these are acts, proved by the testimony of himself and his accomplices, from the disgrace of which no formal acquittal upon points of law can absolve him, and whose guilt the allowances of charity may extenuate, but never can remove. That the perpetrator of such deeds should have been popular among the natives of India only proves how low was the standard of justice, to which the entire tenor of our policy had accustomed them;—but that a ruler of this character should be held up to admiration in England, is one of those anomalies with which England, more than any other nation, abounds, and only inclines us to wonder that the true worship of Liberty should so long have continued to flourish in a country, where such heresies to her sacred cause are found.
I have dwelt so long upon the circumstances and nature of this Trial, not only on account of the conspicuous place which it occupies in the fore-ground of Mr. Sheridan's life, but because of that general interest which an observer of our Institutions must take in it, from the clearness with which it brought into view some of their best and worst features. While, on one side, we perceive the weight of the popular scale, in the lead taken, upon an occasion of such solemnity and importance, by two persons brought forward from the middle ranks of society into the very van of political distinction and influence, on the other hand, in the sympathy and favor extended by the Court to the practical assertor of despotic principles, we trace the prevalence of that feeling, which, since the commencement of the late King's reign, has made the Throne the rallying point of all that are unfriendly to the cause of freedom. Again, in considering the conduct of the Crown Lawyers during the Trial—the narrow and irrational rules of evidence which they sought to establish—the unconstitutional control assumed by the Judges, over the decisions of the tribunal before which the cause was tried, and the refusal to communicate the reasons upon which those decisions were founded—above all, too, the legal opinions expressed on the great question relative to the abatement of an Impeachment by Dissolution, in which almost the whole body of lawyers [Footnote: Among the rest, Lord Erskine, who allowed his profession, on this occasion, to stand in the light of his judgment. "As to a Nisi-prius lawyer (said Burke) giving an opinion on the duration of an Impeachment—as well might a rabbit, that breeds six times a year, pretend to know any thing of the gestation of an elephant."] took the wrong, the pedantic, and the unstatesmanlike side of the question,—while in all these indications of the spirit of that profession, and of its propensity to tie down the giant Truth, with its small threads of technicality and precedent, we perceive the danger to be apprehended from the interference of such a spirit in politics, on the other side, arrayed against these petty tactics of the Forum, we see the broad banner of Constitutional Law, upheld alike by a Fox and a Pitt, a Sheridan and a Dundas, and find truth and good sense taking refuge from the equivocations of lawyers, in such consoling documents as the Report upon the Abuses of the Trial by Burke—a document which, if ever a reform of the English law should be attempted, will stand as a great guiding light to the adventurers in that heroic enterprise.
It has been frequently asserted, that on the evening of Mr. Sheridan's grand display in the House of Commons, The School for Scandal and the Duenna were acted at Covent Garden and Drury Lane, and thus three great audiences were at the same moment amused, agitated, and, as it were, wielded by the intellect of one man. As this triple triumph of talent—this manifestation of the power of Genius to multiply itself, like an Indian god—was, in the instance of Sheridan, not only possible, but within the scope of a very easy arrangement, it is to be lamented that no such coincidence did actually take place, and that the ability to have achieved the miracle is all that can be with truth attributed to him. From a careful examination of the play-bills of the different theatres during this period, I have ascertained, with regret, that neither on the evening of the speech in the House of Commons, nor on any of the days of the oration in Westminster Hall, was there, either at Covent-Garden, Drury-Lane, or Haymarket theatres, any piece whatever of Mr. Sheridan's acted.
The following passages of a letter from Miss Sheridan to her sister in Ireland, written while on a visit with her brother in London, though referring to a later period of the Trial, may without impropriety be inserted here:—
"Just as I received your letter yesterday, I was setting out for the Trial with Mrs. Crewe and Mrs. Dixon. I was fortunate in my day, as I heard all the principal speakers—Mr. Burke I admired the least—Mr. Fox very much indeed. The subject in itself was not particularly interesting, as the debate turned merely on a point of law, but the earnestness of his manner and the amazing precision with which he conveys his ideas is truly delightful. And last, not least, I heard my brother! I cannot express to you the sensation of pleasure and pride that filled my heart at the moment he rose. Had I never seen him or heard his name before, I should have conceived him the first man among them at once. There is a dignity and grace in his countenance and deportment, very striking—at the same time that one cannot trace the smallest degree of conscious superiority in his manner. His voice, too, appeared to me extremely fine. The speech itself was not much calculated to display the talents of an orator, as of course it related only to dry matter. You may suppose I am not so lavish of praises before indifferent persons, but I am sure you will acquit me of partiality in what I have said. When they left the Hall we walked about some time, and were joined by several of the managers—among the rest by Mr. Burke, whom we set down at his own house. They seem now to have better hopes of the business than they have had for some time; as the point urged with so much force and apparent success relates to very material evidence which the Lords have refused to hear, but which, once produced, must prove strongly against Mr. Hastings; and, from what passed yesterday, they think their Lordships must yield.—We sat in the King's box," &c.
DEATH OF MR. SHERIDAN'S FATHER.—VERSES BY MRS. SHERIDAN ON THE DEATH OF HER SISTER, MRS. TICKELL.
In the summer of this year the father of Mr. Sheridan died. He had been recommended to try the air of Lisbon for his health, and had left Dublin for that purpose, accompanied by his younger daughter. But the rapid increase of his malady prevented him from proceeding farther than Margate, where he died about the beginning of August, attended in his last moments by his son Richard.
We have seen with what harshness, to use no stronger term, Mr. Sheridan was for many years treated by his father, and how persevering and affectionate were the efforts, in spite of many capricious repulses, that he made to be restored to forgiveness and favor. In his happiest moments, both of love and fame, the thought of being excluded from the paternal roof came across him with a chill that seemed to sadden all his triumph. [Footnote: See the letter written by him immediately after his marriage, vol. i. page 80, and the anecdote in page 111, same vol.] When it is considered, too, that the father, to whom he felt thus amiably, had never distinguished him by any particular kindness but, on the contrary, had always shown a marked preference for the disposition and abilities of his brother Charles—it is impossible not to acknowledge, in such true filial affection, a proof that talent was not the only ornament of Sheridan, and that, however unfavorable to moral culture was the life that he led, Nature, in forming his mind, had implanted there virtue, as well as genius.
Of the tender attention which he paid to his father on his death-bed, I am enabled to lay before the reader no less a testimony than the letters written at the time by Miss Sheridan, who, as I have already said, accompanied the old gentleman from Ireland, and now shared with her brother the task of comforting his last moments. And here,—it is difficult even for contempt to keep down the indignation, that one cannot but feel at those slanderers, under the name of biographers, who calling in malice to the aid of their ignorance, have not scrupled to assert that the father of Sheridan died unattended by any of his nearest relatives!—Such are ever the marks that Dulness leaves behind, in its Gothic irruptions into the sanctuary of departed Genius—defacing what it cannot understand, polluting what it has not the soul to reverence, and taking revenge for its own darkness, by the wanton profanation of all that is sacred in the eyes of others.
Immediately on the death of their father, Sheridan removed his sister to Deepden—a seat of the Duke of Norfolk in Surrey, which His Grace had lately lent him—and then returned, himself, to Margate, to pay the last tribute to his father's remains. The letters of Miss Sheridan are addressed to her elder sister in Ireland, and the first which I shall give entire, was written a day or two after her arrival at Deepden.
"MY DEAR LOVE,
"Dibden, August 18.
"Though you have ever been uppermost in my thoughts, yet it has not been in my power to write since the few lines I sent from Margate. I hope this will find you, in some degree, recovered from the shock you must have experienced from the late melancholy event. I trust to your own piety and the tenderness of your worthy husband, for procuring you such a degree of calmness of mind as may secure your health from injury. In the midst of what I have suffered I have been thankful that you did not share a scene of distress which you could not have relieved. I have supported myself, but I am sure, had we been together, we should have suffered more.
"With regard to my brother's kindness, I can scarcely express to you how great it has been. He saw my father while he was still sensible, and never quitted him till the awful moment was past—I will not now dwell on particulars. My mind is not sufficiently recovered to enter on the subject, and you could only be distressed by it. He returns soon to Margate to pay the last duties in the manner desired by my father. His feelings have been severely tried, and earnestly I pray he may not suffer from that cause, or from the fatigue he has endured. His tenderness to me I never can forget. I had so little claim on him, that I still feel a degree of surprise mixed with my gratitude. Mrs. Sheridan's reception of me was truly affectionate. They leave me to myself now as much as I please, as I had gone through so much fatigue of body and mind that I require some rest. I have not, as you may suppose, looked much beyond the present hour, but I begin to be more composed. I could now enjoy your society, and I wish for it hourly. I should think I may hope to see you sooner in England than you had intended; but you will write to me very soon, and let me know everything that concerns you. I know not whether you will feel like me a melancholy pleasure in the reflection that my father received the last kind offices from my brother Richard, [Footnote: In a letter, from which I have given an extract in the early part of this volume, written by the elder sister of Sheridan a short time after his death, in referring to the differences that existed between him and his father, she says—"and yet it was that son, and not the object of his partial fondness, who at last closed his eyes." It generally happens that the injustice of such partialities is revenged by the ingratitude of those who are the objects of them; and the present instance, as there is but too much reason to believe, was not altogether an exception to the remark.] whose conduct on this occasion must convince every one of the goodness of his heart and the truth of his filial affection. One more reflection of consolation is, that nothing was omitted that could have prolonged his life or eased his latter hours. God bless and preserve you, my dear love. I shall soon write more to you, but shall for a short time suspend my journal, as still too many painful thoughts will crowd upon me to suffer me to regain such a frame of mind as I should wish when I write to you.
"Ever affectionately your
In another letter, dated a few days after, she gives an account of the domestic life of Mrs. Sheridan, which, like everything that is related of that most interesting woman, excites a feeling towards her memory, little short of love.
"MY DEAR LOVE,
"Dibden, Friday, 22.
"I shall endeavor to resume my journal, though my anxiety to hear from you occupies my mind in a way that unfits me for writing. I have been here almost a week in perfect quiet. While there was company in the house, I stayed in my room, and since my brother's leaving us to go to Margate, I have sat at times with Mrs. Sheridan, who is kind and considerate; so that I have entire liberty. Her poor sister's [Footnote: Mrs. Tickell.] children are all with her. The girl gives her constant employment, and seems to profit by being under so good an instructor. Their father was here for some days, but I did not see him. Last night Mrs. S. showed me a picture of Mrs. Tickell, which she wears round her neck. The thing was misrepresented to you;—it was not done after her death, but a short time before it. The sketch was taken while she slept, by a painter at Bristol. This Mrs. Sheridan got copied by Cosway, who has softened down the traces of illness in such a way that the picture conveys no gloomy idea. It represents her in a sweet sleep; which must have been soothing to her friend, after seeing her for a length of time in a state of constant suffering.
"My brother left us Wednesday morning, and we do not expect him to return for some days. He meant only to stay at Margate long enough to attend the last melancholy office, which it was my poor father's express desire should be performed in whatever parish he died.
* * * * *
"Dick is still in town, and we do not expect him for some time. Mrs. Sheridan seems now quite reconciled to these little absences, which she knows are unavoidable. I never saw any one so constant in employing every moment of her time, and to that I attribute, in a great measure, the recovery of her health and spirits. The education of her niece, her music, books, and work, occupy every minute of the day. After dinner, the children, who call her "Mamma-aunt," spend some time with us, and her manner to them is truly delightful. The girl, you know, is the eldest. The eldest boy is about five years old, very like his father, but extremely gentle in his manners. The youngest is past three. The whole set then retire to the music-room. As yet I cannot enjoy their parties;—a song from Mrs. Sheridan affected me last night in a most painful manner. I shall not try the experiment soon again. Mrs. S. blamed herself for putting me to the trial, and, after tea, got a book, which she read to us till supper. This, I find, is the general way of passing the evening.
"They are now at their music, and I have retired to add a few lines. This day has been more gloomy than we have been for some days past;—it is the first day of our getting into mourning. All the servants in deep mourning made a melancholy appearance, and I found it very difficult to sit out the dinner. But as I have dined below since there has been only Mrs. Sheridan and Miss Linley here, I would not suffer a circumstance, to which I must accustom myself, to break in on their comfort."
These children, to whom Mrs. Sheridan thus wholly devoted herself, and continued to do so for the remainder of her life, had lost their mother, Mrs. Tickell, in the year 1787, by the same complaint that afterwards proved fatal to their aunt. The passionate attachment of Mrs. Sheridan to this sister, and the deep grief with which she mourned her loss, are expressed in a poem of her own so touchingly, that, to those who love the language of real feeling, I need not apologize for their introduction here. Poetry, in general, is but a cold interpreter of sorrow; and the more it displays its skill, as an art, the less is it likely to do justice to nature. In writing these verses, however, the workmanship was forgotten in the subject; and the critic, to feel them as he ought, should forget his own craft in reading them.
"Written in the Spring of the Year 1788.
"The hours and days pass on;—sweet Spring returns, And whispers comfort to the heart that mourns: But not to mine, whose dear and cherish'd grief Asks for indulgence, but ne'er hopes relief. For, ah, can changing seasons e'er restore The lov'd companion I must still deplore? Shall all the wisdom of the world combin'd Erase thy image, Mary, from my mind, Or bid me hope from others to receive The fond affection thou alone could'st give? Ah, no, my best belov'd, thou still shalt be My friend, my sister, all the world to me.
"With tender woe sad memory woos back time, And paints the scenes when youth was in its prime; The craggy hill, where rocks, with wild flow'rs crown'd, Burst from the hazle copse or verdant ground; Where sportive nature every form assumes, And, gaily lavish, wastes a thousand blooms; Where oft we heard the echoing hills repeat Our untaught strains and rural ditties sweet, Till purpling clouds proclaimed the closing day, While distant streams detain'd the parting ray. Then on some mossy stone we'd sit us down, And watch the changing sky and shadows brown, That swiftly glided o'er the mead below, Or in some fancied form descended slow. How oft, well pleas'd each other to adorn, We stripped the blossoms from the fragrant thorn, Or caught the violet where, in humble bed, Asham'd its own sweets it hung its head. But, oh, what rapture Mary's eyes would speak, Through her dark hair how rosy glow'd her cheek, If, in her playful search, she saw appear The first-blown cowslip of the opening year. Thy gales, oh Spring, then whisper'd life and joy;— Now mem'ry wakes thy pleasures to destroy, And all thy beauties serve but to renew Regrets too keen for reason to subdue. Ah me! while tender recollections rise, The ready tears obscure my sadden'd eyes, And, while surrounding objects they conceal, Her form belov'd the trembling drops reveal.
"Sometimes the lovely, blooming girl I view. My youth's companion, friend for ever true, Whose looks, the sweet expressions of her heart So gaily innocent, so void of art, With soft attraction whisper'd blessings drew From all who stopp'd, her beauteous face to view. Then in the dear domestic scene I mourn, And weep past pleasures never to return! There, where each gentle virtue lov'd to rest. In the pure mansion of my Mary's breast, The days of social happiness are o'er, The voice of harmony is heard no more; No more her graceful tenderness shall prove The wife's fond duty or the parent's love. Those eyes, which brighten'd with maternal pride, As her sweet infants wanton'd by her side, 'Twas my sad fate to see for ever close On life, on love, the world, and all its woes; To watch the slow disease, with hopeless care, And veil in painful smiles my heart's despair; To see her droop, with restless languor weak, While fatal beauty mantled in her cheek, Like fresh flow'rs springing from some mouldering clay, Cherish'd by death, and blooming from decay. Yet, tho' oppress'd by ever-varying pain, The gentle sufferer scarcely would complain, Hid every sigh, each trembling doubt reprov'd, To spare a pang to those fond hearts she lov'd. And often, in short intervals of ease, Her kind and cheerful spirit strove to please; Whilst we, alas, unable to refuse The sad delight we were so soon to lose, Treasur'd each word, each kind expression claim'd,— ''Twas me she look'd at,'—'it was me she nam'd.' Thus fondly soothing grief, too great to bear, With mournful eagerness and jealous care.
"But soon, alas, from hearts with sorrow worn E'en this last comfort was for ever torn: That mind, the seat of wisdom, genius, taste. The cruel hand of sickness now laid waste; Subdued with pain, it shar'd the common lot. All, all its lovely energies forgot! The husband, parent, sister, knelt in vain, One recollecting look alone to gain: The shades of night her beaming eyes obscur'd, And Nature, vanquished, no sharp pain endur'd; Calm and serene—till the last trembling breath Wafted an angel from the bed of death!
"Oh, if the soul, releas'd from mortal cares, Views the sad scene, the voice of mourning hears, Then, dearest saint, didst thou thy heav'n forego, Lingering on earth in pity to our woe. 'Twas thy kind influence sooth'd our minds to peace. And bade our vain and selfish murmurs cease; 'Twas thy soft smile, that gave the worshipp'd clay Of thy bright essence one celestial ray, Making e'en death so beautiful, that we, Gazing on it, forgot our misery. Then—pleasing thought!—ere to the realms of light Thy franchis'd spirit took its happy flight, With fond regard, perhaps, thou saw'st me bend O'er the cold relics of my heart's best friend, And heard'st me swear, while her dear hand I prest. And tears of agony bedew'd my breast, For her lov'd sake to act the mother's part, And take her darling infants to my heart, With tenderest care their youthful minds improve, And guard her treasure with protecting love. Once more look down, blest creature, and behold These arms the precious innocence enfold; Assist my erring nature to fulfil The sacred trust, and ward off every ill! And, oh, let her, who is my dearest care, Thy blest regard and heavenly influence share; Teach me to form her pure and artless mind, Like thine, as true, as innocent, as kind,— That when some future day my hopes shall bless, And every voice her virtue shall confess, When my fond heart delighted hears her praise, As with unconscious loveliness she strays, 'Such,' let me say, with tears of joy the while, 'Such was the softness of my Mary's smile; Such was her youth, so blithe, so rosy sweet, And such her mind, unpractis'd in deceit; With artless elegance, unstudied grace, Thus did she gain in every heart a place!'
"Then, while the dear remembrance I behold, Time shall steal on, nor tell me I am old, Till, nature wearied, each fond duty o'er, I join my Angel Friend—to part no more!"
To the conduct of Mr. Sheridan, during the last moments of his father, a further testimony has been kindly communicated to me by Mr. Jarvis, a medical gentleman of Margate, who attended Mr. Thomas Sheridan on that occasion, and whose interesting communication I shall here give in his own words:—
"On the 10th of August, 1788, I was first called on to visit Mr. Sheridan, who was then fast declining at his lodgings in this place, where he was in the care of his daughter. On the next day Mr. R. B. Sheridan arrived here from town, having brought with him Dr. Morris, of Parliament street. I was in the bedroom with Mr. Sheridan when the son arrived, and witnessed an interview in which the father showed himself to be strongly impressed by his son's attention, saying with considerable emotion, 'Oh Dick, I give you a great deal of trouble!' and seeming to imply by his manner, that his son had been less to blame than himself, for any previous want of cordiality between them.
"On my making my last call for the evening, Mr. R. B. Sheridan, with delicacy, but much earnestness, expressed his fear that the nurse in attendance on his father, might not be so competent as myself to the requisite attentions, and his hope that I would consent to remain in the room for a few of the first hours of the night; as he himself, having been travelling the preceding night, required some short repose. I complied with his request, and remained at the father's bed-side till relieved by the son, about three o'clock in the morning:—he then insisted on taking my place. From this time he never quitted the house till his father's death; on the day after which he wrote me a letter, now before me, of which the annexed is an exact copy:
'I wished to see you this morning before I went, to thank you for your attention and trouble. You will be so good to give the account to Mr. Thompson, who will settle it; and I must further beg your acceptance of the inclosed from myself.
'I am, Sir,
'Your obedient Servant,
'R. B. SHERIDAN.
'I have explained to Dr. Morris (who has informed me that you will recommend a proper person), that it is my desire to have the hearse, and the manner of coming to town, as respectful as possible.'
"The inclosure, referred to in this letter, was a bank-note of ten pounds,—a most liberal remuneration. Mr. R. B. Sheridan left Margate, intending that his father should be buried in London; but he there ascertained that it had been his father's expressed wish that he should be buried in the parish next to that in which he should happen to die. He then, consequently, returned to Margate, accompanied by his brother-in-law, Mr. Tickell, with whom and Mr. Thompson and myself, he followed his father's remains to the burial-place, which was not in Margate church-yard, but in the north aisle of the church of St. Peter's."
Mr. Jarvis, the writer of the letter from which I have given this extract, had once, as he informs me, the intention of having a cenotaph raised, to the memory of Mr. Sheridan's father, in the church of Margate. [Footnote: Though this idea was relinquished, it appears that a friend of Mr. Jarvis, with a zeal for the memory of talent highly honorable to him, has recently caused a monument to Mr. Thomas Sheridan to be raised in the church of St. Peter.] With this view he applied to Dr. Parr for an Inscription, and the following is the tribute to his old friend with which that learned and kind-hearted man supplied him:—
"This monument, A. D. 1824, was, by subscription, erected to the memory of Thomas Sheridan, Esq., who died in the neighboring parish of St. John, August 14, 1788, in the 69th year of his age, and, according to his own request, was there buried. He was grandson to Dr. Thomas Sheridan, the brother of Dr. William, a conscientious non-juror, who, in 1691, was deprived of the Bishopric of Kilmore. He was the son of Dr. Thomas Sheridan, a profound scholar and eminent schoolmaster, intimately connected with Dean Swift and other illustrious writers in the reign of Queen Anne. He was husband to the ingenious and amiable author of Sidney Biddulph and several dramatic pieces favorably received. He was father of the celebrated orator and dramatist, Richard Brinsley Sheridan. He had been the schoolfellow, and, through life, was the companion, of the amiable Archbishop Markham. He was the friend of the learned Dr. Sumner, master of Harrow School, and the well-known Dr. Parr. He took his first academical degree in the University of Dublin, about 1736. He was honored by the University of Oxford with the degree of A. M. in 1758, and in 1759 he obtained the same distinction at Cambridge. He, for many years, presided over the theatre of Dublin; and, at Drury Lane, he in public estimation stood next to David Garrick. In the literary world he was distinguished by numerous and useful writings on the pronunciation of the English language. Through some of his opinions ran a vein of singularity, mingled with the rich ore of genius. In his manners there was dignified ease;—in his spirit, invincible firmness;—and in his habits and principles, unsullied integrity."
ILLNESS OF THE KING.—REGENCY.—PRIVATE LIFE OF MR. SHERIDAN.
Mr. Sheridan had assuredly no reason to complain of any deficiency of excitement in the new career to which he now devoted himself. A succession of great questions, both foreign and domestic, came, one after the other, like the waves described by the poet;—
"And one no sooner touched the shore, and died, Than a new follower rose, and swell'd as proudly."
Scarcely had the impulse, which his own genius had given to the prosecution of Hastings, begun to abate, when the indisposition of the King opened another field, not only for the display of all his various powers, but for the fondest speculations of his interest and ambition.
The robust health and temperate habits of the Monarch, while they held out the temptation of a long lease of power, to those who either enjoyed or were inclined to speculate in his favor, gave proportionally the grace of disinterestedness to the followers of an Heir-Apparent, whose means of rewarding their devotion were, from the same causes, uncertain and remote. The alarming illness of the Monarch, however, gave a new turn to the prospect:—Hope was now seen, like the winged Victory of the ancients, to change sides; and both the expectations of those who looked forward to the reign of the Prince, as the great and happy millennium of Whiggism, and the apprehensions of the far greater number, to whom the morals of his Royal Highness and his friends were not less formidable than their politics, seemed now on the very eve of being realized.
On the first meeting of Parliament, after the illness of His Majesty was known, it was resolved, from considerations of delicacy, that the House should adjourn for a fortnight; at the end of which period it was expected that another short adjournment would be proposed by the Minister. In this interval, the following judicious letter was addressed to the Prince of Wales by Mr. Sheridan:—
"Prom the intelligence of to-day we are led to think that Pitt will make something more of a speech, in moving to adjourn on Thursday, than was at first imagined. In this case we presume Your Royal Highness will be of opinion that we must not be wholly silent. I possessed Payne yesterday with my sentiments on the line of conduct which appeared to me best to be adopted on this occasion, that they might be submitted to Your Royal Highness's consideration; and I take the liberty of repeating my firm conviction, that it will greatly advance Your Royal Highness's credit, and, in case of events, lay the strongest grounds to baffle every attempt at opposition to Your Royal Highness's just claims and right, that the language of those who may be, in any sort, suspected of knowing Your Royal Highness's wishes and feelings, should be that of great moderation in disclaiming all party views, and avowing the utmost readiness to acquiesce in any reasonable delay. At the same time, I am perfectly aware of the arts which will be practised, and the advantages which some people will attempt to gain by time: but I am equally convinced that we should advance their evil views by showing the least impatience or suspicion at present; and I am also convinced that a third party will soon appear, whose efforts may, in the most decisive manner, prevent this sort of situation and proceeding from continuing long. Payne will probably have submitted to Your Royal Highness more fully my idea on this subject, towards which I have already taken some successful steps. [Footnote: This must allude to the negotiation with Lord Thurlow.] Your Royal Highness will, I am sure, have the goodness to pardon the freedom with which I give my opinion;—after which I have only to add, that whatever Your Royal Highness's judgment decides, shall be the guide of my conduct, and will undoubtedly be so to others."
Captain (afterwards Admiral) Payne, of whom mention is made in this letter, held the situation of Comptroller of the Household of the Prince of Wales, and was in attendance upon His Royal Highness, during the early part of the King's illness, at Windsor. The following letters, addressed by him to Mr. Sheridan at this period, contain some curious particulars, both with respect to the Royal patient himself, and the feelings of those about him, which, however secret and confidential they were at the time, may now, without scruple, be made matters of history:—
"MY DEAR SHERIDAN,
"Half past ten at night.
"I arrived here about three quarters of an hour after Pitt had left it. I inclose you the copy of a letter the Prince has just written to the Chancellor, and sent by express, which will give you the outline of the conversation with the Prince, as well as the situation of the King's health. I think it an advisable measure, [Footnote: Meaning, the communication to the Chancellor] as it is a sword that cuts both ways, without being unfit to be shown to whom he pleases,—but which he will, I think, understand best himself. Pitt desired the longest delay that could be granted with propriety, previous to the declaration of the present calamity. The Duke of York, who is looking over me, and is just come out of the King's room, bids me add that His Majesty's situation is every moment becoming worse. His pulse is weaker and weaker; and the Doctors say it is impossible to survive it long, if his situation does not take some extraordinary change in a few hours.
"So far I had got when your servant came, meaning to send this by the express that carried the Chancellor's letter; in addition to which, the Prince has desired Doctor Warren to write an account to him, which he is now doing. His letter says, if an amendment does not take place in twenty-four hours, it is impossible for the King to support it:—he adds to me, he will answer for his never living to be declared a lunatic. I say all this to you in confidence, (though I will not answer for being intelligible,) as it goes by your own servant; but I need not add, your own discretion will remind you how necessary it is that neither my name nor those I use should be quoted even to many of our best friends, whose repetition, without any ill intention, might frustrate views they do not see.
"With respect to the papers, the Prince thinks you had better leave them to themselves, as we cannot authorize any report, nor can he contradict the worst; a few hours must, every individual says, terminate our suspense, and, therefore, all precaution must be needless:—however, do what you think best. His Royal Highness would write to you himself; the agitation he is in will not permit it. Since this letter was begun, all articulation even seems to be at an end with the poor King: but for the two hours preceding, he was in a most determined frenzy. In short, I am myself in so violent a state of agitation, from participating in the feelings of those about me, that if I am intelligible to you, 'tis more than I am to myself. Cataplasms are on his Majesty's feet, and strong fomentations have been used without effect: but let me quit so painful a subject. The Prince was much pleased with my conversation with Lord Loughborough, to whom I do not write, as I conceive 'tis the same, writing to you.
"The Archbishop has written a very handsome letter, expressive of his duty and offer of service; but he is not required to come down, it being thought too late.
"Good night.—I will write upon every occasion that information may be useful.
"Ever yours, most sincerely,
"J. W. PAYNE.
"I have been much pleased with the Duke's zeal since my return, especially in this communication to you."
"Twelve o'clock, noon.
"The King last night about twelve o'clock, being then in a situation he could not long have survived, by the effect of James's powder, had a profuse stool, after which a strong perspiration appeared, and he fell into a profound sleep. We were in hopes this was the crisis of his disorder, although the doctors were fearful it was so only with respect to one part of his disorder. However, these hopes continued not above an hour, when he awoke, with a well-conditioned skin, no extraordinary degree of fever, but with the exact state he was in before, with all the gestures and ravings of the most confirmed maniac, and a new noise, in imitation of the howling of a dog; in this situation he was this morning at one o'clock, when we came to bed. The Duke of York, who has been twice in my room in the course of the night, immediately from the King's apartment, says there has not been one moment of lucid interval during the whole night,—which, I must observe to you, is the concurring, as well as fatal testimony of all about him, from the first moment of His Majesty's confinement. The doctors have since had their consultation, and find His Majesty calmer, and his pulse tolerably good and much reduced, but the most decided symptoms of insanity. His theme has been all this day on the subject of religion, and of his being inspired, from which his physicians draw the worst consequences, as to any hopes of amendment. In this situation His Majesty remains at the present moment, which I give you at length, to prevent your giving credit to the thousand ridiculous reports that we hear, even upon the spot. Truth is not easily got at in palaces, and so I find here; and time only slowly brings it to one's knowledge. One hears a little bit every day from somebody, that has been reserved with great costiveness, or purposely forgotten; and by all such accounts I find that the present distemper has been very palpable for some time past, previous to any confinement from sickness; and so apprehensive have the people about him been of giving offence by interruption, that the two days (viz. yesterday se'nnight and the Monday following) that he was five hours each on horseback, he was in a confirmed frenzy. On the Monday at his return he burst out into tears to the Duke of York, and said, 'He wished to God he might die, I for he was going to be mad;' and the Queen, who sent to Dr. Warren, on his arrival, privately communicated her knowledge of his situation for some time past, and the melancholy event as it stood exposed. I am prolix upon all these different reports, that you may be completely master of the subject as it stands, and which I shall continue to advertise you of in all its variations. Warren, who is the living principle in this business, (for poor Baker is half crazed himself,) and who I see every half hour, is extremely attentive to the King's disorder. The various fluctuations of his ravings, as well as general situation of his health, are accurately written down throughout the day, and this we have got signed by the Physician every day, and all proper inquiry invited; for I think it necessary to do every thing that may prevent their making use hereafter of any thing like jealousy, suspicion, or mystery, to create public distrust; and, therefore, the best and most unequivocal means of satisfaction shall be always attended to.
"Five o'clock, P.M.
"So far I had proceeded when I was, on some business of importance, obliged to break off till now; and, on my return, found your letter;—I need not, I hope, say your confidence is as safe as if it was returned to your own mind, and your advice will always be thankfully adopted. The event we looked for last night is postponed, perhaps for a short time, so that, at least, we shall have time to consider more maturely. The Doctors told Pitt they would beg not to be obliged to make their declaration for a fortnight as to the incurability of the King's mind, and not to be surprised if, at the expiration of that time, they should ask more time; but that they were perfectly ready to declare now for the furtherance of public business, that he is now insane; that it appears to be unconnected with any other disease of his body, and that they have tried all their skill without effect, and that to the disease they at present see no end in their contemplation:—these are their own words, which is all that can be implied in an absolute declaration,—for infallibility cannot be ascribed to them.
"Should not something be done about the public amusements? If it was represented to Pitt, it might embarrass them either way; particularly as it might call for a public account every day. I think the Chancellor might take a good opportunity to break with his colleagues, if they propose restriction, the Law authority would have great weight with us, as well as preventing even a design of moving the City;—at all events, I think Parliament would not confirm their opinion. If Pitt stirs much, I think any attempt to grasp at power might be fatal to his interest, at least, well turned against it.
"The Prince has sent for me directly, so I'll send this now, and write again."
In the words, "I think the Chancellor might take a good opportunity to break with his colleagues," the writer alludes to a negotiation which Sheridan had entered into with Lord Thurlow, and by which it was expected that the co-operation of that Learned Lord might be secured, in consideration of his being allowed to retain the office of Chancellor under the Regency.
Lord Thurlow was one of those persons who, being taken by the world at their own estimate of themselves, contrive to pass upon the times in which they live for much more than they are worth. His bluntness gained him credit for superior honesty, and the same peculiarity of exterior gave a weight, not their own, to his talents; the roughness of the diamond being, by a very common mistake, made the measure of its value. The negotiation for his alliance on this occasion was managed, if not first suggested, by Sheridan; and Mr. Fox, on his arrival from the Continent, (having been sent for express upon the first announcement of the King's illness,) found considerable progress already made in the preliminaries of this heterogeneous compact.
The following letter from Admiral Payne, written immediately after the return of Mr. Fox, contains some further allusions to the negotiations with the Chancellor:—
"MY DEAR SHERIDAN,
"I am this moment returned with the Prince from riding, and heard, with great pleasure, of Charles Fox's arrival; on which account, he says, I must go to town to-morrow, when I hope to meet you at his house some time before dinner. The Prince is to see the Chancellor to-morrow, and therefore he wishes I should be able to carry to town the result of this interview, or I would set off immediately. Due deference is had to our former opinion upon this subject, and no courtship will be practised; for the chief object in the visit is to show him the King, who has been worse the two last days than ever: this morning he made an effort to jump out of the window, and is now very turbulent and incoherent. Sir G. Baker went yesterday to give Pitt a little specimen of his loquacity, in his discovery of some material state-secrets, at which he looked astonished. The Physicians wish him to be removed to Kew; on which we shall proceed as we settled. Have you heard any thing of the Foreign Ministers respecting what the P. said at Bagshot? The Frenchman has been here two days running, but has not seen the Prince. He sat with me half an hour this morning, and seemed much disposed to confer a little closely. He was all admiration and friendship for the Prince, and said he was sure every body would unite to give vigor to his government.
"To-morrow you shall hear particulars; in the mean time I can only add I have none of the apprehensions contained in Lord L.'s letter. I have had correspondence enough myself on this subject to convince me of the impossibility of the Ministry managing the present Parliament by any contrivance hostile to the Prince. Dinner is on table; so adieu; and be assured of the truth and sincerity of
"Windsor, Monday, 5 o'clock, P. M.
"J. W. P.
"I have just got Rodney's proxy sent."
The situation in which Mr. Fox was placed by the treaty thus commenced, before his arrival, with the Chancellor, was not a little embarrassing. In addition to the distaste which he must have felt for such a union, he had been already, it appears, in some degree pledged to bestow the Great Seal, in the event of a change, upon Lord Loughborough. Finding, however, the Prince and his party so far committed in the negotiation with Lord Thurlow, he thought it expedient, however contrary to his own wishes, to accede to their views; and a letter, addressed by him to Mr. Sheridan on the occasion, shows the struggle with his own feelings and opinions, which this concession cost him:—
"I have swallowed the pill,—a most bitter one it was,—and have written to Lord Loughborough, whose answer of course must be consent. What is to be done next? Should the Prince himself, you, or I, or Warren, be the person to speak to the Chancellor? The objection to the last is, that he must probably wait for an opportunity, and that no time is to be lost. Pray tell me what is to be done: I am convinced, after all, the negotiation will not succeed, and am not sure that I am sorry for it. I do not remember ever feeling so uneasy about any political thing I ever did in my life. Call if you can.
"C. J. F."
Sat. past 12.
Lord Loughborough, in the mean time, with a vigilance quickened by his own personal views, kept watch on the mysterious movements of the Chancellor; and, as appears by the following letter, not only saw reason to suspect duplicity himself, but took care that Mr. Fox and Mr. Sheridan should share in his distrust:—
"MY DEAR S.
"I was afraid to pursue the conversation on the circumstance of the Inspection committed to the Chancellor, lest the reflections that arise upon it might have made too strong an impression on some of our neighbors last night. It does indeed appear to me full of mischief, and of that sort most likely to affect the apprehensions of our best friends, (of Lord John for instance,) and to increase their reluctance to take any active part.
"The Chancellor's object evidently is to make his way by himself, and he has managed hitherto as one very well practised in that game. His conversations, both with you and Mr. Fox, were encouraging, but at the same time checked all explanations on his part under a pretence of delicacy towards his colleagues. When he let them go to Salthill and contrived to dine at Windsor, he certainly took a step that most men would have felt not very delicate in its appearance, and unless there was some private understanding between him and them, not altogether fair; especially if you add to it the sort of conversation he held with regard to them. I cannot help thinking that the difficulties of managing the patient have been excited or improved to lead to the proposal of his inspection, (without the Prince being conscious of it,) for by that situation he gains an easy and frequent access to him, and an opportunity of possessing the confidence of the Queen. I believe this the more from the account of the tenderness he showed at his first interview, for I am sure, it is not in his character to feel any. With a little instruction from Lord Hawksbury, the sort of management that was carried on by means of the Princess-Dowager, in the early part of the reign, may easily be practised. In short, I think he will try to find the key of the back stairs, and, with that in his pocket, take any situation that preserves his access, and enables him to hold a line between different parties. In the present moment, however, he has taken a position that puts the command of the House of Lords in his hands, for * * * * * * *. [Footnote: The remainder of this sentence is effaced by damp]
"I wish Mr. Fox and you would give these considerations what weight you think they deserve, and try if any means can be taken to remedy this mischief, if it appears in the same light to you.
"Ever yours, &c."
What were the motives that induced Lord Thurlow to break off so suddenly his negotiation with the Prince's party, and declare himself with such vehemence on the side of the King and Mr. Pitt, it does not appear very easy to ascertain. Possibly, from his opportunities of visiting the Royal Patient, he had been led to conceive sufficient hopes of recovery, to incline the balance of his speculation that way; or, perhaps, in the influence of Lord Loughborough [Footnote: Lord Loughborough is supposed to have been the person who instilled into the mind of Mr. Fox the idea of advancing that claim of right for the Prince, which gave Mr. Pitt, in principle as well as in fact, such an advantage over him.] over Mr. Fox, he saw a risk of being supplanted in his views on the Great Seal. Whatever may have been the motive, it is certain that his negotiation with the Whigs had been amicably carried on, till within a few hours of his delivery of that speech, from whose enthusiasm the public could little suspect how fresh from the incomplete bargain of defection was the speaker, and in the course of which he gave vent to the well-known declaration, that "his debt of gratitude to His Majesty was ample, for the many favors he had graciously conferred upon him, which, when he forgot, might God forget him!" [Footnote: "Forget you!" said Wildes, "he'll see you d—-d first."]
As it is not my desire to imitate those biographers, who swell their pages with details that belong more properly to History, I shall forbear to enter into a minute or consecutive narrative of the proceedings of Parliament on the important subject of the Regency. A writer of political biography has a right, no doubt, like an engineer who constructs a navigable canal, to lay every brook and spring in the neighborhood under contribution for the supply and enrichment of his work. But, to turn into it the whole contents of the Annual Register and Parliamentary Debates is a sort of literary engineering, not quite so laudable, which, after the example set by a Right Reverend biographer of Mr. Pitt, will hardly again be attempted by any one, whose ambition, at least, it is to be read as well as bought.
Mr. Fox and Mr. Pitt, it is well known, differed essentially, not only with respect to the form of the proceedings, which the latter recommended in that suspension of the Royal authority, but also with respect to the abstract constitutional principles, upon which those proceedings of the Minister were professedly founded. As soon as the nature of the malady, with which the King was afflicted, had been ascertained by a regular examination of the physicians in attendance on His Majesty, Mr. Pitt moved (on the 10th of December), that a "Committee be appointed to examine and report precedents of such proceedings as may have been had, in case of the personal exercise of the Royal authority being prevented or interrupted, by infancy, sickness, infirmity, or otherwise, with a view to provide for the same." [Footnote: Mr. Burke and Mr. Sheridan were both members of this committee, and the following letter from the former to Sheridan refers to it:—
"MY DEAR SIR,
"My idea was, that on Fox's declaring that the precedents, neither individually nor collectively, do at all apply, our attendance ought to have been merely formal. But as you think otherwise, I shall certainly be at the committee soon after one. I rather think, that they will not attempt to garble: because, supposing the precedents to apply, the major part are certainly in their favor. It is not likely that they mean to suppress,—but it is good to be on our guard.
"Ever most truly yours, &c.
Gerard Street, Thursday Morning.]
It was immediately upon this motion that Mr. Fox advanced that inconsiderate claim of Right for the Prince of Wales, of which his rival availed himself so dexterously and triumphantly. Having asserted that there existed no precedent whatever that could bear upon the present case, Mr. Fox proceeded to say, that "the circumstance to be provided for did not depend upon their deliberations as a House of Parliament,—it rested elsewhere. There was then a person in the kingdom, different from any other person that any existing precedents could refer to,—an Heir Apparent, of full age and capacity to exercise the royal power. It behoved them, therefore, to waste not a moment unnecessarily, but to proceed with all becoming speed and diligence to restore the Sovereign power and the exercise of the Royal Authority. From what he had read of history, from the ideas he had formed of the law, and, what was still more precious, of the spirit of the Constitution, from every reasoning and analogy drawn from those sources, he declared that he had not in his mind a doubt, and he should think himself culpable if he did not take the first opportunity of declaring it, that, in the present condition of His Majesty, His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales had as clear, as express a Right to exercise the power of Sovereignty, during the continuance of the illness and incapacity, with which it had pleased God to afflict His Majesty, as in the case of His Majesty's having undergone a natural demise."
It is said that, during the delivery of this adventurous opinion, the countenance of Mr. Pitt was seen to brighten with exultation at the mistake into which he perceived his adversary was hurrying; and scarcely had the sentence, just quoted, been concluded, when, slapping his thigh triumphantly, he turned to the person who sat next to him, and said, "I'll un-Whig the gentleman for the rest of his life!"
Even without this anecdote, which may be depended upon as authentic, we have sufficient evidence that such were his feelings in the burst of animation and confidence with which he instantly replied to Mr. Fox,—taking his ground, with an almost equal temerity, upon the directly opposite doctrine, and asserting, not only that "in the case of the interruption of the personal exercise of the Royal Authority, it devolved upon the other branches of the Legislature to provide a substitute for that authority," but that "the Prince of Wales had no more right to exercise the powers of government than any other person in the realm."
The truth is, the assertion of a Right was equally erroneous, on both sides of the question. The Constitution having provided no legal remedy for such an exigence as had now occurred, the two Houses of Parliament had as little right (in the strict sense of the word) to supply the deficiency of the Royal power, as the Prince had to be the person elected or adjudged for that purpose. Constitutional analogy and expediency were the only authorities by which the measures necessary in such a conjuncture could be either guided or sanctioned; and if the disputants on each side had softened down their tone to this true and practical view of the case, there would have been no material difference, in the first stage of the proceedings between them,—Mr. Pitt being ready to allow that the Heir Apparent was the obvious person to whom expediency pointed as the depository of the Royal power, and Mr. Fox having granted, in a subsequent explanation of his doctrine, that, strong as was the right upon which the claim of the Prince was founded, His Royal Highness could not assume that right till it had been formally adjudicated to him by Parliament. The principle, however, having been imprudently broached, Mr. Pitt was too expert a tactician not to avail himself of the advantage it gave him. He was thus, indeed, furnished with an opportunity, not only of gaining time by an artful protraction of the discussions, but of occupying victoriously the ground of Whiggism, which Mr. Fox had, in his impatience or precipitancy, deserted, and of thus adding to the character, which he had recently acquired, of a defender of the prerogatives of the Crown, the more brilliant reputation of an assertor of the rights of the people.
In the popular view which Mr. Pitt found it convenient to take of this question, he was led, or fell voluntarily into some glaring errors, which pervaded the whole of his reasonings on the subject. In his anxiety to prove the omnipotence of Parliament, he evidently confounded the Estates of the realm with the Legislature, [Footnote: Mr. Grattan and the Irish Parliament carried this error still farther, and founded all their proceedings on the necessity of "providing for the deficiency of the Third Estate."] and attributed to two branches of the latter such powers as are only legally possessed by the whole three in Parliament assembled. For the purpose, too, of flattering the people with the notion that to them had now reverted the right of choosing their temporary Sovereign, he applied a principle, which ought to be reserved for extreme cases, to an exigence by no means requiring this ultimate appeal,—the defect in the government being such as the still existing Estates of the realm, appointed to speak the will of the people, but superseding any direct exercise of their power, were fully competent, as in the instance of the Revolution, to remedy. [Footnote: The most luminous view that has been taken of this Question is to be found in an Article of the Edinburgh Review, on the Regency of 1811,—written by one of the most learned and able men of our day, Mr. John Allen.]
Indeed, the solemn use of such language as Mr. Pitt, in his over-acted Whiggism, employed upon this occasion,—namely, that the "right" of appointing a substitute for the Royal power was "to be found in the voice and the sense of the people,"—is applicable only to those conjunctures, brought on by misrule and oppression, when all forms are lost in the necessity of relief, and when the right of the people to change and choose their rulers is among the most sacred and inalienable that either nature or social polity has ordained. But, to apply the language of that last resource to the present emergency was to brandish the sword of Goliath [Footnote: A simile applied by Lord Somers to the power of Impeachment, which, he said, "should be like Goliath's sword, kept in the temple, and not used but upon great occasions."] on an occasion that by no means called for it.
The question of the Prince's claim,—in spite of the efforts of the Prince himself and of his Royal relatives to avert the agitation of it,—was, for evident reasons, forced into discussion by the Minister, and decided by a majority, not only of the two Houses but of the nation, in his favor. During one of the long debates to which the question gave rise, Mr. Sheridan allowed himself to be betrayed into some expressions, which, considering the delicate predicament in which the Prince was placed by the controversy, were not marked with his usual tact and sagacity. In alluding to the claim of Right advanced for His Royal Highness, and deprecating any further agitation of it, he "reminded the Right Honorable Gentleman (Mr. Pitt) of the danger of provoking that claim to be asserted [a loud cry of hear! hear!], which, he observed, had not yet been preferred. [Another cry of hear! hear!]" This was the very language that Mr. Pitt most wished his adversaries to assume, and, accordingly, he turned it to account with all his usual mastery and haughtiness. "He had now," he said, "an additional reason for asserting the authority of the House, and defining the boundaries of Right, when the deliberative faculties of Parliament were invaded, and an indecent menace thrown out to awe and influence their proceedings. In the discussion of the question, the House, he trusted, would do their duty, in spite of any threat that might be thrown out. Men, who felt their native freedom, would not submit to a threat, however high the authority from which it might come." [Footnote: Impartial Report of all the Proceedings on the Subject of the Regency]
The restrictions of the Prerogative with which Mr. Pitt thought proper to encumber the transfer of the Royal power to the Prince, formed the second great point of discussion between the parties, and brought equally adverse principles into play. Mr. Fox, still maintaining his position on the side of Royalty, defended it with much more tenable weapons than the question of Right had enabled him to wield. So founded, indeed, in the purest principles of Whiggism did he consider his opposition, on this memorable occasion, to any limitation of the Prerogative in the hands of a Regent, that he has, in his History of James II., put those principles deliberately upon record, as a fundamental article in the creed of his party. The passage to which I allude occurs in his remarks upon the Exclusion Bill; and as it contains, in a condensed form, the spirit of what he urged on the same point in 1789, I cannot do better than lay his own words before the reader. After expressing his opinion that, at the period of which he writes, the measure of exclusion from the monarchy altogether would have been preferable to any limitation of its powers, he proceeds to say:—"The Whigs, who consider the powers of the Crown as a trust for the people, a doctrine which the Tories themselves, when pushed in argument, will sometimes admit, naturally think it their duty rather to change the manager of the trust than impair the subject of it; while others, who consider them as the right or property of the King, will as naturally act as they would do in the case of any other property, and consent to the loss or annihilation of any part of it, for the purpose of preserving the remainder to him, whom they style the rightful owner." Further on he adds:—"The Royal Prerogative ought, according to the Whigs, to be reduced to such powers as are in their exercise beneficial to the people; and of the benefit of these they will not rashly suffer the people to be deprived, whether the executive power be in the hands of an hereditary or of an elective King, of a Regent, or of any other denomination of magistrate; while, on the other hand, they who consider Prerogative with reference only to Royalty will, with equal readiness, consent either to the extension or the suspension of its exercise, as the occasional interests of the Prince may seem to require."
Taking this as a correct exposition of the doctrines of the two parties, of which Mr. Fox and Mr. Pitt may be considered to have been the representatives in the Regency question of 1789, it will strike some minds that, however the Whig may flatter himself that the principle by which he is guided in such exigencies is favorable to liberty, and however the Tory may, with equal sincerity, believe his suspension of the Prerogative on these occasions to be advantageous to the Crown, yet that in both of the principles, so defined, there is an evident tendency to produce effects, wholly different from those which the parties professing them contemplate.
On the one side, to sanction from authority the notion, that there are some powers of the Crown which may be safely dispensed with,—to accustom the people to an abridged exercise of the Prerogative, with the risk of suggesting to their minds that its full efficacy needs not be resumed,—to set an example, in short, of reducing the Kingly Power, which, by its success, may invite and authorize still further encroachments,—all these are dangers to which the alleged doctrine of Toryism, whenever brought into practice, exposes its idol; and more particularly in enlightened and speculative times, when the minds of men are in quest of the right and the useful, and when a superfluity of power is one of those abuses, which they are least likely to overlook or tolerate. In such seasons, the experiment of the Tory might lead to all that he most deprecates, and the branches of the Prerogative, once cut away, might, like the lopped boughs of the fir-tree, never grow again.
On the other hand, the Whig, who asserts that the Royal Prerogative ought to be reduced to such powers as are beneficial to the people, and yet stipulates, as an invariable principle, for the transfer of that Prerogative full and unimpaired, whenever it passes into other hands, appears, even more perhaps than the Tory, to throw an obstacle in the way of his own object. Circumstances, it is not denied, may arise when the increase of the powers of the Crown, in other ways, may render it advisable to control some of its established prerogatives. But, where are we to find a fit moment for such a reform,—or what opening will be left for it by this fastidious Whig principle, which, in 1680, could see no middle step between a change of the Succession and an undiminished maintenance of the Prerogative, and which, in 1789, almost upon the heels of a Declaration that "the power of the Crown had increased and ought to be diminished," protested against even an experimental reduction of it!
According to Mr. Fox, it is a distinctive characteristic of the Tory, to attach more importance to the person of the King than to his office. But, assuredly, the Tory is not singular in this want of political abstraction; and, in England, (from a defect, Hume thinks, inherent in all limited monarchies,) the personal qualities and opinions of the Sovereign have considerable influence upon the whole course of public affairs,—being felt alike in that courtly sphere around them where their attraction acts, and in that outer circle of opposition where their repulsion comes into play. To this influence, then, upon the government and the community, of which no abstraction can deprive the person of the monarch, the Whig principle in question (which seems to consider entireness of Prerogative as necessary to a King, as the entireness of his limbs was held to be among the Athenians,) superadds the vast power, both actual and virtual, which would flow from the inviolability of the Royal office, and forecloses, so far, the chance which the more pliant Tory doctrine would leave open, of counteracting the effects of the King's indirect personal influence, by curtailing or weakening the grasp of some of his direct regal powers. Ovid represents the Deity of Light (and on an occasion, too, which may be called a Regency question) as crowned with movable rays, which might be put off when too strong or dazzling. But, according to this principle, the crown of Prerogative must keep its rays fixed and immovable, and (as the poet expresses it) "circa caput OMNE micantes."
Upon the whole, however high the authorities, by which this Whig doctrine was enforced in 1789, its manifest tendency, in most cases, to secure a perpetuity of superfluous powers to the Crown, appears to render it unfit, at least as an invariable principle, for any party professing to have the liberty of the people for their object. The Prince, in his admirable Letter upon the subject of the Regency to Mr. Pitt, was made to express the unwillingness which he felt "that in his person an experiment should be made to ascertain with how small a portion of kingly power the executive government of the country might be carried on;"—but imagination has not far to go in supposing a case, where the enormous patronage vested in the Crown, and the consequent increase of a Royal bias through the community, might give such an undue and unsafe preponderance to that branch of the Legislature, as would render any safe opportunity, however acquired, of ascertaining with how much less power the executive government could be carried on, most acceptable, in spite of any dogmas to the contrary, to all true lovers as well of the monarchy as of the people.
Having given thus much consideration to the opinions and principles, professed on both sides of this constitutional question, it is mortifying, after all, to be obliged to acknowledge, that, in the relative situation of the two parties at the moment, may be found perhaps the real, and but too natural, source of the decidedly opposite views which they took of the subject. Mr. Pitt, about to surrender the possession of power to his rival, had a very intelligible interest in reducing the value of the transfer, and (as a retreating army spike the guns they leave behind) rendering the engines of Prerogative as useless as possible to his successor. Mr. Fox, too, had as natural a motive to oppose such a design; and, aware that the chief aim of these restrictive measures was to entail upon the Whig ministry of the Regent a weak Government and strong Opposition, would, of course, eagerly welcome the aid of any abstract principle, that might sanction him in resisting such a mutilation of the Royal power;—well knowing that (as in the case of the Peerage Bill in the reign of George I.) the proceedings altogether were actuated more by ill-will to the successor in the trust, than by any sincere zeal for the purity of its exercise.
Had the situations of the two leaders been reversed, it is more than probable that their modes of thinking and acting would have been so likewise. Mr. Pitt, with the prospect of power before his eyes, would have been still more strenuous, perhaps, for the unbroken transmission of the Prerogative—his natural leaning on the side of power being increased by his own approaching share in it. Mr. Fox, too, if stopped, like his rival, in a career of successful administration, and obliged to surrender up the reins of the state to Tory guidance, might have found in his popular principles a still more plausible pretext, for the abridgment of power in such unconstitutional hands. He might even too, perhaps, (as his India Bill warrants us in supposing) have been tempted into the same sort of alienation of the Royal patronage, as that which Mr. Pitt now practised in the establishment of the Queen, and have taken care to leave behind him a stronghold of Whiggism, to facilitate the resumption of his position, whenever an opportunity might present itself. Such is human nature, even in its noblest specimens, and so are the strongest spirits shaped by the mould in which chance and circumstances have placed them.
Mr. Sheridan spoke frequently in the Debates on this question, but his most important agency lay in the less public business connected with it. He was the confidential adviser of the Prince throughout, directed every step he took, and was the author of most of his correspondence on the subject. There is little doubt, I think, that the celebrated and masterly Letter to Mr. Pitt, which by some persons has been attributed to Burke, and by others to Sir Gilbert Elliot (afterwards Lord Minto), was principally the production of Mr. Sheridan. For the supposition that it was written by Burke there are, besides the merits of the production, but very scanty grounds. So little was he at that period in those habits of confidence with the Prince, which would entitle him to be selected for such a task in preference to Sheridan, that but eight or ten days before the date of this letter (Jan. 2.) he had declared in the House of Commons, that "he knew as little of the inside of Carlton House as he did of Buckingham House." Indeed, the violent state of this extraordinary man's temper, during the whole of the discussions and proceedings on the Regency, would have rendered him, even had his intimacy with the Prince been closer, an unfit person for the composition of a document, requiring so much caution, temper, and delicacy.
The conjecture that Sir Gilbert Elliot was the author of it is somewhat more plausible,—that gentleman being at this period high in the favor of the Prince, and possessing talents sufficient to authorize the suspicion (which was in itself a reputation) that he had been the writer of a composition so admirable. But it seems hardly necessary to go farther, in quest of its author, than Mr. Sheridan, who, besides being known to have acted the part of the Prince's adviser through the whole transaction, is proved by the rough copies found among his papers, to have written several other important documents connected with the Regency.
I may also add that an eminent statesman of the present day, who was at that period, though very young, a distinguished friend of Mr. Sheridan, and who has shown by the ability of his own State Papers that he has not forgot the lessons of that school from which this able production emanated, remembers having heard some passages of the Letter discussed in Bruton-street, as if it were then in the progress of composition, and has always, I believe, been under the impression that it was principally the work of Mr. Sheridan. [Footnote: To this authority may be added also that of the Bishop of Winchester, who says,—"Mr. Sheridan was supposed to have been materially concerned in drawing up this admirable composition."]
I had written thus far on the subject of this Letter—and shall leave what I have written as a memorial of the fallacy of such conjectures—when, having still some doubts of my correctness in attributing the honor of the composition to Sheridan, I resolved to ask the opinion of my friend, Sir James Mackintosh, a person above all others qualified, by relationship of talent, to recognize and hold parley with the mighty spirit of Burke, in whatever shape the "Royal Dane" may appear. The strong impression on his mind—amounting almost to certainty—was that no other hand but that of Burke could have written the greater part of the letter; [Footnote: It is amusing to observe how tastes differ;—the following is the opinion entertained of this letter by a gentleman, who, I understand, and can easily believe, is an old established Reviewer. After mentioning that it was attributed to the pen of Burke, he adds,—"The story, however, does not seem entitled to much credit, for the internal character of the paper is too vapid and heavy for the genius of Burke, whose ardent mind would assuredly have diffused vigor into the composition, and the correctness of whose judgment would as certainly have preserved it from the charge of inelegance and grammatical deficiency."—DR. WATKINS, Life of Sheridan. Such, in nine cases out of ten, are the periodical guides of public taste.] and by a more diligent inquiry, in which his kindness assisted me, it has been ascertained that his opinion was, as it could not fail to be, correct. The following extract from a letter written by Lord Minto at the time, referring obviously to the surmise that he was, himself, the author of the paper, confirms beyond a doubt the fact, that it was written almost solely by Burke:—
"January 31st, 1789.
"There was not a word of the Prince's letter to Pitt mine. It was originally Burke's, altered a little, but not improved, by Sheridan and other critics. The answer made by the Prince yesterday to the Address of the two Houses was entirely mine, and done in a great hurry half an hour before it was to be delivered."
While it is with regret I give up the claim of Mr. Sheridan to this fine specimen of English composition, it but adds to my intense admiration of Burke—not on account of the beauty of the writing, for his fame required no such accession—but from that triumph of mind over temper which it exhibits—that forgetfulness of Self, the true, transmigrating power of genius, which enabled him thus to pass his spirit into the station of Royalty, and to assume all the calm dignity, both of style and feeling, that became it.
It was to be expected that the conduct of Lord Thurlow at this period should draw down upon him all the bitterness of those who were in the secret of his ambidextrous policy, and who knew both his disposition to desert, and the nature of the motives that prevented him. To Sheridan, in particular, such a result of a negotiation, in which he had been the principal mover and mediator, could not be otherwise than deeply mortifying. Of all the various talents with which he was gifted, his dexterity in political intrigue and management was that of which he appears to have been most vain; and this vanity it was that, at a later period of his life, sometimes led him to branch off from the main body of his party, upon secret and solitary enterprises of ingenuity, which—as may be expected from all such independent movements of a partisan—generally ended in thwarting his friends and embarrassing himself.
In the debate on that clause of the Bill, which restricted the Regent from granting places or pensions in reversion, Mr. Sheridan is represented as having attacked Lord Thurlow in terms of the most unqualified severity,—speaking of "the natural ferocity and sturdiness of his temper," and of "his brutal bluffness." But to such abuse, unseasoned by wit, Mr. Sheridan was not at all likely to have condescended, being well aware that, "as in smooth oil the razor best is set," so satire is whetted to its most perfect keenness by courtesy. His clumsy reporters have, in this, as in almost all other instances, misrepresented him.
With equal personality, but more playfulness, Mr. Burke, in exposing that wretched fiction, by which the Great Seal was converted into the Third Branch of the Legislature, and the assent of the King forged to a Bill, in which his incapacity to give either assent or dissent was declared, thus expressed himself:—"But what is to be done when the Crown is in a deliquium? It was intended, he had heard, to set up a man with black brows and a large wig, a kind of scare-crow to the two Houses, who was to give a fictitious assent in the royal name—and this to be binding on the people at large!" The following remarkable passage, too, in a subsequent Speech, is almost too well known to be cited:—"The other House," he said, "were not yet perhaps recovered from that extraordinary burst of the pathetic which had been exhibited the other evening; they had not yet dried their eyes, or been restored to their former placidity, and were unqualified to attend, to new business. The tears shed in that House on the occasion to which he alluded, were not the tears of patriots for dying laws, but of Lords for their expiring places. The iron tears, which flowed down Pluto's cheek, rather resembled the dismal bubbling of the Styx, than the gentle murmuring streams of Aganippe."
While Lord Thurlow was thus treated by the party whom he had so nearly joined, he was but coldly welcomed back by the Minister whom he had so nearly deserted. His reconciliation, too, with the latter was by no means either sincere or durable,—the renewal of friendship between politicians, on such occasions, being generally like that which the Diable Boiteux describes, as having taken place between himself and a brother sprite,—"We were reconciled, embraced, and have hated each other heartily ever since."
In the Regency, indeed, and the transactions connected with it, may be found the source of most of those misunderstandings and enmities, which broke out soon after among the eminent men of that day, and were attended with consequences so important to themselves and the country. By the difference just mentioned, between Mr. Pitt and Lord Thurlow, the ministerial arrangements of 1793 were facilitated, and the learned Lord, after all his sturdy pliancy, consigned to a life of ineffectual discontent ever after.
The disagreement between Mr. Burke and Mr. Fox, if not actually originating now—and its foundation had been, perhaps, laid from the beginning, in the total dissimilarity of their dispositions and sentiments—was, at least, considerably ripened and accelerated by the events of this period, and by the discontent that each of them, like partners in unsuccessful play, was known to feel at the mistakes which the other had committed in the game. Mr. Fox had, unquestionably, every reason to lament as well as blame the violence and virulence by which his associate had disgraced the contest. The effect, indeed, produced upon the public by the irreverent sallies of Burke, and by the too evident triumph, both of hate and hope, with which he regarded the calamitous situation of the King, contributed not a little to render still lower the already low temperature of popularity at which his party stood throughout the country. It seemed as if a long course of ineffectual struggle in politics, of frustrated ambition and unrewarded talents, had at length exasperated his mind to a degree beyond endurance; and the extravagances into which he was hurried in his speeches on this question, appear to have been but the first workings of that impatience of a losing cause— that resentment of failure, and disgust at his partners in it—which soon afterwards found such a signal opportunity of exploding.
That Mr. Burke, upon far less grounds, was equally discontented with his co-operators in this emergency, may be collected from the following passage of a letter addressed by him in the summer of this year to Lord Charlemont, and given by Hardy in his Memoirs of that nobleman:—
"Perpetual failure, even though nothing in that failure can be fixed on the improper choice of the object or the injudicious choice of means, will detract every day more and more from a man's credit, until he ends without success and without reputation. In fact, a constant pursuit even of the best objects, without adequate instruments, detracts something from the opinion of a man's judgment. This, I think, may be in part the cause of the inactivity of others of our friends who are in the vigor of life and in possession of a great degree of lead and authority. I do not blame them, though I lament that state of the public mind, in which the people can consider the exclusion of such talents and such virtues from their service, as a point gained to them. The only point in which I can find any thing to blame in these friends, is their not taking the effectual means, which they certainly had in their power, of making an honorable retreat from their prospect of power into the possession of reputation, by an effectual defence of themselves. There was an opportunity which was not made use of for that purpose, and which could scarcely have failed of turning the tables on their adversaries."
Another instance of the embittering influence of these transactions may be traced in their effects upon Mr. Burke and Mr. Sheridan—between whom there had arisen a degree of emulation, amounting to jealousy, which, though hitherto chiefly confined to one of the parties, received on this occasion such an addition of fuel, as spread it equally through the minds of both, and conduced, in no small degree, to the explosion that followed. Both Irishmen, and both adventurers in a region so much elevated above their original station, it was but natural that some such feeling should kindle between them; and that, as Burke was already mid-way in his career, when Sheridan was but entering the field, the stirrings, whether of emulation or envy, should first be felt by the latter. It is, indeed, said that in the ceremonial of Hastings's Trial, the privileges enjoyed by Burke, as a Privy-councillor, were regarded with evident uneasiness by his brother Manager, who could not as yet boast the distinction of Right Honorable before his name. As soon, however, as the rapid run of Sheridan's success had enabled him to overtake his veteran rival, this feeling of jealousy took possession in full force of the latter,—and the close relations of intimacy and confidence, to which Sheridan was now admitted both by Mr. Fox and the Prince, are supposed to have been not the least of those causes of irritation and disgust, by which Burke was at length driven to break with the party altogether, and to show his gigantic strength at parting, by carrying away some of the strongest pillars of Whiggism in his grasp.
Lastly, to this painful list of the feuds, whose origin is to be found in the times and transactions of which we are speaking, may be added that slight, but too visible cloud of misunderstanding, which arose between Mr. Fox and Mr. Sheridan, and which, though it never darkened into any thing serious, continued to pervade their intercourse with each other to the last—exhibiting itself, on the part of Mr. Fox, in a degree of distrustful reserve not natural to him, and, on the side of Sheridan, in some of those counter-workings of influence, which, as I have already said, he was sometimes induced by his love of the diplomacy of politics to practise.
Among the appointments named in contemplation of a Regency, the place of Treasurer of the Navy was allotted to Mr. Sheridan. He would never, however, admit the idea of certainty in any of the arrangements so sanguinely calculated upon, but continually impressed upon his impatient friends the possibility, if not probability, of the King's recovery. He had even refused to look at the plan of the apartments, which he himself was to occupy in Somerset House; and had but just agreed that it should be sent to him for examination, on the very day when the King was declared convalescent by Dr. Warren. "He entered his own house (to use the words of the relater of the anecdote) at dinner-time with the news. There were present,—besides Mrs. Sheridan and his sister,—Tickell, who, on the change of administration, was to have been immediately brought into Parliament,—Joseph Richardson, who was to have had Tickell's place of Commissioner of the Stamp-office,—Mr. Reid, and some others. Not one of the company but had cherished expectations from the approaching change—not one of them, however, had lost so much as Mr. Sheridan. With his wonted equanimity he announced the sudden turn affairs had taken, and looking round him cheerfully, as he filled a large glass, said,—'Let us all join in drinking His Majesty's speedy recovery.'"
The measures which the Irish Parliament adopted on this occasion, would have been productive of anomalies, both theoretical and practical, had the continued illness of the King allowed the projected Regency to take place. As it was, the most material consequence that ensued was the dismissal from their official situations of Mr. Ponsonby and other powerful individuals, by which the Whig party received such an accession of strength, as enabled them to work out for their country the few blessings of liberty that still remain to her. Among the victims to their votes on this question was Mr. Charles Sheridan, who, on the recovery of the King, was dismissed from his office of Secretary of War, but received compensation by a pension of 1200l. a year, with the reversion of 300l. a year to his wife.
The ready and ardent burst of devotion with which Ireland, at this moment, like the Pythagoreans at their morning worship, turned to welcome with her Harp the Rising Sun, was long remembered by the object of her homage with pride and gratitude,—and, let us trust, is not even yet entirely forgotten. [Footnote: This vain hope was expressed before the late decision on the Catholic question had proved to the Irish that, where their rights are concerned, neither public nor private pledges are regarded.]
It has already been mentioned that to Mr. Sheridan, at this period, was entrusted the task of drawing up several of the State Papers of the Heir-Apparent. From the rough copies of these papers that have fallen into my hands, I shall content myself with selecting two Letters—the first of which was addressed by the Prince to the Queen, immediately after the communication to her Majesty of the Resolution of the two Houses placing the Royal Household under her control.
"Before Your Majesty gives an answer to the application for your Royal permission to place under Your Majesty's separate authority the direction and appointment of the King's household, and thereby to separate from the difficult and arduous situation which I am unfortunately called upon to fill, the accustomed and necessary support which has ever belonged to it, permit me, with every sentiment of duty and affection towards Your Majesty, to entreat your attentive perusal of the papers which I have the honor to enclose. They contain a sketch of the plan now proposed to be carried into execution as communicated to me by Mr. Pitt, and the sentiments which I found myself bound in duty to declare in reply to that communication. I take the liberty of lodging these papers in Your Majesty's hands, confiding that, whenever it shall please Providence to remove the malady with which the King my father is now unhappily afflicted, Your Majesty will, in justice to me and to those of the Royal family whose affectionate concurrence and support I have received, take the earliest opportunity of submitting them to his Royal perusal, in order that no interval of time may elapse before he is in possession of the true motives and principles upon which I have acted. I here solemnly repeat to Your Majesty, that among those principles there is not one which influences my mind so much as the firm persuasion I have, that my conduct in endeavoring to maintain unimpaired and undivided the just rights, prerogatives, and dignity of the Crown, in the person of the King's representative, is the only line of conduct which would entitle me to His Majesty's approbation, or enable me to stand with confidence in his Royal presence on the happy day of his recovery;—and, on the contrary, that those who, under color of respect and attachment to his Royal person, have contrived this project for enfeebling and degrading the executive authority of the realm, will be considered by him as having risked the happiness of his people and the security of the throne itself, by establishing a fatal precedent which may hereafter be urged against his own authority, on as plausible pretences, or revived against the just rights of his family. In speaking my opinions of the motive of the projectors of this scheme, I trust I need not assure Your Majesty that the respect, duty, and affection I owe to Your Majesty have never suffered me for a single moment to consider you as countenancing, in the slightest degree, their plan or their purposes. I have the firmest reliance on Your Majesty's early declaration to me, on the subject of public affairs, at the commencement of our common calamity; and, whatever may be the efforts of evil or interested advisers, I have the same confidence that you will never permit or endure that the influence of your respected name shall be profaned to the purpose of distressing the government and insulting the person of your son. How far those, who are evidently pursuing both these objects, may be encouraged by Your Majesty's acceptance of one part of the powers purposed to be lodged in your hands, I will not presume to say. [Footnote: In speaking of the extraordinary imperium in imperio, with which the command of so much power and patronage would have invested the Queen, the Annual Register (Robinson's) remarks justly, "It was not the least extraordinary circumstance in these transactions, that the Queen could be prevailed upon to lend her name to a project which would eventually have placed her in avowed rivalship with her son, and, at a moment when her attention might seem to be absorbed by domestic calamity, have established her at the head of a political party."] The proposition has assumed the shape of a Resolution of Parliament, and therefore I am silent.