Of the events of the private life of Mr. Sheridan, during this stormy part of his political career, there remain but few memorials among his papers. As an illustration, however, of his love of betting—the only sort of gambling in which he ever indulged—the following curious list of his wagers for the year is not unamusing:—
"25th May, 1793.—Mr. Sheridan bets Gen. Fitzpatrick one hundred guineas to fifty guineas, that within two years from this date some measure is adopted in Parliament which shall be (bona fide) considered as the adoption of a Parliamentary Reform.
"29th January, 1793.—Mr. S. bets Mr. Boothby Clopton five hundred guineas, that there is a Reform in the Representation of the people of England within three years from the date hereof.
"29th January, 1793.—Mr. S. bets Mr. Hardy one hundred guineas to fifty guineas, that Mr. W. Windham does not represent Norwich at the next general election.
"29th January, 1793.—Mr. S. bets Gen. Fitzpatrick fifty guineas, that a corps of British troops are sent to Holland within two months of the date hereof.
"18th March, 1793.—Mr. S. bets Lord Titchfield two hundred guineas, that the D. of Portland is at the head of an Administration on or before the 18th of March, 1796; Mr. Fox to decide whether any place the Duke may then fill shall bona fide come within the meaning of this bet.
"25th March, 1793.—Mr. S. bets Mr. Hardy one hundred guineas, that the three per cent. consols are as high this day twelvemonth as at the date hereof.
"Mr. S. bets Gen. Tarleton one hundred guineas to fifty guineas, that Mr. Pitt is first Lord of the Treasury on the 28th of May, 1795.—Mr. S. bets Mr. St. A. St. John fifteen guineas to five guineas, ditto.—Mr. S. bets Lord Sefton one hundred and forty guineas to forty guineas, ditto.
"19th March, 1793.—Lord Titchfield and Lord W. Russell bet Mr. S. three hundred guineas to two hundred guineas, that Mr. Pitt is first Lord of the Treasury on the 19th of March, 1795.
"18th March, 1793.—Lord Titchfield bets Mr. S. twenty-five guineas to fifty guineas, that Mr. W. Windham represents Norwich at the next general election."
As a sort of moral supplement to this strange list, and one of those insights into character and conduct which it is the duty of a biographer to give, I shall subjoin a letter, connected evidently with one of the above speculations:—
"I am very sorry that I have been so circumstanced as to have been obliged to disappoint you respecting the payment of the five hundred guineas: when I gave the draughts on Lord * * I had every reason to be assured he would accept them, as * * had also. I enclose you, as you will see by his desire, the letter in which he excuses his not being able to pay me this part of a larger sum he owes me, and I cannot refuse him any time he requires, however inconvenient to me. I also enclose you two draughts accepted by a gentleman from whom the money will be due to me, and on whose punctuality I can rely. I extremely regret that I cannot at this juncture command the money.
"At the same time that I regret your being put to any inconvenience by this delay, I cannot help adverting to the circumstance which perhaps misled me into the expectation that you would not unwillingly allow me any reasonable time I might want for the payment of this bet. The circumstance I mean, however discreditable the plea, is the total inebriety of some of the party, particularly of myself, when I made this preposterous bet. I doubt not you will remember having yourself observed on this circumstance to a common friend the next day, with an intimation that you should not object to being off; and for my part, when I was informed that I had made such a bet and for such a sum,—the first, such folly on the face of it on my part, and the latter so out of my practice,—I certainly should have proposed the cancelling it, but that, from the intimation imparted to me, I hoped the proposition might come from you.
"I hope I need not for a moment beg you not to imagine that I am now alluding to these circumstances as the slightest invalidation of your due. So much the contrary, that I most perfectly admit that from your not having heard any thing further from me on the subject, and especially after I might have heard that if I desired it the bet might be off, you had every reason to conclude that I was satisfied with the wager, and whether made in wine or not, was desirous of abiding by it. And this was further confirmed by my receiving soon after from you 100l, on another bet won by me.
"Having, I think, put this point very fairly, I again repeat that my only motive for alluding to the matter was, as some explanation of my seeming dilatoriness, which certainly did in part arise from always conceiving that, whenever I should state what was my real wish the day after the bet was made, you would be the more disposed to allow a little time;—the same statement admitting, as it must, the bet to be as clearly and as fairly won as possible; in short, as if I had insisted on it myself the next morning.
"I have said more perhaps on the subject than can be necessary; but I should regret to appear negligent to an application for a just claim.
"I have the honor to be,
"Your obedient servant,
"Hertford St. Feb. 26.
"R. B. SHERIDAN."
Of the public transactions of Sheridan at this time, his speeches are the best record. To them, therefore, I shall henceforward principally refer my readers,—premising, that though the reports of his latter speeches are somewhat better, in general, than those of his earlier displays, they still do great injustice to his powers, and exhibit little more than the mere Torso of his eloquence, curtailed of all those accessories that lent motion and beauty to its form. The attempts to give the terseness of his wit particularly fail, and are a strong illustration of what he himself once said to Lord * *. That Nobleman, who among his many excellent qualities does not include a very lively sense of humor, having exclaimed, upon hearing some good anecdote from Sheridan, "I'll go and tell that to our friend * *." Sheridan called him back instantly and said, with much gravity, "For God's sake, don't, my dear * *: a joke is no laughing matter in your mouth."
It is, indeed, singular, that all the eminent English orators—with the exception of Mr. Burke and Mr. Windham—should have been so little anxious for the correct transmission of their eloquence to posterity. Had not Cicero taken more care of even his extemporaneous effusions, we should have lost that masterly burst of the moment, to which the clemency of Caesar towards Marcellus gave birth. The beautiful fragments we have of Lord Chatham are rather traditional than recorded;—there are but two, I believe, of the speeches of Mr. Pitt corrected by himself, those on the Budget of 1792, and on the Union with Ireland;—Mr. Fox committed to writing but one of his, namely, the tribute to the memory of the Duke of Bedford;—and the only speech of Mr. Sheridan, that is known with certainty to have passed under his own revision, was that which he made at the opening of the following session, (1794,) in answer to Lord Mornington.
In the course of the present year he took frequent opportunities of expressing his disgust at that spirit of ferocity which had so deeply disgraced the cause of the Revolution. So earnest was his interest in the fate of the Royal Family of France, that, as appears from one of his speeches, he drew up a paper on the subject, and transmitted it to the republican rulers;—with the view, no doubt, of conveying to them the feelings of the English Opposition, and endeavoring to avert, by the influence of his own name and that of Mr. Fox, the catastrophe that awaited those Royal victims of liberty. Of this interesting document I cannot discover any traces.
In one of his answers to Burke on the subject of the French Revolution, adverting to the charge of Deism and Atheism brought against the republicans, he says,
"As an argument to the feelings and passions of men, the Honorable Member had great advantages in dwelling on this topic; because it was a subject which those who disliked everything that had the air of cant and profession on the one hand, or of indifference on the other, found it awkward to meddle with. Establishments, tests, and matters of that nature, were proper objects of political discussion in that House, but not general charges of Atheism and Deism, as pressed upon their consideration by the Honorable Gentleman. Thus far, however, he would say, and it was an opinion he had never changed or concealed, that, although no man can command his conviction, he had ever considered a deliberate disposition to make proselytes in infidelity as an unaccountable depravity. Whoever attempted to pluck the belief or the prejudice on this subject, style it which he would, from the bosom of one man, woman, or child, committed a brutal outrage, the motive for which he had never been able to trace or conceive."
I quote these words as creditable to the feeling and good sense of Sheridan. Whatever may be thought of particular faiths and sects, a belief in a life beyond this world is the only thing that pierces through the walls of our prison-house, and lets hope shine in upon a scene, that would be otherwise bewildered and desolate. The proselytism of the Atheist is, indeed, a dismal mission. That believers, who have each the same heaven in prospect, should invite us to join them on their respective ways to it, is at least a benevolent officiousness,—but that he, who has no prospect or hope himself, should seek for companionship in his road to annihilation, can only be explained by that tendency in human creatures to count upon each other in their despair, as well as their hope.
In the speech upon his own motion relative to the existence of seditious practices in the country, there is some lively ridicule, upon the panic then prevalent. For instance:—
"The alarm had been brought forward in great pomp and form on Saturday morning. At night all the mail-coaches were stopped; the Duke of Richmond stationed himself, among other curiosities, at the Tower; a great municipal officer, too, had made a discovery exceedingly beneficial to the people of this country. He meant the Lord Mayor of London, who had found out that there was at the King's Arms at Cornhill a Debating Society, where principles of the most dangerous tendency were propagated; where people went to buy treason at sixpence a head; where it was retailed to them by the glimmering of an inch of candle; and five minutes, to be measured by the glass, were allowed to each traitor to perform his part in overturning the State."
It was in the same speech that he gave the well-known and happy turn to the motto of the Sun newspaper, which was at that time known to be the organ of the Alarmists. "There was one paper," he remarked, "in particular, said to be the property of members of that House, and published and conducted under their immediate direction, which had for its motto a garbled part of a beautiful sentence, when it might, with much more propriety, have assumed the whole—
"Solem quis dicere falsum Audeat? Ille etiam cacos instare tumultus Saepe monet, fraudemque et operta tumescere bella."
Among the subjects that occupied the greatest share of his attention during this Session, was the Memorial of Lord Auckland to the States-General,—which document he himself brought under the notice of Parliament as deserving of severe reprobation for the violent and vindictive tone which it assumed towards the Commissioners of the National Convention. It was upon one of the discussions connected with this subject that a dispute, as to the correct translation of the word "malheureux" was maintained with much earnestness between him and Lord Melville—two persons, the least qualified, perhaps, of any in the House, to volunteer as either interpreters or pronouncers of the French language. According to Sheridan, "ces malheureux" was to be translated "these wretches," while Lord Melville contended, to the no small amusement of the House, that "mollyroo" (as he pronounced it,) meant no more than "these unfortunate gentlemen."
In the November of this year Mr. Sheridan lost by a kind of death which must have deepened the feeling of the loss, the most intimate of all his companions, Tickell. If congeniality of dispositions and pursuits were always a strengthener of affection, the friendship between Tickell and Sheridan ought to have been of the most cordial kind; for they resembled each other in almost every particular—in their wit, their wants, their talent, and their thoughtlessness. It is but too true, however, that friendship in general gains far less by such a community of pursuit than it loses by the competition that naturally springs out of it; and that two wits or two beauties form the last sort of alliance, in which we ought to look for specimens of sincere and cordial friendship. The intercourse between Tickell and Sheridan was not free from such collisions of vanity. They seem to have lived, indeed, in a state of alternate repulsion and attraction; and, unable to do without the excitement of each other's vivacity, seldom parted without trials of temper as well as of wit. Being both, too, observers of character, and each finding in the other rich materials for observation, their love of ridicule could not withstand such a temptation, and they freely criticised each other to common friends, who, as is usually the case, agreed with both. Still, however, there was a whim and sprightliness even about their mischief, which made it seem rather an exercise of ingenuity than an indulgence of ill nature; and if they had not carried on this intellectual warfare, neither would have liked the other half so well.
The two principal productions of Tickell, the "Wreath of Fashion" and "Anticipation," were both upon temporary subjects, and have accordingly passed into oblivion. There are, however, some graceful touches of pleasantry in the poem; and the pamphlet, (which procured for him not only fame but a place in the Stamp-office,) contains passages of which the application and the humor have not yet grown stale. As Sheridan is the hero of the Wreath of Fashion, it is but right to quote the verses that relate to him; and I do it with the more pleasure, because they also contain a well-merited tribute to Mrs. Sheridan. After a description of the various poets of the day that deposit their offerings in Lady Millar's "Vase of Sentiment," the author thus proceeds:—
"At Fashion's shrine behold a gentler bard Gaze on the mystic vase with fond regard— But see, Thalia checks the doubtful thought, 'Canst thou, (she cries,) with sense, with genius fraught, Canst thou to Fashion's tyranny submit, Secure in native, independent wit? Or yield to Sentiment's insipid rule, By Taste, by Fancy, chac'd through Scandal's school? Ah no—be Sheridan's the comic page, Or let me fly with Garrick from the stage. Haste then, my friend, (for let me boast that name,) Haste to the opening path of genuine fame; Or, if thy muse a gentler theme pursue, Ah, 'tis to love and thy Eliza due! For, sure, the sweetest lay she well may claim, Whose soul breathes harmony o'er all her frame; While wedded love, with ray serenely clear, Beams from her eye, as from its proper sphere."
In the year 1781, Tickell brought out at Drury-Lane an opera called "The Carnival of Venice," on which there is the following remark in Mrs. Crouch's Memoirs:—"Many songs in this piece so perfectly resemble in poetic beauty those which adorn The Duenna, that they declare themselves to be the offspring of the same muse." I know not how far this conjecture may be founded, but there are four pretty lines which I remember in this opera, and which, it may be asserted without hesitation, Sheridan never wrote. He had no feeling for natural scenery, [Footnote: In corroboration of this remark, I have been allowed to quote the following passage of a letter written by a very eminent person, whose name all lovers of the Picturesque associate with their best enjoyment of its beauties:—
"At one time I saw a good deal of Sheridan—he and his first wife passed some time here, and he is an instance that a taste for poetry and for scenery are not always united. Had this house been in the midst of Hounslow Heath, he could not have taken less interest in all around it: his delight was in shooting, all and every day, and my game-keeper said that of all the gentlemen he had ever been out with he never knew so bad a shot."] nor is there a trace of such a sentiment discoverable through his poetry. The following, as well as I can recollect, are the lines:—
"And while the moon shines on the stream, And as soft music breathes around, The feathering oar returns the gleam, And dips in concert to the sound."
I have already given a humorous Dedication of the Rivals, written by Tickell on the margin of a copy of that play in my possession. I shall now add another piece of still more happy humor, with which he has filled, in very neat hand-writing, the three or four first pages of the same copy.
"The Rivals, a Comedy—one of the best in the English language—written as long ago as the reign of George the Third. The author's name was Sheridan—he is mentioned by the historians of that age as a man of uncommon abilities, very little improved by cultivation. His confidence in the resources of his own genius and his aversion to any sort of labor were so great that he could not be prevailed upon to learn either to read or write. He was, for a short time, Manager of one the play-houses, and conceived the extraordinary and almost incredible project of composing a play extempore, which he was to recite in the Green-room to the actors, who were immediately to come on the stage and perform it. The players refusing to undertake their parts at so short a notice, and with so little preparation, he threw up the management in disgust.
"He was a member of the last Parliaments that were summoned in England, and signalized himself on many occasions by his wit and eloquence, though he seldom came to the House till the debate was nearly concluded, and never spoke, unless he was drunk. He lived on a footing of great intimacy with the famous Fox, who is said to have concerted with him the audacious attempt which he made, about the year 1783, to seize the whole property of the East India Company, amounting at that time to above 12,000,000l. sterling, and then to declare himself Lord Protector of the realm by the title of Carlo Khan. This desperate scheme actually received the consent of the lower House of Parliament, the majority of whom were bribed by Fox, or intimidated by his and Sheridan's threats and violence: and it is generally believed that the Revolution would have taken place, if the Lords of the King's Bedchamber had not in a body surrounded the throne and shown the most determined resolution not to abandon their posts but with their lives. The usurpation being defeated, Parliament was dissolved and loaded with infamy. Sheridan was one of the few members of it who were re-elected:—the Burgesses of Stafford, whom he had kept in a constant state of intoxication for near three weeks, chose him again to represent them, which he was well qualified to do.
"Fox's Whig party being very much reduced, or rather almost annihilated, he and the rest of the conspirators remained quiet for some time; till, in the year 1788, the French, in conjunction with Tippoo Sultan, having suddenly seized and divided between themselves the whole of the British possessions in India, the East India Company broke, and a national bankruptcy was apprehended. During this confusion Fox and his partisans assembled in large bodies, and made a violent attack in Parliament on Pitt, the King's first minister:—Sheridan supported and seconded him. Parliament seemed disposed to inquire into the cause of the calamity: the nation was almost in a state of actual rebellion; and it is impossible for us, at the distance of three hundred years, to form any judgment what dreadful consequences might have followed, if the King, by the advice of the Lords of the Bedchamber, had not dissolved the Parliament, and taken the administration of affairs into his own hands, and those of a few confidential servants, at the head of whom he was pleased to place one Mr. Atkinson, a merchant, who had acquired a handsome fortune in the Jamaica trade, and passed universally for a man of unblemished integrity. His Majesty having now no farther occasion for Pitt, and being desirous of rewarding him for his past services, and, at the same time, finding an adequate employment for his great talents, caused him to enter into holy orders, and presented him with the Deanery of Windsor; where he became an excellent preacher, and published several volumes of sermons, all of which are now lost.
"To return to Sheridan:—on the abrogation of Parliaments, he entered into a closer connection than ever with Fox and a few others of lesser note, forming together as desperate and profligate a gang as ever disgraced a civilized country. They were guilty of every species of enormity, and went so far as even to commit robberies on the highway, with a degree of audacity that could be equalled only by the ingenuity with which they escaped conviction. Sheridan, not satisfied with eluding, determined to mock the justice of his country, and composed a Masque called 'The Foresters,' containing a circumstantial account of some of the robberies he had committed, and a good deal of sarcasm on the pusillanimity of those whom he had robbed, and the inefficacy of the penal laws of the kingdom. This piece was acted at Drury-Lane Theatre with great applause, to the astonishment of all sober persons, and the scandal of the nation. His Majesty, who had long wished to curb the licentiousness of the press and the theatres, thought this a good opportunity. He ordered the performers to be enlisted into the army, the play-house to be shut up, and all theatrical exhibitions to be forbid on pain of death, Drury-Lane play-house was soon after converted into a barrack for soldiers, which it has continued to be ever since. Sheridan was arrested, and, it was imagined, would have suffered the rack, if he had not escaped from his guard by a stratagem, and gone over to Ireland in a balloon with which his friend Fox furnished him. Immediately on his arrival in Ireland, he put himself at the head of a party of the most violent Reformers, commanded a regiment of Volunteers at the siege of Dublin in 1791, and was supposed to be the person who planned the scheme for tarring and feathering Mr. Jenkinson, the Lord Lieutenant, and forcing him in that condition to sign the capitulation of the Castle. The persons who were to execute this strange enterprise had actually got into the Lord Lieutenant's apartment at midnight, and would probably have succeeded in their project, if Sheridan, who was intoxicated with whiskey, a strong liquor much in vogue with the Volunteers, had not attempted to force open the door of Mrs. ——'s bed-chamber, and so given the alarm to the garrison, who instantly flew to arms, seized Sheridan and every one of his party, and confined them in the castle-dungeon. Sheridan was ordered for execution the next day, but had no sooner got his legs and arms at liberty, than he began capering, jumping, dancing, and making all sorts of antics, to the utter amazement of the spectators. When the chaplain endeavored, by serious advice and admonition, to bring him to a proper sense of his dreadful situation, he grinned, made faces at him, tried to tickle him, and played a thousand other pranks with such astonishing drollery, that the gravest countenances became cheerful, and the saddest hearts glad. The soldiers who attended at the gallows were so delighted with his merriment, which they deemed magnanimity, that the sheriffs began to apprehend a rescue, and ordered the hangman instantly to do his duty. He went off in a loud horse-laugh, and cast a look towards the Castle, accompanied with a gesture expressive of no great respect.
"Thus ended the life of this singular and unhappy man—a melancholy instance of the calamities that attend the misapplication of great and splendid ability. He was married to a very beautiful and amiable woman, for whom he is said to have entertained an unalterable affection. He had one son, a boy of the most promising hopes, whom he would never suffer to be instructed in the first rudiments of literature. He amused himself, however, with teaching the boy to draw portraits with his toes, in which he soon became so astonishing a proficient that he seldom failed to take a most exact likeness of every person who sat to him.
"There are a few more plays by the same author, all of them excellent.
"For further information concerning this strange man, vide 'Macpherson's Moral History,' Art. 'Drunkenness.'"
SPEECH IN ANSWER TO LORD MORNINGTON.—COALITION OF THE WHIG SECEDERS WITH MR. PITT.—MR. CANNING.—EVIDENCE ON THE TRIAL OF HORNE TOOKE.—THE "GLORIOUS FIRST OF JUNE."—MARRIAGE OF MR. SHERIDAN.—PAMPHLET OF MR. REEVES.—DEBTS OF THE PRINCE OF WALES.—SHAKSPEARE MANUSCRIPTS.—TRIAL OF STONE.—MUTINY AT THE NORE.—SECESSION OF MR. FOX FROM PARLIAMENT.
In the year 1794, the natural consequences of the policy pursued by Mr. Pitt began rapidly to unfold themselves both at home and abroad. [Footnote: See, for a masterly exposure of the errors of the War, the Speech of Lord Lansdowne this year on bringing forward his Motion for Peace.
I cannot let the name of this Nobleman pass, without briefly expressing the deep gratitude which I feel to him, not only for his own kindness to me, when introduced, as a boy, to his notice, but for the friendship of his truly Noble descendant, which I, in a great degree, owe to him, and which has long been the pride and happiness of my life.] The confederated Princes of the Continent, among whom the gold of England was now the sole bond of union, had succeeded as might be expected from so noble an incentive, and, powerful only in provoking France, had by every step they took but ministered to her aggrandizement. In the mean time, the measures of the English Minister at home were directed to the two great objects of his legislation—the raising of supplies and the suppressing of sedition; or, in other words, to the double and anomalous task of making the people pay for the failures of their Royal allies, and suffer for their sympathy with the success of their republican enemies. It is the opinion of a learned Jesuit that it was by aqua regia the Golden Calf of the Israelites was dissolved—and the cause of Kings was the Royal solvent, in which the wealth of Great Britain now melted irrecoverably away. While the successes, too, of the French had already lowered the tone of the Minister from projects of aggression to precautions of defence, the wounds which in the wantonness of alarm, he had inflicted on the liberties of the country, were spreading an inflammation around them that threatened real danger. The severity of the sentence upon Muir and Palmer in Scotland, and the daring confidence with which charges of High Treason were exhibited against persons who were, at the worst, but indiscreet reformers, excited the apprehensions of even the least sensitive friends of freedom. It is, indeed, difficult to say how far the excited temper of the Government, seconded by the ever ready subservience of state-lawyers and bishops, might have proceeded at this moment, had not the acquittal of Tooke and his associates, and the triumph it diffused through the country, given a lesson to Power such as England is alone capable of giving, and which will long be remembered, to the honor of that great political safeguard,—that Life-preserver in stormy times,—the Trial by Jury.
At the opening of the Session, Mr. Sheridan delivered his admirable answer to Lord Mornington, the report of which, as I have already said, was corrected for publication by himself. In this fine speech, of which the greater part must have been unprepared, there is a natural earnestness of feeling and argument that is well contrasted with the able but artificial harangue that preceded it. In referring to the details which Lord Mornington had entered into of the various atrocities committed in France, he says:—
"But what was the sum of all that he had told the House? that great and dreadful enormities had been committed, at which the heart shuddered, and which not merely wounded every feeling of humanity, but disgusted and sickened the soul. All this was most true; but what did all this prove? What, but that eternal and unalterable truth which had always presented itself to his mind, in whatever way he had viewed the subject, namely, that a long established despotism so far degraded and debased human nature, as to render its subjects, on the first recovery of their rights, unfit for the exercise of them. But never had he, or would he meet but with re probation that mode of argument which went, in fact, to establish, as an inference from this truth, that those who had been long slaves, ought therefore to remain so for over! No; the lesson ought to be, he would again repeat, a tenfold horror of that despotic form of government, which had so profaned and changed the nature of civilized man, and a still more jealous apprehension of any system tending to withhold the rights and liberties of our fellow-creatures. Such a form of government might be considered as twice cursed; while it existed, it was solely responsible for the miseries and calamities of its subjects; and should a day of retribution come, and the tyranny be destroyed, it was equally to be charged with all the enormities which the folly or frenzy of those who overturned it should commit.
"But the madness of the French people was not confined to their proceedings within their own country; we, and all the Powers of Europe, had to dread it. True; but was not this also to be accounted for? Wild and unsettled as their state of mind was, necessarily, upon the events which had thrown such power so suddenly into their hands, the surrounding States had goaded them into a still more savage state of madness, fury, and desperation. We had unsettled their reason, and then reviled their insanity; we drove them to the extremities that produced the evils we arraigned; we baited them like wild beasts, until at length we made them so. The conspiracy of Pilnitz, and the brutal threats of the Royal abettors of that plot against the rights of nations and of men, had, in truth, to answer for all the additional misery, horrors, and iniquity, which had since disgraced and incensed humanity. Such has been your conduct towards France, that you have created the passions which you persecute; you mark a nation to be cut off from the world; you covenant for their extermination; you swear to hunt them in their inmost recesses; you load them with every species of execration; and you now come forth with whining declamations on the horror of their turning upon you with the fury which you inspired."
Having alluded to an assertion of Condorcet, quoted by Lord Mornington, that "Revolutions are always the work of the minority," he adds livelily:—
"—If this be true, it certainly is a most ominous thing for the enemies of Reform in England; for, if it holds true, of necessity, that the minority still prevails, in national contests, it must be a consequence that the smaller the minority the more certain must be the success. In what a dreadful situation then must the Noble Lord be and all the Alarmists!—for, never surely was a minority so small, so thin in number as the present. Conscions, however, that M. Condorcet was mistaken in our object, I am glad to find that we are terrible in proportion as we are few; I rejoice that the liberality of secession which has thinned our ranks has only served to make us more formidable. The Alarmists will hear this with new apprehensions; they will no doubt return to us with a view to diminish our force, and encumber us with their alliance in order to reduce us to insignificance."
We have here another instance, in addition to the many that have been given, of the beauties that sprung up under Sheridan's correcting hand. This last pointed sentence was originally thus: "And we shall swell our numbers in order to come nearer in a balance of insignificance to the numerous host of the majority."
It was at this time evident that the great Whig Seceders would soon yield to the invitations of Mr. Pitt and the vehement persuasions of Burke, and commit themselves still further with the Administration by accepting of office. Though the final arrangements to this effect were not completed till the summer, on account of the lingering reluctance of the Duke of Portland and Mr. Windham, Lord Loughborough and others of the former Opposition had already put on the official livery of the Minister. It is to be regretted that, in almost all cases of conversion to the side of power, the coincidence of some worldly advantage with the change should make it difficult to decide upon the sincerity or disinterestedness of the convert. That these Noble Whigs were sincere in their alarm there is no reason to doubt; but the lesson of loyalty they have transmitted would have been far more edifying, had the usual corollary of honors and emoluments not followed, and had they left at least one instance of political conversion on record, where the truth was its own sole reward, and the proselyte did not subside into the placeman. Mr. Sheridan was naturally indignant at these desertions, and his bitterness overflows in many passages of the speech before us. Lord Mornington having contrasted the privations and sacrifices demanded of the French by their Minister of Finance with those required of the English nation, he says in answer:—
"The Noble Lord need not remind us, that there is no great danger of our Chancellor of the Exchequer making any such experiment. I can more easily fancy another sort of speech for our prudent Minister. I can more easily conceive him modestly comparing himself and his own measures with the character and conduct of his rival, and saying,—'Do I demand of you, wealthy citizens, to lend your hoards to Government without interest? On the contrary, when I shall come to propose a loan, there is not a man of you to whom I shall not hold out at least a job in every part of the subscription, and an usurious profit upon every pound you devote to the necessities of your country. Do I demand of you, my fellow-placemen and brother-pensioners, that you should sacrifice any part of your stipends to the public exigency? On the contrary; am I not daily increasing your emoluments and your numbers in proportion as the country becomes unable to provide for you? Do I require of you, my latest and most zealous proselytes, of you who have come over to me for the special purpose of supporting the war—a war, on the success of which you solemnly protest, that the salvation of Britain, and of civil society itself, depend—do I require of you, that you should make a temporary sacrifice, in the cause of human nature, of the greater part of your private incomes? No, gentlemen, I scorn to take advantage of the eagerness of your zeal; and to prove that I think the sincerity of your attachment to me needs no such test, I will make your interest co-operate with your principle: I will quarter many of you on the public supply, instead of calling on you to contribute to it; and, while their whole thoughts are absorbed in patriotic apprehensions for their country, I will dexterously force upon others the favorite objects of the vanity or ambition of their lives.
* * * * *
"Good God, Sir, that he should have thought it prudent to have forced this contrast upon our attention; that he should triumphantly remind us of everything that shame should have withheld, and caution would have buried in oblivion! Will those who stood forth with a parade of disinterested patriotism, and vaunted of the sacrifices they had made, and the exposed situation they had chosen, in order the better to oppose the friends of Brissot in England—will they thank the Noble Lord for reminding us how soon these lofty professions dwindled into little jobbing pursuits for followers and dependents, as unfit to fill the offices procured for them, as the offices themselves were unfit to be created?—Will the train of newly titled alarmists, of supernumerary negotiators, of pensioned paymasters, agents and commissaries, thank him for remarking to us how profitable their panic has been to themselves, and how expensive to their country? What a contrast, indeed, do we exhibit!—What! in such an hour as this, at a moment pregnant with the national fate, when, pressing as the exigency may be, the hard task of squeezing the money from the pockets of an impoverished people, from the toil, the drudgery of the shivering poor, must make the most practised collector's heart ache while he tears it from them—can it be that people of high rank, and professing high principles, that they or their families should seek to thrive on the spoils of misery and fatten on the meals wrested from industrious poverty? Can it be that that should be the case with the very persons, who state the unprecedented peril of the country as the sole cause of their being found in the ministerial ranks? The Constitution is in danger, religion is in danger, the very existence of the nation itself is endangered; all personal and party considerations ought to vanish; the war must be supported by every possible exertion, and by every possible sacrifice; the people must not murmur at their burdens, it is for their salvation, their all is at stake. The time is come, when all honest and disinterested men should rally round the Throne as round a standard;—for what? ye honest and disinterested men, to receive, for your own private emolument, a portion of those very taxes wrung from the people on the pretence of saving them from the poverty and distress which you say the enemy would inflict, but which you take care no enemy shall be able to aggravate. Oh! shame! shame! is this a time for selfish intrigues, and the little dirty traffic for lucre and emolument? Does it suit the honor of a gentleman to ask at such a moment? Does it become the honesty of a Minister to grant? Is it intended to confirm the pernicious doctrine, so industriously propagated by many, that all public men are impostors, and that every politician has his price? Or even where there is no principle in the bosom, why does not prudence hint to the mercenary and the vain to abstain a while at least, and wait the fitting of the times? Improvident impatience! Nay, even from those who seem to have no direct object of office or profit, what is the language which their actions speak? The Throne is in danger!—'we will support the Throne; but let us share the smiles of Royalty;'—the order of Nobility is in danger!—'I will fight for Nobility,' says the Viscount, 'but my zeal would be much greater if I were made an Earl.' 'Rouse all the Marquis within me,' exclaims the Earl, 'and the peerage never turned forth a more undaunted champion in its cause than I shall prove.' 'Stain my green riband blue,' cries out the illustrious Knight, 'and the fountain of honor will have a fast and faithful servant.' What are the people to think of our sincerity?—What credit are they to give to our professions?—Is this system to be persevered in? Is there nothing that whispers to that Right Honorable Gentleman that the crisis is too big, that the times are too gigantic, to be ruled by the little hackneyed and every-day means of ordinary corruption?"
The discussions, indeed, during the whole of this Session, were marked by a degree of personal acrimony, which in the present more sensitive times would hardly be borne. Mr. Pitt and Mr. Sheridan came, most of all, into collision; and the retorts of the Minister not unfrequently proved with what weight the haughty sarcasms of Power may descend even upon the tempered buckler of Wit.
It was in this Session, and on the question of the Treaty with the King of Sardinia, that Mr. Canning made his first appearance, as an orator, in the House. He brought with him a fame, already full of promise, and has been one of the brightest ornaments of the senate and the country ever since. From the political faith in which he had been educated, under the very eyes of Mr. Sheridan, who had long been the friend of his family, and at whose house he generally passed his college vacations, the line that he was to take in the House of Commons seemed already, according to the usual course of events, marked out for him. Mr. Sheridan had, indeed, with an eagerness which, however premature, showed the value which he and others set upon the alliance, taken occasion in the course of a laudatory tribute to Mr. Jenkinson, [Footnote: Now Lord Liverpool] on the success of his first effort in the House, to announce the accession which his own party was about to receive, in the talents of another gentleman,—the companion and friend of the young orator who had now distinguished himself. Whether this and other friendships, formed by Mr. Canning at the University, had any share in alienating him from a political creed, which he had hitherto, perhaps, adopted rather from habit and authority than choice—or, whether he was startled at the idea of appearing for the first time in the world, as the announced pupil and friend of a person who, both by the vehemence of his politics and the irregularities of his life, had put himself, in some degree, under the ban of public opinion—or whether, lastly, he saw the difficulties which even genius like his would experience, in rising to the full growth of its ambition, under the shadowing branches of the Whig aristocracy, and that superseding influence of birth and connections, which had contributed to keep even such men as Burke and Sheridan out of the Cabinet—which of these motives it was that now decided the choice of the young political Hercules, between the two paths that equally wooed his footsteps, none, perhaps, but himself can fully determine. His decision, we know, was in favor of the Minister and Toryism; and, after a friendly and candid explanation to Sheridan of the reasons and feelings that urged him to this step, he entered into terms with Mr. Pitt, and was by him immediately brought into Parliament.
However dangerous it might be to exalt such an example into a precedent, it is questionable whether, in thus resolving to join the ascendant side, Mr. Canning has not conferred a greater benefit on the country than he ever would have been able to effect in the ranks of his original friends. That Party, which has now so long been the sole depository of the power of the State, had, in addition to the original narrowness of its principles, contracted all that proud obstinacy, in antiquated error, which is the invariable characteristic of such monopolies; and which, however consonant with its vocation, as the chosen instrument of the Crown, should have long since invalided it in the service of a free and enlightened people. Some infusion of the spirit of the times into this body had become necessary, even for its own preservation,—in the same manner as the inhalement of youthful breath has been recommended, by some physicians, to the infirm and superannuated. This renovating inspiration the genius of Mr. Canning has supplied. His first political lessons were derived from sources too sacred to his young admiration to be forgotten. He has carried the spirit of these lessons with him into the councils which he joined, and by the vigor of the graft, which already, indeed, shows itself in the fruits, bids fair to change altogether the nature of Toryism.
Among the eminent persons summoned as witnesses on the Trial of Horne Tooke, which took place in November of this year, was Mr. Sheridan; and, as his evidence contains some curious particulars, both with regard to himself and the state of political feeling in the year 1790, I shall here transcribe a part of it:—
"He, (Mr. Sheridan,) said he recollects a meeting to celebrate the establishment of liberty in France in the year 1790. Upon that occasion he moved a Resolution drawn up the day before by the Whig club. Mr. Horne Tooke, he says, made no objection to his motion, but proposed an amendment. Mr. Tooke stated that an unqualified approbation of the French Revolution, in the terms moved, might produce an ill effect out of doors, a disposition to a revolution in this country, or, at least, be misrepresented to have that object; he adverted to the circumstance of their having all of them national cockades in their hats; he proposed to add some qualifying expression to the approbation of the French Revolution, a declaration of attachment to the principles of our own Constitution; he said Mr. Tooke spoke in a figurative manner of the former Government of France; he described it as a vessel so foul and decayed, that no repair could save it from destruction, that in contrasting our state with that, he said, thank God, the main timbers of our Constitution are sound; he had before observed, however, that some reforms might be necessary; he said that sentiment was received with great disapprobation, and with very rude interruption, insomuch that Lord Stanhope, who was in the chair, interfered; he said it had happened to him, in many public meetings, to differ with and oppose the prisoner, and that he has frequently seen him received with very considerable marks of disapprobation, but he never saw them affect him much; he said that he himself objected to Mr. Tooke's amendment; he thinks he withdrew his amendment, and moved it as a separate motion; he said it was then carried as unanimously as his own motion had been; that original motion and separate motion are in these words:—'That this meeting does most cordially rejoice in the establishment and confirmation of liberty in France; and it beholds with peculiar satisfaction the sentiments of amity and good will which appear to pervade the people of that country towards this kingdom, especially at a time when it is the manifest interest of both states that nothing should interrupt the harmony which at present subsists between them, and which is so essentially necessary to the freedom and happiness, not only of the French nation, but of all mankind.'
"Mr. Tooke wished to add to his motion some qualifying clause, to guard against misunderstanding and misrepresentation:—that there was a wide difference between England and France; that in France the vessel was so foul and decayed, that no repair could save it from destruction, whereas, in England, we had a noble and stately vessel, sailing proudly on the bosom of the ocean; that her main timbers were sound, though it was true, after so long a course of years, she might want some repairs. Mr. Tooke's motion was,—'That we feel equal satisfaction that the subjects of England, by the virtuous exertions of their ancestors, have not so arduous a task to perform as the French have had, but have only to maintain and improve the Constitution which their ancestors have transmitted to them.'—This was carried unanimously."
The trial of Warren Hastings still "dragged its slow length along," and in the May of this year Mr. Sheridan was called upon for his Reply on the Begum Charge. It was usual, on these occasions, for the Manager who spoke to be assisted by one of his brother Managers, whose task it was to carry the bag that contained his papers, and to read out whatever Minutes might be referred to in the course of the argument. Mr. Michael Angelo Taylor was the person who undertook this office for Sheridan; but, on the morning of the speech, upon his asking for the bag that he was to carry, he was told by Sheridan that there was none—neither bag nor papers. They must manage, he said, as well as they could without them;—and when the papers were called for, his friend must only put the best countenance he could upon it. As for himself "he would abuse Ned Law—ridicule Plumer's long orations—make the Court laugh—please the women, and, in short, with Taylor's aid would get triumphantly through his task." His opening of the case was listened to with the profoundest attention; but when he came to contrast the evidence of the Commons with that adduced by Hastings, it was not long before the Chancellor interrupted him, with a request that the printed Minutes to which he referred should be read. Sheridan answered that his friend Mr. Taylor would read them; and Mr. Taylor affected to send for the bag, while the orator begged leave, in the meantime, to proceed. Again, however, his statements rendered a reference to the Minutes necessary, and again he was interrupted by the Chancellor, while an outcry after Mr. Sheridan's bag was raised in all directions. At first the blame was laid on the solicitor's clerk—then a messenger was dispatched to Mr. Sheridan's house. In the meantime, the orator was proceeding brilliantly and successfully in his argument; and, on some further interruption and expostulation from the Chancellor, raised his voice and said, in a dignified tone, "On the part of the Commons, and as a Manager of this Impeachment, I shall conduct my case as I think proper. I mean to be correct, and Your Lordships, having the printed Minutes before you, will afterwards see whether I am right or wrong."
During the bustle produced by the inquiries after the bag, Mr. Fox, alarmed at the inconvenience which, he feared, the want of it might occasion Sheridan, ran up from the Managers' room, and demanded eagerly the cause of this mistake from Mr. Taylor; who, hiding his mouth with his hand, whispered him, (in a tone of which they alone, who have heard this gentleman relate the anecdote, can feel the full humor,) "The man has no bag!"
The whole of this characteristic contrivance was evidently intended by Sheridan to raise that sort of surprise at the readiness of his resources, which it was the favorite triumph of his vanity to create. I have it on the authority of Mr. William Smythe, that, previously to the delivery of this speech, he passed two or three days alone at Wanstead, so occupied from morning till night in writing and reading of papers, as to complain in the evenings that he "had motes before his eyes." This mixture of real labor with apparent carelessness was, indeed, one of the most curious features of his life and character.
Together with the political contests of this stormy year, he had also on his mind the cares of his new Theatre, which opened on the 21st of April, with a prologue, not by himself, as might have been expected, but by his friend General Fitzpatrick. He found time, however, to assist in the rapid manufacture of a little piece called "The Glorious First of June," which was acted immediately after Lord Howe's victory, and of which I have found some sketches [Footnote: One of these is as follows:—
"SCENE I.—Miss Leake—Miss Decamp—Walsh.
"Short dialogue—Nancy persuading Susan to go to the Fair, where there is an entertainment to be given by the Lord of the Manor—Susan melancholy because Henry, her lover, is at sea with the British Admiral—Song —Her old mother scolds from the cottage—her little brother (Walsh) comes from the house, with a message—laughs at his sister's fears and sings—Trio.
"SCENE II.—The Fair
"Puppet show—dancing bear—bells—hurdy-gurdy—recruiting party—song and chorus.
"Susan says she has no pleasure, and will go and take a solitary walk.
"SCENE III.—Dark Wood.
"Susan—gipsy—tells her fortune—recitative and ditty.
"SEA-FIGHT—hell and the devil!
"Henry and Susan meet—Chorus introducing burden,
Among other occasional trifles of this kind, to which Sheridan condescended for the advantage of the theatre, was the pantomime of Robinson Crusoe, brought out, I believe, in 1781, of which he is understood to have been the author. There was a practical joke in this pantomime, (where, in pulling off a man's boot, the leg was pulled off with it,) which the famous Delpini laid claim to as his own, and publicly complained of Sheridan's having stolen it from him. The punsters of the day said it was claimed as literary property—being "in usum Delpini."
Another of these inglorious tasks of the author of The School for Scandal, was the furnishing of the first outline or Programme of "The Forty Thieves." His brother in law, Ward, supplied the dialogue, and Mr. Colman was employed to season it with an infusion of jokes. The following is Sheridan's sketch of one of the scenes—
"Bannister called out of the cavern boldly by his son—comes out and falls on the ground a long time, not knowing him—says he would only have taken a little gold to Keep off misery and save his son, &c.
"Afterwards, when he loads his asses, his son reminds him to be moderate—but it was a promise made to thieves—'it gets nearer the owner, if taken from the stealer'—the son disputes this morality—'they stole it, ergo, they have no right to it; and we steal it from the stealer, ergo, our title is twice as bad as theirs.'"] in Sheridan's hand-writing,—though the dialogue was, no doubt, supplied (as Mr. Boaden says,) "by Cobb, or some other such pedissequus of the Dramatic Muse. This piece was written, rehearsed, and acted within three days. The first operation of Mr. Sheridan towards it was to order the mechanist of the theatre to get ready two fleets. It was in vain that objections were started to the possibility of equipping these pasteboard armaments in so short an interval—Lord Chatham's famous order to Lord Anson was not more peremptory. [Footnote: For the expedition to the coast of France, after the Convention of Closter seven. When he ordered the fleet to be equipped, and appointed the time and place of its rendezvous, Lord Anson said it would be impossible to have it prepared so soon. "It may," said Mr. Pitt, "be done, and if the ships are not ready at the time specified, I shall signify Your Lordship's neglect to the King, and impeach you in the House of Commons." This intimation produced the desired effect—the ships were ready. See Anecdotes of Lord Chatham, vol. i] The two fleets were accordingly ready at the time, and the Duke of Clarence attended the rehearsal of their evolutions. This mixture of the cares of the Statesman and the Manager is one of those whimsical peculiarities that made Sheridan's own life so dramatic, and formed a compound altogether too singular ever to occur again.
In the spring of the following year, (1795,) we find Mr. Sheridan paying that sort of tribute to the happiness of a first marriage which is implied by the step of entering into a second. The lady to whom he now united himself was Miss Esther Jane Ogle, daughter of the Dean of Winchester, and grand-daughter, by the mother's side, of the former Bishop of Winchester. We have here another proof of the ready mine of wealth which the theatre opened,—as in gratitude it ought,—to him who had endowed, it with such imperishable treasures. The fortune of the lady being five thousand pounds, he added to it fifteen thousand more, which he contrived to raise by the sale of Drury-Lane shares; and the whole of the sum was subsequently laid out in the purchase from Sir W. Geary of the estate of Polesden, in Surrey, near Leatherhead. The Trustees of this settlement were Mr. Grey, (now Lord Grey,) and Mr. Whitbread.
To a man at the time of life which Sheridan had now attained—four years beyond that period, at which Petrarch thought it decorous to leave off writing love-verses [Footnote: See his Epistle, "ad Posteritatem," where, after lamenting the many years which he had devoted to love, he adds: "Mox vero ad quadragesimum annum appropinquans, dum adhuc et caloris satis esset," &c.]—a union with a young and accomplished girl, ardently devoted to him, must have been like a renewal of his own youth; and it is, indeed, said by those who were in habits of intimacy with him at this period, that they had seldom seen his spirits in a state of more buoyant vivacity. He passed much of his time at the house of his father-in-law near Southampton;—and in sailing about with his lively bride on the Southampton river, (in a small cutter called the Phaedria, after the magic boat in the "Fairy Queen,") forgot for a while his debts, his theatre, and his politics. It was on one of these occasions that my friend Mr. Bowles, who was a frequent companion of his parties, [Footnote: Among other distinguished persons present at these excursions were Mr. Joseph Richardson, Dr. Howley, now Bishop of London, and Mrs. Wilmot, now Lady Dacre, a lady, whose various talents,—not the less delightful for being so feminine,—like the group of the Graces, reflect beauty on each other.] wrote the following verses, which were much admired, as they well deserved to be, by Sheridan, for the sweetness of their thoughts, and the perfect music of their rhythm:—
"Smooth went our boat upon the summer seas, Leaving, (for so it seem'd.) the world behind, Its cares, its sounds, its shadows: we reclin'd Upon the sunny deck, heard but the breeze That o'er us whispering pass'd or idly play'd With the lithe flag aloft.—A woodland scene On either side drew its slope line of green, And hung the water's shining edge with shade. Above the woods, Netley! thy ruins pale Peer'd, as we pass'd; and Vecta's  azure hue Beyond the misty castle  met the view; Where in mid channel hung the scarce-seen sail. So all was calm and sunshine as we went Cheerily o'er the briny element. Oh! were this little boat to us the world, As thus we wander'd far from sounds of care, Circled with friends and gentle maidens fair, Whilst morning airs the waving pendant curl'd, How sweet were life's long voyage, till in peace We gain'd that haven still, where all things cease!"
[Footnote 1: Isle of Wight] [Footnote 2: Kelshot Castle]
The events of this year but added fresh impetus to that reaction upon each other of the Government and the People, which such a system of misrule is always sure to produce. Among the worst effects, as I have already remarked, of the rigorous policy adopted by the Minister, was the extremity to which it drove the principles and language of Opposition, and that sanction which the vehement rebound against oppression of such influencing spirits as Fox and Sheridan seemed to hold out to the obscurer and more practical assertors of freedom. This was at no time more remarkable than in the present Session, during the discussion of those arbitrary measures, the Treason and Sedition Bills, when sparks were struck out, in the collision of the two principles, which the combustible state of public feeling at the moment rendered not a little perilous. On the motion that the House should resolve itself into a Committee upon the Treason Bill, Mr. Fox said, that "if Ministers were determined, by means of the corrupt influence they already possessed in the two Houses of Parliament, to pass these Bills, in violent opposition to the declared sense of the great majority of the nation, and they should be put in force with all their rigorous provisions,—if his opinion were asked by the people as to their obedience, he should tell them, that it was no longer a question of moral obligation and duty, but of prudence." Mr. Sheridan followed in the bold footsteps of his friend, and said, that "if a degraded and oppressed majority of the people applied to him, he would advise them to acquiesce in those bills only as long as resistance was imprudent." This language was, of course, visited with the heavy reprobation of the Ministry;—but their own partisans had already gone as great lengths on the side of absolute power, and it is the nature of such extremes to generate each other. Bishop Horsley had preached the doctrine of passive obedience in the House of Lords, asserting that "man's abuse of his delegated authority is to be borne with resignation, like any other of God's judgments; and that the opposition of the individual to the sovereign power is an opposition to God's providential arrangements." The promotion of the Right Reverend Prelate that followed, was not likely to abate his zeal in the cause of power; and, accordingly, we find him in the present session declaring, in his place in the House of Lords, that "the people have nothing to do with the laws but to obey them."
The government, too, had lately given countenance to writers, the absurd slavishness of whose doctrines would have sunk below contempt, but for such patronage. Among the ablest of them was Arthur Young,—one of those renegades from the cause of freedom, who, like the incendiary that set fire to the Temple with the flame he had stolen from its altar, turn the fame and the energies which they have acquired in defence of liberty against her. This gentleman, to whom his situation as Secretary to the Board of Agriculture afforded facilities for the circulation of his political heresies, did not scruple, in one of his pamphlets, roundly to assert, that unequal representation, rotten boroughs, long parliaments, extravagant courts, selfish Ministers, and corrupt majorities, are not only intimately interwoven with the practical freedom of England, but, in a great degree, the causes of it.
But the most active and notorious of these patronized advocates of the Court was Mr. John Reeves,—a person who, in his capacity of President of the Association against Republicans and Levellers, had acted as a sort of Sub-minister of Alarm to Mr. Burke. In a pamphlet, entitled "Thoughts on the English Government," which Mr. Sheridan brought under the notice of the House, as a libel on the Constitution, this pupil of the school of Filmer advanced the startling doctrine that the Lords and Commons of England derive their existence and authority from the King, and that the Kingly government could go on, in all its functions, without them. This pitiful paradox found an apologist in Mr. Windham, whose chivalry in the new cause he had espoused left Mr. Pitt himself at a wondering distance behind. His speeches in defence of Reeves, (which are among the proofs that remain of that want of equipoise observable in his fine, rather than solid, understanding,) have been with a judicious charity towards his memory, omitted in the authentic collection by Mr. Amyot.
When such libels against the Constitution were not only promulgated, but acted upon, on one side, it was to be expected, and hardly, perhaps, to be regretted, that the repercussion should be heard loudly and warningly from the other. Mr. Fox, by a subsequent explanation, softened down all that was most menacing in his language; and, though the word "Resistance," at full length, should, like the hand-writing on the wall, be reserved for the last intoxication of the Belshazzars of this world, a letter or two of it may, now and then, glare out upon their eyes, without producing any thing worse than a salutary alarm amid their revels. At all events, the high and constitutional grounds on which Mr. Fox defended the expressions he had hazarded, may well reconcile us to any risk incurred by their utterance. The tribute to the house of Russell, in the grand and simple passage beginning, "Dear to this country are the descendants of the illustrious Russell," is as applicable to that Noble family now as it was then; and will continue to be so, I trust, as long as a single vestige of a race, so pledged to the cause of liberty, remains.
In one of Mr. Sheridan's speeches on the subject of Reeves's libel, there are some remarks on the character of the people of England, not only candid and just, but, as applied to them at that trying crisis, interesting:—
"Never was there," he said, "any country in which there was so much absence of public principle, and at the same time so many instances of private worth. Never was there so much charity and humanity towards the poor and the distressed; any act of cruelty or oppression never failed to excite a sentiment of general indignation against its authors. It was a circumstance peculiarly strange, that though luxury had arrived to such a pitch, it had so little effect in depraving the hearts and destroying the morals of people in private life; and almost every day produced some fresh example of generous feelings and noble exertions of benevolence. Yet amidst these phenomena of private virtue, it was to be remarked, that there was an almost total want of public spirit, and a most deplorable contempt of public principle.
* * * * *
"When Great Britain fell, the case would not be with her as with Rome in former times. When Rome fell, she fell by the weight of her own vices. The inhabitants were so corrupted and degraded, as to be unworthy of a continuance of prosperity, and incapable to enjoy the blessings of liberty; their minds were bent to the state in which a reverse of fortune placed them. But when Great Britain falls, she will fall with a people full of private worth and virtue; she will be ruined by the profligacy of the governors, and the security of her inhabitants,—the consequence of those pernicious doctrines which have taught her to place a false confidence in her strength and freedom, and not to look with distrust and apprehension to the misconduct and corruption of those to whom she has trusted the management of her resources."
To this might have been added, that when Great Britain falls, it will not be from either ignorance of her rights, or insensibility to their value, but from that want of energy to assert them which a high state of civilization produces. The love of ease that luxury brings along with it,—the selfish and compromising spirit, in which the members of a polished society countenance each other, and which reverses the principle of patriotism, by sacrificing public interests to private ones,—the substitution of intellectual for moral excitement, and the repression of enthusiasm by fastidiousness and ridicule,—these are among the causes that undermine a people,—that corrupt in the very act of enlightening them; till they become, what a French writer calls "esprits exigeans et caracteres complaisans," and the period in which their rights are best understood may be that in which they most easily surrender them. It is, indeed, with the advanced age of free States, as with that of individuals,—they improve in the theory of their existence as they grow unfit for the practice of it; till, at last, deceiving themselves with the semblance of rights gone by, and refining upon the forms of their institutions after they have lost the substance, they smoothly sink into slavery, with the lessons of liberty on their lips.
Besides the Treason and Sedition Bills, the Suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act was another of the momentous questions which, in this as well as the preceding Session, were chosen as points of assault by Mr. Sheridan, and contested with a vigor and reiteration of attack, which, though unavailing against the massy majorities of the Minister, yet told upon public opinion so as to turn even defeats to account.
The marriage of the Prince of Wales to the Princess Caroline of Brunswick having taken place in the spring of this year, it was proposed by His Majesty to Parliament, not only to provide an establishment for their Royal Highnesses, but to decide on the best manner of liquidating the debts of the Prince, which were calculated at 630,000l. On the secession of the leading Whigs, in 1792, His Royal Highness had also separated himself from Mr. Fox, and held no further intercourse either with him or any of his party,—except, occasionally, Mr. Sheridan,—till so late, I believe, as the year 1798. The effects of this estrangement are sufficiently observable in the tone of the Opposition throughout the debates on the Message of the King. Mr. Grey said, that he would not oppose the granting of an establishment to the Prince equal to that of his ancestors; but neither would he consent to the payment of his debts by Parliament. A refusal, he added, to liberate His Royal Highness from his embarrassments would certainly prove a mortification; but it would, at the same time, awaken a just sense of his imprudence. Mr. Fox asked, "Was the Prince well advised in applying to that House on the subject of his debts, after the promise made in 1787?"—and Mr. Sheridan, while he agreed with his friends that the application should not have been made to Parliament, still gave it as his "positive opinion that the debts ought to be paid immediately, for the dignity of the country and the situation of the Prince, who ought not to be seen rolling about the streets, in his state-coach, as an insolvent prodigal." With respect to the promise given in 1787, and now violated, that the Prince would not again apply to Parliament for the payment of his debts, Mr. Sheridan, with a communicativeness that seemed hardly prudent, put the House in possession of some details of the transaction, which, as giving an insight into Royal character, are worthy of being extracted.
"In 1787, a pledge was given to the House that no more debts should be contracted. By that pledge the Prince was bound as much as if he had given it knowingly and voluntarily. To attempt any explanation of it now would be unworthy of his honor,—as if he had suffered it to be wrung from him, with a view of afterwards pleading that it was against his better judgment, in order to get rid of it. He then advised the Prince not to make any such promise, because it was not to be expected that he could himself enforce the details of a system of economy; and, although he had men of honor and abilities about him, he was totally unprovided with men of business, adequate to such a task. The Prince said he could not give such a pledge, and agree at the same time to take back his establishment. He (Mr. Sheridan) drew up a plan of retrenchment, which was approved of by the Prince, and afterwards by His Majesty; and the Prince told him that the promise was not to be insisted upon. In the King's Message, however, the promise was inserted,—by whose advice he knew not. He heard it read with surprise, and, on being asked next day by the Prince to contradict it in his place, he inquired whether the Prince had seen the Message before it was brought down. Being told that it had been read to him, but that he did not understand it as containing a promise, he declined contradicting it, and told the Prince that he must abide by it in whatever way it might have been obtained. By the plan then settled, Ministers had a check upon the Prince's expenditure, which they never exerted, nor enforced adherence to the plan.
* * * * *
"While Ministers never interfered to check expenses, of which they could not pretend ignorance, the Prince had recourse to means for relieving himself from his embarrassments, which ultimately tended to increase them. It was attempted to raise a loan for him in foreign countries, a measure which he thought unconstitutional, and put a stop to; and, after a consultation with Lord Loughborough, all the bonds were burnt, although with a considerable loss to the Prince. After that, another plan of retrenchment was proposed, upon which he had frequent consultations with Lord Thurlow, who gave the Prince fair, open, and manly advice. That Noble Lord told the Prince, that, after the promise he had made, he must not think of applying to Parliament;—that he must avoid being of any party in politics, but, above all, exposing himself to the suspicion of being influenced in political opinion by his embarrassments;—that the only course he could pursue with honor, was to retire from public life for a time, and appropriate the greater part of his income to the liquidation of his debts. This plan was agreed upon in the autum of 1792. Why, it might be asked, was it not carried into effect? About that period his Royal Highness began to receive unsolicited advice from another quarter. He was told by Lord Loughborough, both in words and in writing, that the plan savored too much of the advice given to M. Egalite, and he could guess from what quarter it came. For his own part, he was then of opinion, that to have avoided meddling in the great political questions which were then coming to be discussed, and to have put his affairs in a train of adjustment, would have better become his high station, and tended more to secure public respect to it, than the pageantry of state-liveries."
The few occasions on which the name of Mr. Sheridan was again connected with literature, after the final investment of his genius in political speculations, were such as his fame might have easily dispensed with;—and one of them, the forgery of the Shakspeare papers, occurred in the course of the present year. Whether it was that he looked over these manuscripts with the eye more of a manager than of a critic, and considered rather to what account the belief in their authenticity might be turned, than how far it was founded upon internal evidence;—or whether, as Mr. Ireland asserts, the standard at which he rated the genius of Shakspeare was not so high as to inspire him with a very watchful fastidiousness of judgment; certain it is that he was, in some degree, the dupe of this remarkable imposture, which, as a lesson to the self-confidence of criticism, and an exposure of the fallibility of taste, ought never to be forgotten in literary history.
The immediate payment of 300l. and a moiety of the profits for the first sixty nights, were the terms upon which Mr. Sheridan purchased the play of Vortigern from the Irelands. The latter part of the conditions was voided the first night; and, though it is more than probable that a genuine tragedy of Shakspeare, if presented under similar circumstances, would have shared the same fate, the public enjoyed the credit of detecting and condemning a counterfeit, which had passed current through some of the most learned and tasteful hands of the day. It is but justice, however, to Mr. Sheridan to add, that, according to the account of Ireland himself, he was not altogether without misgivings during his perusal of the manuscripts, and that his name does not appear among the signatures to that attestation of their authenticity which his friend Dr. Parr drew up, and was himself the first to sign. The curious statement of Mr. Ireland, with respect to Sheridan's want of enthusiasm for Shakspeare, receives some confirmation from the testimony of Mr. Boaden, the biographer of Kemble, who tells us that "Kemble frequently expressed to him his wonder that Sheridan should trouble himself so little about Shakspeare." This peculiarity of taste,—if it really existed to the degree that these two authorities would lead us to infer,—affords a remarkable coincidence with the opinions of another illustrious genius, lately lost to the world, whose admiration of the great Demiurge of the Drama was leavened with the same sort of heresy.
In the January of this year, Mr. William Stone—the brother of the gentleman whose letter from Paris has been given in a preceding Chapter—was tried upon a charge of High Treason, and Mr. Sheridan was among the witnesses summoned for the prosecution. He had already in the year 1794, in consequence of a reference from Mr. Stone himself, been examined before the Privy Council, relative to a conversation which he had held with that gentleman, and, on the day after his examination, had, at the request of Mr. Dundas, transmited to that Minister in writing the particulars of his testimony before the Council. There is among his papers a rough draft of this Statement, in comparing which with his evidence upon the trial in the present year, I find rather a curious proof of the faithlessness of even the best memories. The object of the conversation which he had held with Mr. Stone in 1794—and which constituted the whole of their intercourse with each other—was a proposal on the part of the latter, submitted also to Lord Lauderdale and others, to exert his influence in France, through those channels which his brother's residence there opened to him, for the purpose of averting the threatened invasion of England, by representing to the French rulers the utter hopelessness of such an attempt. Mr. Sheridan, on the trial, after an ineffectual request to be allowed to refer to his written Statement, gave the following as part of his recollections of the conversation:—
"Mr. Stone stated that, in order to effect this purpose, he had endeavored to collect the opinions of several gentlemen, political characters in this country, whose opinions he thought would be of authority sufficient to advance his object; that for this purpose he had had interviews with different gentlemen; he named Mr. Smith and, I think, one or two more, whose names I do not now recollect. He named some gentlemen connected with Administration—if the Counsel will remind me of the name—"
Here Mr. Law, the examining Counsel, remarked, that "upon the cross-examination, if the gentlemen knew the circumstance, they would mention it." The cross-examination of Sheridan by Sergeant Adair was as follows:—
"You stated in the course of your examination that Mr. Stone said there was a gentleman connected with Government, to whom he had made a similar communication, should you recollect the name of that person if you were reminded of it?—I certainly should.—Was it General Murray?—General Murray certainly."
Notwithstanding this, however, it appears from the written Statement in my possession, drawn up soon after the conversation in question, that this "gentleman connected with Government," so difficult to be remembered, was no other than the Prime Minister, Mr. Pitt himself. So little is the memory to be relied upon in evidence, particularly when absolved from responsibility by the commission of its deposit to writing. The conduct of Mr. Sheridan throughout this transaction appears to have been sensible and cautious. That he was satisfied with it himself may be collected from the conclusion of his letter to Mr. Dundas:—"Under the circumstances in which the application, (from Mr. Dundas,) has been made to me, I have thought it equally a matter of respect to that application and of respect to myself, as well as of justice to the person under suspicion, to give this relation more in detail than at first perhaps might appear necessary. My own conduct in the matter not being in question, I can only say that were a similar case to occur, I think I should act in every circumstance precisely in the manner I did on this occasion."
The parliamentary exertions of Mr. Sheridan this year, though various and active, were chiefly upon subordinate questions; and, except in the instance of Mr. Fox's Motion of Censure upon Ministers for advancing money to the Emperor without the consent of Parliament, were not distinguished by any signal or sustained displays of eloquence. The grand questions, indeed, connected with the liberty of the subject, had been so hotly contested, that but few new grounds were left on which to renew the conflict. Events, however,—the only teachers of the great mass of mankind,—were beginning to effect what eloquence had in vain attempted. The people of England, though generally eager for war, are seldom long in discovering that "the cup but sparkles near the brim;" and in the occurrences of the following year they were made to taste the full bitterness of the draught. An alarm for the solvency of the Bank, an impending invasion, a mutiny in the fleet, and an organized rebellion in Ireland,—such were the fruits of four years' warfare, and they were enough to startle even the most sanguine and precipitate into reflection.
The conduct of Mr. Sheridan on the breaking out of the Mutiny at the Nore is too well known and appreciated to require any illustration here. It is placed to his credit on the page of history, and was one of the happiest impulses of good feeling and good sense combined, that ever public man acted upon in a situation demanding so much of both. The patriotic promptitude of his interference was even more striking than it appears in the record of his parliamentary labors; for, as I have heard at but one remove from his own authority, while the Ministry were yet hesitating as to the steps they should take, he went to Mr. Dundas and said.—"My advice is that you cut the buoys on the river—send Sir Charles Grey down to the coast, and set a price on Parker's head. If the Administration take this advice instantly, they ill save the country—if not, they will lose it; and, on their refusal, I will impeach them in the House of Commons this very evening."
Without dwelling on the contrast which is so often drawn—less with a view to elevate Sheridan than to depreciate his party—between the conduct of himself and his friends at this fearful crisis, it is impossible not to concede that, on the scale of public spirit, he rose as far superior to them as the great claims of the general safety transcend all personal considerations and all party ties. It was, indeed, a rare triumph of temper and sagacity. With less temper, he would have seen in this awful peril but an occasion of triumph over the Minister whom he had so long been struggling to overturn—and, with less sagacity, he would have thrown away the golden opportunity of establishing himself for ever in the affections and the memories of Englishmen, as one whose heart was in the common-weal, whatever might be his opinions, and who, in the moment of peril, could sink the partisan in the patriot.
As soon as he had performed this exemplary duty, he joined Mr. Fox and the rest of his friends who had seceded from Parliament about a week before, on the very day after the rejection of Mr. Grey's motion for a reform. This step, which was intended to create a strong sensation, by hoisting, as it were, the signal of despair to the country, was followed by no such striking effects, and left little behind but a question as to its prudence and patriotism. The public saw, however, with pleasure, that there were still a few champions of the constitution, who did not "leave her fair side all unguarded" in this extremity. Mr. Tierney, among others, remained at his post, encountering Mr. Pitt on financial questions with a vigor and address to which the latter had been hitherto unaccustomed, and perfecting by practice that shrewd power of analysis, which has made him so formidable a sifter of ministerial sophistries ever since. Sir Francis Burdett, too, was just then entering into his noble career of patriotism; and, like the youthful servant of the temple in Euripides, was aiming his first shafts at those unclean birds, that settle within the sanctuary of the Constitution and sully its treasures:—
[Greek: "ptaenon t'agalas A blaptusae Semn' anathaemata"]
By a letter from the Earl of Moira to Col. M'Mahon in the summer of this year it appears, that in consequence of the calamitous state of the country, a plan had been in agitation among some members of the House of Commons, who had hitherto supported the measures of the Minister, to form an entirely new Administration, of which the Noble Earl was to be the head, and from which both Mr. Pitt and Mr. Fox, as equally obnoxious to the public, were to be excluded. The only materials that appear to have been forthcoming for this new Cabinet were Lord Moira himself, Lord Thurlow, and Sir William Pulteney—the last of whom it was intended to make Chancellor of the Exchequer. Such a tottering balance of parties, however, could not have been long maintained; and its relapse, after a short interval, into Toryism, would but have added to the triumph of Mr. Pitt, and increased his power. Accordingly Lord Moira, who saw from the beginning the delicacy and difficulty of the task, wisely abandoned it. The share that Mr. Sheridan had in this transaction is too honorable to him not to be recorded, and the particulars cannot be better given than in Lord Moira's own words:—
"You say that Mr. Sheridan has been traduced, as wishing to abandon Mr. Fox, and to promote a new Administration. I had accidentally a conversation with that gentleman at the House of Lords. I remonstrated strongly with him against a principle which I heard Mr. Fox's friends intended to lay down, namely, that they would support a new Administration, but that not any of them would take part in it. I solemnly declare, upon my honor, that I could not shake Mr. Sheridan's conviction of the propriety of that determination. He said that he and Mr. Fox's other friends, as well as Mr. Fox himself, would give the most energetic support to such an Administration as was in contemplation; but that their acceptance of office would appear an acquiescence under the injustice of the interdict supposed to be fixed upon Mr. Fox. I did not and never can admit the fairness of that argument. But I gained nothing upon Mr. Sheridan, to whose uprightness in that respect I can therefore bear the most decisive testimony. Indeed I am ashamed of offering testimony, where suspicion ought not to have been conceived."
PLAY OF "THE STRANGER"—SPEECHES IN PARLIAMENT.—PIZARRO.—MINISTRY OF MR. ADDINGTON.—FRENCH INSTITUTE.—NEGOTIATION WITH MR. KEMBLE.
The theatrical season of 1798 introduced to the public the German drama of "The Stranger," translated by Mr. Thompson, and (as we are told by this gentleman in his preface) altered and improved by Sheridan. There is reason, however, to believe that the contributions of the latter to the dialogue were much more considerable than he was perhaps willing to let the translator acknowledge. My friend Mr. Rogers has heard him, on two different occasions, declare that he had written every word of the Stranger from beginning to end; and, as his vanity could not be much interested in such a claim, it is possible that there was at least some virtual foundation for it.