About three weeks after, ensued the Dissolution of Parliament,—a measure attended with considerable unpopularity to the Ministry, and originating as much in the enmity of one of its members to Lord Sidmouth, as the introduction of that noble Lord among them, at all, was owing to the friendship of another. In consequence of this event, Lord Percy having declined offering himself again, Mr. Sheridan became a candidate for Westminster, and after a most riotous contest with a demagogue of the moment, named Paul, was, together with Sir Samuel Hood, declared duly elected.
The moderate measure in favor of the Roman Catholics, which the Ministry now thought it due to the expectations of that body to bring forward, was, as might be expected, taken advantage of by the King to rid himself of their counsels, and produced one of those bursts of bigotry, by which the people of England have so often disgraced themselves. It is sometimes a misfortune to men of wit, that they put their opinions in a form to be remembered. We might, perhaps, have been ignorant of the keen, but worldly view which Mr. Sheridan, on this occasion, took of the hardihood of his colleagues, if he had not himself expressed it in a form so portable to the memory. "He had often," he said, "heard of people knocking out their brains against a wall, but never before knew of any one building a wall expressly for the purpose."
It must be owned, indeed, that, though far too sagacious and liberal not to be deeply impressed with the justice of the claims advanced by the Catholics, he was not altogether disposed to go those generous lengths in their favor, of which Mr. Fox and a few others of their less calculating friends were capable. It was his avowed opinion, that, though the measure, whenever brought forward, should be supported and enforced by the whole weight of the party, they ought never so far to identify or encumber themselves with it, as to make its adoption a sine-qua-non of their acceptance or retention of office. His support, too, of the Ministry of Mr. Addington, which was as virtually pledged against the Catholics as that which now succeeded to power, sufficiently shows the secondary station that this great question occupied in his mind; nor can such a deviation from the usual tone of his political feelings be otherwise accounted for, than by supposing that he was aware of the existence of a strong indisposition to the measure in that quarter, by whose views and wishes his public conduct was, in most cases, regulated.
On the general question, however, of the misgovernment of Ireland, and the disabilities of the Catholics, as forming its most prominent feature, his zeal was always forthcoming and ardent,—and never more so than during the present Session, when, on the question of the Irish Arms Bill, and his own motion upon the State of Ireland, he distinguished himself by an animation and vigor worthy of the best period of his eloquence.
Mr. Grattan, in supporting the coercive measures now adopted against his country, had shown himself, for once, alarmed into a concurrence with the wretched system of governing by Insurrection Acts, and, for once, lent his sanction to the principle upon which all such measures are founded, namely, that of enabling Power to defend itself against the consequences of its own tyranny and injustice. In alluding to some expressions used by this great man, Sheridan said:—
"He now happened to recollect what was said by a Right Honorable Gentleman, to whose opinions they all deferred, (Mr. Grattan,) that notwithstanding he voted for the present measure, with all its defects, rather than lose it altogether, yet that gentleman said, that he hoped to secure the revisionary interest of the Constitution to Ireland. But when he saw that the Constitution was suspended from the year 1796 to the present period, and that it was now likely to be continued for three years longer, the danger was that we might lose the interest altogether;—when we were mortgaged for such a length of time, at last a foreclosure might take place."
The following is an instance of that happy power of applying old stories, for which Mr. Windham, no less than Sheridan, was remarkable, and which, by promoting anecdote into the service of argument and wit, ennobles it, when trivial, and gives new youth to it, when old.
"When they and others complain of the discontents of the Irish, they never appear to consider the cause. When they express their surprise that the Irish are not contented, while according to their observation, that people have so much reason to be happy, they betray a total ignorance of their actual circumstances. The fact is, that the tyranny practised upon the Irish has been throughout unremitting. There has been no change but in the manner of inflicting it. They have had nothing but variety in oppression, extending to all ranks and degrees of a certain description of the people. If you would know what this varied oppression consisted in, I refer you to the Penal Statutes you have repealed, and to some of those which still exist. There you will see the high and the low equally subjected to the lash of persecution; and yet still some persons affect to be astonished at the discontents of the Irish. But with all my reluctance to introduce any thing ludicrous upon so serious an occasion, I cannot help referring to a little story which those very astonished persons call to my mind. It was with respect to an Irish drummer, who was employed to inflict punishment upon a soldier. When the boy struck high, the poor soldier exclaimed, 'Lower, bless you,' with which the boy complied. But soon after the soldier exclaimed, 'Higher if you please,' But again he called out, 'A little lower:' upon which the accommodating boy addressed him—'Now, upon my conscience, I see you are a discontented man; for, strike where I may, there's no pleasing you.' Now your complaint of the discontents of the Irish appears to me quite as rational, while you continue to strike, only altering the place of attack."
Upon this speech, which may be considered as the bouquet, or last parting blaze of his eloquence, he appears to have bestowed considerable care and thought. The concluding sentences of the following passage, though in his very worst taste, were as anxiously labored by him, and put through as many rehearsals on paper, as any of the most highly finished witticisms in The School for Scandal.
"I cannot think patiently of such petty squabbles, while Bonaparte is grasping the nations; while he is surrounding France, not with that iron frontier, for which the wish and childish ambition of Louis XIV. was so eager, but with kingdoms of his own creation; securing the gratitude of higher minds as the hostage, and the fears of others as pledges for his safety. His are no ordinary fortifications. His martello towers are thrones; sceptres tipt with crowns are the palisadoes of his entrenchments, and Kings are his sentinels."
The Reporter here, by "tipping" the sceptres "with crowns," has improved, rather unnecessarily, upon the finery of the original. The following are specimens of the various trials of this passage which I find scribbled over detached scraps of paper:—
"Contrast the different attitudes and occupations of the two governments:—B. eighteen months from his capital,—head-quarters in the villages,—neither Berlin nor Warsaw,—dethroning and creating thrones,— the works he raises are monarchies,—sceptres his palisadoes, thrones his martello towers."
"Commissioning kings,—erecting thrones,—martello towers,—Cambaceres count noses,—Austrians, fine dressed, like Pompey's troops."
"B. fences with sceptres,—his martello towers are thrones,—he alone is, France."
Another Dissolution of Parliament having taken place this year, he again became a candidate for the city of Westminster. But, after a violent contest, during which he stood the coarse abuse of the mob with the utmost good humor and playfulness, the election ended in favor of Sir Francis Burdett and Lord Cochrane, and Sheridan was returned, with his friend Mr. Michael Angelo Taylor, for the borough of Ilchester.
In the autumn of 1807 he had conceived some idea of leasing the property of Drury-Lane Theatre, and with that view had set on foot, through Mr. Michael Kelly, who was then in Ireland, a negotiation with Mr. Frederick Jones, the proprietor of the Dublin Theatre. In explaining his object to Mr. Kelly, in a letter dated August 30, 1807, he describes it as "a plan by which the property may be leased to those who have the skill and the industry to manage it as it should be for their own advantage, upon terms which would render any risk to them almost impossible;—the profit to them, (he adds,) would probably be beyond what I could now venture to state, and yet upon terms which would be much better for the real proprietors than any thing that can arise from the careless and ignorant manner in which the undertaking is now misconducted by those who, my son excepted, have no interest in its success, and who lose nothing by its failure."
The negotiation with Mr. Jones was continued into the following year; and, according to a draft of agreement, which this gentleman has been kind enough to show me, in Sheridan's handwriting, it was intended that Mr. Jones should, on becoming proprietor of one quarter-share of the property, "undertake the management of the Theatre in conjunction with Mr. T. Sheridan, and be entitled to the same remuneration, namely, 1000L. per annum certain income, and a certain per centage on the net profits arising from the office-receipts, as should be agreed upon," &c. &c.
The following memorandum of a bet connected with this transaction, is of somewhat a higher class of wagers than the One Tun Tavern has often had the honor of recording among its archives:—
"One Tun, St. James's Market, May 26, 1808."
"In the presence of Messrs. G. Ponsonby, R. Power, and Mr. Becher, [Footnote: It is not without a deep feeling of melancholy that I transcribe this paper. Of three of my most valued friends,—whose names are signed to it,—Becher, Ponsonby, and Power,—the last has, within a few short months, been snatched away, leaving behind him the recollection of as many gentle and manly virtues as ever concurred to give sweetness and strength to character.] Mr. Jones bets Mr. Sheridan five hundred guineas that he, Mr. Sheridan, does not write, and produce under his name, a play of five acts, or a first piece of three, within the term of three years from the 15th of September next.—It is distinctly to be understood that this bet is not valid unless Mr. Jones becomes a partner in Drury-Lane Theatre before the commencement of the ensuing season.
"Richard Power, "R. B. SHERIDAN, "George Ponsonby, "FRED. EDW. JONES. "W. W. Becher.
"N. B.—W. W. Becher and Richard Power join, one fifty,—the other one hundred pounds in this bet.
The grand movement of Spain, in the year 1808, which led to consequences so important to the rest of Europe, though it has left herself as enslaved and priest-ridden as ever, was hailed by Sheridan with all that prompt and well-timed ardor, with which he alone, of all his party, knew how to meet such great occasions. Had his political associates but learned from his example thus to place themselves in advance of the procession of events, they would not have had the triumphal wheels pass by them and over them so frequently. Immediately on the arrival of the Deputies from Spain, he called the attention of the House to the affairs of that country; and his speech on the subject, though short and unstudied, had not only the merit of falling in with the popular feeling at the moment, but, from the views which it pointed out through the bright opening now made by Spain, was every way calculated to be useful both at home and abroad.
"Let Spain," he said, "see, that we were not inclined to stint the services we had it in our power to render her; that we were not actuated by the desire of any petty advantage to ourselves; but that our exertions were to be solely directed to the attainment of the grand and general object, the emancipation of the world. If the flame were once fairly caught, our success was certain. France would then find, that she had hitherto been contending only against principalities, powers, and authorities, but that she had now to contend against a people."
The death of Lord Lake this year removed those difficulties which had, ever since the appointment of Sheridan to the receivership of the Duchy of Cornwall, stood in the way of his reaping the full advantages of that office. Previously to the departure of General Lake for India, the Prince had granted to him the reversion of this situation which was then filled by Lord Elliot. It was afterwards, however, discovered that, according to the terms of the Grant, the place could not be legally held or deputed by any one who had not been actually sworn into it before the Prince's Council. On the death of Lord Elliot, therefore, His Royal Highness thought himself authorized, as we have seen, in conferring the appointment upon Mr. Sheridan. This step, however, was considered by the friends of General Lake as not only a breach of promise, but a violation of right; and it would seem from one of the documents which I am about to give, that measures were even in train for enforcing the claim by law. The first is a Letter on the subject from Sheridan to Colonel M'Mahon:—
"MY DEAR M'MAHON,
"I have thoroughly considered and reconsidered the subject we talked upon today. Nothing on earth shall make me risk the possibility of the Prince's goodness to me furnishing an opportunity for a single scurrilous fool's presuming to hint even that he had, in the slightest manner, departed from the slightest engagement. The Prince's right, in point of law and justice, on the present occasion to recall the appointment given, I hold to be incontestible; but, believe me, I am right in the proposition I took the liberty of submitting to His Royal Highness, and which (so far is he from wishing to hurt General Lake,) he graciously approved. But understand me,—my meaning is to give I up the emoluments of the situation to General Lake, holding the situation at the Prince's pleasure, and abiding by an arbitrated estimate of General Lake's claim, supposing His Royal Highness had appointed him; in other words, to value his interest in the appointment as if he had it, and to pay him for it or resign to him.
"With the Prince's permission I should be glad to meet Mr. Warwick Lake, and I am confident that no two men of common sense and good intentions can fail, in ten minutes, to arrange it so as to meet the Prince's wishes, and not to leave the shadow of a pretence for envious malignity to whisper a word against his decision.
"R. B. SHERIDAN.
"I write in great haste—going to A——."
The other Paper that I shall give, as throwing light on the transaction, is a rough and unfinished sketch by Sheridan of a statement, intended to be transmitted to General Lake, containing the particulars of both Grants, and the documents connected with them:—
"I am commanded by the Prince of Wales to transmit to you a correct Statement of a transaction in which your name is so much implicated, and in which his feelings have been greatly wounded from a quarter, I am commanded to say, whence he did not expect such conduct.
"As I am directed to communicate the particulars in the most authentic form, you will, I am sure, excuse on this occasion my not adopting the mode of a familiar letter.
"Authentic Statement respecting the Appointment by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales to the Receivership of the Duchy of Cornwall, in the Year 1804, to be transmitted by His Royal Highness's Command, to Lieutenant-General Lake, Commander-in-Chief of the Forces in India.
"The circumstances attending the original reversionary Grant to General Lake are stated in the brief for Counsel on this occasion by Mr. Bignell, the Prince's solicitor, to be as follow: (No. I.) It was afterwards understood by the Prince that the service he had wished to render General Lake, by this Grant, had been defeated by the terms of it; and so clearly had it been shown that there were essential duties attached to the office, which no Deputy was competent to execute, and that a Deputy, even for the collection of the rents, could not be appointed but by a principal actually in possession of the office, (by having been sworn into it before his Council,) that upon General appointment to the command in India, the Prince could have no conception that General Lake, could have left the country under an impression or expectation that the Prince would appoint him, in case of a vacancy, to the place in question. Accordingly, His Royal Highness, on the very day he heard of the death of Lord Elliot, unsolicited, and of his own gracious suggestion, appointed Mr. Sheridan. Mr. Sheridan returned, the next day, in a letter to the Prince, such an answer and acknowledgment as might be expected from him; and, accordingly, directions were given to make out his patent. On the ensuing —— His Royal Highness was greatly surprised at receiving the following letter from Mr. Warwick Lake. (No. II.)
"His Royal Highness immediately directed Mr. Sheridan to see Mr. W. Lake, and to state his situation, and how the office was circumstanced; and for further distinctness to make a minute in writing * * * *."
Such were the circumstances that had, at first, embarrassed his enjoyment of this office; but, on the death of Lord Lake, all difficulties were removed, and the appointment was confirmed to Sheridan for his life.
In order to afford some insight into the nature of that friendship, which existed so long between the Heir Apparent and Sheridan,—though unable, of course, to produce any of the numerous letters, on the Royal side of the correspondence, that have been found among the papers in my possession,—I shall here give, from a rough copy in Sheridan's hand-writing, a letter which he addressed about this time to the Prince:—
"It is matter of surprise to myself, as well as of deep regret, that I should have incurred the appearance of ungrateful neglect and disrespect towards the person to whom I am most obliged on earth, to whom I feel the most ardent, dutiful, and affectionate attachment, and in whose service I would readily sacrifice my life. Yet so it is, and to nothing but a perverse combination of circumstances, which would form no excuse were I to recapitulate them, can I attribute a conduct so strange on my part; and from nothing but Your Royal Highness's kindness and benignity alone can I expect an indulgent allowance and oblivion of that conduct: nor could I even hope for this were I not conscious of the unabated and unalterable devotion towards Your Royal Highness which lives in my heart, and will ever continue to be its pride and boast.
"But I should ill deserve the indulgence I request did I not frankly state what has passed in my mind, which, though it cannot justify, may, in some degree, extenuate what must have appeared so strange to Your Royal Highness, previous to Your Royal Highness's having actually restored me to the office I had resigned.
"I was mortified and hurt in the keenest manner by having repeated to me from an authority which I then trusted, some expressions of Your Royal Highness respecting me, which it was impossible I could have deserved. Though I was most solemnly pledged never to reveal the source from which the communication came, I for some time intended to unburthen my mind to my sincere friend and Your Royal Highness's most attached and excellent servant, M'Mahon—but I suddenly discovered, beyond a doubt, that I had been grossly deceived, and that there had not existed the slightest foundation for the tale that had been imposed on me; and I do humbly ask Your Royal Highness's pardon for having for a moment credited a fiction suggested by mischief and I malice. Yet, extraordinary as it must seem, I had so long, under this false impression, neglected the course which duty and gratitude required from me, that I felt an unaccountable shyness and reserve in repairing my error, and to this procrastination other unlucky circumstances contributed. One day when I had the honor of meeting Your Royal Highness on horseback in Oxford-Street, though your manner was as usual gracious and kind to me, you said that I had deserted you privately and politically. I had long before that been assured, though falsely I am convinced, that Your Royal Highness had promised to make a point that I should neither speak nor vote on Lord Wellesly's business. My view of this topic, and my knowledge of the delicate situation in which Your Royal Highness stood in respect to the Catholic question, though weak and inadequate motives, I confess, yet encouraged the continuance of that reserve which my original error had commenced. These subjects being passed by,—and sure I am Your Royal Highness would never deliberately ask me to adopt a course of debasing inconsistency,—it was my hope fully and frankly to have explained myself and repaired my fault, when I was informed that a circumstance that happened at Burlington-House, and which must have been heinously misrepresented, had greatly offended you; and soon after it was stated to me, by an authority which I have no objection to disclose, that Your Royal Highness had quoted, with marked disapprobation, words supposed to have been spoken by me on the Spanish question, and of which words, as there is a God in heaven, I never uttered one syllable.
"Most justly may Your Royal Highness answer to all this, why have I not sooner stated these circumstances, and confided in that uniform friendship and protection which I have so long experienced at your hands. I can only plead a nervous, procrastinating nature, abetted, perhaps, by sensations of, I trust, no false pride, which, however I may blame myself, impel me involuntarily to fly from the risk of even a cold look from the quarter to which I owe so much, and by whom to be esteemed is the glory and consolation of my private and public life.
"One point only remains for me to intrude upon Your Royal Highness's consideration, but it is of a nature fit only for personal communication. I therefore conclude, with again entreating Your Royal Highness to continue and extend the indulgence which the imperfections in my character have so often received from you, and yet to be assured that there never did exist to Monarch, Prince, or man, a firmer or purer attachment than I feel, and to my death shall feel, to you, my gracious Prince and Master."
DESTRUCTION OF THE THEATRE OF DRURY-LANE BY FIRE.—MR. WHITBREAD.—PLAN FOR A THIRD THEATRE.—ILLNESS OF THE KING.—REGENCY. LORD OBEY AND LORD GRENVILLE.—CONDUCT OF MR. SHERIDAN.—HIS VINDICATION OF HIMSELF.
With the details of the embarrassments of Drury-Lane Theatre, I have endeavored, as little as possible, to encumber the attention of the reader. This part of my subject would, indeed, require a volume to itself. The successive partnerships entered into with Mr. Grubb and Mr. Richardson,—the different Trust-deeds for the general and individual property,—the various creations of shares,—the controversies between the Trustees and Proprietors, as to the obligations of the Deed of 1793, which ended in a Chancery-suit in 1799,—the perpetual entanglements of the property which Sheridan's private debts occasioned, and which even the friendship and skill of Mr. Adam were wearied out in endeavoring to rectify,—all this would lead to such a mass of details and correspondence as, though I have waded through it myself, it is by no means necessary to inflict upon others.
The great source of the involvements, both of Sheridan himself and of the concern, is to be found in the enormous excess of the expense of rebuilding the Theatre in 1793, over the amount stated by the architect in his estimate. This amount was 75,000l.; and the sum of 150,000L. then raised by subscription, would, it was calculated, in addition to defraying this charge, pay off also the mortgage-debts with which the Theatre was encumbered. It was soon found, however, that the expense of building the House alone would exceed the whole amount raised by subscription; and, notwithstanding the advance of a considerable sum beyond the estimate, the Theatre was delivered in n very unfinished state into the hands of the proprietors,—only part of the mortgage-debts was paid off, and, altogether a debt of 70,000L was left upon the property. This debt Mr. Sheridan and the other proprietors took, voluntarily, and, as it has been thought, inconsiderately, upon themselves,—the builders, by their contracts, having no legal claim upon them,—and the payment of it being at various times enforced, not only against the theatre, but against the private property of Mr. Sheridan, involved both in a degree of embarrassment from which there appeared no hope of extricating them.
Such was the state of this luckless property,—and it would have been difficult to imagine any change for the worse that could befall it,—when, early in the present year, an event occurred, that seemed to fill up at once the measure of its ruin. On the night of the 24th of February, while the House of Commons was occupied with Mr. Ponsonby's motion on the Conduct of the War in Spain, and Mr. Sheridan was in attendance, with the intention, no doubt, of speaking, the House was suddenly illuminated by a blaze of light; and, the Debate being interrupted, it was ascertained that the Theatre of Drury-Lane was on fire. A motion was made to adjourn; but Mr. Sheridan said with much calmness, that "whatever might be the extent of the private calamity, he hoped it would not interfere with the public business of the country." He then left the House; and, proceeding to Drury-Lane, witnessed, with a fortitude which strongly interested all who observed him, the entire destruction of his property. [Footnote: It is said that, as he sat at the Piazza Coffee-house, during the fire, taking some refreshment, a friend of his having remarked on the philosophic calmness with which he bore his misfortune, Sheridan answered, "A man may surely be allowed to take a glass of wine by his own fire-side."
Without vouching for the authenticity or novelty of this anecdote, (which may have been, for aught I know, like the wandering Jew, a regular attendant upon all fires, since the time of Hierocles,) I give it as I heard it.]
Among his losses on the occasion there was one which, from being associated with feelings of other times, may have affected him, perhaps, more deeply than many that were far more serious. A harpsichord, that had belonged to his first wife, and had long survived her sweet voice in silent widowhood, was, with other articles of furniture that had been moved from Somerset-House to the Theatre, lost in the flames.
The ruin thus brought upon this immense property seemed, for a time, beyond all hope of retrieval. The embarrassments of the concern were known to have been so great, and such a swarm of litigious claims lay slumbering under those ashes, that it is not surprising the public should have been slow and unwilling to touch them. Nothing, indeed, short of the intrepid zeal of Mr. Whitbread could have ventured upon the task of remedying so complex a calamity; nor could any industry less persevering have compassed the miracle of rebuilding and re-animating that edifice, among the many-tongued claims that beset and perplexed his enterprise.
In the following interesting letter to him from Sheridan, we trace the first steps of his friendly interference on the occasion:—
"MY DEAR WHITHBREAD,
"Procrastination is always the consequence of an indolent man's resolving to write a long detailed letter, upon any subject, however important to himself, or whatever may be the confidence he has in the friend he proposes to write to. To this must be attributed your having escaped the statement I threatened you with in my last letter, and the brevity with which I now propose to call your attention to the serious, and, to me, most important request, contained in this,—reserving all I meant to have written for personal communication.
"I pay you no compliment when I say that, without comparison, you are the man living, in my estimation, the most disposed and the most competent to bestow a portion of your time and ability to assist the call of friendship,—on the condition that that call shall be proved to be made in a cause just and honorable, and in every respect entitled to your protection.
"On this ground alone I make my application to you. You said, some time since, in my house, but in a careless conversation only, that you would be a Member of a Committee for rebuilding Drury-Lane Theatre, if it would serve me; and, indeed, you very kindly suggested, yourself, that these were more persons disposed to assist that object than I might be aware of. I most thankfully accept the offer of your interference, and am convinced of the benefits your friendly exertions are competent to produce. I have worked the whole subject in my own mind, and see a clear way to retrieve a great property, at least to my son and his family, if my plan meets the support I hope it will appear to merit.
"Writing thus to you in the sincerity of private friendship, and the reliance I place on my opinion of your character, I need not ask of you, though eager and active in politics as you are, not to be severe in criticising my palpable neglect of all parliamentary duty. It would not be easy to explain to you, or even to make you comprehend, or any one in prosperous and affluent plight, the private difficulties I have to struggle with. My mind, and the resolute independence belonging to it, has not been in the least subdued by the late calamity; but the consequences arising from it have more engaged and embarrassed me than, perhaps, I have been willing to allow. It has been a principle of my life, persevered in through great difficulties, never to borrow money of a private friend and this resolution I would starve rather than violate. Of course, I except the political aid of election-subscription. When I ask you to take a part in the settlement of my shattered affairs, I ask you only to do so after a previous investigation of every part of the past circumstances which relate to the trust I wish you to accept, in conjunction with those who wish to serve me, and to whom I think you could not object. I may be again seized with an illness as alarming as that I lately experienced. Assist me in relieving my mind from the greatest affliction that such a situation can again produce,—the fear of others suffering by my death.
"To effect this little more is necessary than some resolution on my part, and the active superintending advice of a mind like yours.
"Thus far on paper. I will see you next ——, and therefore will not trouble you for a written reply."
Encouraged by the opening which the destruction of Drury-Lane seemed to offer to free adventure in theatrical property, a project was set on foot for the establishment of a Third Great Theatre, which, being backed by much of the influence and wealth of the city of London, for some time threatened destruction to the monopoly that had existed so long. But, by the exertions of Mr. Sheridan and his friends, this scheme was defeated, and a Bill for the erection of Drury-Lane Theatre by subscription, and for the incorporation of the subscribers, was passed through Parliament.
That Mr. Sheridan himself would have had no objection to a Third Theatre, if held by a Joint Grant to the Proprietors of the other two, appears not only from his speeches and petitions on the subject at this time, but from the following Plan for such an establishment, drawn up by him, some years before, and intended to be submitted to the consideration of the Proprietors of both Houses:—
"According to your desire, the plan of the proposed Assistant Theatre, is here explained in writing for your further consideration.
"From our situations in the Theatres Royal of Drury-Lane and Covent-Garden we have had opportunities of observing many circumstances relative to our general property, which must have escaped those who do not materially interfere in the management of that property. One point in particular has lately weighed extremely in our opinions, which is, an apprehension of a new Theatre being erected for some species or other of dramatic entertainment. Were this event to take place on an opposing interest, our property would sink in value one-half, and in all probability, the contest that would ensue would speedily end in the absolute ruin of one of the present established Theatres. We have reason, it is true, from His Majesty's gracious patronage to the present Houses, to hope, that a Third patent for a winter Theatre is not easily to be obtained; but the motives which appear to call for one are so many, (and those of such a nature, as to increase every day,) that we cannot, on the maturest consideration of the subject, divest ourselves of the dread that such an event may not be very remote. With this apprehension before us, we have naturally fallen into a joint consideration of the means of preventing so fatal a blow to the present Theatres, or of deriving a general advantage from a circumstance which might otherwise be our ruin.
"Some of the leading motives for the establishment of a Third Theatre are as follows:—
"1st. The great extent of the town and increased residence of a higher class of people, who, on account of many circumstances, seldom frequent the Theatre.
"2d. The distant situation of the Theatres from the politer streets, and the difficulty with which ladies reach their carriages or chairs.
"3d. The small number of side-boxes, where only, by the uncontrollable influence of fashion, ladies of any rank can be induced to sit.
"4th. The earliness of the hour, which renders it absolutely impossible for those who attend on Parliament, live at any distance, or, indeed, for any person who dines at the prevailing hour, to reach the Theatre before the performance is half over.
"These considerations have lately been strongly urged to me by many leading persons of rank. There has also prevailed, as appears by the number of private plays at gentlemen's seats, an unusual fashion for theatrical entertainments among the politer class of people; and it is not to be wondered at that they, feeling themselves, (from the causes above enumerated,) in a manner, excluded from our Theatres, should persevere in an endeavor to establish some plan of similar entertainment, on principles of superior elegance and accommodation.
"In proof of this disposition, and the effects to be apprehended from it, we need but instance one fact, among many, which might be produced, and that is the well-known circumstance of a subscription having actually been begun last winter, with very powerful patronage, for the importation of a French company of comedians, a scheme which, though it might not have answered to the undertaking, would certainly have been the foundation of other entertainments, whose opposition we should speedily have experienced. The question, then, upon a full view of our situation, appears to be, whether the Proprietors of the present Theatres will contentedly wait till some other person takes advantage of the prevailing wish for a Third Theatre, or, having the remedy in their power, profit by a turn of fashion which they cannot control.
"A full conviction that the latter is the only line of conduct which can give security to the Patents of Drury-Lane and Covent-Garden Theatres, and yield a probability of future advantage in the exercise of them, has prompted us to endeavor at modelling this plan, on which we conceive those Theatres may unite in the support of a Third, to the general and mutual advantage of all the Proprietors.
"The Proprietors of the Theatre-Royal in Covent-Garden appear to be possessed of two Patents, for the privilege of acting plays, &c., under one of which the above-mentioned Theatre is opened,—the other lying dormant and useless;—it is proposed that this dormant Patent shall be exercised, (with His Majesty's approbation,) in order to license the dramatic performance of the new Theatre to be erected.
"It is proposed that the performances of this new Theatre shall be supported from the united establishments of the two present Theatres, so that the unemployed part of each company may exert themselves for the advantage of the whole.
"As the object of this Assistant Theatre will be to reimburse the Proprietors of the other two, at the full season, for the expensive establishment they are obliged to maintain when the town is almost empty, it is proposed, that the scheme of business to be adopted in the new Theatre shall differ as much as possible from that of the other two, and that the performances at the new house shall be exhibited at a superior price, and shall commence at a later hour.
"The Proposers will undertake to provide a Theatre for the purpose, in a proper situation, and on the following terms:—If they engage a Theatre to be built, being the property of the builder or builders, it must be for an agreed on rent, with security for a term of years. In this case the Proprietors of the two present Theatres shall jointly and severally engage in the whole of the risk; and the Proposers are ready, on equitable terms, to undertake the management of it. But, if the Proposers find themselves enabled, either on their own credit, or by the assistance of their friends, or on a plan of subscription, the mode being devised, and the security given by themselves, to become the builders of the Theatre, the interest in the building will, in that case, be the property of the Proposers, and they will undertake to demand no rent for the performances therein to be exhibited for the mutual advantage of the two present Theatres.
"The Proposers will, in this case, conducting the business under the dormant Patent above mentioned, bind themselves, that no theatrical entertainments, as plays, farces, pantomimes, or English operas, shall at any time be exhibited in this Theatre but for the general advantage of the Proprietors of the two other Theatres; the Proposers reserving to themselves any profit they can make of their building, converted to purposes distinct from the business of the Theatres.
"The Proposers, undertaking the management of the new Theatre, shall be entitled to a sum to be settled by the Proprietors at large, or by an equitable arbitration.
"It is proposed, that all the Proprietors of the two present Theatres Royal of Drury-Lane and Covent-Garden shall share all profits from the dramatic entertainments exhibited at the new Theatre; that is, each shall be entitled to receive a dividend in proportion to the shares he or she possesses of the present Theatres: first only deducting a certain nightly sum to be paid to the Proprietors of Covent-Garden Theatre, as a consideration for the license furnished by the exercise of their present dormant Patent.
"'Fore Heaven! the Plan's a good Plan! I shall add a little Epilogue to-morrow.
"R. B. S."
"'Tis now too late, and I've a letter to write Before I go to bed,—and then, Good Night."
In the month of July, this year, the Installation of Lord Grenville, as Chancellor of Oxford, took place, and Mr. Sheridan was among the distinguished persons that attended the ceremony. As a number of honorary degrees were to be conferred on the occasion, it was expected, as a matter of course, that his name would be among those selected for that distinction; and, to the honor of the University, it was the general wish among its leading members that such a tribute should be paid to his high political character. On the proposal of his name, however, (in a private meeting, I believe, held previously to the Convocation.) the words "Non placet" were heard from two scholars, one of whom, it is said, had no nobler motive for his opposition than that Sheridan did not pay his father's tithes very regularly. Several efforts were made to win over these dissentients; and the Rev. Mr. Ingram delivered an able and liberal Latin speech, in which he indignantly represented the shame that it would bring on the University, if such a name as that of Sheridan should be "clam subductum" from the list. The two scholars, however, were immovable; and nothing remained but to give Sheridan intimation of their intended opposition, so as to enable him to decline the honor of having his name proposed. On his appearance, afterwards, in the Theatre, a burst of acclamation broke forth, with a general cry of "Mr. Sheridan among the Doctors,—Sheridan among the Doctors;" in compliance with which he was passed to the seat occupied by the Honorary Graduates, and sat, in unrobed distinction, among them, during the whole of the ceremonial. Few occurrences, of a public nature, ever gave him more pleasure than this reception.
At the close of the year 1810, the malady, with which the king had been thrice before afflicted, returned; and, after the usual adjournments of Parliament, it was found necessary to establish a Regency. On the question of the second adjournment, Mr. Sheridan took a line directly opposed to that of his party, and voted with the majority. That in this step he did not act from any previous concert with the Prince, appears from the following letter, addressed by him to His Royal Highness on the subject, and containing particulars which will prepare the mind of the reader to judge more clearly of the events that followed:—
"I felt infinite satisfaction when I was apprised that Your Royal Highness had been far from disapproving the line of conduct I had presumed to pursue, on the last question of adjournment in the House of Commons. Indeed, I never had a moment's doubt but that Your Royal Highness would give me credit that I was actuated on that, as I shall on every other occasion through my existence, by no possible motive but the most sincere and unmixed desire to look to Your Royal Highness's honor and true interest, as the objects of my political life,—directed, as I am sure your efforts will ever be, to the essential interests of the Country and the Constitution. To this line of conduct I am prompted by every motive of personal gratitude, and confirmed by every opportunity, which peculiar circumstances and long experience have afforded me, of judging of your heart and understanding,—to the superior excellence of which, (beyond all, I believe, that ever stood in your rank and high relation to society,) I fear not to advance my humble testimony, because I scruple not to say for myself, that I am no flatterer, and that I never found that to become one was the road to your real regard.
"I state thus much because it has been under the influence of these feelings that I have not felt myself warranted, (without any previous communication with Your Royal Highness,) to follow implicitly the dictates of others, in whom, however they may be my superiors in many qualities, I can subscribe to no superiority as to devoted attachment and duteous affection to Your Royal Highness, or in that practical knowledge of the public mind and character, upon which alone must be built that popular and personal estimation of Your Royal Highness, so necessary to your future happiness and glory, and to the prosperity of the nation you are destined to rule over.
"On these grounds, I saw no policy or consistency in unnecessarily giving a general sanction to the examination of the physicians before the Council, and then attempting, on the question of adjournment, to hold that examination as naught. On these grounds, I have ventured to doubt the wisdom or propriety of any endeavor, (if any such endeavor has been made,) to induce Your Royal Highness, during so critical a moment, to stir an inch from the strong reserved post you have chosen, or give the slightest public demonstration of any future intended political preferences;—convinced as I was that the rule of conduct you had prescribed to yourself was precisely that which was gaining you the general heart, and rendering it impracticable for any quarter to succeed in annexing unworthy conditions to that most difficult situation, which you were probably so soon to be called on to accept.
"I may, Sir, have been guilty of error of judgment in both these respects, differing, as I fear I have done, from those whom I am bound so highly to respect; but, at the same time, I deem it no presumption to say that, until better instructed, I feel a strong confidence in the justness of my own view of the subject; and simply because of this—I am sure that the decisions of that judgment, be they sound or mistaken, have not, at least, been rashly taken up, but were founded on deliberate zeal for your service and glory, unmixed, I will confidently say, with any one selfish object or political purpose of my own."
The same limitations and restrictions that Mr. Pitt proposed in 1789, were, upon the same principles, adopted by the present Minister: nor did the Opposition differ otherwise from their former line of argument, than by omitting altogether that claim of Right for the Prince, which Mr. Fox had, in the proceedings of 1789, asserted. The event that ensued is sufficiently well known. To the surprise of the public, (who expected, perhaps, rather than wished, that the Coalesced Party of which Lord Grey and Lord Grenville were the chiefs, should now succeed to power,) Mr. Perceval and his colleagues were informed by the Regent that it was the intention of His Royal Highness to continue them still in office.
The share taken by Mr. Sheridan in the transactions that led to this decision, is one of those passages of his political life upon which the criticism of his own party has been most severely exercised, and into the details of which I feel most difficulty in entering:—because, however curious it may be to penetrate into these "postscenia" of public life, it seems hardly delicate, while so many of the chief actors are still upon the stage. As there exists, however, a Paper drawn up by Mr. Sheridan, containing what he considered a satisfactory defence of his conduct on this occasion, I should ill discharge my duty towards his memory, were I, from any scruples or predilections of my own, to deprive him of the advantage of a, statement, on which he appears to have relied so confidently for his vindication.
But, first,—in order fully to understand the whole course of feelings and circumstances, by which not only Sheridan, but his Royal Master, (for their cause is, in a great degree, identified,) were for some time past, predisposed towards the line of conduct which they now pursued,—it will be necessary to recur to a few antecedent events.
By the death of Mr. Fox the chief personal tie that connected the Heir-Apparent with the party of that statesman was broken. The political identity of the party itself had, even before that event, been, in a great degree, disturbed by a coalition against which Sheridan had always most strongly protested, and to which the Prince, there is every reason to believe, was by no means friendly. Immediately after the death of Mr. Fox, His Royal Highness made known his intentions of withdrawing from all personal interference in politics; and, though still continuing his sanction to the remaining Ministry, expressed himself as no longer desirous of being considered "a party man." [Footnote: This is the phrase used by the Prince himself, in a Letter addressed to a Noble Lord,(not long after the dismissal of the Grenville Ministry,) for the purpose of vindicating his own character from some imputations cast upon it, in consequence of an interview which he had lately had with the King. This important exposition of the feelings of His Royal Highness, which, more than any thing, throws light upon his subsequent conduct, was drawn up by Sheridan; and I had hoped that I should have been able to lay it before the reader:—but the liberty of perusing the Letter is all that has been allowed me.] During the short time that these Ministers continued in office, the understanding between them and the Prince was by no means of that cordial and confidential kind, which had been invariably maintained during the life-time of Mr. Fox. On the contrary, the impression on the mind, of His Royal Highness, us well as on those of his immediate friends in the Ministry, Lord Moira and Mr. Sheridan, was, that a cold neglect had succeeded to the confidence with which they had hitherto been treated; and that, neither in their opinions nor feelings, were they any longer sufficiently consulted or considered. The very measure, by which the Ministers ultimately lost their places, was, it appears, one of those which the Illustrious Personage in question neither conceived himself to have been sufficiently consulted upon before its adoption, nor approved of afterwards.
Such were the gradual loosenings of a bond, which at no time had promised much permanence; and such the train of feelings and circumstances which, (combining with certain prejudices in the Royal mind against one of the chief leaders of the party,) prepared the way for that result by which the Public was surprised in 1811, and the private details of which I shall now, as briefly as possible, relate.
As soon as the Bill for regulating the office of Regent had passed the two Houses, the Prince, who, till then, had maintained a strict reserve with respect to his intentions, signified, through Mr. Adam, his pleasure that Lord Grenville should wait upon him. He then, in the most gracious manner, expressed to that Noble Lord his wish that he should, in conjunction with Lord Grey, prepare the Answer which his Royal Highness was, in a few days, to return to the Address of the Houses. The same confidential task was entrusted also to Lord Moira, with an expressed desire that he should consult with Lord Grey and Lord Grenville on the subject. But this co-operation, as I understand, the two Noble Lords declined.
One of the embarrassing consequences of Coalitions now appeared. The recorded opinions of Lord Grenville on the Regency Question differed wholly and in principle not only from those of his coadjutor in this task, but from those of the Royal person himself, whose sentiments he was called upon to interpret. In this difficulty, the only alternative that remained was so to neutralize the terms of the Answer upon the great point of difference, as to preserve the consistency of the Royal speaker, without at the same time compromising that of his Noble adviser. It required, of course, no small art and delicacy thus to throw into the shade that distinctive opinion of Whigism, which Burke had clothed in his imperishable language in 1789, and which Fox had solemnly bequeathed to the Party, when
"in his upward flight He left his mantle there." [Footnote: Joanna Baithe]
The Answer, drawn up by the Noble Lords, did not, it must be confessed, surmount this difficulty very skilfully. The assertion of the Prince's consistency was confined to two meagre sentences, in the first of which His Royal Highness was made to say:—"With respect to the proposed limitation of the authority to be entrusted to me, I retain my former opinion:"—and in the other, the expression of any decided opinion upon the Constitutional point is thus evaded:—"For such a purpose no restraint can be necessary to be imposed upon me." Somewhat less vague and evasive, however, was the justification of the opinion opposed to that of the Prince, in the following sentence:—"That day when I may restore to the King those powers, which as belonging only to him, [Footnote: The words which I have put in italics in these quotations, are, in the same manner, underlined in Sheridan's copy of the Paper,—doubtless, from a similar view of their import to that which I have taken.] are in his name and in his behalf," &c. &c. This, it will be recollected, is precisely the doctrine which, on the great question of limiting the Prerogative, Mr. Fox attributed to the Tories. In another passage, the Whig opinion of the Prince was thus tamely surrendered:—"Conscious that, whatever degree of confidence you may think fit to repose in me," &c. [Footnote: On the back of Sheridan's own copy of this Answer, I find, written by him, the following words "Grenville's and Grey's proposed Answer from the Prince to the Address of the two Houses,—very flimsy, and attempting to cover Grenville's conduct and consistency in supporting the present Restrictions at the expense of the Prince."] The Answer, thus constructed, was, by the two Noble Lords, transmitted through Mr. Adam, to the Prince, who, "strongly objecting, (as we are told), to almost every part of it," acceded to the suggestion of Sheridan, whom he consulted on the subject, that a new form of Answer should be immediately sketched out, and submitted to the consideration of Lord Grey and Lord Grenville. There was no time to be lost, as the Address of the Houses was to be received the following day. Accordingly, Mr. Adam and Mr. Sheridan proceeded that night, with the new draft of the Answer to Holland-House, where, after a warm discussion upon the subject with Lord Grey, which ended unsatisfactorily to both parties, the final result was that the Answer drawn up by the Prince and Sheridan was adopted.—Such is the bare outline of this transaction, the circumstances of which will be found fully detailed in the Statement that shall presently be given.
The accusation against Sheridan is, that chiefly to his undermining influence the view taken by the Prince of the Paper of these Noble Lords is to be attributed; and that not only was he censurable in a constitutional point of view, for thus interfering between the Sovereign and his responsible advisers, but that he had been also guilty of an act of private perfidy, in endeavoring to represent the Answer drawn up by these Noble Lords, as an attempt to sacrifice the consistency and dignity of their Royal Master to the compromise of opinions and principles which they had entered into themselves.
Under the impression that such were the nature and motives of his interference, Lord Grey and Lord Grenville, on the 11th of January, (the day on which the Answer substituted for their own was delivered), presented a joint Representation to the Regent, in which they stated that "the circumstances which had occurred, respecting His Royal Highness's Answer to the two Houses, had induced them, most humbly, to solicit permission to submit to His Royal Highness the following considerations, with the undisguised sincerity which the occasion seemed to require, but, with every expression that could best convey their respectful duty and inviolable attachment. When His Royal Highness, (they continued), did Lord Grenville the honor, through Mr. Adam, to command his attendance, it was distinctly expressed to him, that His Royal Highness had condescended to select him, in conjunction with Lord Grey, to be consulted with, as the public and responsible advisers of that Answer; and Lord Grenville could never forget the gracious terms in which His Royal Highness had the goodness to lay these his orders upon him. It was also on the same grounds of public and responsible advice, that Lord Grey, honored in like manner by the most gracious expression of His Royal Highness's confidence on this subject, applied himself to the consideration of it conjointly with Lord Grenville. They could not but feel the difficulty of the undertaking, which required them to reconcile two objects essentially different,—to uphold and distinctly to manifest that unshaken adherence to His Royal Highness's past and present opinion, which consistency and honor required, but to conciliate, at the same time, the feelings of the two Houses, by expressions of confidence and affection, and to lay the foundation of that good understanding between His Royal Highness and the Parliament, the establishment of which must be the first wish of every man who is truly attached to His Royal Highness, and who knows the value of the Constitution of his country. Lord Grey and Lord Grenville were far from the presumption of believing that their humble endeavors for the execution of so difficult a task might not be susceptible of many and great amendments.
"The draft, (their Lordships said), which they humbly submitted to His Royal Highness was considered by them as open to every remark which might occur to His Royal Highness's better judgment. On every occasion, but more especially in the preparation of His Royal Highness's first act of government, it would have been no less their desire than their duty to have profited by all such objections, and to have labored to accomplish, in the best manner they were able, every command which His Royal Highness might have been pleased to lay upon them. Upon the objects to be obtained there could be no difference of sentiment. These, such as above described, were, they confidently believed, not less important in His Royal Highness's view of the subject than in that which they themselves had ventured to express. But they would be wanting in that sincerity and openness by which they could alone hope, however imperfectly, to make any return to that gracious confidence with which His Royal Highness had condescended to honor them, if they suppressed the expression of their deep concern, in finding that their humble endeavors in His Royal Highness's service had been submitted to the judgment of another person, by whose advice His Royal Highness had been guided in his final decision, on a matter on which they alone had, however unworthily, been honored with His Royal Highness's commands. It was their most sincere and ardent wish that, in the arduous station which His Royal Highness was about to fill, he might have the benefit of the public advice and responsible services of those men, whoever they might be, by whom His Royal Highness's glory and the interests of the country could best be promoted. It would be with unfeigned distrust of their own means of discharging such duties that they could, in any case, venture to undertake them; and, in this humble but respectful representation which they had presumed to make of their feelings on this occasion, they were conscious of being actuated not less by their dutiful and grateful attachment to His Royal Highness, than by those principles of constitutional responsibility, the maintenance of which they deemed essential to any hope of a successful administration of the public interests."
On receiving this Representation, in which, it must be confessed, there was more of high spirit and dignity than of worldly wisdom, [Footnote: To the pure and dignified character of the Noble Whig associated in this Remonstrance, it is unnecessary for me to say how heartily I bear testimony. The only fault, indeed, of this distinguished person is, that knowing but one high course of conduct for himself, he impatiently resents any sinking from that pitch in others. Then, only, in his true station, when placed between the People and the Crown, as one of those fortresses that ornament and defend the frontier of Democracy, he has shown that he can but ill suit the dimensions of his spirit to the narrow avenues of a Court, or, like that Pope who stooped to look for the keys of St. Peter, accommodate his natural elevation to the pursuit of official power. All the pliancy of his nature is, indeed, reserved for private life, where the repose of the valley succeeds to the grandeur of the mountain, and where the lofty statesman gracefully subsides into the gentle husband and father, and the frank, social friend. The eloquence of Lord Grey, more than that of any other person, brings to mind what Quintilian says of the great and noble orator, Messala:—"Quodammodo prae se ferens in dicendo nobilitatem suam."] His Royal Highness lost no time in communicating it to Sheridan, who, proud of the influence attributed to him by the Noble writers, and now more than ever stimulated to make them feel its weight, employed the whole force of his shrewdness and ridicule [Footnote: He called rhymes also to his aid, as appears by the following:—
"An Address to the Prince, 1811.
"In all humility we crave Our Regent may become our slave, And being so, we trust that HE Will thank us for our loyalty. Then, if he'll help us to pull down His Father's dignity and Crown, We'll make him, in some time to come, The greatest Prince in Christendom."] in exposing the stately tone of dictation which, according to his view, was assumed throughout this Paper, and in picturing to the Prince the state of tutelage he might expect under Ministers who began thus early with their lectures. Such suggestions, even if less ably urged, were but too sure of a willing audience in the ears to which they were adressed. Shortly after, His Royal Highness paid a visit to Windsor, where the Queen and another Royal Personage completed what had been so skilfully begun; and the important resolution was forthwith taken to retain Mr. Perceval and his colleagues in the Ministry.
I shall now give the Statement of the whole transaction, which Mr. Sheridan thought it necessary to address, in his own defence, to Lord Holland, and of which a rough and a fair copy have been found carefully preserved among his papers:—
Queen-Street, January 15, 1811.
"As you have been already apprised by His Royal Highness the Prince that he thought it becoming the frankness of his character, and consistent with the fairness and openness of proceeding due to any of his servants whose conduct appears to have incurred the disapprobation of Lord Grey and Lord Grenville, to communicate their representations on the subject to the person so censured, I am confident you will give me credit for the pain I must have felt, to find myself an object of suspicion, or likely, in the slightest degree, to become the cause of any temporary misunderstanding between His Royal Highness amid those distinguished characters, whom His Royal Highness appears to destine to those responsible situations, which must in all public matters entitle them to his exclusive confidence.
"I shall as briefly as I can state the circumstances of the fact, so distinctly referred to in the following passage of the Noble Lord's Representation:—
"'But they would be wanting in that sincerity and openness by which they can alone hope, however imperfectly, to make any return to that gracious confidence with which Your Royal Highness has condescended to honor them, if they suppressed the expression of their deep concern in finding that their humble endeavors in Your Royal Highness's service have been submitted to the judgment of another person, by whose advice Your Royal Highness has been guided in your final decision on a matter in which they alone had, however unworthily, been honored with Your Royal Highness's commands.'
"I must premise, that from my first intercourse with the Prince during the present distressing emergency, such conversations as he may have honored me with have been communications of resolutions already formed on his part, and not of matter referred to consultation or submitted to advice. I know that my declining to vote for the further adjournment of the Privy Council's examination of the physicians gave offence to some, and was considered as a difference from the party I as rightly esteemed to belong to. The intentions of the leaders of the party upon that question were in no way distinctly known to me; my secession was entirely my own act, and not only unauthorized, but perhaps unexpected by the Prince. My motives for it I took the liberty of communicating to His Royal Highness by letter, [Footnote: This Letter has been given in page 268.] the next day, and, previously to that, I had not even seen His Royal Highness since the confirmation of His Majesty's malady.
"If I differed from those who, equally attached to His Royal Highness's interest and honor, thought that His Royal Highness should have taken the step which, in my humble opinion, he has since, precisely at the proper period, taken of sending to Lord Grenville and Lord Grey, I may certainly have erred in forming an imperfect judgment on the occasion, but, in doing so, I meant no disrespect to those who had taken a different view of the subject. But, with all deference, I cannot avoid adding, that experience of the impression made on the public mind by the reserved and retired conduct which the Prince thought proper to adopt, has not shaken my opinion of the wisdom which prompted him to that determination. But here, again, I declare, that I must reject the presumption that any suggestion of mine led to the rule which the Prince had prescribed to himself. My knowledge of it being, as I before said, the communication of a resolution formed on the part of His Royal Highness, and not of a proposition awaiting the advice, countenance, or corroboration, of any other person. Having thought it necessary to premise thus much, as I wish to write to you without reserve or concealment of any sort, I shall as briefly as I can relate the facts which attended the composing the Answer itself, as far as I was concerned.
"On Sunday, or on Monday the 7th instant, I mentioned to Lord Moira, or to Adam, that the Address of the two Houses would come very quickly upon the Prince, and that he should be prepared with his Answer, without entertaining the least idea of meddling with the subject myself, having received no authority from His Royal Highness to do so. Either Lord Moira or Adam informed me, before I left Carlton-House, that His Royal Highness had directed Lord Moira to sketch an outline of the Answer proposed, and I left town. On Tuesday evening it occurred to me to try at a sketch also of the intended reply. On Wednesday morning I read it, at Carlton-House, very hastily to Adam, before I saw the Prince. And here I must pause to declare, that I have entirely withdrawn from my mind any doubt, if for a moment I ever entertained any, of the perfect propriety of Adam's conduct at that hurried interview; being also long convinced, as well from intercourse with him at Carlton-House as in every transaction I have witnessed, that it is impossible for him to act otherwise than with the most entire sincerity and honor towards all he deals with. I then read the Paper I had put together to the Prince,—the most essential part of it literally consisting of sentiments and expressions, which had fallen from the Prince himself in different conversations; and I read it to him without having once heard Lord Grenville's name even mentioned as in any way connected with the Answer proposed to be submitted to the Prince. On the contrary, indeed, I was under an impression that the framing this Answer was considered as the single act which it would be an unfair and embarrassing task to require the performance of from Lord Grenville. The Prince approved the Paper I read to him, objecting, however, to some additional paragraphs of my own, and altering others. In the course of his observations, he cursorily mentioned that Lord Grenville had undertaken to sketch out his idea of a proper Answer, and that Lord Moira had done the same,—evidently expressing himself, to my apprehension, as not considering the framing of this Answer as a matter of official responsibility any where, but that it was his intention to take the choice and decision respecting it on himself. If, however, I had known, before I entered the Prince's apartment, that Lord Grenville and Lord Grey had in any way undertaken to frame the Answer, and had thought themselves authorized to do so, I protest the Prince would never even have heard of the draft which I had prepared, though containing, as I before said, the Prince's own ideas.
"His Royal Highness having laid his commands on Adam and me to dine with him alone on the next day, Thursday, I then, for the first time, learnt that Lord Grey and Lord Grenville had transmitted, through Adam, a formal draft of an Answer to be submitted to the Prince.
"Under these circumstances I thought it became me humbly to request the Prince not to refer to me, in any respect, the Paper of the Noble Lords, or to insist even on my hearing its contents; but that I might be permitted to put the draft he had received from me into the fire. The Prince, however, who had read the Noble Lords' Paper, declining to hear of this, proceeded to state, how strongly he objected to almost every part of it. The draft delivered by Adam he took a copy of himself, as Mr. Adam read it, affixing shortly, but warmly, his comments to each paragraph. Finding His Royal Highness's objections to the whole radical and insuperable, and seeing no means myself by which the Noble Lords could change their draft, so as to meet the Prince's ideas, I ventured to propose, as the only expedient of which the time allowed, that both the Papers should be laid aside, and that a very short Answer, indeed, keeping clear of all topics liable to disagreement, should be immediately sketched out and be submitted that night to the judgment of Lord Grey and Lord Grenville. The lateness of the hour prevented any but very hasty discussion, and Adam and myself proceeded, by His Royal Highness's orders, to your house to relate what had passed to Lord Grey. I do not mean to disguise, however, that when I found myself bound to give my opinion, I did fully assent to the force and justice of the Prince's objections, and made other observations of my own, which I thought it my duty to do, conceiving, as I freely said, that the Paper could not have been drawn up but under the pressure of embarrassing difficulties, and, as I conceived also, in considerable haste.
"Before we left Carlton-House, it was agreed between Adam and myself that we were not so strictly enjoined by the Prince, as to make it necessary for us to communicate to the Noble Lords the marginal comments of the Prince, and we determined to withhold them. But at the meeting with Lord Grey, at your house, he appeared to me, erroneously perhaps, to decline considering the objections as coming from the Prince, but as originating in my suggestions. Upon this, I certainly called on Adam to produce the Prince's copy, with his notes, in His Royal Highness's own hand-writing.
"Afterwards, finding myself considerably hurt at an expression of Lord Grey's, which could only be pointed at me, and which expressed his opinion that the whole of the Paper, which he assumed me to be responsible for, was 'drawn up in an invidious spirit,' I certainly did, with more warmth than was, perhaps, discreet, comment on the Paper proposed to be substituted; and there ended, with no good effect, our interview.
"Adam and I saw the Prince again that night, when His Royal Highness was graciously pleased to meet our joint and earnest request, by striking out from the draft of the Answer, to which he still resolved to adhere, every passage which we conceived to be most liable to objection on the part of Lord Grey and Lord Grenville.
"On the next morning, Friday,—a short time before he was to receive the Address,—when Adam returned from the Noble Lords, with their expressed disclaimer of the preferred Answer, altered as it was, His Royal Highness still persevered to eradicate every remaining word which he thought might yet appear exceptionable to them, and made further alterations, although the fair copy of the paper had been made out.
"Thus the Answer, nearly reduced to the expression of the Prince's own suggestions, and without an opportunity of farther meeting the wishes of the Noble Lords, was delivered by His Royal Highness, and presented by the Deputation of the two Houses.
"I am ashamed to have been thus prolix and circumstantial, upon a matter which may appear to have admitted of much shorter explanation; but when misconception has produced distrust among those, I hope, not willingly disposed to differ, and, who can have, I equally trust, but one common object in view in their different stations, I know no better way than by minuteness and accuracy of detail to remove whatever may have appeared doubtful in conduct, while unexplained, or inconsistent in principle not clearly re-asserted.
"And now, my dear Lord, I have only shortly to express my own personal mortification, I will use no other word, that I should have been considered by any persons however high in rank, or justly entitled to high political pretensions, as one so little 'attached to His Royal Highness,' or so ignorant of the value 'of the Constitution of his country,' as to be held out to HIM, whose fairly-earned esteem I regard as the first honor and the sole reward of my political life, in the character of an interested contriver of a double government, and, in some measure, as an apostate from all my former principles,—which have taught me, as well as the Noble Lords, that 'the maintenance of constitutional responsibility in the ministers of the Crown is essential to any hope of success in the administration of the public interest.'
"At the same time, I am most ready to admit that it could not be their intention so to characterize me; but it is the direct inference which others must gather from the first paragraph I have quoted from their Representation, and an inference which, I understand, has already been raised in public opinion. A departure, my dear Lord, on my part, from upholding the principle declared by the Noble Lords, much more a presumptuous and certainly ineffectual attempt to inculcate a contrary doctrine on the mind of the Prince of Wales, would, I am confident, lose me every particle of his favor and confidence at once and for ever. But I am yet to learn what part of my past public life,—and I challenge observation on every part of my present proceedings,—has warranted the adoption of any such suspicion of me, or the expression of any such imputation against me. But I will dwell no longer on this point, as it relates only to my own feelings and character; which, however, I am the more bound to consider, as others, in my humble judgment, have so hastily disregarded both. At the same time, I do sincerely declare, that no personal disappointment in my own mind interferes with the respect and esteem I entertain for Lord Grenville, or in addition to those sentiments, the friendly regard I owe to Lord Grey. To Lord Grenville I have the honor to be but very little personally known. From Lord Grey, intimately acquainted as he was with every circumstance of my conduct and principles in the years 1788-9, I confess I should have expected a very tardy and reluctant interpretation of any circumstance to my disadvantage. What the nature of my endeavors were at that time, I have the written testimonies of Mr. Fox and the Duke of Portland. To you I know those testimonies are not necessary, and perhaps it has been my recollection of what passed in those times that may have led me too securely to conceive myself above the reach even of a suspicion that I could adopt different principles now. Such as they were they remain untouched and unaltered. I conclude with sincerely declaring, that to see the Prince meeting the reward which his own honorable nature, his kind and generous disposition, and his genuine devotion to the true objects of our free Constitution so well entitle him to, by being surrounded and supported by an Administration affectionate to his person, and ambitious of gaining and meriting his entire esteem, (yet tenacious, above all things, of the constitutional principle, that exclusive confidence must attach to the responsibility of those whom he selects to be his public servants,) I would with heartfelt satisfaction rather be a looker on of such a Government, giving it such humble support as might be in my power, than be the possessor of any possible situation either of profit or ambition, to be obtained by any indirectness, or by the slightest departure from the principles I have always professed, and which I have now felt myself in a manner called upon to re-assert.
"I have only to add, that my respect for the Prince, and my sense of the frankness he has shown towards me on this occasion, decide me, with all duty, to submit this letter to his perusal, before I place it in your hands; meaning it undoubtedly to be by you shown to those to whom your judgment may deem it of any consequence to communicate it.
"I have the honor to be, &c.
"To Lord Holland.
"R. B. Sheridan
"Read and approved by the Prince, January 20, 1811.
Though this Statement, it must be recollected, exhibits but one side of the question, and is silent as to the part that Sheridan took after the delivery of the Remonstrance of the two noble Lords, yet, combined with preceding events and with the insight into motives which they afford, it may sufficiently enable the reader to form his own judgment, with respect to the conduct of the different persons concerned in the transaction. With the better and more ostensible motives of Sheridan, there was, no doubt, some mixture of, what the Platonists call, "the material alluvion" of our nature. His political repugnance to the Coalesced Leaders would have been less strong but for the personal feelings that mingled with it; and his anxiety that the Prince should not be dictated to by others was at least equalled by his vanity in showing that he could govern him himself. But, whatever were the precise views that impelled him to this trial of strength, the victory which he gained in it was far more extensive than he himself had either foreseen or wished. He had meant the party to feel his power,—not to sink under it. Though privately alienated from them, on personal as well as political grounds, he knew that, publicly he was too much identified with their ranks, ever to serve, with credit or consistency, in any other. He had, therefore, in the ardor of undermining, carried the ground from beneath his own feet. In helping to disband his party, he had cashiered himself; and there remained to him now, for the residue of his days, but that frailest of all sublunary treasures, a Prince's friendship.
With this conviction, (which, in spite of all the sanguineness of his disposition, could hardly have failed to force itself on his mind,) it was not, we should think, with very self-gratulatory feelings that he undertook the task, a few weeks after, of inditing, for the Regent, that memorable Letter to Mr. Perceval, which sealed the fate at once both of his party and himself, and whatever false signs of re-animation may afterwards have appeared, severed the last life-lock by which the "struggling spirit" [Footnote: Lavtans anima] of this friendship between Royalty and Whiggism still held:—
—"dextra crinem secat, omnis et una Dilapsus calor, atque in ventos vita recessit."
With respect to the chief Personage connected with these transactions, it is a proof of the tendency of knowledge, to produce a spirit of tolerance, that they who, judging merely from the surface of events, have been most forward in reprobating his separation from the Whigs, as a rupture of political ties and an abandonment of private friendships, must, on becoming more thoroughly acquainted with all the circumstances that led to this crisis, learn to soften down considerably their angry feelings; and to see, indeed, in the whole history of the connection,—from its first formation, in the hey-day of youth and party, to its faint survival after the death of Mr. Fox,—but a natural and destined gradation towards the result at which it at last arrived, after as much fluctuation of political principle, on one side, as there was of indifference, perhaps, to all political principle on the other.
Among the arrangements that had been made, in contemplation of a new Ministry, at this time, it was intended that Lord Moira should go, as Lord Lieutenant, to Ireland, and that Mr. Sheridan should accompany him, as Chief Secretary.
AFFAIRS OF THE NEW THEATRE.—MR. WHITBREAD.—NEGOTIATIONS WITH LORD GREY AND LORD GRENVILLE.—CONDUCT OF MR. SHERIDAN RELATIVE TO THE HOUSEHOLD.—HIS LAST WORDS IN PARLIAMENT.—FAILURE AT STAFFORD. —CORRESPONDENCE WITH MR. WHITBREAD.—LORD BYRON.—DISTRESSES OF SHERIDAN.—ILLNESS.—DEATH AND FUNERAL.—GENERAL REMARKS.
It was not till the close of this year that the Reports of the Committee appointed under the Act for rebuilding the Theatre of Drury-Lane, were laid before the public. By these it appeared that Sheridan was to receive, for his moiety of the property, 24,000l., out of which sum the claims of the Linley family and others were to be satisfied;—that a further sum of 4000l. was to be paid to him for the property of the Fruit Offices and Reversion of Boxes and Shares;—and that his son, Mr. Thomas Sheridan, was to receive, for his quarter of the Patent Property, 12,000l.
The gratitude that Sheridan felt to Mr. Whitbread at first, for the kindness with which he undertook this most arduous task, did not long remain unembittered when they entered into practical details. It would be difficult indeed to find two persons less likely to agree in a transaction of this nature,—the one, in affairs of business, approaching almost as near to the extreme of rigor as the other to that of laxity. While Sheridan, too,—like those painters, who endeavor to disguise their ignorance of anatomy by an indistinct and furzy outline,—had an imposing method of generalizing his accounts and statements, which, to most eyes, concealed the negligence and fallacy of the details, Mr. Whitbread, on the contrary, with an unrelenting accuracy, laid open the minutiae of every transaction, and made evasion as impossible to others, as it was alien and inconceivable to himself. He was, perhaps, the only person, whom Sheridan had ever found proof against his powers of persuasion,—and this rigidity naturally mortified his pride full as much as it thwarted and disconcerted his views.
Among the conditions to which he agreed, in order to facilitate the arrangements of the Committee, the most painful to him was that which stipulated that he, himself, should "have no concern or connection, of any kind whatever, with the new undertaking." This concession, however, he, at first, regarded as a mere matter of form—feeling confident that, even without any effort of his own, the necessity under which the new Committee would find themselves of recurring to his advice and assistance, would, ere long, reinstate him in all his former influence. But in this hope he was disappointed—his exclusion from all concern in the new Theatre, (which, it is said, was made a sine-qua-non by all who embarked in it,) was inexorably enforced by Whitbread; and the following letter addressed by him to the latter will show the state of their respective feelings on this point:—
"MY DEAR WHITBREAD,
"I am not going to write you a controversial or even an argumentative letter, but simply to put down the heads of a few matters which I wish shortly to converse with you upon, in the most amicable and temperate manner, deprecating the impatience which may sometimes have mixed in our discussions, and not contending who has been the aggressor.
"The main point you seem to have had so much at heart you have carried, so there is an end of that; and I shall as fairly and cordially endeavor to advise and assist Mr. Benjamin Wyatt in the improving and perfecting his plan as if it had been my own preferable selection, assuming, as I must do, that there cannot exist an individual in England so presumptuous or so void of common sense as not sincerely to solicit the aid of my practical experience on this occasion, even were I not, in justice to the Subscribers, bound spontaneously to offer it.
"But it would be unmanly dissimulation in me to retain the sentiments I do with respect to your doctrine on this subject, and not express what I so strongly feel. That doctrine was, to my utter astonishment, to say no more, first promulgated to me in a letter from you, written in town, in the following terms. Speaking of building and plans, you say to me, 'You are in no, way answerable if a bad Theatre is built: it is not YOU who built it; and if we come to the STRICT RIGHT of the thing, you have NO BUSINESS TO INTERFERE;' and further on you say, 'Will YOU but STAND ALOOF, and every thing will go smooth, and a good Theatre shall be built;' and in conversation you put, as a similar case, that, 'if a man sold another a piece of land, it was nothing to the seller whether the purchaser built himself a good or a bad house upon it.' Now I declare before God I never felt more amazement than that a man of your powerful intellect, just view of all subjects, and knowledge of the world, should hold such language or resort to such arguments; and I must be convinced, that, although in an impatient moment this opinion may have fallen from you, upon the least reflection or the slightest attention to the reason of the case, you would, 'albeit unused to the retracting mood,' confess the erroneous view you had taken of the subject. Otherwise, I must think, and with the deepest regret would it be, that although you originally engaged in this business from motives of the purest and kindest regard for me and my family, your ardor and zealous eagerness to accomplish the difficult task you had undertaken have led you, in this instance, to overlook what is due to my feelings, to my honor, and my just interests. For, supposing I were to 'stand aloof,' totally unconcerned, provided I were paid for my share, whether the new Theatre were excellent or execrable, and that the result should be that the Subscribers, instead of profit, could not, through the misconstruction of the house, obtain one per cent. for their money, do you seriously believe you could find a single man, woman, or child, in the kingdom, out of the Committee, who would believe that I was wholly guiltless of the failure, having been so stultified and proscribed by the Committee, (a Committee of my own nomination) as to have been compelled to admit, as the condition of my being paid for my share, that 'it was nothing to me whether the Theatre was good or bad' or, on the contrary? can it be denied that the reproaches of disappointment, through the great body of the Subscribers, would be directed against me and me alone?
"So much as to character:—now as to my feelings on the subject;—I must say that in friendship, at least, if not in 'strict right,' they ought to be consulted, even though the Committee could either prove that I had not to apprehend any share in the discredit and discontent which might follow the ill success of their plan, or that I was entitled to brave whatever malice or ignorance might direct against me. Next, and lastly, as to my just interest in the property I am to part with, a consideration to which, however careless I might be were I alone concerned, I am bound to attend in justice to my own private creditors, observe how the matter stands:—I agree to wave my own 'strict right' to be paid before the funds can be applied to the building, and this in the confidence and on the continued understanding, that my advice should be so far respected, that, even should the subscription not fill, I should at least see a Theatre capable of being charged with and ultimately of discharging what should remain justly due to the proprietors. To illustrate this I refer to the size of the pit, the number of private boxes, and the annexation of a tavern; but in what a situation would the doctrine of your Committee leave me and my son? 'It is nothing to us how the Theatre is built, or whether it prospers or not.' These are two circumstances we have nothing to do with; only, unfortunately, upon them may depend our best chance of receiving any payment for the property we part with. It is nothing to us how the ship is refitted or manned, only we must leave all we are worth on board her, and abide the chance of her success. Now I am confident your justice will see, that in order that the Committee should, in 'strict right,' become entitled to deal thus with us, and bid us stand aloof, they should buy us out, and make good the payment. But the reverse of this has been my own proposal, and I neither repent nor wish to make any change in it.