« ElőzőTovább »
Board of Trade at that time was more a consultative than an executive department; and as Shelburne probably felt no great deference to the abilities and authority of his official superiors, notwithstanding the warning he had received, he soon came into collision with the Secretary of State on questions both of policy and administration. Nor were these the only questions upon which he differed with his colleagues. A few days after he had taken office, he detected and exposed the blunder which Lord Halifax had made in issuing the famous general warrant for the arrest of the authors of the North Briton.' Before he had been in office two months he became so intractable that it was with difficulty Bute could persuade him to remain.
From this time, however, he seems to have been engaged, with the concurrence of Bute, in an intrigue, the object of which was to displace the existing Government, and to bring back Pitt with the Bedford connexion. The negotiation was not immediately successful, but it resulted in the final and absolute retirement of Bute from public life. Shelburne also resigned, and attached himself to Pitt in opposition to the Government and the Court on the vital question of Wilkes's expulsion from the House of Commons. For his conduct on this occasion, the King deprived him of his staff appointment, and when he appeared at Court, took no notice of him. His somewhat too forward career of ambition being thus severely checked, Shelburne retired into the country, and occupied himself in the improvement of his estate, and the collection of the historical manuscripts which now enrich the library of the British Museum. He also cultivated the society of men of letters; and early in 1765 he married the daughter of Lord Granville, better known as the accomplished and eccentric Carteret, one of those brilliant meteors which flash across the page of history, and pass into oblivion.
During Lord Shelburne's retirement, political events of the greatest moment were in progress. The first fruit of the policy which had made George III. a King,' was about to be reaped in the form of the Stamp Act, which deprived the Crown of half its dominions. The dangerous character of this measure was not indeed at first foreseen. Barré, who represented the opinions of Shelburne, and spoke from personal knowledge of the Colonists, was almost alone in warning the House of Commons that they were violating the liberties of a people who inherited the resentment of their countrymen against arbitrary taxation. Such counsels as these passed unheeded in Parliament, and the Stamp Bill was regarded throughout the country as a reasonable demand upon the Colonies to contribute to the common defence of the realm. Shelburne himself seems to have attributed more importance to the Regency Bill; for he quitted his retirement at Bowood to denounce the bill in the House of Lords as unnecessary and unwise. Six peers only supported Temple and Shelburne in their opposition to a measure which, however badly devised, was in itself a prudent and constitutional provision for a possible and even probable emergency.
The King, disappointed in his expectation of finding in Grenville the firm supporter, if not the pliant tool of prerogative, set to work, according to his fashion, to intrigue against his Minister. Overtures were made to Pitt, to Lord Temple, to Lord Lyttelton, but in vain ; and at length, through the intervention of the Duke of Cumberland, a negotiation with a section of the Whigs which recognised the Marquis of Rockingham as their chief, ended in the assent of that nobleman to form a new Administration. Both Shelburne and Pitt, though earnestly pressed, refused to take any part in the new arrangement. The Rockingham minority entered upon office without a policy; but Pitt, who now resumed his place in the House of Commons, very soon dictated a policy, which the minority from sheer weakness and incapacity were fain to accept. The great chief of opposition declared for the absolute and immediate repeal of the Stamp Act, and in speeches of eloquence and power which were never equalled in the House of Commons, nor surpassed by himself, he denied the right of Parliament to tax the Colonies, and rejoiced that they had resisted the attempt. The Prime Minister, the Duke of Newcastle, and Lord Dartmouth yielded to Pitt; the King, still determined on coercing the rebellious Colonies, made an effort to form a new Administration from that portion of the Cabinet which hesitated; but the effort was hopeless; and his Majesty was reduced to the necessity of saving his honour by passing an Act declaratory of the right of Parliament to tax the Colonies, at the same time that the exercise of that right was finally relinquished.
The Rockingham Ministry did not long survive the withering ascendency of Pitt. He was of course offered a place in it, but the offer was rejected with ill-disguised contempt. Pitt was determined not to hold a second place in any Administration, nor to lend his aid to any ministerial arrangement dictated by the great Whig lords. There was indeed at that juncture but one possible Minister, and that was Pitt himself
. The announcement of his promotion to the head of affairs was therefore received with acclamation; but some surprise and disappointment was expressed when it became known that the VOL. CXLV. NO. CCXCVII.
Great Commoner had been transformed into the Earl of Chatham. It seemed incongruous that the people's Minister should quit the appropriate field of his fame and power; and that in mid career he should pass into that serene assembly where his illustrious predecessors had been content to retire from the turmoil of public life. But it was little foreseen that clouds and thick darkness were already gathering round an Administration which opened with such brilliant prospects.
Chatham, content to be at the head of the Government, was probably indifferent as to its composition. He invited all the existing Ministers, with the significant exception of Rockingham, to retain their places, and some of them consented. Shelburne, who had been faithful to the fortunes of Pitt, obtained the post of Secretary of State, which had long been the object of his ambition. The other principal Ministers were Grafton, Northington, and Camden. Newcastle was left out, and Temple, as usual, sullen and impracticable, refused to join. Chatham himself, declining an office of business, took the sinecure place of Privy Seal; while the Duke of Grafton, as first Lord of the Treasury, was to act as a deputy Prime Minister.
Soon after the Government was formed, Chatham fell ill, and was forced to absent himself from their deliberations. Questions of vital moment regarding India and the American Colonies divided the Cabinet; and it was in vain that Shelburne and his colleagues wrote to their chief urging him to determine their distracted councils by a decision. Chatham was now sinking under the pressure of bodily and mental disease, and the appeals to his judgment were met by querulous evasions. In the absence of a supreme, controlling authority, the brilliant abilities of Charles Townshend asserted their ascendency in council, and his disastrous policy of coercion towards the Colonies was vehemently supported by the King. The Cabinet, demoralised and disorganised by the want of a presiding will, resolved itself into its elements, and every member, treating the public interests as a secondary consideration, was occupied in providing for his own safety in the ministerial wreck which seemed imminent. Grafton was looking out for a new alliance; Camden and Conway wished to be rid of the responsibility for measures which they did not approve. Every man's hand was against Shelburne. The King hated him. Grafton and Northington denounced him as a secret enemy. Charles Townshend spoke of him with the greatest contempt. But as the sole representative of Chatham in the Government, Shelburne, though anxious to retire, felt bound to keep his place. The sudden death of Charles Townshend in the midst of his ambitious intrigues, followed by the resignation of Northington and Conway, made way for the Bedford party, who had long been intriguing for power. Lord Weymouth became Secretary of State, and Lord Hillsborough at the Board of Trade relieved Shelburne of that part of his duties which related to the administration of the American Colonies. The policy of coercion towards the Colonies was thus continued; while the foreign enemies of England regarded the access of the Bedford party to power as an earnest of peace. Thus within a short year after he had become the nominal head and reputed genius of the Government, was the policy of Chatham in its capital points completely reversed.
Shelburne now found himself thwarted upon every point. His Irish policy was overruled ; his protest against the annexation of Corsica by France was disregarded ; he stood alone in the Cabinet in his opposition to coercive measures against the Americans. At length Grafton wrote to the Prime Minister to insist on the dismissal of Shelburne. The answer from the nominal head of the Government was that he himself would resign. Under these circumstances, it only remained for Shelburne to wait upon the King and tender his resignation, which was readily accepted. His sole representative in the Cabinet being thus removed, Chatham at length relieved himself from the nominal responsibility for measures of which he would have wholly disapproved
had he been in a condition to express any opinion. The Bedford party was now in the ascendant, and the Bedford party was the worst of the factions which Chatham had denounced as the plague of the country. A pusillanimous foreign policy and an arbitrary domestic policy were the leading characteristics of the party of which the Duke of Bedford was the head. France and Spain had no longer anything to fear from England; but the Colonists were told that their demands were to be put down by force, and that their patriotic leaders were to be punished as traitors. At the same time an insolent attack was made upon the representative institutions of the conntry by the expulsion of Wilkes from the House of Commons and the substitution of a candidate who had been rejected by the constituency.
Shelburne, on his retirement from office, was pursued by a shower of libels which held him up to odium as a monster of duplicity and deceit. His public conduct had given some colour to these imputations. His first appearance as a politician was in the character of an agent for negotiating an iniquitous bargain between Bute and Fox; a transaction which resulted in his being openly charged by one of the principals with fraud and falsehood. He had been more or less engaged in subsequent political intrigues. He had lately attached himself to the fortunes of Chatham, and for the first time had held high office; but he was so unfortunate as to incur the distrust and dislike of every one of his colleagues. His manner also was against him. He affected an elaborate courtesy and an exaggerated style of compliment, which, even in that age of artificial stiffness and ceremony, disgusted many with whom he came in contact. Charles Townshend, as we have seen, treated him with scorn. To Burke he was an object of aversion; and Walpole assailed him with the bitterest invective. By the newspapers and their readers he was called Malagrida, after a Portuguese Jesuit priest who had lately been put to death for a supposed complicity in assassination. Vague slanders like these are attracted by every man of eminence; nor is it necessary to contend, as regards Shelburne, that they were wholly without foundation. In times when party discipline was lax in the extreme, party honour was almost unknown. In the last century, public men adapted their conduct to the circumstances of the day, and entered into temporary combinations generally with a view to personal objects of ambition or of gain. In the early part of the reign of George III., the standard of public morality was at its lowest point. And this may be easily explained, The division between Constitutionalists and Loyalists had disappeared. There was no longer fear of civil war. There was no important question of domestic policy in agitation. The popular belief was and is that the administration of Walpole was the era of parliamentary corruption ; but we doubt whether Walpole in twenty years spent so much in bribery and corruption as was lavished by Fox in securing the vote of the House of Commons for the treaty of 1763. Walpole was a frugal Minister ; he knew every man's price, and he never gave a bank note or a place without full value. The majority of Walpole's parliaments were honest and zealous supporters of the House of Hanover; but the majority of the parliaments which Fox had to deal with were hostile to his policy; and he had to buy them over by the sheer force of places, pensions, and ready money. There was no affectation of patriotism among the sordid and self-seeking politicians with whom Shelburne mingled on entering public life; and Shelburne made no pretension to rise above the level of the statesmen of the time. A Shippen or a Pitt would have been very unfitting