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Economical Reform.-Intercedes for mercy towards the Rioters.--Rejection at Bristol.-Opposed to Mr. Fox on the Repeal of the Marriage Act.-Mr. Sheridan. Change of Ministry.
DURING the summer of 1779, the dangers of the country had alarmingly increased; no progress was made in subduing America; the expense of the war exceeded all precedent; the enemy's fleet sweeping triumphantly through the Channel, threatened Plymouth and other parts of the coast; and Ireland, in a state of moral, seemed rapidly proceeding to actual, revolt, by riots in Dublin, by the extension of the system and the imposing attitude of the volunteers, by the strong measure of a money-bill for six months only, and by very general resolutions against “the unjust, illiberal, and impolitic selfishness of England.”
The speech from the throne, in November, recommending her hitherto rejected claims to consideration, drew from the Member for Bristol many bitter taunts on the want of means, not of will, in Ministry, to coerce her by fire and sword, as they had attempted with America. These, though stigmatized as inflammatory, were perhaps not undeserved; dire necessity alone had extracted the measure from the Minister, upon whom a vote of censure for neglect, moved by Lord Ossory, gave birth to highly-applauded speeches by Mr. Fox
and Mr. Burke ; the latter remarking, that that which had at first been requested as a favour, was delayed till angrily demanded as a right; till threats extorted what had been denied to entreaties ; till England had lost the moment of granting with dignity, and Ireland of receiving with gratitude.
When, however, Lord North introduced his plan of relief, he gave it his approval, though without that warmth which the zealous spirits of Ireland expected, and they themselves displayed on the occasion, but which he conceived its tardy justice scarcely deserved. Hence arose a misrepresentation there, that he was altogether indifferent to the relief; his popularity therefore sunk at once, both in the land of his birth and in that of his adoption; in Bristol, for conceding any commercial advantage whatever, and in Dublin, for withholding any point, however indifferent or unimportant in itself; a lot to which all statesmen, who act without favour or partiality towards contending interests, are too often exposed.
To remove this impression in Ireland, he wrote “ A Letter to Thomas Burgh, Esq.” dated Jan. 1, 1780, explanatory of his views and motives, which, though meant to be private, soon found its way, by the zeal of his friends, into the periodical prints of the time, and in some degree set him right with the more intelligent part of his countrymen.
The ill success of the war, and the increased taxation required to support it, occasioning at this moment loud outcries for Parliamentary Reform, and retrenchment of the public expenditure, Mr. Burke dexterously wrested attention from the former, which he had always deemed an unsafe and impracticable measure, to the latter, which he thought was in every respect most desirable.
Of all men in the House he was perhaps the best qualified for the attempt, by a share of palitical courage which shrunk from no duty however invidious, and habits of business whịch, at all times laborious, were on this occasion exerted beyond all precedent. “ For my own part,” said he, “ I have very little to recommend me for this, or for any task, but a kind of earnest and anxious - perseverance of mind, which with all its good and all its evil effects is moulded into my constitution." Cautious of experiment, as he professed to be, even to timidity, this feeling formed a pledge, that no crude or showy innovations should be attempted merely because they were new; and his idea of a very cheap government not being necessarily the very best, rendered it certain that nothing really useful should be taken away. He knew too much of human nature, and of the business of the State, to be led astray by visionary schemes of hopeless purity and impossible perfection. The habits of the country, he knew, were any thing but niggardly toward public offices and public servants. While duty, therefore, required that nothing gross should be permitted to remain, a personal as well as public liberality ensured that no injustice to individuals should be inflicted; that economy should not become penury, or reform utter extirpation.
His notice of motion, on the 15th December, opened a brief but lucid exposition of his views, to which Opposition gave much praise for the matter and the manner, scarcely any one else venturing to say a word on such a ticklish subject. A slight incident, on this occasion, again showed his dexterity in debate. While enforcing the necessity for frugality, and recommending to the Minister the old and valuable Roman apothegm magnum vectigal est parsimonia, he used a false quantity, rendering the second word vēctigal. Lord North, in a low tone, corrected the error, when Mr. Burke, with his usual presence of mind, turned the mistake to advantage. “ The Noble Lord,” said he, “ hints that I have erred in the quantity of a principal word in my quotation; I rejoice at it; because it gives me an opportunity of repeating the inestimable adage,”-and with increased energy he thundered forth—“ magnum vect-i-gal est par. simonia."
Great as was the idea entertained of his talents, expectation was infinitely surpassed by the production of the plan itself, introduced by the memorable speech of the 11th of February, 1780, which every one conversant with political history has read, and he who has read will not readily forget. No public measure of the century received such general encomium. Few speeches from the Opposition side of the House ever fell with greater effect; and of itself, had he never made any other, would place him in the first rank of practical statesmen, for comprehensiveness of design, minute knowledge of detail, the mingled moderation and justice towards the public and to the persons affected, the wisdom of its general principles, and their application to local objects. As a composition it has been considered the most brilliant combination of powers that ever was, or perhaps can be, devoted to such a topic; and when printed, passed through a great number of editions.
The whole of the scheme was comprised in five bills ; embracing the sale of forest lands; the abolition of the inferior royal jurisdictions of Wales, Cornwall, Chester, and Lancaster; of Treasurer, Comptroller, Cofferer, Master, and a variety of inferior officers in the Household; of Treasurer of the Chamber; of the Wardrobe, Jewel, and Robes Offices; of the Boards of Trade, Green-cloth, and of Works ; of the office of third Secretary of State ; of the Keepers of the Stag, Buck, and Fox Hounds; much of the civil branches of the Ordnance and Mint; of the patent offices of the Exchequer; the regulation of the army, navy, and pension pay offices, and some others; and above all a new arrangement of the Civil List, by which debt should be avoided in future, and priority of payment ensured to the least powerful claimants, the First Lord of the Treasury being the last on the list.
The bare enumeration is astounding to any man of moderate courage ; but to reduce or regulate so many sources of influence, to place the remedy side by side with the grievance, to encounter the odium of annihilating or diminishing the possessor's emoluments, was considered the most arduous undertaking ever attempted by any member out of office, and supposed to affect too