Page images

be truly said should have obtained much respect and admiration; and it must be added that, in his hatred of innovation and in his vehement anti-American, anti-Catholic, and antiGallican feelings, he represented the sentiments of large sections—perhaps of the majority-of his people. The party which he drew from its depression has naturally revered his memory, and old age, and blindness, and deafness, and deprivation of reason, and the base ingratitude of two sons, have cast a deep pathos over his closing years.

All these things have contributed very naturally to throw a delusive veil over the political errors of a sovereign of whom it may be said without exaggeration, that he inflicted more profound and enduring injuries upon his country than any other modern English king. Ignorant, narrow-minded, and arbitrary, with an unbounded confidence in his own judgment and an extravagant estimate of his prerogative, resolved at all hazards to compel his ministers to adopt his own views, or to undermine them if they refused, he spent a long life in obstinately resisting measures which are now almost universally admitted to bave been good, and in supporting measures which are as universally admitted to have been bad. He espoused with passionate eagerness the American quarrel; resisted obstinately the measures of conciliation by which at one time it might easily have been stifled; envenomed it by his glaring partisanship, and protracted it for several years, in opposition to the wish and to the advice even of his own favourite and responsible minister. He took the warmest personal interest in the attempts that were made, in the matter of general warrants, to menace the liberty of the subject, and in the case of the Middlesex election to abridge the electoral rights of constituencies, and in the other paltry, violent, and arbitrary measures by which the country was inflamed and Wilkes was converted into a hero. The last instance of an English officer deprived of his regiment for his vote in Parliament was due to the personal intervention of the King; and the ministers whom he most warmly favoured were guilty of an amount and audacity of corruption which is probably unequalled in the parliamentary history of England. All the measures that were carried or attempted with the object of purifying the representative body


-the publication of debates, the alteration of the mode of trying contested elections, the reduction of sinecures and pensions, the enlargement of the constituencies were contrary to the wishes of the King. Although his income during the greater part of his reign was little less than a million a year, although his Court was parsimonious to a fault, and his hospitality exceedingly restricted, and although he succeeded to a considerable sum that had been saved by his predecessor, he accumulated in the course of his reign debts to the amount of no less than 3,398,0611.; ? and there can be little doubt that contemporary public opinion was right in attributing a great part of these debts to his expenditure in parliamentary or electoral corruption. Of all the portions of the empire none was so impoverished, distracted, and misgoverned as Ireland, but every attempt to improve its condition found in the King a bitter adversary. He opposed the relaxation of the atrocious laws by which Irish commerce had been crushed, although his own Tory ministers were in favour of it. He opposed Catholic emancipation with a persistent bitterness, although that measure alone could have made the Irish union acceptable to the people, and although his minister had virtually pledged himself to grant it, and by his refusal he consigned the country to a prolonged and disastrous agitation, the effects of which may never disappear. He opposed the endowment of the Catholic clergy, although statesmen of the most various schools concurred in the belief that no other measure would act so beneficially on the social condition of Ireland, or would so effectually tranquillise the minds of its people. He refused to consent to throw open the higher ranks in the army to the Catholics, although that measure had already been conceded to the army in Ireland by the Irish Parliament; and he flung the country into all the agonies of a “No Popery'dissolution at the very time when a fearful struggle with France was demanding the utmost unanimity, and when thousands of Catholic soldiers were fighting bravely in his cause. In the same spirit he supported the slave trade; he approved of all the various measures by which Pitt in 1794 and 1795 suspended almost

" See the calculations in Burke's Causes of the Present Discontents. ? May's Const. Hist. i. 206.

every guarantee of the liberty of the subject; he described the Test and Corporation Acts as the palladium of the constitution, and was inexorably opposed to their abolition; he created Tory peers in such lavish numbers, and with such an exclusive view to their political subserviency, that he seriously lowered the character and fundamentally altered the tendencies of the House of Lords, and produced that strong permanent difference between the two Houses which is one of the greatest dangers of the Constitution; and in the last years of his reign, before insanity extinguished his powers of evil, he was fanning the disastrous French war, and opposing every attempt to negotiate a peace. In a word, there is scarcely a field of politics in which the hand of the King may not be traced--sometimes in postponing inevitable measures of justice and reform, sometimes in sowing the seeds of enduring evil.

The root, however, of his great errors lay in his determination to restore the royal power to a position wholly different from that which it occupied in the reign of his predecessor; and this design was in many respects more plausible than is now generally admitted. Every functionary has a natural tendency to magnify his office, and when George III. ascended the throne he found his position as an hereditary constitutional sovereign almost unique in the world. In France, in Spain, in Austria, in the smallest principality in Germany, the sovereign was hardly less absolute than in Russia or Turkey. And the power of the English sovereign had for many years been steadily declining, and the limitations to which he was practically subject went far beyond the mere letter of the law. The time had indeed long passed when Elizabeth directed her Parliaments to abstain from discussing matters of state, and when James I. declared that, “as it is atheism and blasphemy in a creature to dispute what the Deity may do, so it is presumption and sedition in a subject to dispute what a king may do in the height of his power ;' but even after the Revolution, William III. had been a great political power, and Anne, though a weak and foolish woman, had exercised no small amount of personal influence. What the position of the English sovereign was in the eyes of the English Church was sufficiently shown by the long series of theologians who proclaimed in the most emphatic terms that he possessed a Divine right, different, not only in degree but in kind, from that of every other power in the State ; that he was the representative or vicegerent of the Deity; that resistance to him was in all cases a sin. The language of English law was less unqualified, but still it painted his authority in very different colours from those which an historian of George I. or of George II, would have used. The • Commentaries' of Blackstone were not published till George III. had been for some time on the throne ; but Bute had obtained a considerable portion of them in manuscript from the author, for the purpose of instructing the Prince in the principles of the Constitution. The King of England,' in the words of Blackstone, “is not only the chief, but properly the sole magistrate of the nation, all others acting by commission from and in due subordination to him. He may reject what bills, may make what treaties . . . . may pardon what offences he pleases, unless when the Constitution hath expressly, or by evident consequence, laid down some exception or boundary.' He has the sole power of regulating fleets and armies, of manning all forts and other places of strength within the realm, of making war and peace, of conferring honours, offices, and privileges. He governs the kingdom: statesmen, who administer affairs, are only his ministers.?

It is not surprising that the contrast between such language and the actual position of George II. during the greater part of his reign should have vividly impressed a young sovereign skrrounded by Tory followers, and naturally extremely tenacious of power, or that he should have early resolved to bend all his faculties to the task of emancipating his office from the restrictions that surrounded it. The period of his accession was in some respects exceedingly propitious to his design. Among the causes of the depression of royalty one of the most obvious and important had been the long exclusion from office of that great Tory party which naturally exalts most highly the royal prerogative. It had originally been defended, and perhaps justified, by the Jacobitism of Bolingbroke and of his col

· Adolphus, Hist. of George III. i. p. 12.

? Blackstone, Book 1, ch. vii. VOL. III.

leagues; but it had been perpetuated through party motives, and the borough system, assisted by royal favour, had enabled a few great Whig families gradually to command the chief power in the State. But with the extinction of Jacobitism the necessity for this exclusion had ceased. Scotland had been completely pacified by the abolition of hereditary jurisdictions; the English Jacobites were shown by the Rebellion of 1745 to be few and insignificant. The animosity against George II. on account of the severities that followed the Rebellion was not extended to his successor. The dislike to a foreign king, which had hitherto been the strongest support, had now become one of the most formidable difficulties of the Jacobites. George III. was English by birth, by education, by character, and by creed. The Pretender was at once a foreigner and a Papist, with few or no English tastes, and sunk, according to common report, in habitual drunkenness.! So many years had elapsed since the Act of Settlement that the new dynasty had struck its roots firmly in the soil, and all those large classes who were most attached to the theory of legitimacy were only waiting for the death of George II. to rally around his successor as they had rallied around Anne or around Charles II.

The propriety of breaking down the system of exclusion seemed manifest. The Tory sentiment of the country had long found no adequate expression in the Government. The party which carried with it the genuine sympathies both of the country gentry and of the country clergy had been so discouraged that after the death of Bolingbroke and of the Prince of Wales it was scarcely represented in Parliament, and its political eclipse had been followed by a great increase both of oligarchical influence and of corruption. There was something manifestly unhealthy in the continuance during many years, of a Government like that of Walpole, which was supported chiefly by a majority of members of nomination boroughs in opposition

I The Pretender continues to be perpetually drunk; the other day he forced a Cordelier to drink with him as long as he possibly could. At last the friar made his escape, which the other resented so much that he fired with ball from the window at him. He missed him, but killed a cow that

was passing by.' Mr. Stanley to Pitt.

-Grenville Papers, i. 366. In another letter Stanley says : The Pretender's eldest son is drunk as soon as he rises, and is always senselessly so at night, when his servants carry him to bed. He is not thought of even by the exiles.'-Chatham Corresp. ii. 128.

« PreviousContinue »