The Worlds Famous Orations. Great Britain: I. (7101777). 1906.
On His Proposed Removal from Office
Robert Walpole, Earl of Orford (16761745)
Born in 1676, died in 1745; entered Parliament in 1701; became a Whig leader and Secretary of War in 1708; expelled from Parliament and sent to the Tower in 1712; returned to Parliament in 1713; Prime Minister in 17151717; again Prime Minister 17211742.
IT1 has been observed by several gentlemen, in vindication of this motion, that if it should be carried, neither my life, liberty, nor estate will be affected. But do the honorable gentlemen consider my character and reputation as of no moment? Is it no imputation to be arraigned before this House, in which I have sat forty years, and to have my name transmitted to posterity with disgrace and infamy? I will not conceal my sentiments that to be named in Parliament as a subject of inquiry is to me a matter of great concern. But I have the satisfaction, at the same time, to reflect that the impression to be made depends upon the consistency of the charge and the motives of the prosecutors.
My great and principal crime is my long continuance in office; or, in other words, the long exclusion of those who now complain against me. This is the heinous offense which exceeds all others. I keep from them the possession of that power, those honors, and those emoluments, to which they so ardently and pertinaciously aspire. I will not attempt to deny the reasonableness and necessity of a party war; but in carrying on that war all principles and rules of justice should not be departed from. The Tories must confess that the most obnoxious persons have felt few instances of extra-judicial power. Wherever they have been arraigned, a plain charge has been exhibited against them. They have had an impartial trial and have been permitted to make their defense. And will they, who have experienced this fair and equitable mode of proceeding, act in direct opposition to every principle of justice and establish this fatal precedent of parliamentary inquisition? Whom would they conciliate by a conduct so contrary to principle and precedent?
Gentlemen have talked a great deal of patriotism. A venerable word, when duly practised. But I am sorry to say that of late it has been so much hackneyed about that it is in danger of falling into disgrace. The very idea of true patriotism is lost, and the term has been prostituted to the very worst of purposes. A patriot, sir! Why, patriots spring up like mushrooms! I could raise fifty of them within the four-and-twenty hours. I have raised many of them in one night. It is but refusing to gratify an unreasonable or an insolent demand, and up starts a patriot. I have never been afraid of making patriots; but I disdain and despise all their efforts. This pretended virtue proceeds from personal malice and disappointed ambition. There is not a man among them whose particular aim I am not able to ascertain, and from what motive they have entered into the lists of opposition.
I shall now consider the articles of accusation which they have brought against me, and which they have not thought fit to reduce to specific charges; and I shall consider these in the same order as that in which they were placed by the honorable member who made the motion: first, in regard to foreign affairs; secondly, to domestic affairs; and, thirdly, to the conduct of the war.
As to foreign affairs, I must take notice of the uncandid manner in which the gentlemen on the other side have managed the question by blending numerous treaties and complicated negotiations into one general mass.
To form a fair and candid judgment of the subject it becomes necessary not to consider the treaties merely insulated, but to advert to the time in which they were made, to the circumstances and situation of Europe when they were made, to the peculiar situation in which I stand, and to the power which I possessed. I am called repeatedly and insidiously prime and sole minister. Admitting, however, for the sake of argument, that I am prime and sole minister in this country, am I, therefore, prime and sole minister of all Europe? Am I answerable for the conduct of other countries as well as for that of my own? Many words are not wanting to show that the particular view of each court occasioned the dangers which affected the public tranquillity; yet the whole is charged to my account. Nor is this sufficient. Whatever was the conduct of England, I am equally arraigned. If we maintained ourselves in peace, and took no share in foreign transactions, we are reproached for tameness and pusillanimity. If, on the contrary, we interfered in these disputes, we are called Don Quixotes, and dupes to all the world. If we contracted guarantees, it was asked why is the nation wantonly burdened? If guarantees were declined, we were reproached with having no allies.
I now come, sir, to the second headthe conduct of domestic affairs. And here a most heinous charge is made, that the nation has been burdened with unnecessary expenses for the sole purpose of preventing the discharge of our debts and the abolition of taxes. But this attack is more to the dishonor of the whole cabinet council than to me. If there is any ground for this imputation, it is a charge upon king, lords and commons, as corrupted or imposed upon. And they have no proof of these allegations, but affect to substantiate them by common fame and public notoriety!
No expense has been incurred but what has been approved of and provided for by Parliament. The public treasure has been duly applied to the uses to which it was appropriated by Parliament, and regular accounts have been annually laid before Parliament, of every article of expense. If by foreign accidents, by the disputes of foreign states among themselves, or by their designs against us, the nation has often been put to an extraordinary expense, that expense can not be said to have been unnecessary; because, if by saving it we had exposed the balance of power to danger, or ourselves to an attack, it would have cost, perhaps, a hundred times that sum before we could recover from that danger or repel that attack.
In all such cases there will be a variety of opinions. I happened to be one of those who thought all these expenses necessary, and I had the good fortune to have the majority of both houses of Parliament on my side. But this, it seems, proceeded from bribery and corruption. Sir, if any one instance had been mentioned, if it had been shown that I ever offered a reward to any member of either House, or ever threatened to deprive any member of his office or employment, in order to influence his vote in Parliament, there might have been some ground for this charge. But when it is so generally laid I do not know what I can say to it unless it be to deny it as generally and as positively as it has been asserted. And, thank God! till some proof be offered, I have the laws of the land as well as the laws of charity in my favor.
Some members of both Houses have, it is true, been removed from their employments under the Crown; but were they ever told, either by me or by any other of his majestys servants, that it was for opposing the measures of the administration in Parliament? They were removed because his majesty did not think fit to continue them longer in his service. His majesty had a right so to do; and I know no one that has a right to ask him, What doest thou? If his majesty had a mind that the favors of the crown should circulate, would not this of itself be a good reason for removing any of his servants? Would not this reason be approved of by the whole nation, except those who happen to be the present possessors? I can not, therefore, see how this can be imputed as a crime, or how any of the kings ministers can be blamed for his doing what the public has no concern in; for if the public be well and faithfully served it has no business to ask by whom.
I shall now advert to the third topic of accusationthe conduct of the war.2 I have already stated in what manner and under what circumstances hostilities commenced; and as I am neither general nor admiralas I have nothing to do either with our navy or armyI am sure that I am not answerable for the prosecution of it. But were I to answer for everything no fault could, I thin, be found with my conduct in the prosecution of the war. It has from the beginning been carried on with as much vigor and as great care of our trade as was consistent with our safety at home and with the circumstances we were in at the beginning of the war. If our attacks upon the enemy were too long delayed, or if they have not been so vigorous or so frequent as they ought to have been, those only are to blame who have for many years been haranging against standing armies; for, without a sufficient number of regular troops in proportion to the numbers kept up by our neighbors, I am sure we can neither defend ourselves nor offend our enemies. On the supposed miscarriages of the war, so unfairly stated and so unjustly imputed to me, I could, with great ease, frame an incontrovertible defense. But as I have trespassed so long on the time of the House I shall not weaken the effect of that forcible exculpation so generously and disinterestedly advanced by the right honorable gentleman who so meritoriously presides at the admiralty.
If my whole administration is to be scrutinized and arraigned, why are the most favorable parts to be omitted? If facts are to be accumulated on one side, why not on the other? And why may not I be permitted to speak in my own favor? Was I not called by the voice of the king and the nation to remedy the fatal effects of the South Sea project3 and to support declining credit? Was I not placed at the head of the treasury when the revenues were in the greatest confusion? Is credit revived, and does it now flourish? Is it not at an incredible height, and if so, to whom must that circumstance be attributed? Has not tranquillity been preserved both at home and abroad, notwithstanding a most unreasonable and violent opposition? Has the true interest of the nation been pursued, or has trade flourished? Have gentlemen produced one instance of this exorbitant power; of the influence which I extend to all parts of the nation; of the tyranny with which I oppress those who oppose, and the liberality with which I reward those who support me? But having first invested me with a kind of mock dignity, and styled me a prime minister, they impute to me an unpardonable abuse of that chimerical authority which they only have created and conferred.
If they are really persuaded that the army is annually established by me, that I have the sole disposal of posts and honors, that I employ this power in the destruction of liberty and the diminution of commerce, let me awaken them from their delusion. Let me expose to their view the real condition of the public weal. Let me show them that the crown has made no encroachments, that all supplies have been granted by Parliament, that all questions have been debated with the same freedom as before the fatal period in which my counsels are said to have gained the ascendencyan ascendency from which they deduce the loss of trade, the approach of slavery, the preponderance of prerogative, and the extension of influence. But I am far from believing that they feel those apprehensions which they so earnestly labor to communicate to others; and I have too high an opinion of their sagacity not to conclude that, even in their own judgment, they are complaining of grievances that they do not suffer, and promoting rather their private interest than that of the public.
What is this unbounded sole power which is imputed to me? How has it discovered itself, or how has it been proved? What have been the effects of the corruption, ambition, and avarice with which I am so abundantly charged?
Have I ever been suspected of being corrupted? A strange phenomenon, a corrupter himself not corrupt! Is ambition imputed to me? Why then do I still continue a commoner?I, who refused a white staff and a peerage. I had, indeed, like to have forgotten the little ornament about my shoulders [the garter], which gentlemen have so repeatedly mentioned in terms of sarcastic obloquy. But surely, tho this may be regarded with envy or indignation in another place, it can not be supposed to raise any resentment in this House, where many may be pleased to see those honors which their ancestors have worn, restored again to the Commons.
Have I given any symptoms of an avaricious disposition? Have I obtained any grants from the crown since I have been placed at the head of the treasury? Has my conduct been different from that which others in the same station would have followed? Have I acted wrong in giving the place of auditor to my son and in providing for my own family? I trust that their advancement will not be imputed to me as a crime unless it shall be proved that I placed them in offices of trust and responsibility for which they were unfit.
But while I unequivocally deny that I am sole and prime minister, and that to my influence and direction all the measures of the government must be attributed, yet I will not shrink from the responsibility which attaches to the post I have the honor to hold; and should, during the long period in which I have sat upon this bench, any one step taken by government be proved to be either disgraceful or disadvantageous to the nation, I am ready to hold myself accountable.
To conclude, sir, tho I shall always be proud of the honor of any trust or confidence from his majesty, yet I shall always be ready to remove from his councils and presence when he thinks fit; and therefore I should think myself very little concerned in the event of the present question if it were not for the encroachment that will thereby be made upon the prerogatives of the crown. But I must think that an address to his majesty to remove one of his servants, without so much as alleging any particular crime against him, is one of the greatest encroachments that was ever made upon the prerogatives of the crown. And therefore, for the sake of my mater, without any regard for my own, I hope all those that have a due regard for our constitution and for the rights and prerogatives of the crown, without which our constitution can not be preserved, will be against this motion.
Note 1. Delivered in the House of Commons in February, 1741. Abridged. Among other things Walpole was accused of having made himself sole and prime minister, which at that time was regarded as an invasion or the rights of his colleags. The motion for his removal was lost by a vote of 106 for to 290 against it. [back]
Note 2. The War of the Austrian Succession. Frederick the Great had invaded Silesia the year before the date of this speech, and was soon to win the important battle of Mollwitz. [back]
Note 3. The South Sea Bubble had exploded in 1720, ruining thousands of families. Walpole became prime minister for the second time in 1721. [back]