II. The General Election of 1715 and the First Whig Opposition, 1717-20

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1715-1754, ed. R. Sedgwick, 1970
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Between the Revolution and the Hanoverian accession a two-party system developed. At the beginning of the period, in Macaulay’s words,

each of the two Houses was divided and sub-divided by several lines. To omit minor distinctions, there was the great line which separated the Whig party from the Tory party; and there was the great line which separated the official men and their friends and dependents, who were sometimes called the Court party, from those who were sometimes nicknamed the Grumbletonians, and sometimes honoured with the appellation of the Country party. And these two great lines were intersecting lines. For of the servants of the Crown and their adherents about one half were Whigs and one half Tories.1

During the next twenty years the Court-Country line was obliterated by its Whig-Tory counterpart. Writing in 1713, Burnet describes the two parties as

so stated and kept up, not only by the elections of Parliament men, that return every third year, but even by the yearly elections of mayors and corporation men, that they know their strength; and in every corner of the nation the two parties stand, as it were listed against one another.

At the opening of the next reign George I was assured by Lord Chancellor Cowper,

on repeated experience, that the parties are so near an equality, and the generality of the world so much in love with the advantages a King of Great Britain has to bestow, without the least exceeding the bounds of law, that ’tis wholly in your Majesty’s power, by showing your favour in due time (before the elections) to one or other of them, to give which of them you please a clear majority in all succeeding parliaments.2

George I showed his favour to the Whigs by making a clean sweep of Tory office holders before he dissolved Parliament on 5 Jan. 1715, exhorting his subjects in choosing new Members ‘to have a particular regard to such as showed a firmness to the Protestant succession, when it was in danger’. At the ensuing general election 341 Whigs and 217 Tories were returned, compared with 358 Tories and 200 Whigs in 1713, when the favour of the Crown was shown to the Tories. In a statement of the results of both these general elections, known as the Worsley list,3 prepared for the King, all the candidates are shown as belonging to one or other of the two great parties, whose distinguishing characteristics were thus defined by Bolingbroke to Sir William Wyndham in 1739: ‘The Whigs have always looked on the Protestant succession, and the Tories on the restoration of the Stuarts, as a sure means to throw the whole power of the Government into the hands of one or the other of them, and to keep it there.’4

As in the eighteenth century most Members were returned without a contest, it is impossible to make more than an estimate of the electoral strength of each party. In 1715 the 314 constituencies produced 119 contests,5 but voting figures are known for only 69. In these 69 contests each party polled a little over 46,000 votes, out of a total electorate of about 284,000, so that on the voting of nearly a third of the electors the two parties were approximately equal in strength.

The possibility of gaining a large parliamentary majority without possessing an electoral majority was inherent in the electoral system. The 40 English counties, with an electorate of nearly 160,000, returned only 80 Members, or one for about 2,000 voters, whereas the 205 English boroughs, with an electorate of only 101,000, returned 409 Members, or one for less than 250 voters. The 25 largest English boroughs, with a total electorate of about 60,000, returned only 51 Members, or one for 1,176 voters, whereas the remaining 180, with a total electorate of 41,500, returned 358, or one for 116 voters. 106 smaller English boroughs, with a total electorate of about 38,000, returned 212 Members, or one for 180 voters, whereas the 74 smallest boroughs, with a total electorate of only 3,500, returned 146, or one for 24 voters. Finally Wales, with an electorate of about 21,000, returned 24 Members, or one for 875 voters, while Scotland, with an electorate of about 2,700, returned 45, or one for 60. The electoral system, in short, was an example of inverse proportional representation.6

A comparison of the results of the general election of 1715 with those of 1713 shows that in both of them the English counties and Wales, where elections were dominated by the Anglican gentry, returned a majority of Tories, while Scotland, where elections were controlled by a small number of mostly presbyterian landowners, returned a majority of Whigs. The English boroughs, on the other hand, which returned 258 Tories to 151 Whigs in 1713, returned 263 Whigs to 146 Tories in 1715. Of the 141 Whig gains in 1715, 112 were won in the over-represented and easily manipulated English boroughs.

The process of manipulating a court majority began with the appointment of the sheriffs, which took place in November each year. As the office involved its holders in considerable expense, the Government usually conferred it on opponents, except in election years, when it was filled by their supporters. The reason for this was that on a dissolution of Parliament the writs for the election of a new House of Commons were sent by the clerk of the Crown to the sheriffs,7 who, besides acting as returning officers for their own county elections, were responsible for sending the precepts, or orders to hold an election, to the returning officers of the boroughs within their jurisdiction, and for transmitting the resulting indentures certifying the results of elections to the clerk of the Crown. These functions enabled the sheriffs to influence county elections by their power of rejecting or accepting doubtful votes, and deciding when to close the poll and whether there should be a scrutiny. In the borough elections, if there were a doubt as to who was the proper returning officer, the sheriff could arrange for the precept to be sent to one who supported the court party, and if conflicting returns were made he could accept that in favour of the court candidates, even if it had not been made by the proper returning officer. In Scotland, owing to the small size of the country electorates, the sheriffs, nearly two-thirds of whom were hereditary till 1748, virtually nominated most of the county Members.

Still more important were the functions of the returning officers of the boroughs. Except in Scotland, where they were the town clerks of the presiding burghs, most returning officers of boroughs fell into two classes: those nominated by the lord of the manor; and mayors or some equivalent municipal official, chosen at the annual corporation elections. The importance of these officials is shown by election petitions, over 80% of which in 1715 were based on the alleged partiality of returning officers.

In 39 English boroughs,8 most of which were very small, the lord of the manor, who appointed the returning officer or officers, was in a position, if he chose, to nominate both Members. In practice, however, unless he had complete control of the borough, as by owning most of the burgages, an attempt by him to monopolize the representation was liable to lead to petitions, which, if he was in opposition, were likely to result in the unseating of his nominees. Thus it was observed of Weobley, where the lord of the manor, Lord Weymouth, ‘has the constables’, that is the returning officers, ‘but not one vote that he can command in the whole town’: ‘This makes it a bad borough to stand for in opposition if Lord Weymouth is with the Court, but of no consequence if he is against it.’ In these circumstances lords of the manor tended to nominate both Members only if they were in complete control of the borough or supporting the Government, but otherwise to content themselves with one Member.

By far the largest electoral group was that of the 155 English boroughs, most of them close bodies, appointed for life by co-option, where the returning officer was the mayor or some equivalent official. In 25 of these boroughs the right of voting was confined to the corporation; in 91, where the right of election was in the freemen, the corporation could create a majority by their power of making or refusing to make new freemen; in 30, where the right of voting was in persons paying scot and lot, the municipal magistrates could do the same by adding names to or striking names from the roll of taxpayers. By these means, even in large boroughs, the corporations were able to control elections. For practical purposes the corporations were the constituent bodies in most of these boroughs.

The English corporations had long been used for the purpose of packing Parliament. Describing James II’s methods of securing a parliamentary majority in 1685, Burnet writes:

All people saw the way for packing a parliament now laid open. A new set of charters and corporation men, if those now named should not continue ... as compliant as they were at present, was a certain remedy, to which recourse might easily had. The boroughs of England saw their privileges now wrested out of their hands and that their elections which had made them so considerable before, were henceforth to be made as the Court should direct; so that from henceforth little regard would be had to them; and the usual practices in courting, or rather in corrupting, them, would be no longer pursued.9

One of the effects of the Revolution was the restoration of the privileges of the corporations till they were swept away by the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835.

The character of these bodies is described in the report of the royal commission which led to the Act of 1835:

The importance which the privilege of electing members of parliament has conferred upon corporate towns, or rather upon the governing bodies there, and the rewards for political services which are brought within the reach of the ruling corporators, have caused this function to be considered in many places as the sole object of their institution ... To maintain the political ascendancy of a party, or the political influence of a family, has been the one end and object for which the powers entrusted to a numerous class of these bodies have been exercised ... Admission into the corporate body has commonly been sought mainly with a view to the lucrative exercise of the elective franchise.

This account of the corporations is borne out by the constituency histories of the period covered by these volumes.

The advantages enjoyed by a court candidate in dealing with such bodies are described by Burke in his Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents:

On the side of the Court will be all honours, offices, emoluments; every sort of personal gratification to avarice or vanity; and, what is of more moment to most gentlemen, the means of growing, by innumerable petty services to individuals, into a spreading interest in their country. On the other hand, let us suppose a person unconnected with the Court, and in opposition to its system. For his own person, no office, or emolument, or title; no promotion ecclesiastical, or civil, or military, or naval, for children, or brothers, or kindred. In vain an expiring interest in a borough calls for offices, or small livings, for the children of mayors and aldermen and capital burgesses. His court rival has them all. He can do an infinite number of acts of generosity and kindness, and even of public spirit. He can procure indemnity from quarters. He can procure advantages in trade. He can get pardons for offences. He can obtain a thousand favours, and avert a thousand evils. He may, while he betrays every valuable interest of the kingdom, be a benefactor, a patron, a father, a guardian angel to his borough. The unfortunate independent member has nothing to offer but harsh refusal, or pitiful excuse, or despondent representation of a hopeless interest. Except from his private fortune, in which he may be equalled, perhaps exceeded, by his court competitor, he has no way of showing any one good quality or making a single friend.

The source of many of these advantages was the King’s civil list, which covered not merely the cost of the royal household but that of the whole civil administration, from the chief offices of state, then far more valuable than they are today, to local offices in the customs, excise, navy, post office and other government services, which could be given to members of corporations, especially in seaports, constituting nearly a third of the English boroughs. Court candidates could be subsidized from the secret service money, though according to a note appended by the secretary of the Treasury to an account of the revenue and expenditure of the civil list during the past sixteen years, which was laid before the House of Commons on 10 May 1715, no payments of this kind had been made since George I’s accession.10 If carrots failed, recourse could be had to the stick in the form of legal proceedings against a corporation on the ground of some technical violation of the often obscure and contradictory forms of its charter.

It was the practice of eighteenth-century parliamentary majorities to increase themselves by deciding election petitions in their own favour. In 1715 the 119 contests produced 87 petitions, 46 from Tories and 41 from Whigs. No Tory petition was successful but 31 Tories were unseated in favour of Whigs, including two expelled for taking part in the rebellion. Thus the post-petition party strengths were 372 Whigs and 186 ories, an almost exact reversal of the 372 Tories and 185 Whigs at the same stage of the previous Parliament. By the end of the 1715 Parliament the Tories had lost 19 more by deaths, defections, etc., reducing their number to 167 compared with 391 Whigs.

Referring to Burnet’s remarks on James II’s packing of the 1685 Parliament, Swift observes: ‘just our case on the Queen’s death’, a comment which also applies to the Parliaments of Anne’s reign. But the most pungent criticism of the way in which eighteenth-century elections were conducted was made by an expert, George Bubb Dodington, shortly before the general election of 1734:

Considering the real weight that the families, fortunes, and interest of those in the King’s service naturally give us, separate from the vast influence of the power and very great revenue of the Crown (if either should be made use of), I say I think that there is no room to doubt but that it will be a court Parliament. If I should be mistaken in this opinion of our natural strength, and it should be thought advisable to employ the revenue and power of the Crown to procure, by means of the returning officers, a majority to be returned, and that majority should afterwards (as no doubt they will) fortify and increase themselves by the decision of elections in the committee, yet then it will still be a court Parliament, and the Opposition will have nothing either to boast of or to hope. But if this should be the case ... it might be productive of ill consequences if the people should be persuaded to believe that the majority of the Parliament were two degrees removed from being their representatives; one by the partiality of the returns; the other by that of the decisions of the committee.11

The political scene at George I’s accession is described in remarks appended to the Worsley list, written in French for George I, probably by his private secretary, John Robethon, a Huguenot refugee, who had served William III in the same capacity. After observing that some Tories might vote with the Whigs in the hope of keeping their places, and that some Whigs might vote with the Tories because they were discontented at obtaining nothing or less than they considered that they deserved, the anonymous author goes on to say that

self-interest and corruption have reached such a pitch in this nation that few people act on principle pure and simple. Not that there are no honest men but one will seldom be wrong in attributing the conduct of an individual to reasons of interest and nearly always wrong in supposing that there are any others. In all the parties there are ministers of state who recommend and try to advance those who attach themselves personally to them, their relations and dependants, without regard to whether these are the most suitable and capable, and they will always do down those who do not recognise their authority even though of the same party. There are Members of both Houses of Parliament who, if they are not employed, will always be of a different opinion from that which they would have held had they been in office, and though on the whole they may follow their party will hurt the Court in important debates by taking some popular pretext for differing from it or even by abstaining.

The same applied to the voters, whose attitude would depend on

favours for themselves, their relations, and servants in their counties, towns, or parishes. Their demands are fairly modest, not going beyond positions in the militia, the justices of the peace, and offices dependent on the Treasury, the customs, the navy, etc., and they think themselves fortunate and are very proud if by this means they gain respect in their localities.

Lastly there were the

populace, who are not the least important, for when they are on the side of the Court it has nothing to fear if it knows how to take advantage of this; whereas, if they are against, the Court is never safe and good heads are necessary to avoid running into great difficulties. These people are very changeable. There are two cries that have often and alternately prevailed with them, the danger from France and Popery, and the Church in danger. The first has always succeeded when the Court has thrown itself so completely into the hands of Versailles that every one’s eyes have been opened, but no sooner have steps been taken to put matters right than another set, the clergy, revive the church cry,

a reference to the Sacheverell agitation in 1710. It was useless for those who were disliked by the clergy to go to church, seeing that they had

always publicly avowed that they wished to destroy it. This is the most delicate and difficult point, for these people [i.e. the clergy] are able to assemble the whole nation at least once a week and preach to them what they please. This is what is most be be feared. Nevertheless I think all this can be easily dealt with, for if a prince can find a way to make himself personally loved the clergy will preach in vain.12

Periodical attempts to revive these cries met with little or no success till 1753, when on the passing of an Act for naturalizing Jews

the whole nation found itself inflamed with a Christian zeal, which was thought happily extinguished with the ashes of Queen Anne and Sacheverell. Indeed, this holy spirit seized none but the populace and the very lowest of the clergy ... The little curates preached against the bishops for deserting the interests of the Gospel; and aldermen grew drunk at county clubs in the cause of Jesus Christ, as they had used to do for the sake of King James. Yet to this senseless clamour did the ministry give way; and to secure tranquillity to their elections, submitted to repeal the bill.13

Meanwhile other cries, such as ‘no excise’ and ‘war with Spain’, demonstrated the sensitivity of the House of Commons to public opinion, operating through the unenfranchised ‘populace’ or ‘mob’.

The suggestion that some Tory Members might turn their coats to save their places was not borne out to any significant extent. Only nine of the 372 Tory Members of the 1713 House (Sir Jacob Astley, Sir James Bateman, Roger Jones, Thomas King, William Lowndes, Sir Edward Northey and his son William, Richard Sutton, and Henry Vincent), were returned as Whigs in 1715. Three Tory leaders (William Bromley, Ralph Freman, and Sir Thomas Hanmer) were offered office but refused. Two Hanoverian Tories (Lord Guernsey and Sir Roger Mostyn) followed their kinsman, Lord Nottingham, into office, only to be dismissed with him in 1716, whereupon they returned to their party. From 1715 to 1754 forty-five more Tory Members became Whigs.14

As a Whig Member who went over to the Tories would automatically become proscribed, it is not surprising that those known to have done so numbered only four (Archibald Hutcheson, Lord Rialton, John Fane and George Heathcote). This does not mean that George I was misinformed by being told that Whigs who had not obtained offices, or who were dissatisfied with those given them, would vote with the Tories. On the contrary this period saw a succession of Whig oppositions, all based on the fact that there were not enough places to go round.

The first of these oppositions had its origin in the appointment of Lord Townshend to be head of the new ministry formed after George I’s accession, in preference to Marlborough’s son-in-law, Lord Sunderland, who was relegated to Ireland, where he never went, biding his time to return the compliment to Townshend. Townshend’s second-in-command was his brother-in-law, Robert Walpole, whom he put at the head of the House of Commons, with the office of paymaster general of the forces. The other ‘chief men in place’ in the Commons at the opening of the new Parliament were Spencer Compton, the Speaker; Sir Richard Onslow, chancellor of the Exchequer, a former Speaker; Hugh Boscawen, comptroller of the Household; John Aislabie, treasurer of the navy; John Smith, teller of the Exchequer, another former Speaker; Nicholas Lechmere, solicitor-general; George Baillie, a lord of the Admiralty; William Pulteney, secretary at war; and James Stanhope, chosen by Townshend to be his fellow secretary of state, the only commoner in the Cabinet till Walpole became first lord of the Treasury and chancellor of the Exchequer in October 1715.15 Besides these ten, there were 147 other Whig office holders,16 generally known as placemen, when the septennial bill was introduced in April 1716.

Like other major government measures of the period, the septennial bill, extending the life of Parliament from three to seven years, came to the Commons after passing the Lords. The reason for this was that

if it passes there, the security of that success will certainly determine several commoners for it, whom the uncertainty of its passing with the Lords might probably have discouraged from an enterprise, the failure of which would throw ’em out at the next election.

Apart from the Tories, it was expected that the bill would be opposed by a ‘third party of malcontent and displaced Whigs’, led by Lechmere, who had recently been turned out.17 In the event 43 Whigs, mostly independent Members, voted against the bill, which passed its second reading, 19 Apr. 1716, by 276 to 156, was committed 24 Apr. by 284 to 162, and was read a third time, 26 Apr., by 264 to 121.18

During the recess, which the King spent in Hanover, leaving the Prince of Wales as regent, the political scene was transformed by a palace revolution, engineered by Sunderland, in conjunction with Stanhope, resulting in Townshend’s transfer to Ireland; by the dismissal of the Duke of Argyll from all his offices to clear the way for Lord Cadogan to become coadjutor to Marlborough, who had been incapacitated by a paralytic stroke; and by a quarrel in the royal family, caused by the Prince’s refusal to obey the King’s order to part with Argyll, then his favourite. Instead of resigning, as expected, Townshend, like Sunderland in 1714, remained in the ministry, waiting for an opportunity to turn the tables on his rival. Such an opportunity occurred on a vote of credit for defence against a threatened Swedish invasion in April 1717, when, with the Prince’s servants walking out before the division, the government majority fell to four, and would, it was thought, have disappeared altogether if the King had not dismissed Townshend that same evening. Next day Walpole, accompanied by other ministers, resigned to form a Whig opposition, headed by the Prince.19

The heads of the new ministry were a triumvirate, known as the Marlborough faction, consisting of Sunderland, secretary of state, Stanhope, first lord of the Treasury and chancellor of the Exchequer, and Cadogan, since Marlborough’s stroke acting head of the army. Other gaps caused by the resignations were filled by Lechmere, who secured the duchy of Lancaster for life as an insurance against the risk of joining what many regarded as a sinking ship; the younger Craggs, who left the Prince to become secretary at war; and Addison, who became second secretary of state, though, in Dr. Johnson’s words, ‘in the House of Commons he could not speak and was therefore useless for the defence of the Government’. It is to a letter written by Addison to Lord Stair, ambassador to France, that we owe the only first-hand account of the full dress attack on the ministry launched, 4 June 1717, by the Whig opposition leaders, in the form of charges against Cadogan of fraud in the transport costs of the Dutch troops sent for during the rebellion.

Yesterday we look upon to have been the decisive day of this session. Both parties made their utmost efforts, and summoned all their friends that could be got together from every quarter of the nation. Mr. Pulteney began the attack in a long speech to show the unreasonableness of the several articles charged in Lord Cadogan’s account. He was answered by Craggs, who has gained great reputation from the debate. He answered every particular to the satisfaction of the impartial side of the House, and was very well supported by lieutenant general Macartney at the bar. This put the enemy into so great confusion that Mr. Walpole was forced to rally them upon another foot. He endeavoured to discover, with a great deal of art, several frauds in the accounts, as charging the same particulars under different heads, the insufficiency of the vouchers, etc., which, after his manner, he placed in the strongest light they would bear. It happened luckily for us that the master of the rolls died some time before this contest. Sir Joseph Jekyll answered Mr. Walpole and with great strength of reasoning, who (Walpole) was seized with a bleeding at the nose upon his rising to reply. Mr. Lechmere exerted very well, and Mr. Aislabie, with as much decency as a man could do who is just detached from the party. Among the Tories, Hungerford declared himself very much disappointed with the prodigious discoveries that were expected on that day, but concluded against the Whigs for the question on the paper. This I should have told your Excellency was moved by Herne, in the beginning of the debate— viz. ‘that it appeared to your committee that the embarkation of the troops from Ostend had cost £10,000’. Though the whole body of the Tories were there, and not a single man among them voted for us, none else spoke but Shippen. They had a long string of questions to have followed, if they carried the innocent one at first proposed, which Mr. Stanhope took notice of, and therefore moved for leaving the chair, which by the Speaker’s means was filled by Edgcumbe, for we designed Mr. Farrer for that post. Mr. Smith, who understands parliamentary craft, very artificially insisted upon the first question as what would do most honour to Lord Cadogan; but at the same time said the account given in was the most illusive and deceitful he had ever seen brought into the House. All the Prince’s court were against us and 78 Whigs, among whom several in places. But upon the division we were 204 to 194. As this was the utmost effort of all parties united against the present interest, I believe it is not hard to guess which of the sides is likely to grow the strongest for it. Those who lost the day are amazed at their ill success, and wonder from whence such a body could be drawn against ’em, for it was their own and the common opinion of the town that they would carry it by 50 or 60 voices.20

Of the 78 Whigs who voted against Cadogan, 51 were either office holders, including the Prince’s servants and anti-Cadogan army officers, former office holders who had resigned with Walpole, or followers of the Duke of Argyll. At the end of the session 14 army officers and civil once holders were turned out for voting against the Government.21 Nor did Sunderland confine himself to disciplinary measures. According to Speaker Onslow:

The difficulties he was thus in reduced him to all methods to secure his power, and indeed he had no scruples in making use of any. He bought all men as he could get them, some by places, others by promises and many by more secret ways, as it was generally said and believed, and with unbounded profusion. Men set their own price and had it, as he and they knew their value, because the numbers in Parliament ran so near as to make any one person considerable enough to be had at any rate. I never knew so corrupt a time.22

Examples of such practices are to be found in the surviving fragments of Sunderland’s papers, most of which were destroyed by his colleagues after his death.23

In the next session, with Stanhope now in the Lords, the ministry were ‘hard pushed’ on the capital penalty clause in the annual mutiny bill, 4 Feb. 1718, when the government majority fell to 18 (247 to 229), causing Walpole to exclaim ‘I was afraid we had got the question’,24 and a Tory, Edward Harley, to write: ‘If the Members can be persuaded to stay in town and keep together it is thought the Court will not venture to bring in their terrible bills this session.’25 The bills in question, that is to say one for repealing the Occasional Conformity and Schism Acts passed by Anne’s last two Tory Parliaments against the dissenters, and another for empowering the Government to appoint the heads of the universities, both Tory strongholds, were not introduced, though the King’s Speech had promised measures for ‘the greater strengthening of the Protestant interest’. At the end of the session Sunderland exchanged offices with Stanhope, becoming first lord of the Treasury, with Aislabie as chancellor of the Exchequer, and Craggs, promoted secretary of state vice Addison, as ‘his man’26 in the House of Commons.

During the recess the ministry were so pressed by their supporters to do something for the dissenters, if only because there was hardly ‘one place in England where the Whig interest could carry an election if the dissenters should be angry and either join with the Tories, or in discontent sit still and not vote at all,’27 that at the opening of the next session Stanhope introduced into the Lords a bill for repealing the obligation to take the sacrament on assuming a public office, the clause in the Occasional Conformity Act making it penal for any holder of a public office to appear at a conventicle, and the whole Schism Act. The first of these proposals met with such opposition that on Sunderland’s motion it was dropped in the Lords. The bill in its amended form was committed 7 Jan. 1719 by 243 to 202, on 9 Jan. a Tory amendment was defeated by 234 to 136, and on 10 Jan. it was read a third time by 215 to 157, 69 Whigs voting against it. During the crucial debate on the second reading, Edward Harley writes, ‘Walpole bore harder upon the Court than any Tory durst attempt to do’, raising the old Tory cry of ‘the Church in danger’.

He began with his reasons that made him against repealing the bill, the passing of which he had formerly opposed. He said the Occasional bill passed at a time when the ministry seemed to intend some hardships to them [the dissenters] and that he thought that Act only a prelude to the abrogating their toleration, but that now this bill had been brought into the other House by the chief of the ministry with a clause in it that would in a scandalous manner have evaded the Test Act, which, though it was dropped, was a sufficient reason to discover their designs; that this would give a general alarm to the nation, and a great handle to the disaffected, who would inculcate into the minds of the people that many of the measures which occasioned an unfortunate Prince’s [James II’s] abdication, were now renewed; that whereas the suspension of the penal laws and test was laid to that King’s charge, he had mentioned before how the Test Act had been lately struck at; that whereas he [James II] was accused of seizing charters, there had been lately a debate in Westminster Hall for ten days together, the result of which might have laid most of the corporations at their mercy; that the Ecclesiastical Commission had been declared illegal; that if fame might be credited there was a design of visiting the universities,

to bring them under government control.28 Referring to well-founded reports that Sunderland was planning to gain Tory support by repealing the attainder of Bolingbroke, one of the heads of the late Tory Administration who had been impeached in 1715, in order to make him secretary of state, he asked the House

to remember a noble lord [Sunderland’s father] who presided in that King’s [James II’s] councils, and was excepted out of an Act of Grace for it, was afterwards at the head of King William’s affairs, and the reason assigned for this second station was that he had persuaded his former master to those measures that ended in his ruin, but he hoped nobody set him as a pattern now. That he thought there were people enough to fill all offices without capacitating any more disqualified, and put the case, suppose a secretary of state [Stanhope], either wearied with business or through restlessness of temper, desired to lay down, there was no occasion for sending abroad for one to succeed him, though he might be never so true a penitent, but that there might be found at home some man of abilities enough for that station (by which you will easily perceive he glanced at Bolingbroke, and does not favour his return). He concluded that to their comfort the heir of the Crown could see the ill consequences of this, though the ministry did not, and had openly protested against it ... Some of Walpole’s party left him though others not expected joined him, particularly Lords Castlecomer and Hinchingbrooke, Mr. Wallop, Mr. Smith, Sir Robert Worsley, Sir John Cope, Governor Pitt and his eldest son, only four Scotch of the losing side,29

so that, as a Jacobite commented, the bill was ‘carried by the Scotch members’, 31 of whom voted for it, including most of Argyll’s followers. On being reproached for ‘leaving the Prince’ on this measure, Argyll is said to have replied that ‘he must beg leave to follow his own reason, and not party, in public matters’,30 foreshadowing his return to office a month later as lord steward with an English dukedom, in time to second a motion in the Lords for the introduction of another major government measure, the peerage bill.

The object of the peerage bill was to prevent the Prince, on succeeding to the throne, from creating enough peers to outvote Sunderland’s supporters in the Lords, with a view to impeaching him. In the Lords the bill met with no difficulties but in the Commons two separate surveys by Craggs and Sunderland showed majorities against it, subject to the votes of some 120 Members classed by both as doubtful. Of 160 ministerial supporters in the Commons who met at Boscawen’s house, 6 Mar. 1719, to hear Sunderland address them on the bill, 100 declared themselves against it, though ready to vote with the Government on other measures.31 On this the bill was held up in the Lords for a month, in the hope of carrying it by the official vote after the usual exodus of Tories towards the end of the session, but the plan was foiled by an order calling on absent Members to return, which resulted in ‘so great and so unusual’ an attendance at the end of a session that on 14 Apr., the day fixed for the third reading of the bill in the Lords, Stanhope announced that since it ‘had been so misrepresented and so misunderstood that it was like to meet with great opposition in the other House, he thought it advisable to let that matter lie still, till a more proper opportunity’.32 Whereupon the third reading was put off till 28 Apr., by which time Parliament had been prorogued.

Though supposed to have been dropped, the bill was reintroduced, against the advice of Craggs, on the first day of the next session, 23 Nov. 1719, with a view to rushing it through both Houses before many of the Tories, who tended to arrive as late as they were early in leaving, had come to town. After quickly passing the Lords, the bill was read a first time in the Commons without a division, 1 Dec., when a motion for holding the second reading on 4 Dec., that is before the House had filled up in response to a call on all Members to attend on 7 Dec., was rejected by 203 to 58 in favour of holding it on 8 Dec., when it was thrown out by 269 to 177, 144 Whigs voting against it.33

On learning of the rejection of the peerage bill, Bolingbroke observed: ‘There is no room to expect that the ministers after this defeat should be able to exert much influence over their party’.34 In court circles the immediate reaction was that in face of Walpole’s opposition there was little prospect of obtaining from the House of Commons a sum of £500,000 which was urgently required for the payment of the civil list debts.35 It was this consideration, strengthened by reports of intrigues for the formation of a new ministry,36 that caused Sunderland to enter into negotiations with Walpole, resulting in the formal reconciliation of the King with the Prince on 23 Apr. 1720. On the same day Walpole told Pulteney ‘that a bargain was made for those Whigs who had resigned their employments to be put in again by degrees’, adding:

I am to be ... at the head of the Treasury. Lord Sunderland had a great desire to retain the disposition of the secret service money to himself; but I would by no means consent to that, knowing chief power of a minister ... depends on the disposition of it.37

Next day the opposition Whig leaders went to court; on 6 May Walpole seconded an address, moved by Henry Pelham, agreeing to proposals for paying the civil list debts, which was carried without a division, a Tory motion for an account of how they had been incurred being rejected by 146 to 47; but in the meantime the Prussian resident in London had reported that Walpole might well become only second commissioner of the Treasury, that is chancellor of the Exchequer, though even if Sunderland remained first commissioner Walpole would still ‘alle affaires haben’, for Sunderland was tired and admitted himself to be unfit for his office.38 At the end of the session Walpole was appointed to his former office of paymaster general, Townshend became lord president, and six of their supporters obtained office, two of them on the reconstituted Treasury board.39

The explanation of Walpole’s failure to become head of the Treasury in 1720 is that this depended on Stanhope’s succeeding Marlborough as captain-general, thus enabling Sunderland to resume the office of secretary of state. In ‘an account of my Lord Sunderland’s proceedings with the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough in 1720’, the Duchess writes:

The late Earl of Stanhope’s patience being quite worn out, having a long time expected to be made general, and he being necessary to assist my Lord Sunderland in the ministry, he consented that the Duke of Marlborough should be put out, but because there were a good many people that they imagined would be shocked (as I suppose) in time of peace to remove the Duke of Marlborough, though in reality there was no more in it than being called general, they thought fit to whisper it about that the Duke of Marlborough and I were both in a conspiracy to bring in King James’s son.40

It was not till the beginning of February 1721, when the South Sea crisis was at its height, that the King was prevailed upon to write in his own hand to Marlborough, ‘with the greatest expressions of kindness and esteem, to let him know that it will be much for his service in this juncture if he gives up that station’. At the same time it became known that the King had promised Walpole that he should be made first lord of the Treasury and chancellor of the Exchequer at the end of the session, when Sunderland was to become secretary of state vice Stanhope, who was to succeed Marlborough as captain-general.41 A few days later these arrangements were upset by Stanhope’s death, which

was a very sensible blow to Lord Sunderland and was so visible that on the Tuesday [7 Feb.] Lord Townshend had the seals delivered to him. This was the point Sunderland thought to manage and keep off, but his chief support being cut off he was forced to yield to that, as well as to give up the Treasury to Walpole, who is to be chancellor [of the Exchequer] and first commissioner. He does in a manner now execute those offices but will not take them in form till the session be over.42

Further light on these transactions is thrown by a letter from the late chancellor of the Exchequer, Aislabie, which was read to the House of Commons on 8 May 1721, when they were debating whether to include him in the bill for confiscating the estates of the South Sea directors. The letter stated that

since the reconciliation, though he was chancellor of the Exchequer, he had no more than the mere name. This put the House under a consternation. Mr. Walpole, who was to have made Mr. Aislabie’s defence, was confounded at that part of the letter. Most people suspected that when Mr. Walpole etc. were reconciled to the ministry he was to have a valuable reward, and this letter shows there was a snake in the grass.43

In other words, Walpole’s appointment to the Treasury in April 1721 merely regularized a state of affairs which, so far as Aislabie was concerned, had existed in practice since April 1720.

Walpole’s successful opposition was the prototype of subsequent oppositions, in which, as Hervey wrote about 1733, discontented Whigs,

who were by private views piqued at the Administration without being disaffected to the Government, joined the Jacobites in Parliament and pushed the same points, though on different motives; these only designing to distress the ministers, and those catching at anything that might shake the establishment of the Hanover family and tend to the subversion of the whole. By these means men oftentimes seemed united in their public conduct who differed as much in their private wishes and views from one another as they did from those they opposed; and whilst they acted in concert together, both thought they were playing only their own game, and each looked upon the other as his dupe.

Some thirty years later Speaker Onslow described these oppositions in similar terms:

We have often heard of men who have left one party to join another, without any change of principle and inclination, avowedly, and only to force the Crown, by distressing the Administration in Parliament, to bring themselves back to, or to obtain, those seats of power they had lost, or quitted, or sought after, and without designing to continue any longer with their new friends than should be sufficient for that purpose. A practice that has tended more to corrupt and debase the minds of men that use it and confound the affairs of the public than any other public evil this age has produced,

because it had led ‘many persons otherwise of great probity and honour’ to believe ‘that they might very honestly act against their conscience in particulars, in order in general to pull down one man they did not like, and to set up another they did, nay to make it a point of honour and fidelity to their friends so to do.’ In 1757 Hardwicke was convinced that these oppositions were ‘the most wicked combinations that men can enter into;-worse and more corrupt than any Administration that I ever yet saw’.44

A feature of these oppositions, also originated by Walpole, was the exploitation for political purposes of the recurrent quarrels of reigning monarchs with their heirs apparent. When a Prince of Wales went into opposition he carried with him the members of his household with seats in Parliament, who would otherwise have voted with the ministry.45 His prospect of succeeding to the throne also added to the difficulty of maintaining a parliamentary majority. As Hardwicke reminded Walpole on the eve of George II’s rupture with his son in 1737:

What an inundation of pensions did the breach in the late reign introduce? What a weight did that bring upon my Lord Sunderland’s ministry? And it should be considered whether even that miserable expedient will be found practicable under this King. The present demands of mankind will rise on one side in proportion as greater hopes are held out to them on the other. It put Lord Sunderland on strong measures to secure himself, which yet he could not carry; witness the peerage bill, wherein were several right provisions tempting to the Whigs, and yet they rejected it.46

‘The resentment the Prince bore to my Lord Sunderland’, Onslow writes,

raised in him the most desperate designs to secure himself in case of a demise of the Crown. He first tried to obtain an Act to restrain the Crown in the making of peers ... This attempt having failed and the indignation of the Prince rising higher against him, it was said he entered into designs of passing him by in the succession ... nay so far did this go that, as the Whigs began to fail him, his desperation drove him into negotiations with the Pretender.47

The lengths to which ministers were prepared to go, ‘when things were pushing to an extremity’ against the heir apparent, are shown by two letters found by George II among his father’s papers. One from Stanhope to the late King contained the words: ‘Il est vrai c’est votre fils, mais le Fils de Dieu m’me a été sacrifié pour le salut du genre humain’. The other, apparently from Sunderland, said: ‘Il faut l’enlever; et my Lord Berkeley [first lord of the Admiralty 1717-27] le prendra sur un vaisseau, et le conduira en aucune partie du monde que votre Majesté l’ordonnera.’

A further consequence of the heir apparent’s putting himself at the head of the opposition Whigs was that, as Hardwicke pointed out to Walpole in 1737, ‘he, being the immediate successor in the Protestant line, will be an irrefragable answer to the reproach of Jacobitism’, which they would otherwise have incurred by ‘constantly acting with the Jacobites’.48 Only the intransigence of the Tories thenceforth kept the Opposition divided into two camps, one headed by the Prince of Wales, with its headquarters at Leicester House, the other by the Pretender, taking directions from Rome, instead of uniting under the Prince, as advocated by Bolingbroke in the King.

Lastly, Walpole’s opposition, by defeating the peerage bill, prevented an attempt to undo the effects of Harley’s creation of peers in 1712. The resulting decline in the importance of the House of Lords is shown by a letter from Dodington in 1741, expressing concern that he should have been obliged to confine the term Parliament to the House of Commons: ‘but so it is, and that it is so is one of the crimes of this Administration, which has almost irretrievably disabled one of the hands given for our defence, under the frivolous pretence of strengthening the other’.49 At the turn of the century Shelburne remarked that at the beginning of it the House of Commons ‘must have been very different from what it has become in our times, for we see all the distinguished men, Oxford, Bolingbroke, and others, seeking to be advanced to the peerage, instead of considering it as a retirement’ to ‘that hospital of incurables’. as Chesterfield described the House of Lords in 1763.50

Ref Volumes: 1715-1754

Author: Romney R. Sedgwick

End Notes

  • 1. Hist. England (1879), iii. 595.
  • 2. Hist. of his own Time (1823), vi. 211-12; Campbell, Chancellors (1846), iv. 428-9.
  • 3. See appendix XI.
  • 4. Coxe, Walpole, iii. 524.
  • 5. See appendix I.
  • 6. See note I, p. 79.
  • 7. Except in the three counties palatine, where the writs were sent to the chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, the bishop of Durham, and the chamberlain of Chester;the Cinque Ports, where they were sent to the lord warden; and cities and towns being counties in themselves, namely Bristol, Canterbury, Chester, Coventry, Gloucester, Lichfield, Lincoln, London, Norwich, Worcester and York, and the boroughs of Berwick, Haverfordwest, Hull, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Nottingham, Poole, and Southampton, where they were sent direct to the returning officers (S. Heywood, Borough Elections, 19, 87).
  • 8. Amersham, Ashburton, Aylesbury, Bere Alston, Bramber, Callington, Cirencester, Clitheroe, Cockermouth, Cricklade, Downton, Gatton, St. Germans, East Grinstead, Haslemere, Heytesbury, Honiton, Horsham, Lewes, Ludgershall, Malton, GreatMarlow, St. Mawes, Midhurst, Milborne Port, Minehead, Mitchell, Newport (Cornw.), Newton(Lancs.), Northallerton, Old Sarum, Petersfield, Reigate, Steyning, Tavistock, Thirsk, Wendover, Weobley, Whitchurch.
  • 9. Hist. of his own Time (1823), iii. 17.
  • 10. CJ, xviii. 112.
  • 11. HMC Stopford-Sackville, i. 151.
  • 12. See appendix XI.
  • 13. Walpole, Mems. Geo. II, i. 357-8; see also note II, pp. 79-80.
  • 14. See note III, pp. 80-81
  • 15. Edward Wortley’s account of ‘the state of affairs when the King entered’, Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu ed. Ld. Wharncliffe, i. 137-8.
  • 16. See note IV, p. 81.
  • 17. A.Corbière to Horace Walpole, 10 and 13 Apr. 1716, Walpole mss, ex inf. J.H. Plumb.
  • 18. See note V, pp. 81-82.
  • 19. HMC Polwarth, i. 211-13. The ministers who resigned with Walpole were George Dodington, Richard Edgcumbe, Paul Methuen, William Pulteney, Sir William St.Quintin, and Sir Charles Turner in the Commons, and the Duke of Devonshire and the Earls of Dorset and Orford in the Lords.
  • 20. Stair Annals, ii. 20-22.
  • 21. See notes V and VI, pp. 81-83.
  • 22. HMC 14th Rep. IX, 509.
  • 23. See ANSTRUTHER, Philip; BRUERE, George; CUMMING, Sir Alexander; CUNYNGHAME, Sir James; HARDRES, John; JENKINS, Tobias; MEYRICK, Owen; MOODIE, James; PARRY, Stephen; PHILPOTT, Nicholas; RIDER, Sir Barnham; SCOTT, James; VAUGHAN, William Gwyn.
  • 24. Chandler, vi. 177-8; Hardwicke, Walpoliana, 6.
  • 25. HMC Portland, v. 554.
  • 26. Dodington Diary, 270-1.
  • 27. John Barrington to Sunderland, 27 May 1718, Sunderland (Blenheim) mss.
  • 28. See note VII, pp. 83-84.
  • 29. HMC Portland, v. 575-6; W. Michael, under Geo. I, ii. 300; see note V, pp. 81-82.
  • 30. John Menzies to General Dillon, 19 Jan. 1719, Stuart mss 41/117; Sir Hugh Paterson to James Murray, 3 Feb. 1719, ibid. 41/126.
  • 31. See note VIII, pp. 84-85;W. Michael, England under Geo. I, ii. 287; Coxe, Walpole, ii. 171.
  • 32. Pol. State, xvii. 427-8.
  • 33. See note V, pp. 81-82.
  • 34. P. Baratier, Lettres inédites, 99.
  • 35. HMC Polwarth, ii. 416, 434.
  • 36. HMC Townshend, 104-6; Lady Cowper Diary, 144.
  • 37. Coxe, Walpole, i. 357n.
  • 38. W. Michael, Englische Geschichte im achtzehnten Jahrhundert, iii. 9-10.
  • 39. Richard Edgcumbe and Sir Charles Turner, lords of the Treasury; Paul Methuen, comptroller of the Household; Sir William St. Quintin, vice-treasurer of Ireland; Edward Ashe, board of Trade; Charles Churchill, governor of Chelsea Hospital. George Dodington, who had died, was succeeded as lord lieutenant of Somerset by his nephew, George Dodington, Pulteney was offered a peerage but refused it.
  • 40. Blenheim mss E. 52. Cragg’s letter of 15 July 1720 to Stanhope in Hanover (Coxe, Walpole, ii. 189) evidently refers to this affair.
  • 41. HMC Carlisle, 28.
  • 42. HMC Portland, v. 615-16.
  • 43. James Hamilton to the Pretender, 9 May 1721, Stuart mss 31/157.
  • 44. Hervey, Mems. 5; 14th Rep. IX, 458; Yorke, Hardwicke, ii. 392.
  • 45. See note IX, p. 85.
  • 46. Yorke, Hardwicke, i. 174.
  • 47. HMC 14th Rep. IX, 508-9; see also note XXXIX, pp. 108-9.
  • 48. Hervey, Mems. 849; Coxe, Walpole, i. 300; Yorke, Hardwicke, i. 175.
  • 49. Coxe, Walpole, iii. 566-7.
  • 50. Fitzmaurice, Shelburne, i. 39; Chesterfield, Characters (1772), 29.