Robert Walpole

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Robert Walpole

The English statesman Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford (1676-1745), was the first minister to maintain continuing support for royal government by exercising both careful use of Crown patronage and untiring leadership in the House of Commons.

Robert Walpole entered political life during the turbulent era of party strife that marked the reigns of William III and Anne. Walpole dominated English politics from 1722 to 1742, and when he departed from political life, Britain enjoyed the benefits of stable government. This change was in large measure a fruit of his efforts.

The son of a leading Norfolk squire, Walpole was born at Houghton, the family seat, on Aug. 26, 1676. After Eton he attended King's College, Cambridge, but had to withdraw to manage the family estate. He first entered the House of Commons in 1701 as member for Castle Rising, his deceased father's seat; the following year he stood successfully for King's Lynn, which he represented for the rest of his career. A blunt, cheerful man, adept at parliamentary business and impressive in debate, he quickly made his mark inthe Commons. In 1708 he was appointed war secretary and in 1710 treasurer of the navy.

Walpole and the Whigs

From the outset Walpole was firmly attached to the Whig party, a party pledged to continuing the war against France; when war weariness eroded its strength in 1710, he suffered accordingly. By 1711 he was out of office—not merely dismissed, but subjected to an investigation of his War Office dealings. After voting him guilty of shaking down several forage contractors, the House expelled him in 1712 and sent him to the Tower. His guilt cannot be doubted. Yet, by the standards of the time the crime was not serious, and his conduct was not censured by his friends. Indeed, he became a Whig martyr. Like the voters of King's Lynn, who reelected their imprisoned candidate, he judged himself a victim of party malice and he vowed revenge.

Walpole's fortunes rose when George I's accession restored the power of the Whig party. Walpole became paymaster general of the forces. The job offered manifold opportunities for self-enrichment, and he made the most of them. Indeed, throughout his career he used public office for personal gain, and the results, if not the precise methods, were plainly visible: he lived high, indulged his wife's expensive whims, rebuilt Houghton on a grand scale, poured money into his London town house, and assembled a magnificent art collection. But power, not wealth, was the main object of his driving ambition. In 1715 he entered the Cabinet as chancellor of the Exchequer and first lord of the Treasury, thus acquiring command of a vast resource of patronage. He did not have it long, because neither he nor his ally and brother-in-law, Lord Townshend, who was a secretary of state, were in close touch with George I. Isolated from the court when the King visited Hanover, they could not answer the accusations of their enemies, and by April 1717 Townshend and Walpole felt obliged to resign.

Attainment of Power

At once, and with no qualms about using Tory support, Walpole launched a vigorous opposition. His object was not to oust the King's ministers but to make political management so difficult for them that they would have to take him back. He would demonstrate that no government could long ignore an aroused House of Commons. Indeed, the success of the strategy he developed in his 4-year struggle to regain the Treasury stood as an object lesson for 18th-century politicians.

Walpole's first step was to stir up the Commons. A talented debater, expert in government business, he spoke often and with telling authority. Attacking abuses in the army and probing the Hanoverian basis of foreign policy, he played on the suspicions of independent minded gentlemen in the Commons. In 1719 a pet Cabinet measure, the Peerage Bill, was sent down to defeat. This was not enough; Walpole also needed acceptance at court. To gain influence over the mind of the Prince of Wales, he developed an intimate friendship with the princess. By bribing George I's most trusted mistress, he established a line of communication with the King. Thus, in 1720 he could offer George I, who hated his son and had openly quarreled with him, the prince's submission. He could also offer safe passage through Parliament of funds to meet the Civil List debt. These were tempting offers, and no one but Walpole could make good on them. The King's ministers, shaken by their defeat on the Peerage Bill, agreed to take him back, and he again became paymaster general.

The leading ministers in 1720 were Lord Sunderland and Lord Stanhope. Although Walpole had joined their government, they remained his rivals, and his indispensability would depend on their need for his skills. The need soon arose. When the "South Sea Bubble" burst, the cries of the wounded echoed in the Commons. The opposition wanted blood, and the leading ministers, having accepted free options on South Sea shares, were deeply implicated. Walpole, newly in office, was clear of the scandal. He could have sided with the opposition and brought the government down. It would have meant political chaos—a mixed ministry containing unruly dissidents. He sided instead with the men in power and then he labored to screen Sunderland and Stanhope from the attacks. It was a supreme test of his talents and his courage. Patiently he answered the government's critics in the Commons. His reward was the Treasury, once again, in 1721. It was, however, luck—the deaths within a year of Stanhope and Sunderland— that accounted for the speed with which he became the King's leading minister, because George I had not yet learned to trust him.

Walpole's Policy

Walpole dominated British government for 20 years, from 1722 to 1742. He may be considered the first "prime minister," but in those days the title implied an unwarranted usurpation of royal authority, so Walpole disclaimed it. His long supremacy stemmed from his unwavering dedication to the task of governing and from the willingness of the first two Georges to avoid wild adventures in politics. He never took royal confidence for granted.

To an unprecedented degree, Walpole mobilized Crown patronage for the purpose of obtaining majorities in Parliament. Allying himself with powerful aristocrats, such as the Duke of Newcastle, he melded their influence and patronage with that of the Crown. He refused a peerage during active political life (while accepting one for his son), being the first leading minister to perceive the necessity of forceful defense of policy in the House of Commons. There the same talents that he had formerly employed to incite, he now used to calm. His object was always to win over the independent-minded gentlemen. Drawing on his vast knowledge of affairs, he regularly exhibited to them the reasonableness of government policy. As the years passed, his foreign policy was increasingly adjusted to the wishes of such men. They hated military involvement on the Continent and the high taxes that war meant. Walpole gave them peace, and he tried to limit diplomatic commitments. In order to reduce the land tax, which the independent squires of the Commons hated, he was prepared to increase the amounts raised by excise taxes, which hit the lower orders of society. Walpole did not care about the lower orders. When his excise scheme gave rise to a popular uproar in 1733, he ignored the London mob as best he could; although he backed down and withdrew his bill, it was because he feared the way in which the uproar was being used by ambitious men to undermine his position at court and in the House of Lords.

But Walpole was never ruled by ideals or hatreds. Like most successful politicians, he dealt with problems immediately before him and sought the least troublesome solutions. Truthfully he said, "I am no saint, no Spartan, no reformer."

At length Walpole's power waned. The death of Queen Caroline rendered his influence at court less secure. When William Pitt the Elder and the Patriots excited the Commons by clamoring for war with Spain, Walpole proved unable to calm either the House or his colleague the Duke of Newcastle, and war was allowed to begin in 1739. By 1742 Walpole no longer commanded the situation, and he resigned. A grateful George II created him Earl of Orford. He died on March 18, 1745, and was buried at Houghton.

Further Reading

The most readable and reliable biography is J. H. Plumb, Sir Robert Walpole (1956—); the two volumes now completed bring the story to 1734. The political situation of Walpole's last years is examined in J. B. Owen, The Rise of the Pelhams (1957). For background the most important book is J. H. Plumb, The Origins of Political Stability in England, 1625-1725 (1967), which places Walpole's political achievement in context. Also useful are Basil Williams, The Whig Supremacy, 1714-1760 (1939; 2d ed. 1962), and E. N. Williams, The Eighteenth-century Constitution (1960), both of which contain good bibliographies.

Additional Sources

Hill, Brian W., Sir Robert Walpole: sole and prime minister, London: H. Hamilton; New York, NY, USA: Penguin, 1989.

Kemp, Betty, Sir Robert Walpole, London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1976. □