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Walpole, Horace (1717–1797)

WALPOLE, HORACE (17171797)

WALPOLE, HORACE (17171797), English statesman and man of letters. Although Horace Walpole sat in the House of Commons from 1741 to 1768, he did not pursue an orthodox career as a statesman. An intense and acutely sensitive man, Walpole was temperamentally unsuited to the cut and thrust of political battle, and preferred to work behind the scenes as a pamphleteer, a gossip, a networker and, ultimately, a historian.

Walpole was fiercely loyal to his family and friends, and herein lies the key to all his politics. He never failed to support his friend and cousin, Henry Seymour-Conway, while disliking all critics and enemies of his father (Sir Robert Walpole). All but one account of Horace Walpole's political career have been marred by a failure to recognize his homosexuality, without which it is impossible to understand the depth of his hatred for Henry Pelham and the duke of Newcastle, the brothers of Catherine Pelham, whose arranged marriage to Walpole's onetime lover Henry Fiennes-Clinton, earl of Lincoln, took place in 1744.

Horace Walpole's hostility to the Pelhams has usually been explained in terms of his belief in their disloyalty to Robert Walpole, whom they "deserted" when his ministry began to crumble. Although the Pelhams succeeded Robert as leaders of the Court Whigs, Horace did not join them after his father's death, aligning himself instead with Richard Rigby and Henry Fox. When Fox joined a ministry in partnership with Newcastle in 1756, Walpole operated behind the scenes to annoy and frustrate both while remaining on ostensibly friendly terms with Fox. Walpole's unsuccessful attempt to prevent the execution of Admiral John Byng for failing to prevent the loss of Minorca may have been partly motivated by the desire to embarrass Fox and Newcastle, suspected by many of having found a scapegoat for a more serious error of military judgment. At any rate, Walpole's Letter from Xo Ho, a Chinese Philosopher at London, to his Friend Lien Chi at Peking (1757), which pithily summarized the hypocrisies of Byng's impeachment, established Walpole as a witty and dangerous pamphleteer.

Walpole was most active from 1763 to 1767, when he acted as a political mentor to Conway. Both men had voted against George Grenville's ministry to defend the freedom of the press, then threatened by government action against the opposition M.P. John Wilkes, an outspoken critic of the crown, and the North Briton, a newspaper that printed his articles. George III, angered by what he perceived as insubordination, ordered Conway's dismissal from his regiment and court position, whereupon Walpole joined the opposition and began intriguing to bring down the Grenville ministry. When the Rockingham Whigs took office in 1765, Conway became secretary of state for the Southern Department and leader of the House of Commons. Walpole, however, was offered nothing, and a brief estrangement took place between the two. In April 1766, he resumed his place as Conway's adviser, notwithstanding the latter's cooling enthusiasm for politics, and became an inside observer of the Rockingham and Chatham ministries. When Conway decided to resign the lead in the Commons at the end of 1767, Walpole also decided to leave political life, and returned to his other occupations as author, publisher, art critic, and antiquarian.

Although Walpole is one of England's greatest letter writers, whose correspondence is an invaluable source for the political, social, and cultural history of mid-Hanoverian England, his Memoirs of the Reign of George II and Memoirs of the Reign of George III, written for posterity and published after his demise, provide a lively narrative of political events and personalities from 1751 to 1772. Both were much malignedunjustifiably soby nineteenth-century critics. Of the two works, the Memoirs of the Reign of George III, written between 1766 and 1772, are the more valuable, for they describe events in which Walpole was a central participant. Although the Memoirs of the Reign of George II are less reliable, they still constitute the most important source in existence for the parliamentary debates of 17541761.

The memoirs are not without bias. Walpole's loathing of the Pelhams manifests itself in the representation of the Duke of Newcastle as a time-serving incompetent. Henry Fox was traduced as a greedy and unscrupulous careerist. Walpole was also responsible for creating the myth of a sinister plot hatched by the princess dowager and Lord Bute, George III's first prime minister, to revive the royal prerogative and employ it against opponents of the crown. The memoirs, in effect, encapsulated the Whig perspective on crown and Parliament usually attributed to English historians of the nineteenth century.

See also English Literature and Language ; George II (Great Britain) ; George III (Great Britain) ; Parliament ; Pitt, William the Elder and William the Younger ; Political Parties .


Hunting, Warren Smith, ed. Horace Walpole: Writer, Politician and Connoisseur: Essays on the 250th Anniversary of Walpole's Birth. New Haven and London, 1967.

Ketton-Cremer, Robert Wyndham. Horace Walpole: A Biography. London, 1946.

Mowl, Timothy. Horace Walpole: The Great Outsider. London, 1996.

Jennifer Mori

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