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MARCH 8, 1739.

With Notes & Introduction by Chauncey A. Goodrich*


ON THE SPANISH CONVENTION,DIFFICULTIES had arisen between England and Spain, from the measures adopted by the latter to suppress an illicit trade carried on by English adventurers with the coast of South America. The Spanish cruisers searched British merchantmen found in that quarter, and in so doing, either through mistake or design, committed outrages to a considerable extent upon lawful traders. Exaggerated accounts of these outrages were circulated throughout England. The public mind became greatly inflamed on the subject, and many went so far as to contend that the British flag covered her merchant ships and protected them from search under all circumstances.

Walpole opened a negotiation with the Court of Madrid for the redress and removal of these grievances. After due examination, the just claims of the English merchants upon Spain were set down at 200,000. On the other hand, the sum of 60,000 was now adjudged, under the stipulations of a former treaty, to be due from England to Spain, for captures made in 1718 by Admiral Byng. The balance due to England was thus settled at 140,000; and Walpole, to avoid the usual delay of the Spaniards in money matters, offered to make an abatement of 45,000 for prompt payment, thus reducing the entire amount to 95,000. To this the Spanish government gave their assent, but on the express condition that this arrangement should he considered as in no way affecting certain claims of Spain on the English South Sea Company.

As the result of this negotiation, a Convention was drawn up on the 14th of January, 1739, stipulating for the payment of 95,000 within four months from the exchange of ratifications. It also provided for the removal of all remaining difficulties, by agreeing that commissioners from England and Spain should meet within six weeks, to adjust all questions respecting trade between Europe and the colonies in America; and also to establish the boundary lines between Florida and the English settlements in Carolina, then embracing Georgia. It further stipulated that, during the sitting of this commission, the erection of fortifications should be suspended, both in Carolina and Florida. At the moment when this Convention was to be signed, the Spanish government gave notice, that as the South Sea Company was not embraced in this arrangement, the King of Spain held them to be his debtors to the amount of 68,000, for his share of the profits they had realized under previous engagements; and that, unless payment was made within a specified time, he would deprive them of the Assiento, or contract, which he had granted them for supplying South America with slaves. Such were the provisions of the famous Spanish Convention, and the circumstances under which it was signed.

The House of Commons appointed March 6th, 1739, for considering this Convention. The public mind was greatly agitated on the subject. There was a general outcry against it, as betraying at once the interests of the merchants and the honor of the country. Such was the excitement and expectation when the day arrived, that four hundred members took their seats in the House at 8 o'clock A.M., five hours before the time appointed for entering upon business. Two days were spent in examining witnesses and hearing numerous written documents relating to the subject. On the 8th of March, Mr. Horace Walpole, brother to the minister, after a long and able speech, moved in substance that "the House return thanks to his Majesty for communicating the Convention; for having taken measures to obtain speedy payment for the losses sustained by the merchants; and also for removing similar abuses in future, and preserving a lasting peace." After a number of members had expressed their views, Mr. Pitt rose and delivered the following speech, which gave him at once, and at the age of thirty, that ascendancy as a speaker in the House of Commons which he afterward maintained.


Sir,--There certainly has never been in Parliament a matter of more high national concern than the Convention referred to the consideration of this committee; and, give me leave to say, there can not be a more indirect manner of taking the sense of the committee upon it than by the complicated question that is now before you.

We have here the soft name of an humble address to the Throne proposed, and for no other end than to lead gentlemen into an approbation of the Convention. Is this that full, deliberate examination, which we were with defiance called upon to give to this Convention? Is this cursory, blended disquisition of matters of such variety and extent, all that we owe to ourselves and to our country? When trade is at stake, it is your last intrenchment; you must defend it or perish; and whatever is to decide that, deserves the most distinct consideration, and the most direct, undisguised sense of Parliament. But how are we now proceeding? Upon an artificial, ministerial question. Here is all the confidence, here is the conscious sense of the greatest service that ever was done to this country!1 to be complicating questions, to be lumping sanction and approbation, like a commissary's account! to be covering and taking sanctuary in the royal name, instead of meeting openly, and standing fairly, the direct judgment and sentence of Parliament upon the several articles of this Convention.

You have been moved to vote an humble address of thanks to his Majesty for a measure which (I will appeal to gentlemen's conversation in the world) is odious throughout the kingdom. Such thanks are only due to the fatal influence that framed it, as are due for that low, unallied condition abroad which is now made a plea for this Convention.

To what are gentlemen reduced in support of it? They first try a little to defend it upon its own merits; if that is not tenable, they throw out general terrors--the House of Bourbon is united, who knows the consequence of a war? Sir, Spain knows the consequence of a war in America. Whoever gains, it must prove fatal to her. She knows it, and must therefore avoid it; but she knows that England does not dare to make it. And what is a delay, which is all this magnified Convention is sometimes called, to produce? Can it produce such conjunctures as those which you lost while you were giving kingdoms to Spain, and all to bring her back again to that great branch of the house of Bourbon which is now held out to you as an object of so much terror? If this union be formidable, are we to delay only till it becomes more formidable, by being carried farther into execution, and by being more strongly cemented? But be it what it will, is this any longer a nation? Is this any longer an English Parliament, if, with more ships in your harbors than in all the navies of Europe; with above two millions of people in your American colonies, you will bear to hear of the expediency of receiving from Spain an insecure, unsatisfactory, dishonorable Convention? Sir, I call it no more than it has been proved in this debate; it carries fallacy or downright subjection in almost every line. It has been laid open and exposed in so many strong and glaring lights, that I can not pretend to add any thing to the conviction and indignation which it has raised.

Sir, as to the great national objection, the searching of your ships, that favorite word, as it was called, is not, indeed, omitted in the preamble to the Convention, but it stands there as the reproach of the whole, as the strongest evidence of the fatal submission that follows. On the part of Spain, a usurpation, an inhuman tyranny, claimed and exercised over the American seas; on the part of England, an undoubted right by treaties, and from God and nature declared and asserted in the resolutions of Parliament, are referred to the discussion of plenipotentiaries upon one and the same equal footing! Sir, I say this undoubted right is to be discussed and to be regulated! And if to regulate be to prescribe rules (as in all construction it is), this right is, by the express words of this Convention, to be given up and sacrificed; for it must cease to be any thing from the moment it is submitted to limits.

The court of Spain has plainly told you (as appears by papers upon the table), that you shall steer a due course, that you shall navigate by a line to and from your plantations in America-- if you draw near to her coast (though, from the circumstances of the navigation, you are under an unavoidable necessity of doing so), you shall be seized and confiscated. If, then, upon these terms only she has consented to refer, what becomes at once of all the security we are flattered with in consequence of this reference? Plenipotentiaries are to regulate finally the respective pretensions of the two crowns with regard to trade and navigation in America; but does a man in Spain reason that these pretensions must be regulated to the satisfaction and honor of England? No, sir, they conclude, and with reason, from the high spirit of their administration, from the superiority with which they have so long treated you, that this reference must end, as it has begun, to their honor and advantage.

But, gentlemen say, the treaties subsisting are to be the measure of this regulation. Sir, as to treaties, I will take part of the words of Sir William Temple, quoted by the honorable gentleman near me; it is vain to negotiate and to make treaties, if there is not dignity and rigor sufficient to enforce their observance. Under the misconstruction and misrepresentation of these very treaties subsisting, this intolerable grievance has arisen. It has been growing upon you, treaty after treaty, through twenty years of negotiation, and even under the discussion of commissaries, to whom it was referred. You have heard from Captain Vaughan, at your bar, at what time these injuries and indignities were continued. As a kind of explanatory comment upon this Convention which Spain has thought fit to grant you, as another insolent protest, under the validity and force of which she has suffered this Convention to be proceeded upon, she seems to say, "We will treat with you, but we will search and take your ships; we will sign a Convention, but we will keep your subjects prisoners in Old Spain; the West Indies are remote; Europe shall witness in what manner we use you."

Sir, as to the inference of an admission of our right not to be searched, drawn from a reparation made for ships unduly seized and confiscated, I think that argument very inconclusive. The right claimed by Spain to search our ships is one thing, and the excesses admitted to have been committed in consequence of this pretended right is another. But surely, sir, to reason from inference and implication only, is below the dignity of your proceedings upon a right of this vast importance. What this reparation is, what sort of composition for your losses forced upon you by Spain, in an instance that has come to light, where your own commissaries could not in conscience decide against your claim, has fully appeared upon examination; and as for the payment of the sum stipulated (all but seven-and-twenty thousand pounds, and that, too, subject to a drawback), it is evidently a fallacious nominal payment only. I will not attempt to enter into the detail of a dark, confused, and scarcely intelligible account; I will only beg leave to conclude with one word upon it, in the light of a submission as well as of an adequate reparation. Spain stipulates to pay to the Crown of England ninety-five thousand pounds; by a preliminary protest of the King of Spain, the South Sea Company is at once to pay sixty-eight thousand of it: if they refuse, Spain, I admit, is still to pay the ninety-five thousand pounds; but how does it stand then? The Assiento Contract is to be suspended. You are to purchase this sum at the price of an exclusive trade, pursuant to a national treaty, and of an immense debt of God knows how many hundred thousand pounds, due from Spain to the South Sea Company. Here, sir, is the submission of Spain by the payment of a stipulated sum; a tax laid upon subjects of England, under the severest penalties, with the reciprocal accord of an English minister as a preliminary that the Convention may be signed; a condition imposed by Spain in the most absolute, imperious manner, and most tamely and abjectly received by the ministers of England. Can any verbal distinctions, any evasions whatever, possibly explain away this public infamy? To whom would we disguise it? To ourselves and to the nation! I wish we could hide it from the eyes of every court in Europe. They see that Spain has talked to you like your master. They see this arbitrary fundamental condition standing forth with a pre-eminence of shame, as a part of this very Convention.

This Convention, sir, I think from my soul, is nothing but a stipulation for national ignominy; an illusory expedient to baffle the resentment of the nation; a truce, without a suspension of hostilities, on the part of Spain; on the part of England, a suspension, as to Georgia, of the first law of nature, self-preservation and self-defense; a surrender of the rights and trade of England to the mercy of plenipotentiaries, and, in this infinitely highest and most sacred point--future security--not only inadequate, but directly repugnant to the resolutions of Parliament and the gracious promise from the Throne. The complaints of your despairing merchants, and the voice of England, have condemned it. Be the guilt of it upon the head of the adviser: God forbid that this committee should share the guilt by approving it!

The motion was carried by a very small majority, the vote being 260 to 232. Mr. Burke's statement respecting the merits of this question, as it afterward appeared, even to those who took the most active part against the Convention, may be found in his Regicide Peace. Whether Lord Chatham was one of the persons referred to by Mr. Burke as having changed their views, does not appear, but it is rather presumed not.

1. Alluding to the extravagant terms of praise in which Mr. H. Walpole had spoken of the Convention, and of those who framed it.

*Scanned for from the first edition of Select British Eloquence, edited with notes by Chauncey A. Goodrich (New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1852)

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