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SECOND SPEECH OF LORD CHATHAM ON A MOTION TO INQUIRE INTO THE CONDUCT OF SIR ROBERT WALPOLE.
DELIVERED IN THE HOUSE OF COMMONS.
MARCH 23, 1742.
LORD LIMERICK'S first motion for an inquiry into the conduct of Walpole was lost chiefly through the absence of Mr. Pulteney from the House during the illness of a favorite daughter. On the return of Pulteney at the end of a fortnight, the motion was renewed, with a variation in one respect, viz., that the inquiry be extended only to the last ten years of Walpole's continuance in office.
On that occasion, Mr. Pitt made the following speech in answer to Mr. Cook Harefield, who had recently taken his seat in the House. In it he shows his remarkable power of reply; and argues with great force the propriety of inquiry, as leading to a decision whether an impeachment should be commenced.
As the honorable gentleman who spoke last against the motion has not been long in the House, it is but charitable to believe him sincere in professing that he is ready to agree to a parliamentary inquiry when he thinks the occasion requires it. But if he knew how often such professions are made by those who upon all occasions oppose inquiry, he would now avoid them, because they are generally believed to be insincere. He may, it is true, have nothing to dread, on his own account, from inquiry. But when a gentleman has contracted, or any of his near relations have contracted, a friendship with one who may be brought into danger, it is very natural to suppose that such a gentleman's opposition to an inquiry does not entirely proceed from public motives; and if that gentleman follows the advice of some of his friends, I very much question whether he will ever think the occasion requires an inquiry into the conduct of our public affairs.
As a parliamentary inquiry must always be founded upon suspicions, as well as upon facts or manifest crimes, reasons may always be found for alleging those suspicions to be without foundation; and upon the principle that a parliamentary inquiry must necessarily lay open the secrets of government, no time can ever be proper or convenient for such inquiry, because it is impossible to suppose a time when the government has no secrets to disclose.
This, sir, would be a most convenient doctrine for ministers, because it would put an end to all parliamentary inquiries into the conduct of our public affairs ; and, therefore, when I hear it urged, and so much insisted on, by a certain set of gentlemen in this House, I must suppose their hopes to be very extensive. I must suppose them to expect that they and their posterity will forever continue in office. Sir, this doctrine has been so often contradicted by experience, that I am surprised to hear it advanced by gentlemen now. This very session has afforded us a convincing proof that very little foundation exists for asserting, that a parliamentary inquiry must necessarily reveal the secrets of the government. Surely, in a war with Spain, which must be carried on principally by sea, if the government have secrets, the Lords of the Admiralty must be intrusted with the most important of them. Yet, sir, in this very session, we have, without any secret committees, made inquiry into the conduct of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty. We have not only inquired into their conduct, but we have censured it in such a manner as to put an end to the trust which was before reposed in them. Has that inquiry discovered any of the secrets of our government? On the contrary, the committee found that there was no occasion to probe into such secrets. They found cause enough for censure without it; and none of the Commissioners pretended to justify their conduct by the assertion that the papers contained secrets which ought not to be disclosed.
This, sir, is so recent, so strong a proof that there is no necessary connection between a parliamentary inquiry and a discovery of secrets which it behooves the nation to conceal, that I trust gentlemen will no longer insist upon this danger as an argument against the inquiry. Sir, the First Commissioner of the Treasury has nothing to do with the application of secret service money. He is only to take care that it be regularly issued from his office, and that no more be issued than the conjuncture of affairs appears to demand. As to the particular application, it properly belongs to the Secretary of State, or to such other persons as his Majesty employs. Hence we can not suppose the proposed inquiry will discover any secrets relative to the application of that money, unless the noble lord has acted as Secretary of State, as well as First Commissioner of the Treasury; or unless a great part of the money drawn out for secret service has been delivered to himself or persons employed by him, and applied toward gaining a corrupt influence in Parliament or at elections. Of both these practices he is most grievously suspected, and both are secrets which it very much behooves him to conceal. But, sir, it equally behooves the nation to discover them. His country and he are, in this cause, equally, although oppositely concerned. The safety or ruin of one or the other depends upon the fate of the question; and the violent opposition which this question has experienced adds great strength to the suspicion.
I admit, sir, that the noble lord [Walpole], whose conduct is now proposed to be inquired into, was one of his Majesty's most honorable Privy Council, and consequently that he must have had a share at least in advising all the measures which have been pursued both abroad and at home. But I can not from this admit, that an inquiry into his conduct must necessarily occasion a discovery of any secrets of vital importance to the nation, because we are not to inquire into the measures themselves.
But, sir, suspicions have gone abroad relative to his conduct as a Privy Counselor, which, if true, are of the utmost consequence to be inquired into. It has been strongly asserted that he was not only a Privy Counselor, but that he usurped the whole and sole direction of his Majesty's Privy Council. It has been asserted that he gave the Spanish court the first hint of the unjust claim they afterward advanced against our South Sea Company, which was one chief cause of the war between the two nations. And it has been asserted that this very minister has advised the French in what manner to proceed in order to bring our Court into their measures; particularly, that he advised them as to the numerous army they have this last summer sent into Westphalia. What truth there is in these assertions, I pretend not to decide. The facts are of such a nature, and they must have been perpetrated with so much caution and secrecy, that it will be difficult to bring them to light even by a parliamentary inquiry; but the very suspicion is ground enough for establishing such inquiry, and for carrying it on with the utmost strictness and vigor.
Whatever my opinion of past measures may be, I shall never be so vain, or bigoted to that opinion, as to determine, without any inquiry, against the majority of my countrymen. If I found the public measures generally condemned, let my private opinions of them be ever so favorable, I should be for inquiry in order to convince the people of their error, or at least to furnish myself with the most authentic arguments in favor of the opinion I had embraced. The desire of bringing others into the same sentiments with ourselves is so natural, that I shall always suspect the candor of those who, in politics or religion, are opposed to free inquiry. Besides, sir, when the complaints of the people are general against an administration, or against any particular minister, an inquiry is a duty which we owe both to our sovereign and the people. We meet here to communicate to our sovereign the sentiments of his people. We meet here to redress the grievances of the people. By performing our duty in both respects, we shall always be enabled to establish the throne of our sovereign in the hearts of his people, and to hinder the people from being led into insurrection and rebellion by misrepresentations or false surmises. When the people complain, they must either be right or in error. If they be right, we are in duty bound to inquire into the conduct of the ministers, and to punish those who appear to have been most guilty. If they be in error, we ought still to inquire into the conduct of our ministers, in order to convince the people that they have been misled. We ought not, therefore, in any question relating to inquiry, to be governed by our own sentiments. We must be governed by the sentiments of our constituents, if we are resolved to perform our duty, both as true representatives of the people, and as faithful subjects of our King.
I perfectly agree with the honorable gentleman, that if we are convinced that the public measures are wrong, or that if we suspect them to be so, we ought to make inquiry, although there is not much complaint among the people. But I wholly differ from him in thinking that notwithstanding the administration and the minister are the subjects of complaint among the people, we ought not to make inquiry into his conduct unless we are ourselves convinced that his measures have been wrong. Sir, we can no more determine this question without inquiry, than a judge without a trial can declare any man innocent of a crime laid to his charge. Common fame is a sufficient ground for an inquisition at common law; and for the same reason, the general voice of the people of England ought always to be regarded as a sufficient ground for a parliamentary inquiry.
But, say gentlemen, of what is this minister accused? What crime is laid to his charge? For, unless some misfortune is said to have happened, or some crime to have been committed, no inquiry ought to be set on foot. Sir, the ill posture of our affairs both abroad and at home; the melancholy situation we are in; the distresses to which we are now reduced, are sufficient causes for an inquiry, even supposing the minister accused of no particular crime or misconduct. The nation lies bleeding, perhaps expiring. The balance of power has been fatally disturbed. Shall we acknowledge this to be the ease, and shall we not inquire whether it has happened by mischance, or by the misconduct, perhaps by the malice prepense, of the minister? Before the Treaty of Utrecht, it was the general opinion that in a few years of peace we should be able to pay off most of our debts. We have now been very nearly thirty years in profound peace, at least we have never been engaged in any war but what we unnecessarily brought upon ourselves, and yet our debts are almost as great as they were when that treaty was concluded.1 Is not this a misfortune, and shall we not make inquiry into its cause?
I am surprised to hear it said that no inquiry ought to be set on foot unless it is known that some public crime has been committed. Sir, the suspicion that a crime has been committed has always been deemed a sufficient reason for instituting an inquiry. And is there not now a suspicion that the public money has been applied toward gaining a corrupt influence at elections? Is it not become a common expression, "The flood-gates of the Treasury are opened against a general election?" I desire no more than that every gentleman who is conscious that such practices have been resorted to, either for or against him, should give his vote in favor of the motion. Will any gentleman say that this is no crime, when even private corruption has such high penalties inflicted by express statute against it? Sir, a minister who commits this crime--who thus abuses the public money, adds breach of trust to the crime of corruption; and as the crime, when committed by him, is of much more dangerous consequence than when committed by a private man, it becomes more properly the object of a parliamentary inquiry, and merits the severest punishment. The honorable gentleman may with much more reason tell us that Porteous was never murdered by the mob at Edinburgh, because, notwithstanding the high reward as well as pardon proffered, his murderers were never discovered,2 than tell us that we can not suppose our minister, either personally or by others, has ever corrupted an election, because no information has been brought against him. Sir, nothing but a pardon, upon the conviction of the offender, has ever yet been offered in this case; and how could any informer expect a pardon, and much less a reward, when he knew that the very man against whom he was to inform had not only the distribution of all public rewards, but the packing of a jury or a Parliament against him? While such a minister preserves the favor of the Crown, and thereby the exercise of its power, this information can never be expected.
This shows, sir, the impotence of the act, mentioned by the honorable gentleman, respecting that sort of corruption which is called bribery. With regard to the other sort of corruption, which consists in giving or taking away those posts, pensions, or preferments which depend upon the arbitrary will of the Crown, the act is still more inefficient. Although it would be considered most indecent in a minister to tell any man that he gave or withheld a post, pension, or preferment, on account of his voting for or against any ministerial measure in Parliament, or any ministerial candidate at an election; yet, if he makes it his constant rule never to give a post, pension, or preferment but to those who vote for his measures and his candidates; if he makes a few examples of dismissing those who vote otherwise, it will have the same effect as when he openly declares it.3 Will any gentleman say that this has not been the practice of the minister? Has he not declared, in the face of this House, that he will continue the practice? And will not this have the same effect as if he went separately to every particular man, and told him in express terms, "Sir, if you vote for such a measure or such a candidate, you shall have the first preferment in the gift of the Crown; if you vote otherwise, you must not expect to keep what you have?" Gentlemen may deny that the sun shines at noon-day; but if they have eyes, and do not willfully shut them, or turn their backs, no man will believe them to be ingenuous in what they say. I think, therefore, that the honorable gentleman was in the right who endeavored to justify the practice. It was more candid than to deny it.. But as his arguments have already been fully answered, I shall not farther discuss them.
Gentlemen exclaim, "What! will you take from the Crown the power of preferring or cashiering the officers of the army?" No, sir, this is neither the design, nor will it be the effect of our agreeing to the motion. The King at present possesses the absolute power to prefer or cashier the officers of our army. It is a prerogative which he may employ for the benefit or safety of the public; but, like other prerogatives, it may be abused, and when it is so abused, the minister is responsible to Parliament. When an officer is preferred or cashiered for voting in favor of or against any court measure or candidate, it is an abuse of this prerogative, for which the minister is answerable. We may judge from circumstances or outward appearances--from these we may condemn, and I hope we have still a power to punish a minister who dares to advise the King to prefer or cashier from such motives! Sir, whether this prerogative ought to remain as it is, without any limitation, is a question foreign to this debate. But I must observe, that the argument employed for it might, with equal justice, be employed for giving our King an absolute power over every man's property; because a large property will always give the possessor a command over a great body of men, whom he may arm and discipline if he pleases. I know of no law to restrain him--I hope none will ever exist--I wish our gentlemen of estates would make more use of this power than they do, because it would tend to keep our domestic as well as our foreign enemies in awe. For my part, I think that a gentleman who has earned his commission by his services (in his military capacity, I mean), or bought it with his money, has as much a property in it as any man has in his estate, and ought to have it as well secured by the laws of his country. While it remains at the absolute will of the Crown, he must, unless he has some other estate to depend on, be a slave to the minister; and if the officers of our army long continue in that state of slavery in which they are at present, I am afraid it will make slaves of us all.
The only method to prevent this fatal consequence, as the law now stands, is to make the best and most constant use of the power we possess as members of this House, to prevent any minister from daring to advise the King to make a bad use of his prerogative. As there is such a strong suspicion that this minister has done so, we ought certainly to inquire into it, not only for the sake of punishing him if guilty, but as a terror to all future ministers.
This, sir, may therefore be justly reckoned among the many other sufficient causes for the inquiry proposed. The suspicion that the civil list is greatly in debt is another; for if it is, it must either have been misapplied, or profusely thrown away, which abuse it is our duty both to prevent and to punish. It is inconsistent with the honor of this nation that the King should stand indebted to his servants or tradesmen, who may be ruined by delay of payment. The Parliament has provided sufficiently to prevent this dishonor from being brought upon the nation, and, if the provision we have made should be lavished or misapplied, we must supply the deficiency. We ought to do it, whether the King makes any application for that purpose or not; and the reason is plain, because we ought first to inquire into the management of that revenue, and punish those who have occasioned the deficiency. They will certainly choose to leave the creditors of the Crown and the honor of the nation in a state of suffering, rather than advise the King to make an application which may bring censure upon their conduct, and condign punishment upon themselves. Besides this, sir, another and a stronger reason exists for promoting an inquiry. There is a strong suspicion that the public money has been applied toward corrupting voters at elections, and members when elected; and if the civil list be in debt, it affords reason to presume that some part of this revenue has, under the pretense of secret service money, been applied to this infamous purpose.
I shall conclude, sir, by making a few remarks upon the last argument advanced against the proposed inquiry. It has been said that the minister delivered in his accounts annually; that these accounts were annually passed and approved by Parliament; and that therefore it would be unjust to call him now to a general account, because the vouchers may be lost, or many expensive transactions have escaped his memory. It is true, sir, estimates and accounts were annually delivered in. The forms of proceeding made that necessary. But were any of these estimates and accounts properly inquired into? Were not all questions of that description rejected by the minister's friends in Parliament? Did not Parliament always take them upon trust, and pass them without examination? Can such a superficial passing, to call it no worse, be deemed a reason for not calling him to a new and general account? If the steward to an infant's estate should annually, for twenty years together, deliver in his accounts to the guardians; and the guardians, through negligence, or for a share of the plunder, should annually pass his accounts without examination, or at least without objection; would that be a reason for saying that it would be unjust in the infant, when he came of age, to call his steward to account? Especially if that steward had built and furnished sumptuous palaces, living, during the whole time, at a much greater expense than his visible income warranted, and yet amassing great riches? The public, sir, is always in a state of infancy; therefore no prescription can be pleaded against it--not even a general release, if there is the least cause for supposing that it was surreptitiously obtained. Public vouchers ought always to remain on record; nor ought any public expense to be incurred without a voucher--therefore the case of the public is still stronger than that of an infant. Thus, sir the honorable gentleman who made use of this objection, must see how little it avails in the case before us; and therefore I trust we shall have his concurrence in the question.
The motion prevailed by a majority of seven. A committee of twenty-one was appointed, composed of Walpole's political and personal opponents. They entered on the inquiry with great zeal and expectation. But no documentary proofs of importance could be found. Witnesses were called up for examination as to their transactions with the treasury; but they refused to testify, unless previously indemnified against the consequences of the evidence they might be required to give. The House passed a bill of indemnity, but the Lords rejected it, as dangerous in its tendency, and calculated to invite accusation from peculators and others, who might wish to cover their crimes by making the minister a partaker in their guilt. "The result of all their inquiries," says Cooke, "was charges so few and so ridiculous, when compared with those put forward at the commencement of the investigation, that the promoters of the prosecution were themselves ashamed of their work. Success was found impracticable, and Lord Orford enjoyed his honors unmolested."--Hist. of Party, ii., 316.
1. Debt on the accession of George the First, in 1714......... £54,145,363
Decrease during the peace .............................................. £7,190,740
2. The case of Porteous, here referred to, was the one on which Sir Walter Scott founded his "Heart of Midlothian." Porteous had been condemned to death for firing on the people of Edinburgh, but was reprieved at the moment when the execution was to have taken place. Exasperated at this, the mob, a few nights after, broke open his prison, and hanged him on the spot where he had fired. A reward of £200 was offered, but the perpetrators could not be discovered.
3. It will be recollected that, in consequence of his parliamentary opposition to Sir Robert Walpole, Mr. Pitt had been himself dismissed from the army. The Duke of Bolton and Lord Cobham had also, for a similar reason, been deprived of the command of their regiments.
*Scanned for Classicpersuasion.org 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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