CAPTAIN WALPOLE INTERCEPTING THE DUKE OF SALDANHA'S SHIPS. (See p. 306.) Mr. Villiers's annual motion, brought forward on the 25th of June, was scarcely more successful than that of Mr. Cobden. Lord John Russell still harped upon his fixed idea of a fixed duty. In his view the country suffered not from the Corn Law, but only from the form in which it was administered. He said he was not prepared to say either that the Corn Law should be at once abolished, or that the existing law should be maintained. While such was the feeble policy of the leader of that Whig party which had set up a claim to a sort of monopoly of Free Trade principles, it was no wonder that the country began to look for relief to the Minister who had introduced the tariff of 1842; but Sir Robert Peel as yet moved too slowly to rouse the enthusiasm in his favour of the Anti-Corn-Law League. "There were not," he remarked, "ten reflecting men out of the Anti-Corn-Law League, who did not believe that a sudden withdrawal of protection, whether it were given to domestic or colonial produce, would cause great confusion and embarrassment. In the artificial state of society in which we lived we could not act on mere abstract philosophical maxims, which, isolated, he could not contest; they must look to the circumstances under which we have grown up, and the interests involved. Ireland, dependent on England for a market for her agricultural produce, was a case in point. He was not prepared to alter the Corn Law of 1842, and did not contemplate it. Seeing that Lord John Russell had avowed himself a consistent friend to Protection, and was opposed to total repeal, he thought he was somewhat squeamish in flying from his difficulty, and declining to vote against the motion. As to the Corn Law, the Government did not intend to alter it, or diminish the amount of protection afforded to agriculture." On the division the numbers for the motion were 124, and against it, 330. On the whole, the cause of Free Trade made but small progress in Parliament in this year, though out of doors the agitation was carried on with ever-increasing vigour. As regards Mr. Villiers's motion, the progress made was shown principally in the decrease of the majority against it. In 1842, when he first put the question of total repeal on issue before the House, he had 92 votes, and 395 against him; in 1843 he had 125 votes, and 381 against him; in 1844, 124 votes, and 330 against him.
The Session of 1840 was opened by the Queen in person. The first two paragraphs of the Royal Speech contained an announcement of the coming marriage. The Speech contained nothing else very definite or very interesting; and the debate on the Address was remarkable for nothing more than its references to the royal marriage. The Duke of Wellington warmly concurred in the expressions of congratulation. He had, he said, been summoned to attend her Majesty in the Privy Council when this announcement was first made. He had heard that the precedent of the reign of George III. had been followed in all particulars except one, and that was the declaration that the Prince was a Protestant. He knew he was a Protestant, he was sure he was of a Protestant family; but this was a Protestant State, and although there was no doubt about the matter, the precedent of George III. should have been followed throughout, and the fact that the Prince was a Protestant should be officially declared. The Duke, therefore, moved the insertion of the word "Protestant" before the word "Prince" in the first paragraph of the Address. Lord Melbourne considered the amendment altogether superfluous. The Act of Settlement required that the Prince should be a Protestant, and it was not likely that Ministers would advise her Majesty to break through the Act of Settlement. The precedent which the Duke had endeavoured to establish was not a case in point, for George III. did not declare to the Privy Council that the Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz was a Protestant, but only that she was descended from a long line of Protestant ancestors. All the world knew that the Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg was a Protestant, and that he was descended from the most emphatically Protestant house in Europe. But the House decided to insert the phrase.
This being done, Mr. Vyner suggested that the physicians should rather be examined by the House itself, a proposal supported by Fox. Pitt replied that this was a matter requiring much delicacy, and that the opinions of the physicians before the Council being on oath, he imagined that they had greater force than any given before Parliament, where they would not be on oath. But, during the four days' adjournment, he had ascertained, to his satisfaction, that the majority of the physicians were of opinion that the king would pretty soon recover, and that especially Dr. Willis was of this opinion, under whose more immediate care he was; and no sooner did the Commons meet, than Pitt most judiciously acquiesced in the suggestions of Vyner and Fox; and the physicians were examined by a committee of twenty-one members, of which he himself was chairman. On the 16th of December Pitt brought up the report of the committee, in which a majority of the physicians had expressed the opinion that the malady of the king would not be of long duration; and he then moved for another committee to search for precedents as to the power to be exercised by a regent. Fox declared that Pitt knew very well that there were no precedents to be found while there existed an Heir Apparent, at the time, of full age and capacity; that he was seeking only the means of delaying what ought to be done at once; that the failure of the mind of the sovereign was a case of natural demise, and that the Heir Apparent succeeded to the exercise of the royal authority from the period of that failure, as a matter of course; that the Parliament had, indeed, the authority to decide that such failure had actually taken place, and to sanction the assumption of the powers of regency, as the other two Estates of the realm, but nothing more. When Fox made this astounding assertion, Pitt slapped his thigh and exclaimed to a colleague sitting near him, "I'll unwhig the gentleman for the rest of his life."
In the preamble to the new Bill the object of that extended Bill was candidly avowed, namely, that when "a restless and popish faction are designing and endeavouring to renew the rebellion in this kingdom and an invasion from abroad, it might be destructive to the peace and security of the Government." The Septennial Bill was, in fact, intended as a purely temporary measure, and, though originated by party spirit, it was really of great advantage in days when every general election meant a fresh exercise of the influence of the Crown and the Lords.
To oppose this tremendous force, our Admiral, Sir Charles Hardy, had only thirty-eight sail. In the confidence of their overwhelming strength, the Franco-Spanish fleet sailed directly for the English coast. Hardy, who was a brave seaman, but somewhat past his prime, endeavoured to prevent their insulting our shores, and pursued them first near the Scilly Isles, and then towards the straits of the Channel. On shore the panic was intense, the French and Spaniards being expected every hour to land. But on the 31st of August, the wind veering enabled Hardy to get the weather-gauge of them; and being now in the Channel, he was prepared to engage their fleet, though so much superior in numbers; and on shore great quantities of military and volunteers had collected. Hardy anchored off Spithead. At the sight of this combination of circumstances, the courage of the Spaniards and French evaporated. They began to quarrel amongst themselves. The Spaniards were for landing on some part of the British coast; the French admiral contended that they would have the equinoctial gales immediately upon them, and that many of their vessels were in bad condition. The Spanish commander declared that, this being the case, he would relinquish the enterprise, and return to his own seaports. D'Orvilliers was necessarily compelled to return too, and retired to Brest, where a pestilential disease attacked the French, from having been so long cooped up in foul ships. Well might Lord North, on the meeting of Parliament, say, "Our enemies fitted out a formidable fleet; they appeared upon our coasts; they talked big; threatened a great deal; did nothing, and retired."
In Italy the French had been as unfortunate as they had been fortunate in Flanders. In November of 1746 the Austrians and Sardinians, assisted by a British fleet, had entered Provence and bombarded Antibes. They were recalled, however, by the news that the Genoese had revolted, and thrown off the Austrian yoke. In their retreat they were harassed by Marshal de Belleisle, laid siege to Genoa in vain, and began to quarrel amongst themselves. The French, to complete their own discomfiture, marched another army into Italy under the brother of Belleisle; but they were stopped in the Pass of Exilles, and defeated, with the loss of four thousand men and of their commander, the Chevalier de Belleisle.
Whilst these combined efforts were being made to unseat him, Walpole saw his Cabinet every day becoming more untrustworthy, more divided against him. The Duke of Newcastle was eagerly pressing forward to supplant him. He had entered into secret engagements with the Duke of Argyll, and Lord Chancellor Hardwicke threw himself into that clique. To these were added the Earl of Wilmington, formerly Sir Spencer Compton, who, forgetting his alarm at the idea of succeeding Walpole as Prime Minister, now was anxious for that honour. To add to these depressing circumstances, the king arrived from Hanover in a humour ready to lay his disgrace and failure at anybody's door. On the 4th of December he opened the new Parliament, and, conscious of his own contemptible figure after the submission to French dictation in Hanover, he took care to remind it that he had commenced the war only at the urgent desire and advice of both Houses, and that he had been particularly counselled to direct our naval efforts towards Spanish America.
On the 24th of June Parliament was prorogued by commission. The Royal Speech expressed thanks for the attention that had been given to the affairs of Ireland, and the settlement of the Catholic question, which the king hoped would tend to the permanent tranquillity of that country, and to draw closer the bonds of union between it and the rest of the empire. It was announced that diplomatic relations had been renewed with the Porte, for which ambassadors from England and France had taken their departure. But it was with increased regret that his Majesty again adverted to the condition of the Portuguese monarchy. He repeated his determination to use every effort to reconcile conflicting interests, and to remove the evils which pressed so heavily on a country the prosperity of which must ever be an object of his solicitude. The condition of that country was, indeed, most deplorable under the lawless despotism of Dom Miguel, who, on the abdication of his brother Dom Pedro in favour of Do?a Maria da Gloria, had been appointed regent, but had subsequently assumed the royal title, and driven his niece from the country. He overruled the decisions of the courts of justice regarding political prisoners, and inflicted the punishment of death by his own mere arbitrary order, when only transportation had been decreed by the judges. He crowded the prisons with the most distinguished supporters of constitutional government, confiscated their property, and appropriated it to his own use. Yet this monster would have been acknowledged by the Duke of Wellington. Had the Duke been free to follow the dictates of his own judgment, he would have at once resumed the diplomatic relations which had been broken off between the two states. But Britain was committed to the young queen by the policy of the preceding Administration; and the Duke, though he believed that policy to be unwise, could not break through it in a moment. It was not without difficulty, however, that Britain maintained her neutrality between the contending parties. The Portuguese refugees endeavoured, under various false pretences, to avail themselves of British hospitality, for the purpose of conveying arms and ammunition, and bodies of troops into Portugal, to restore the queen. They asserted that they were sending them to Brazil, but really conveyed them to Terceira, one of the Azores, where Do?a Maria had been proclaimed. The consequence was that 4,000 Portuguese troops, which were lying at Plymouth, were ordered to disband, and Captain Walpole, with a squadron, was sent to watch the Portuguese ships in the Atlantic, in order to avoid the imputation of violating the neutrality. His orders were to proceed to the Azores, to intercept any vessels arriving at those islands, and "should they persist, notwithstanding, in hovering about or making any attempt to effect a landing, you are then to use force to drive them away from the neighbourhood." Walpole intercepted four vessels, containing a force of 650 men under the command of the Duke of Saldanha. They declined to bring-to, whereupon he fired a shot which killed one man and wounded another. Saldanha thereupon declared that he considered himself Walpole's prisoner, and turned his vessels towards Europe. Walpole, in great perplexity, followed him, until he was within 500 miles of Scilly, when they parted company and Saldanha went to Havre. These proceedings were regarded with indignation in Great Britain, the enemies of the Government asserting that, in spite of their declarations of neutrality, they had proved themselves partisans of Dom Miguel. Debates were raised in both Houses, Lord Palmerston in the Commons making his first great speech in condemnation of the Duke's foreign policy. It is significant that Wellington should have written to Lord Aberdeen in a private letter: "In respect to Portugal you may tell Prince Polignac that we are determined that there shall be no revolutionary movement from England or any part of the world."