The accession of the House of Hanover to the British throne marks the end of the theory of the divine right of Kings so far as England is concerned. Anne had ruled by a better title than that of George I, and the Elector of Hanover was not the heir to the throne by the law of primogeniture. His title rested merely upon the will of Parliament. All of the Georges were dull and stupid, and the first of them was the dullest. He knew neither a word of English nor a single article of the Constitution. When he landed the people welcomed him with enthusiasm; not because they loved him, but because his accession meant that a ruler dictated by the Nation’s convenience had been placed upon the throne, by the mere force of a statute. George was content to become a figurehead, reigning, but not governing; no English ruler since Anne has exercised the veto. Without a soldier or a follower, he allowed Parliament and his ministers to have their own way. Thus, in his reign, government by Parliament became fully established. But Parliament did not represent the Nation and under the first two Georges the government of the Whigs has been compared to the rule of the Venetian oligarchy. For twenty years Sir Robert Walpole ruled by the cunning way in which he managed the Commons. Men then gained seats in Parliament in a different way from now. Mere villages sent members to Parliament and in large towns but few persons had the right to vote. Landlords controlled the villages, called “rotten boroughs,” and the constituencies were bribed either directly or indirectly. The seaports were nearly always with the ministry from commercial reasons. Such a Parliament was easily managed by Walpole, who not only gave places, pensions, and peerages in payment for votes, but resorted to direct bribery whenever necessary. He was not the first to use this means of gaining votes, but is said to have used it more than any other minister did. It was begun in Charles II’s reign and first became common in that of William III, when the good will of the’ Lower House was seen to be needful to the King’s ministers. It must not be supposed that the people were with-out influence, for they only had to speak out very strongly to get what they wished. They were seldom in earnest about anything, however, and cared little how things went in the State. England in Walpole’s day was growing rich. Englishmen were bluff and independent and in their ways coarse and unmannerly. Their life was the life depicted on the canvas of Hogarth and the pages of Fielding.
During Walpole’s time the English Constitution was shaped by him into what it is practically now. The cabinet system became formed. By the Cabinet, a word which is technically unknown to any act of Parliament or in official proceedings, is meant a committee of the legislative body consisting of the ministers, nominally nominated by the crown but really responsible to Parliament, upon whose consent it owes its existence. While the ministry retains the confidence of the parliamentary majority, that majority supports them against opposition and rejects every motion which is likely to embarrass them. If the parliamentary majority are dissatisfied with the way in which affairs are conducted they have merely to, declare that they have ceased to trust the ministry and to ask for a ministry whom they can trust. By the party system, which owes its development to this period, an organized body of men will always be found to succeed them. From the days of the Stuarts, when the Constitutional struggle began, there have been two parties in Great Britain, which, whether under the name of Roundhead and Cavalier, Whig and Tory, or Liberal and Conservative, have usually stood for the same ideas. The Tories have striven to limit the authority of the people and the Whigs that of the crown. This struggle has taken many forms, and often the parties may seem to change position on their great fundamental principle.
George II succeeded to the throne in 1727 and Walpole continued to hold office. During his ministry England was prosperous, for he avoided foreign war and devoted himself to the strengthening of English industries. The popular demand for war against Spain in the struggle of the Austrian Succession brought about the downfall of Walpole’s ministry. Henry Pelham, who succeeded Wal pole, had no principles of government whatever, and he offered a place to every man of parliamentary skill or influence. There was no opposition in Parliament because he was ready to do anything called for by any one who had sufficient power to make himself dangerous.
As long as Walpole was in power and England at peace with foreign States the Stuarts saw no chance of winning a throne by invasion and revolt. The war with France and Spain seemed to afford an opening. The absence of British troops on the Continent seemed to give Charles Edward Stuart his chance, and, in 1745, the tall, handsome, blue-eyed and curly-haired adventurer landed in Scotland. The people were not ready for, nor wished a reversion to the doctrine of divine right of kings and absolute monarchy, although he was followed by many of the highland clans, always ready to draw the sword against the constituted authorities of the lowlands; and even in the lowlands, and especially in Edinburgh, he found adherents who still felt the sting inflicted by the suppression of the national independence of Scotland. The English army was in a chaotic condition and Charles Edward inflicted a complete defeat on the force which met him at Prestonpans. Before the end of the year the victor, at the head of 5,000 men, had advanced to Derby. But he found no support in England and the mere numbers brought against him compelled him to retreat, to find defeat at Culloden in the following year (1746).
The most important event of the early Georgian period was the famous religious revival called the Wesleyan movement, or Methodism. In this age of reason, as men had proudly called it, those who cared for religion or morality, had forgotten that man was an imaginative and emotional being. Defenders of Christianity and of Deism alike appealed to the reason alone. Enthusiasm was treated as a folly or crime and earnestness of every kind was branded with the name of enthusiasm. The higher order of minds dwelt with preference upon the beneficent wisdom of the Creator. The lower order of minds treated religion as a kind of life assurance against the inconvenience of eternal death. Upon such a system as this human nature was certain to avenge itself. The preaching of John Wesley (1703-1791) and George Whit-field appealed direct to, the emotions. They preached the old Puritan doctrine of conversion and called upon each other individual not to understand, or to admire or to act, but vividly to realize the love and mercy of God. In all this there was nothing new. What was new was that Wesley added an organization in which each of his followers unfolded to ,one another the secrets of their hearts and became accountable to his fellows. Large as the numbers of the Wesleyans ultimately became their influence is not to be measured by their numbers. Wesleyanism was a reaction against that decline of religious feeling and morality which was due in some measure to the policy of Walpole and the Whigs to the Church. Political appointments to high ecclesiastical posts had resulted in non-resident bishops, a careless and unspiritual clergy, and a low moral tone among the laity. Literature and the drama suffered, political corruption increased, the poor were neglected, atheism and agnosticism grew. The reaction, which John Wesley and George Whitfield headed, led to the development of spirituality among the clergy and pre-pared the way for that recognition of the need of high political morality which is associated with the name of William Pitt.
Pitt was in some sense to the political life of England what Wesley was to its religious life. He brought no new political ideals to men’s minds but he ruled them by force of character and the sense of his purity. His weapons were trust and confidence. He appealed to the patriotism of his fellow countrymen, to their imaginative love for the national greatness and did not appeal in vain. He perceived instinctively that a large number of those who took greedily the bribes of Walpole and Pelham took them not because they loved money any better than their country, but because they had no conception that their country had any need of them. It was a truth but not the whole truth. The great Whig families rallied under Newcastle and drove Pitt from office (1757). But Newcastle could not govern without Pitt’s energy. At last a compromise was effected and Newcastle undertook the work of bribing while Pitt undertook the work of governing. It was Pitt who carried to a successful conclusion the war with France, which arose between the colonists of the two Nations in America, and which war got mixed up with the Seven Years’ War in Germany. In India France and England were fighting for Asiatic wealth. England greatly enlarged her transatlantic possessions by the war with France, but lost them through the arrogant attitude of George III toward the colonists. There is no need to dwell on this war and its causes, which are described in the volume of American History in this series. But it was not a popular war in England and was opposed by the ablest English statesmen of that day, just as those of today admit the justice of the Americans’ greivances. The struggle was one, for Great Britain, of very existence as a colonial and naval power. France, Spain, and Holland were combined against her and it was largely that she might devote herself entirely to them that the war in America was discontinued, without regret, after the surrender of Cornwallis.
George III reigned sixty years, during the greater part of which he was insane. In 1760, at the age of 22 years, he came to the throne, and inaugurated a new epoch in the history of English monarchy. A born Englishman, and English in his tastes and habits, his virtues and his faults, he was welcome as a ruler to, all classes of his subjects. George, unlike his father and grandfather, was attached to England, spoke English well, and prided him-self on being every inch an Englishman. It was to his mother that he owed his desire to govern as well as reign. “George, be king,” was the phrase which she repeated, and the training which he received made him give heed to it. George had formed an exalted idea of his own prerogative and was determined to win back for the crown some of its former influence and authority in the government. He had been taught by Bolingbroke that a sovereign should, like Frederick the Great, take an active part in public affairs. He had been trained to regard the Whigs as usurpers of his royal authority, and he hoped by abolishing party connections and party government to become the actual ruler in England. His schemes were directed to the establishment of a system of personal rule under which all the threads of the administration should center in the royal closet. He undertook the task of over-turning the great Whig party, by a lavish expenditure of public money, by the use of places and pensions, and by the creation of a band of men known as the “King’s Friends,” who were always at hand to do his bidding.
For this task George, in spite of his ignorance, narrow-mindedness and short-sightedness, was not unfitted. His confidence in himself, his patience, his laborious attention to details, his activity and devotion to business made him a formidable foe in his long struggle with the Whigs, and account for his victory. He set out with the intention of securing certain objects the revival of the prerogative, the right to choose his own ministers, the destruction of government by party and the overthrow of the Whig oligarchy. After ten years of desperate conflict George to a great extent obtained his desires. In Lord North he found a minister after his own heart. He had for a time broken up parties and he had instituted departmental government in place of the cabinet system the growth of which Walpole had so carefully fostered. In 1770 “there was great danger,” says Lecky in his History of England in the Eighteenth Century, “that the crown would regain all, or nearly all, the power it had lost during the revolution.” A circumstance that aided George was that the House of Commons did not represent England and the Nation had little or no influence in the formation of a ministry. Parliament was amenable to corrupt influences and during the early years of George III’s reign Parliamentary corruption was greater than under Walpole, while the Whig party was split into several small groups. It was during the administration of Lord North, when the King was at the height of his power, that the colonies won their independence. The determination of the King not to compromise with those whom he termed rebels, prevented compromise when compromise was possible. The subserviency of Parliament and the acquiesence of the country enabled the King to have his own way.
In December, 1783, William Pitt, son of the former minister and then in his twenty-fourth year, formed an ad-ministration in which he was Chancellor of the Exchequer as well as First Lord of the Treasury; and he remained in office for eighteen years. The crushing victory of his party at the general election in 1784 was a triumph for the King as much as for Pitt. From that time there was an end to government by the supremacy of the old Whig families. The Tory party had been consolidated and was prepared to give effect to the policy of George III. The struggle had been long and severe. John Wilkes had taken part in it and by his arrest he had led to the abolition of general warrants. A writer, whose letters were signed “Junius,” had denounced the ministers whom the King had trusted, and had warned the King himself that as his title to the crown “was acquired by one revolution it might be lost by another.” Pitt felt himself the minis-ter of Commons rather than of the King, and like Walpole he remained sole and supreme minister. The Nation was with him because he was honest and he was never accused of corruption, even when millions were passing through his hands. It is true that he had his vices which were an addiction to port wine and a way of running into debt. He ruled absolutely over the cabinet and was at once the favorite of King, Parliament, and people. With such a man at the helm, the King could no longer have his way as before, and the power of the monarch declined. Finance, commerce, and parliamentary reform were the chief objects which he devoted himself to. In the late wars the debt had grown till it reached about £250,000,000. Taxes had been laid on at haphazard to meet the needs as they arose. Pitt set before himself the reduction of the debt as an important end of all financial measures. He saved much for the country and encouraged honest dealing by his plan of borrowing money by public contract, and so getting the lowest possible interest. By lowering the heavy duties on tea, wine, and spirits, which were fast handing over the trade of the country to smugglers, he lessened smuggling, improved trade and raised the revenue. The increase of revenue which followed his new scheme of duties soon allowed him to take off some of the worst taxes among others, those on retail shops and on women servants. His attempt to secure free trade between England and Ireland was unsuccessful as was his scheme for the abolition of “rotten boroughs.”
During the last eight years of his ministry Pitt’s management of foreign affairs raised England from the isolation and depression in which he found her in 1774. He was the first of English ministers to recognize the great influence which the Eastern question was likely to have to international politics. Owing to the firm and pacific policy of Pitt, the outbreak of the hostilities with France found England not exhausted by wars and in a position to take, abroad, a leading part in opposing revolutionary principles. The Nation which Pitt had behind him was one that had already become great in industry. In 1776 Adam Smith published the “Wealth of Nations.” In 1761 the Bridgewater canal, the first of a system of internal waterways, was opened. In 1767 Hargreaves produced the spinning-jenny; Arkwright’s spinning machine was exhibited in 1768; Crompton’s mule was finished in 1779; Cartwright hit upon the idea of the power loom in 1784, though it was not brought into profitable use till 1801. The Staffordshire potteries had been flourishing under Wedgewood since 1763, and the improved steam engine was brought into shape by Watt in 1768. Coke of Holkham, Robert Blakewell, and the Duke of Bedford were busy in the improvement of agriculture. The foundations were laid not only of England’s future greatness in politics but in industry.