Page images
PDF
EPUB

After saying thus much, it may seem a sort of wilful profanation, to turn to the spiritless abstract of this speech, which is to found in all the professed reports of Parliamentary oratory, and which stands, like one of those half-clothed mummies in the Sicilian vaults, with, here and there, a fragment of rhetorical drapery, to give an appearance of life to its marrowless frame. There is, however, one passage so strongly marked with the characteristics of Mr. Sheridan's talent-of his vigorous use of the edge of the blade, with his too frequent display of the glitter of the point-that it may be looked upon as a pretty faithful representation of what he spoke, and claim a place among the authentic specimens of his oratory. Adverting to some of those admirers of Mr. Hastings, who were not so implicit in their partiality as to give unqualified applause to his crimes, but found an excuse for their atrocity in the greatness of his mind, he thus proceeds :

"To estimate the solidity of such a defence, it would be sufficient merely to consider in what consisted this prepossessing distinction, this captivating characteristic of greatness of mind. Is it not solely to be traced in great actions directed to great ends? In them, and them alone, we are to search for true estimable magnanimity. To them only can we justly affix the splendid title and honours of real greatness. There was indeed another species of greatness, which displayed itself in boldly conceiving a bad measure, and undauntedly pursuing it to its accomplishment. But had Mr. Hastings the merit of exhibiting either of these descriptions of greatness,-even of the latter? He saw nothing great-nothing magnanimous—nothing open-nothing direct in his measures, or in his mind. On the contrary, he had too often pursued the worst objects by the worst means. His course was an eternal deviation from rectitude. He either tyrannized or deceived; and was by turns a Dyonysius and a Scapin.* As well might the writhing obliquity of the serpent be compared to the swift directness of the arrow, as the duplicity of Mr. Hastings' ambition to the simple steadiness of genuine magnanimity. In his mind all was shuffling, ambiguous, dark, insidious, and little: nothing simple, nothing unmixed: all affected plainness, and actual dissimulation;-a heterogeneous mass of contradictory qualities; with nothing great but his crimes; and even those contrasted by the littleness of his motives, which at once denoted both his baseness and his meanness, and marked him for a traitor and a trickster. Nay, in his style and writing there was the same mixture of vicious contrarieties;-the most grovelling ideas were conveyed in the most inflated language, giving mock consequence to low cavils, and uttering quibbles in heroics; so that his

* The spirit of this observation has been well condensed in the compound name given by the Abbé de Pradt to Napoleon—“Jupiter-Scapin."

compositions disgusted the mind's taste, as much as his actions excited the soul's abhorrence. Indeed this mixture of character seemed, by some unaccountable but inherent quality, to be appropriated, though in inferior degrees, to every thing that concerned his employers. He remembered to have heard an honourable and learned gentleman (Mr. Dundas) remark, that there was something in the first frame and constitution of the Company, which extended the sordid principles of their origin over all their successive operations; connecting with their civil policy, and even with their boldest achievements, the meanness of a pedlar and the profligacy of pirates, Alike in the political and the military line could be observed auctioneering ambassadors and trading generals,—and thus we saw a revolution brought about by affidavits, an army employed in executing an arrest; a town besieged on a note of hand, a prince dethroned for the balance of an account. Thus it was they exhibited a government, which united the mock majesty of a bloody sceptre, and the little traffic of a merchant's counting-house, wielding a truncheon with one hand, and picking a pocket with the other."

The effect of this Speech, added to the line taken by the Minister, turned the balance against Hastings, and decided the Impeachment.

Congratulations on his success poured in upon Mr. Sheridan, as may be supposed, from all quarters; and the letters that he received from his own family on the occasion were preserved by him carefully and fondly through life. The following extract from one written by Charles Sheridan is highly honourable to both brothers:

"Dublin Castle, 13th February, 1787.

"MY DEAR DICK, "Could I for a moment forget you were my brother, I should, merely as an Irishman, think myself bound to thank you, for the high credit you have done your country. You may be assured, therefore, that the sense of national pride, which I in common with all your countrymen on this side of the water must feel on this splendid occasion, acquires no small increase of personal satisfaction, when I reflect to whom Ireland is indebted, for a display of ability so unequalled, that the honour derived from it seems too extensive to be concentred in an individual, but ought to give, and I am persuaded will give, a new respect for the name of Irishman. I have heard and read the accounts of your speech, and of the astonishing impression it made, with tears of exultation-but what will flatter you more-I can solemnly declare it to be a fact, that I have, since the news reached us, seen good honest Irish pride, national pride I mean, bring tears into the eyes of many persons, on this occasion,

who never saw you. I need not, after what I have stated, assure you, that it is with the most heartfelt satisfaction that I offer you my warmest congratulations.

* * * *"7

The following is from his eldest sister, Mrs. Joseph Lefanu:

*

"16th February, 1787.

"MY DEAR BROTHER,

"The day before yesterday I received the account of your glorious speech. Mr. Crauford was so good as to write a more particular and satisfactory one to Mr. Lefanu than we could have received from the papers. I have watched the first interval of ease from a cruel and almost incessant headach to give vent to my feelings, and tell you how much I rejoice in your success. May it be entire! May the God who fashioned you, and gave you powers to sway the hearts of men and control their wayward wills, be equally favourable to you in all your undertakings, and make your reward here and hereafter! Amen, from the bottom of my soul! My affection for you has been ever "passing the love of women." Adverse circumstances have deprived me of the pleasure of your society, but have had no effect in weakening my regard for you. I know your heart too well to suppose that regard is indifferent to you, and soothingly sweet to me is the idea that in some pause of thought from the important matters that occupy your mind, your earliest friend is sometimes recollected by you.

66 I know you are much above the little vanity that seeks its gratification in the praises of the million, but you must be pleased with the applause of the discerning,-with the tribute I may say of affection paid to the goodness of your heart. People love your character as much as they admire your talents. My father is, in a degree that I did not expect, gratified with the general attention you have excited here: he seems truly pleased that men should say, 'There goes the father of Gaul.' If your fame has shed a ray of brightness over all so distinguished as to be connected with you, I am sure I may say it has infused a ray of gladness into my heart, deprest as it has been with ill health and long confinement.

* *99

There is also another letter from this lady, of the same date, to Mrs. Sheridan, which begins thus enthusiastically:

"MY DEAR SHERI.

"Nothing but death could keep me silent on such an occasion as this. I wish you joy-I am sure you feel it: 'oh moments worth whole ages past, and all that are to come.' You may laugh at my enthusiasm if you please-1 glory in it. * * *""

In the month of April following, Mr. Sheridan opened the Seventh Charge, which accused Hastings of corruption, in receiving bribes and presents. The orator was here again lucky in having a branch of the case allotted to him, which, though by no means so susceptible of the ornaments of eloquence as the former, had the advantage of being equally borne out by testimony, and formed one of the most decided features of the cause. The avidity, indeed, with which Hastings exacted presents, and then concealed them as long as there was a chance of his being able to appropriate them to himself, gave a mean and ordinary air to iniquities, whose magnitude would otherwise have rendered them imposing, if not grand.

The circumstances under which the present from Cheyt Sing was extorted, shall be related when I come to speak of the great Speech in Westminster Hall. The other strong cases of corruption, on which Mr. Sheridan now dwelt, were the sums given by the Munny Begum (in return for her appointment to a trust for which, it appears, she was unfit,) both to Hastings himself and his useful agent, Middleton. This charge, as far as regards the latter, was never denied and the suspicious lengths to which the Governorgeneral went, in not only refusing all inquiry into his own share of the transaction, but having his accuser, Nuncomar, silenced by an unjust sentence of death, render his acquittal on this charge such a stretch of charity, as nothing but a total ignorance of the evidence and all its bearings can justify.

The following passage, with which Sheridan wound up his Speech on this occasion, is as strong an example as can be adduced of that worst sort of florid style, which prolongs metaphor into allegory, and, instead of giving in a single sentence the essence of many flowers, spreads the flowers themselves, in crude heaps, over a whole paragraph:—

"In conclusion (he observed,) that, although within this rank, but infinitely too fruitful wilderness of iniquities-within this dismal and unhallowed labyrinth-it was most natural to cast an eye of indignation and concern over the wide and towering forest of

enormities-all rising in the dusky magnificence of guilt; and to fix the dreadfully excited attention upon the huge trunks of revenge, rapine, tyranny, and oppression; yet it became not less necessary to trace out the poisonous weeds, the baleful brushwood, and all the little, creeping, deadly plants, which were, in quantity and extent, if possible, more noxious. The whole range of this farspreading calamity was sown in the hot-bed of corruption; and had risen, by rapid and mature growth, into every species of illegal and atrocious violence."

At the commencement of the proceedings against Hastings, an occurrence, immediately connected with them, had brought Sheridan and his early friend Halhed together, under circumstances as different as well can be imagined from those under which they had parted, as boys. The distance, indeed, that had separated them in the interval was hardly greater than the divergence that had taken place in their pursuits; for, while Sheridan had been converted into a senator and statesman, the lively Halbed had become an East Indian Judge, and a learned commentator on the Gentoo Laws. Upon the subject, too, on which they now met, their views and interests were wholly opposite, Sheridan being the accuser of Hastings, and Halhed his friend. The following are the public circumstances that led to their interview.

In one of the earliest debates on the Charges against the Governor-general, Major Scott having asserted that, when Mr. Fox was preparing his India Bill, overtures of accommodation had been made, by his authority, to Mr. Hastings, added, that he (Major Scott) "entertained no doubt that, had Mr. Hastings then come home, he would have heard nothing of all this calumny, and all these serious accusations." Mr. Fox, whom this charge evidently took by surprise, replied that he was wholly ignorant of any such overtures, and that "whoever made, or even hinted at such an offer, as coming from him, did it without the smallest shadow of authority." By an explanation, a few days after, from Mr. Sheridan, it appeared that he was the person who had taken the step alluded to by Major Scott. His interference, however, he said, was solely founded upon an opinion which he had himself formed with respect to the India Bill,-namely, that it would be wiser, on grounds of expediency, not to make it retrospective in any of its clauses. In consequence of this opinion, he had certainly commissioned a friend to enquire of Major Scott, whether, if Mr. Hastings were recalled, he would come home ;—but "that there had been the most distant idea of bartering

« PreviousContinue »