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ing the liberties of the people. He was to be a thorn in the side of Toryism.
After performing some minor services to his party, he was sent to the House of Commons as member for the borough of Stafford, in October, 1780. The nation was suffering under the calamities of the American war, and Lord North's administration was assailed with every weapon of argument and invective, by an opposition strong in popular favor and aristocratic connection, but bitterly hated by the king. Sheridan's first speech was a comparative failure. It was on the subject of a petition complaining of the undue election of himself and his colleague. He launched into an indignant vindication of his constituents. When he had concluded, Mr. Rigby, a member of the Tory administration, coolly ridiculed his elaborated rage. Sheridan was not prepared to reply ; but Fox came to the rescue of his friend, and informed the right honorable gentleman that “those ministerial members who chiefly robbed and plundered their constituents might afterwards affect to despise them, yet gentlemen who felt properly the nature of their trust would always treat them and speak of them with respect.” In an assembly where such language as this was the commonplace of debate, it was evident that a man, to keep his position, must learn to think quick and strike hard ; and Sheridan felt that he had much to learn before he could rank high in his new profession. He asked his friend Woodsall to tell him candidly what he thought of his first attempt, and received the discouraging reply, that speaking did not appear to be in his line, and that he had much better have adhered to his former pursuits. “It is in me, however,” said Sheridan, after a short pause, “ and by
it shall come out!" From this moment his training as a debater commenced, and he spared no effort to perfect himself in his art.
He had many personal advantages suitable to an orator,
a powerful frame, a face which, though coarse in some of its features, was capable of great variety of expression, a deep, clear voice, and an eye of piercing brilliancy, which never winked. Beneath all his indolence and sensuality, he posseśsed a desire for distinction, and an ambition for effect, which inspired him with sufficient industry to master the details of particular questions, and prepare sparkling declamation to delight his audience. He had not that depth of feel
ing and earnestness of purpose by which the great orator identifies himself with his subject; but he could imitate those qualities admirably. His sly, subtile intellect was always on the watch for occasions for display, and he seized them with exquisite tact. Besides, he had a long training in the House of Commons; and though as a debater he never reached the first rank, from his lack of perfect readiness and his want of familiarity with principles, he still developed in the end a sturdy political courage, and a command of expedients, which enabled him to meet without flinching the fiercest attacks of the treasury bench, and to bear bravely up even against the arrogant scorn of Pitt.
During the first few years of Sheridan's political life, he produced but a small impression, but he was steadily feeling his way into notoriety. Enjoying the friendship of Fox, Burke, and all the prominent Whigs, he was insensibly educating himself into a politician. On the overthrow of Lord North's administration, and the formation of the Marquis of Rockingham's, in March, 1782, he was appointed one of the under-secretaries of state. This office he occupied but four months. The death of Lord Rockingham split the Whig party into two divisions. One of these, the Rockingham confederacy, led by the Duke of Portland and Mr. Fox, and to which Burke and Sheridan belonged, was the traditional Whig party, the heir of the principles of the Revolution, and was supported by the strength of the old Whig families. It was essentially aristocratic in its constitution, and derived much of its power from the wealth, stability, and Parliamentary influence of the great Whig lords. The other was the remnant of Lord Chatham's party, who had combined with the Rockinghams in the opposition to Lord North, and, on the overthrow of the latter, had received a share of the spoils. It was led by Lord Shelburne, father to the present Marquis of Lansdowne, and was more popular in its character than the other division of the Whigs. George the Third, who bitterly hated the Whig oligarchy, seized the opportunity presented by the death of the Marquis of Rockingham of dealing it a heavy blow. He appointed Lord Shelburne, instead of the Duke of Portland, prime minister. _Shelburne, without consulting his colleagues, accepted. Fox, Burke, and the other cold Whigs,” immediately resigned, and went into opposition.
There were thus three parties in the House of Commons, the Tory adherents of Lord North making the third. To carry on the government, it was necessary for two of these to unite. After some negotiations between the two divisions of the Whigs, which resulted in nothing, Fox formed a coalition with Lord North, and, after a short, sharp struggle, came into power. This was the most imprudent thing, judged by its effects, ever done by the Whig party ; for by the great body of the nation it was considered a scandalous contempt of public principle, and it fixed an odium on Fox and Burke from which they never wholly recovered. Sheridan, who, from his lack of strong passions and high purposes, often excelled his greater contemporaries in his judgment of the temper of the people, strenuously opposed the coalition. He could not appreciate the objects of Fox and Burke, but he was shrewd enough to discover the inefficiency of their means.
In the new ministry Sheridan was made secretary of the treasury, and gained thereby some knowledge of arithmetic, which he often paraded afterwards in discussing the financial measures of Mr. Pitt. The Coalition ministry did not long exist; it was detested both by the king and people. The most ridiculous and atrocious falsehoods were manufactured with regard to the objects of its leaders. Its fate was sealed when Mr. Fox's East India Bill was introduced. This great measure passed the House of Commons by a large majority, but it was defeated by intrigue and treachery when it came to the House of Lords. On the failure of the bill, Fox and his colleagues were instantly dismissed by the king, although they still possessed a majority of votes in the lower house. William Pitt, then just entering upon his political career, made prime minister, - fought for three months, against a majority of the House of Commons, one of the greatest Parliamentary battles on record, — and on the dissolution of Parliament, and the election of a new House of Commons, found himself firmly seated in power. The Whigs went into long and hopeless opposition.
This was one of the most exciting periods in English political history, but its consideration belongs rather to the biography of Burke and Fox than of Sheridan. One of his most felicitous retorts, however, occurred in an early scene of this hurried drama. While Pitt was serving under Lord
Shelburne, Sheridan fired some epigrams into the ministry, which would have shone bright among his happiest dramatic sallies. Pitt, in that vein of arrogant sarcasm for which he was afterwards so much distinguished, informed him, that if such dramatic turns and epigrammatic points were reserved for their proper stage, they would doubtless receive the plaudits of the audience ; but the House of Commons was not the proper scene for them. Sheridan, who was morbidly sensitive to any allusions which connected him with the stage, determined to silence such insinuations for ever. He felt, he said, flattered and encouraged by the right honorable gentleman's panegyric on his talents, and if he ever engaged again in the compositions to which he alluded, he might be tempted to an act of presumption, — to attempt an improvement on one of Ben Jonson's best characters, the character of the Angry Boy in the Alchemist. Nothing could have been better and bitterer than this retort; and it pleased Sheridan so much, that he made a cast of the whole play, assigning each of the prominent opponents of his party a character in harmony with the Whig doctrine regarding his disposition. Lord Shelburne was Subtle ; Lord Thurlow, Face; Mr. Dundas, Doll Common ; Mr. Rigby, Sir Epicure Mammon; General Conway, Dame Pliant; and His Majesty himself was honored with the part of Surly.
In an extravagantly burlesque sketch of Sheridan, written by his friend Tickell in a copy of The Rivals, there is a fine, ludicrous account of the popular clamor against the leaders of the Coalition ministry, the humor of which will be appreciated by all who know the political history of the time, and the means used to prejudice both king and people against the connection. It contains also a pertinent allusion to Sheridan's devotion to the bottle, and, through the exaggeration of caricature, enables us to judge of his habits and character at this period.
“He [Sheridan) was a member of the last Parliaments that were summoned in England, and signalized himself on many occasions by his wit and eloquence, though he seldom came to the House till the debate was nearly concluded, and never spoke unless he was drunk. He lived on a footing of great intimacy with the famous Fox, who is said to have concerted with him the audacious attempt which he made, about the year 1783, to seize the whole property of the East India Company, amounting at
that time to about £ 12,000,000 sterling, and then to declare himself Lord Protector of the Realm by the title of Carlo Khan. This desperate scheme actually received the consent of the lower house of Parliament, the majority of whom were bribed by Fox, or intimidated by his and Sheridan's threats and violence; and it is generally believed that the Revolution would have taken place, if the lords of the king's bedchamber had not in a body surrounded the throne, and shown the most determined resolution not to abandon their posts but with their lives. The usurpation being defeated, Parliament was dissolved, and loaded with infamy. Sheridan was one of the few members of it who were reëlected;
- the burgesses of Stafford, whom he had kept in a constant state of intoxication for three weeks, chose him again to represent them, which he was well qualified to do."
The fact of his reëlection, mentioned in the last sentence of this fine caricature, is the more to be noted, as a hundred and sixty members of the old Parliament, favorable to Fox and North, were defeated. These called themselves, with much truth as well as pleasantry, “ Fox's Martyrs.”
In following Mr. Fox into opposition, Sheridan soon became one of his most efficient supporters. Mr. Pitt's administration found in him a powerful opponent, and he was especially felicitous in ridiculing the pretensions of the Tories, and galling them with pointed declamation. Incapable of projecting leading measures, and deficient in those higher qualities of mind which made Burke and Fox great statesmen, he was the most effective of partisans. When pressed to speak on topics which required extensive knowledge, or an appeal to authorities, he would say humorously to his political friends, “You know I'm an ignoramus, but here I am; instruct me, and I will do my best.” As a man of wit, of wit not only as a power of mind, but as a quality of character, he detected weak points in argument, or follies in declamation, with an instinctive insight. In the habit of recording in a memorandum-book his most ingenious thoughts as they occurred to him, he had ever at hand some felicities to weave into every speech. A few of his brilliant ideas absolutely haunted him, and he took especial pleasure in varying their application, and making them tell on different occasions. One of these is well known. In his private memoranda he speaks of one “ who employs his fancy in his narratives, and keeps his recollections for his wit. This idea was afterwards directed against a composer of music turned wine-merchant,