Page images


old family, East India proprietors, and lawyers on the lookout for promotion, was not likely to be led away by a penniless playwright, on a great question of national policy and criminal justice. But nature had given Sheridan odds in the race which enabled him to distance all competitors, whether envious friends or party foes. His speech on this occasion having been, like most of his other works, composed

scraps, and owing its great effect at last to adaptations on the spot, and unpremeditated additions, was dependent for preservation on the reporter's pen ; and, from some cause never explained, the pen on that memorable night lamentably failed. The House, fairly carried away by the versatility, eloquence, wit, and passion of the man, forgot itself, and mingled with its cheers the expressions of applause which have always been forbidden as disorderly. Pitt was riveted with admiration, Fox was loud in praise, Burke shed tears in the agony of his delight, and the fastidious Windham declared long afterwards that it was the finest speech which had been delivered within the memory of man. Poor Sheridan was offered the next morning a thousand guineas for the copyright, but he was too happy in his new condition of celebrity and congratulation to sit down alone to work up over again what he had spoken. He promised, and perhaps at times he meant to do it. But the delicious hours rolled on, and he had not resolution to forego their enjoyment for the sake of future fame. The matchless invective is lost, and we can only guess at its colour, texture, and strength by the influence it exercised on those who heard it, nearly three to one of whom voted as Sheridan bade them. He stigmatised Hastings as “a great delinquent, and the greatest of all those who by their rapacity and oppression had brought ruin upon the natives of India and disgrace upon the inhabitants of Great Britain.

Some days later Jfr Frederick Jontague moved that the author of the impeachment should proceed forth with to the other House, and at the bar of that high court should lay the plaint of the Commons. Accompanied by many members, Burke appeared at their Lordship’s bar requesting audience, and in set terms there preferred his weighty accusation. Hastings was taken into custody by Black Rod, and bound over in sureties to appear before the Lord High Steward in Westminster Hall when called upon.

Nobody at the time appears to have regarded with apprehension the issue of the impending trial. The friends of the great culprit went about railing against the malignity of party, and the injustice of ruining a distinguished man who had spent his best years in the service of the country, by compelling him to bring witnesses from the other side of the globe, and to employ lawyers to compile unreadable and unintelligible volumes of documentary proof. His successor Lord Cornwallis, when the tidings reached him, treated the matter as a vexatious practical joke. “I am very sorry that things have gone so much against poor Hastings, for he certainly has many amiable qualities. If

. you are in the hanging mood, you may tuck up Sir Elijah

, Impey without giving anybodly the smallest concern.”? It is the old story: those who allow themselves to be made use of as tools, when they are done with are flung aside with a scoff. The ensuing autumn and winter were spent by both sides in preparation. The name of Francis had been struck out of the list of managers by the Commons, on the ground that he was the personal enemy of the accused, and that he had engaged with him in mortal combat. Fox and Wind

. ham wrestled stoutly for their friend's inclusion. “A judge,”


Letter to Lord Sydney, President of the Board of Control, dated Calcutta, January 7, 1788.

exclaimed the latter, “ought indeed to be impartial; but it is new to question the zeal of a prosecutor.” Burke, feminine in his affections and aversions, condescended to entreaty, and wrote to Dundas asking as a favour to himself that he should not be mutilated of his right hand. But the renegade was reckless, and Pitt was obdurate; there was nothing for it, therefore, but to stifle the glowing rage of Francis with splendid flattery. Burke in the name of the managers wrote him a letter-such a letter! It was dated from the committee-room of the House of Commons; it declared in the name of the managers that he was indispensable to the achievement of national justice; and it adjured him not to forsake in their last resort the afflicted people of Asia, over whom he had so long “exercised paternal care.” Junius could not refuse; and in his capacity of assessor, throughout the protracted and arduous proceedings, he was never wanting by the side of his illustrious friend. Among the managers were Fox, Sheridan, Grey, Erskine, Windham, Anstruther, Elliott, and Burgoyne.

After many postponements, the day at length arrived. It was sixty-three years since the Peers had assembled as a court of justice for the trial of Lord Macclesfield. They were then much more limited in number. To the roll-call

of the Lord High Steward upwards of two hundred

peers now answered to their names, and proceeded from their own House to Westminster Hall, which had been furnished as a court for the occasion. The Heir-apparent and other princes of the blood, many of the chief dignitaries of the realm, and its most brilliant lights of literature and art, were there assembled. The Duchess of Devonshire was surrounded by the great Whig ladies, who glanced encouragement on Fox and Grey and Windham in the managers’ box. The ladies whose sympathy was Ministerial occupied

seats near the Duchess of Rutland; and every nook and cranny of the Hall was early filled by some more or less distinguished listener to the unusual and almost unbelievable arraignment. Of all the notabilities of the day, Pitt alone was absent; not even once did he afterwards condescend to show himself during the trial. The great Proconsul was conducted to the bar, and in compliance with old usage, was told to drop upon his knees. The indignity sent a sharper pang to his proud heart than the enumeration of all the crimes laid to his charge. It was but momentary. The Lord High Steward bade him rise and be seated; and there throughout the day, and for days to come that seemed innumerable, the tiny, pallid, plainly attired, but dignified and intrepid culprit, sat observing calmly the features of his judges, watching keenly every movement of his pursuers, and now and then conferring with Plumer, Law, and others of his counsel. It was a strange sight; and to us, looking back at it historically, it seems as strange as it did then. It was a signal experiment in the way of exacting accountability, made with consummate skill, carnestness, and persistency, in a case where there was unprecedented need. Fitness in the tribunal only was wanting; but that want was irremediable. A court of peers hul aforetime sat as judges and as jurors to try the guilt or innocence of one accused of native treason, domestic violence, or breach of municipal law, the incidents of which were recent, and the proofs capable of being fairly weighed during the sunlight of an ordinary day. But here was an appeal from mediæval Asia to modern Europe, from unintelligible Paganism to so-called Christianity, from the helplessness of the conquered to the privileges of constitutional freedom, from unnumbered millions of sufferers to two hundred listless men of fashion-some old and gouty,


others giddy and gambling, a few painstaking and conscientious, and a few more benevolent and well meaning, but phlegmatic, hypochondriacal, and too easily bored. Estimated by the capacity derived from experience, there never was an Areopagus more helpless; for precedent to guide them there was literally none. Estimated by any theoretical standard, the constitution of such a court was simply absurd. Of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal who actually heard Hastings arraigned, but twenty-nine voted him, seven years afterwards, innocent or guilty. The power of impeachment had been a valuable power, and had done good work in its time; but work like this it was never meant to do, and work like this it was wholly incapable of doing as it ought to be done. Through the grey winter-fog of

February 1788, these truths, clear to us now, were not, however, discernible; and, upon the whole, it may be doubted whether men would ever have been brought unanimously or even generally to accept them, had not the great experiment been elaborately tried under circumstances so favourable to success, as that which characterised the case of Warren Hastings. The delusive belief in a phantom can only be dispelled by affording every one repeated and continuous opportunities of seeing that the resuscitated form cannot be grasped, or held, or made to speak coherently and accountably. Until the faith in phantoms be exploded, we cannot hope to get to realities. A learned, wise, exalted, and catholic-hearted court of appeal for those who suffer wrong within the confines of the empire is indispensable to the maintenance of the empire in equity and honour; indispensable, indeed, to its permanent existence; but the Lord High Steward's court, convened to try a colonial Viceroy on a writ of impeachment, is utterly unlike what such a court should be. It was necessary, therefore, that the obsolete


« PreviousContinue »