« PreviousContinue »
port of the ministry (accorded, as a matter of course, to most State delinquents) was, in this instance, contrary to all calculation, disappointed. Mr. Pitt, at the commencement of the proceedings, had shown strong indications of an intention to take the cause of the Governor-General under his protection. Mr. Dundas, too, had exhibited one of those convenient changes of opinion, by which such statesmen can accommodate themselves to the passing hue of the Treasury-bench, as naturally as the Eastern insect does to the colour of the leaf on which it feeds. Though one of the earliest and most active denouncers of Indian mis-government, and even the mover of those strong Resolutions in 1782* on which some of the chief charges of the present prosecution were founded, he now, throughout the whole of the opening scenes of the Impeachment, did not scruple to stand forth as the warm eulogist of Mr. Hastings, and to endeavour by a display of the successes of his administration to dazzle away attention from its violence and injustice.
This tone, however, did not long continue:-in the midst of the anticipated triumph of Mr. Hastings, the Minister suddenly "changed his hand, and checked his pride.” On the occasion of the Benares Charge, brought forward in the House of Commons by Mr. Fox, a majority was, for the first time, thrown into the scale of the accusation; and the abuse that was in consequence showered upon Mr. Pitt and Mr. Dundas, through every channel of the press, by the friends of Mr. Hastings, showed how wholly unexpected, as well as mortifying, was the desertion.
As but little credit was allowed to conviction in this change, it being difficult to believe that a Minister should come to the discussion of such a question, so lightly ballasted with opinions of his own as to be thrown from his equilibrium by the first wave of argument he encountered, -various statements and conjectures were, at the time, brought forward to account for it. Jealousy of the great and increasing influence of Mr. Hastings at court was, in general, the motive assigned for the conduct of the Minister. It was even believed that a wish expressed by the King, to have his new favourite appointed President of the
* In introducing the Resolutions he said, that "he was urged to take this step by an account, which had lately arrived from India, of an act of the most flagrant violence and oppression and of the grossest breach of faith, committed by Mr. Hastings against Cheyt Sing, the Raja of Benares."
Board of Control, was what decided Mr. Pitt to extinguish, by co-operating with the Opposition, every chance of a rivalry, which might prove troublesome, if not dangerous, to his power. There is no doubt that the arraigned ruler of India was honoured at this period with the distinguished notice of the Court--partly, perhaps, from admiration of his proficiency in that mode of governing, to which all Courts are, more or less, instinctively inclined, and partly from a strong distaste to those who were his accusers, which would have been sufficient to recommend any person or measure to which they were opposed.
But whether Mr. Pitt, in the part which he now took, was actuated merely by personal motives, or (as his eulogists represent) by a strong sense of impartiality and justice, he must at all events have considered the whole proceeding, at this moment, as a most seasonable diversion of the attacks of the Opposition, from his own person and government to an object so little connected with either. The many restless and powerful spirits now opposed to him would soon have found, or made, some vent for their energies, more likely to endanger the stability of his power;
and, as an expedient for drawing off some of that perilous lightning, which flashed around him from the lips of a Burke, a Fox, and a Sheridan, the prosecution of a great criminal like Mr. Hastings furnished as efficient a conductor as could be desired.
Still, however, notwithstanding the accession of the Minister, and the impulse given by the majorities which he commanded, the projected impeachment was but tardy and feeble in its movements, and neither the House nor the public went cordially along with it. Great talents, united to great power-even when, as in the instance of Mr. Hastings, abused-is a combination before which men are inclined to bow implicitly. The iniquities, too, of Indian rulers were of that gigantic kind, which seemed to outgrow censure, and even, in some degree, challenge admiration. In addition to all this, Mr. Hastings had been successful; and success but too often throws a charm round injustice, like the dazzle of the necromancer's shield in Ariosto, before which every one falls.
"Con gli occhi abbacinati, e senza mente."
The feelings, therefore, of the public were, at the outset of the prosecution, rather for than against the supposed
delinquent. Nor was this tendency counteracted by any very partial leaning towards his accusers. Mr. Fox had hardly yet recovered his defeat on the India Bill, or--what had been still more fatal to him-his victory in the Coalition. Mr. Burke, in spite of his great talents and zeal, was by no means popular. There was a tone of dictatorship in his public demeanor, against which men naturally rebelled; and the impetuosity and passion with which he flung himself into every favourite subject, showed a want of self-government but little calculated to inspire respect. Even his eloquence, various and splendid as it was, failed in general to win or command the attention of his hearers, and, in this great essential of public speaking, must be considered inferior to that ordinary, but practical, kind of oratory,* which reaps its harvest at the moment of delivery, and is afterwards remembered less for itself than its effects. There was a something-which those who have but read him can with difficulty conceive-that marred the impression of his most sublime and glowing displays. In vain did his genius put forth its superb plumage, glittering all over with the hundred eyes of fancy-the gait of the bird was heavy and awkward, and its voice seemed rather to scare than attract. Accordingly, many of those masterly discourses, which, in their present form, may proudly challenge comparison with all the written eloquence upon record, were, at the time when they were pronounced, either coldly listened to, or only welcomed as a signal and excuse for not listening at all. To such a length was this indifference carried, that, on the evening when he delivered his great Speech on the Nabob of Arcot's debts, so faint was the impression it produced upon the House, that Mr. Pitt and Lord Grenville, as I have heard, not only consulted with each other as to whether it was necessary they should take the trouble of answering it, but decided in the negative. Yet doubtless, at the present moment, if Lord Grenville-master as he is of all the knowledge that belongs to a statesman and a scholar-were asked to point out from the stores of his reading the few models of oratorical composition, to the perusal of which he could most frequently, and with unwearied admiration, return, this slighted and unanswered speech would be among the num
* "Whoever upon comparison, is deemed by a common audience the greatest orator, ought most certainly to be pronounced such by men of science and erudition.-Hume, Essay 13.
From all these combining circumstances it arose that the prosecution of Mr. Hastings, even after the accession of the Minister, excited but a slight and wavering interest; and, without some extraordinary appeal to the sympathies of the House and the country-some startling touch to the chord of public feeling-it was questionable whether the enquiry would not end as abortively as all the other Indian inquests that had preceded it.
In this state of the proceeding, Mr. Sheridan brought forward, on the 7th of February in the House of Commons, the charge relative to the Begum Princesses of Oude, and delivered that celebrated Speech, whose effect upon its hearers has no parallel in the annals of ancient or modern eloquence. When we recollect the men by whom the House of Commons was at that day adorned, and the conflict of high passions and interests in which they had been so lately engaged;-when we see them all, of all parties, brought (as Mr. Pitt expressed it) " under the wand of the enchanter," and only vying with each other in their description of the fascination by which they were bound;
* Namely, the fruitless prosecution of Lord Clive by General Burgoyne, the trifling verdict upon the persons who had imprisoned Lord Pigot, and the Bill of Pains and Penalties against Sir Thomas Rumbold, finally withdrawn.
† Mr. Burke declared it to be "the most astonishing effort of eloquence, argument, and wit united, of which there was any record or tradition." Mr. Fox said, "All that he had ever heard, all that he had ever read, when compared with it, dwindled into nothing, and vanished like vapour before the sun;"—and Mr. Pitt acknowledged "that it surpassed all the eloquence of ancient and modern times, and possessed every thing that genius or art could furnish, to agitate and control the human mind."
There were several other tributes, of a less distinguished kind, of which I find the following account in the Annual Register:Sir William Dolben immediately moved an adjournment of the debate, confessing, that, in the state of mind in which Mr. Sheridan's speech had left him, it was impossible for him to give a determinate opinion. Mr. Stanhope seconded the motion. When he had entered the House, he was not ashamed to acknowledge, that his opinion inclined to the side of Mr. Hastings. But such had been the wonderful efficacy of Mr. Sheridan's convincing detail of facts, and irresistible eloquence, that he could not but say that his sentiments were materially changed. Nothing, indeed, but information almost equal to a miracle, could determine him not to vote for the Charge; but he had just felt the influence of such a miracle, and he could not but ardently desire to avoid an immediate decision. Mr. Mathew Montagu confessed, that he had felt à similar revolution of sentiment.
when we call to mind, too, that he, whom the first statesmen of the age thus lauded, had but lately descended among them from a more ærial region of intellect, bringing trophies falsely supposed to be incompatible with political prowess; it is impossible to imagine a moment of more entire and intoxicating triumph. The only alloy that could mingle with such complete success must be the fear that it was too perfect ever to come again;-that his fame had then reached the meridian point, and from that consummate moment must date its decline.
Of this remarkable speech there exists no Report;—for it would be absurd to dignify with that appellation the meagre and lifeless sketch, the
Tenuem sine viribus umbram
which is given in the Annual Registers and Parliamentary Debates. Its fame, therefore, remains like an empty shrine -a cenotaph still crowned and honoured, though the inmate is wanting. Mr. Sheridan was frequently urged to furnish a Report himself, and from his habit of preparing and writing out his speeches, there is little doubt that he could have accomplished such a task without much difficulty. But, whether from indolence or design, he contented himself with leaving to imagination, which, in most cases, he knew, transcends reality, the task of justifying his eulogists, and perpetuating the tradition of their praise. Nor, in doing thus, did he act perhaps unwisely for his fame. We may now indulge in dreams of the eloquence that could produce such effects,* as we do of the music of the ancients and the miraculous powers attributed to it, with as little risk of having our fancies chilled by the perusal of the one, as there is of our faith being disenchanted by hearing a single strain of the other.
* The following anecdote is given as a proof of the irresistible power of this speech in a note upon Mr. Bisset's History of the Reign of George IL--
The late Mr. Logan, well known for his literary efforts, and author of a most masterly defence of Mr. Hastings, went that day to the House of Commons, prepossessed for the accused and against his accuser. At the expiration of the first hour he said to a friend,
All this is declamatory assertion without proof:'-when the second was finished, This is a most wonderful oration:'-at the close of the third, Mr. Hastings has acted very unjustifiably:'-the fourth, Mr. Hastings is a most atrocious criminal;'-and, at last, Of all monsters of iniquity the most enormous is Warren Hastings!"