Chronicles of America 

Walpole's Policy

For thirty years England and France now remained at peace, and England had many reasons for desiring peace to continue. Anne, the last of the Stuart rulers, died in 1714. The new King, George I, Elector of Hanover, was a German and a German unchangeable, for he was already fifty four, with little knowledge of England and none of the English, and with an undying love for the dear despotic ways easily followed in a small German principality. He and his successor George II were thinking eternally of German rather than of English problems, and with German interests chiefly regarded it was well that England should make a friend of France. It was well, too, that under a new dynasty, with its title disputed, England should not encourage France to continue the friendly policy of Louis XIV towards James, the deposed Stuart Pretender. England had just made a new, determined, and arrogant enemy by forcing upon Spain the deep humiliation of ceding Gibraltar, which had been taken in 1704 by Admiral Rooke with allied forces. The proudest monarchy in Europe was compelled to see a spot of its own sacred territory held permanently by a rival nation. Gibraltar Spain was determined to recover. Its loss drove her into the arms of the enemies of England and remains to this day a grievance which on occasion Spanish politicians know well how to make useful.

Great Britain was now under the direction of a leader whose policy was peace. A nation is happy when a born statesman with a truly liberal mind and a genuine love of his country comes to the front in its affairs. Such a man was Sir Robert Walpole. He was a Whig squire, a plain country gentleman, with enough of culture to love good pictures and the ancient classics, but delighting chiefly in sports and agriculture, hard drinking and politics. When only twenty-seven he was already a leader among the Whigs; at thirty-two he was Secretary for War; and before he was forty he had become Prime Minister, a post which he really created and was the first Englishman to hold. Friendship with France marked a new phase of British policy. Walpole's baffled enemies said that he was bribed by France. His shrewd insight kept France lukewarm in its support of the Stuart rising in 1715, which he punished with great severity. But it was as a master of finance that he was strongest. While continental nations were wasting men and money Walpole gloried in saving English lives and English gold. He found new and fruitful modes of taxation, but when urged to tax the colonies he preferred, as he said, to leave that to a bolder man. It is a pity that anyone was ever found bold enough to do it.

Walpole's policy endured for a quarter of a century. He abandoned it only after a bitter struggle in which he was attacked as sacrificing the national honor for the sake of peace. Spain was an easy mark for those who wished to arouse the warlike spirit. She still persecuted and burned heretics, a great cause of offense. in Protestant Britain, and she was rigorous in excluding foreigners from trading with her colonies. To be the one exception in this policy of exclusion was the privilege enjoyed by Britain. When the fortunes of Spain were low in 1713, she had been forced not merely to cede Gibraltar but also to give to the British the monopoly of supplying the Spanish colonies with negro slaves and the right to send one ship a year to trade at Porto Bello in South America. It seems a sufficiently ignoble bargain for a great nation to exact: the monopoly of carrying and selling cargoes of black men and the right to send a single ship yearly to a Spanish colony. We can hardly imagine grave diplomats of our day haggling over such terms. But the eighteenth century was not the twentieth. From the treaty the British expected amazing results. The South Sea Company was formed to carry on a vast trade with South America. One ship a year could, of course, carry little, but the ships laden with negroes could smuggle into the colonies merchandise and the one trading ship could be and was reloaded fraudulently from lighters so that its cargo was multiplied many fold. Out of the belief in huge profits from this trade with its exaggerated visions of profit grew in 1720 the famous South Sea Bubble which inaugurated a period of frantic speculation in England. Worthless shares in companies formed for trade in the South Seas sold at a thousand per cent of their face value. It is a form of madness to which human greed is ever liable. Walpole's financial insight condemned from the first the wild outburst, and his common sense during the crisis helped to stem the tide of disaster. The South Sea Bubble burst partly because Spain stood sternly on her own rights and punished British smugglers. During many years the tension between the two nations grew. No doubt Spanish officials were harsh. Tales were repeated in England of their brutalities to British sailors who fell into their hands. In 1739 the story of a certain Captain Jenkins that his ear had been cut off by Spanish captors and thrown in his face with an insulting message to his government brought matters to a climax. Events in other parts of Europe soon made the war general. When, in 1740, the young King of Prussia, Frederick II, came to the throne, his first act was to march an army into Silesia. To this province he had, he said, in the male line, a better claim than that of the woman, Maria Theresa, who had just inherited the Austrian crown. Frederick conquered Silesia and held it. In 1744 he was allied with Spain and France, while Britain allied herself with Austria, and thus Britain and France were again at war.

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