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amongst the number, “ Wrecks to be fished for on the “ Irish Coast - Insurance of Horses, and other Cattle
(two millions)- Insurance of Losses by Servants — To “ make Salt Water Fresh - For building of Hospitals “ for Bastard Children - For building of Ships against “ Pirates - For making of Oil from Sun-flower Seeds “For improving of Malt Liquors – For recovering of “ Seamen's Wages-For extracting of Silver from Lead
- For the transmuting of Quicksilver into a malleable “ and fine Metal — For making of Iron with Pit-coal “ For importing a Number of large Jack Asses from
Spain - For trading in Human Hair - For fatting of “ Hogs. For a Wheel for a Perpetual Motion.” But the most strange of all, perhaps, was “ For an Under
taking which shall in due time be revealed.” Each subscriber was to pay down two guineas, and hereafter to receive a share of one hundred with a disclosure of the object; and so tempting was the offer, that 1000 of these subscriptions were paid the same morning, with which the projector went off in the afternoon. Amidst these real follies, I can scarcely see any difference or exaggeration in a mock proposal which was circulated at the time in ridicule of the rest. “ For the Invention of
melting down Saw-dust and Chips, and casting them 6 into clean Deal Boards without Cracks or Knots !”
Such extravagances might well provoke laughter; but, unhappily, though the farce came first, there was a tragedy behind. When the sums intended to be raised had grown altogether, it is said, to the enormous amount of three hundred millions t, the first check to the public infatuation was given by the same body whence it had first sprung. The South Sea Directors, craving for fresh gains, and jealous of other speculators, obtained an order from the Lords Justices, and writs of SCIRE FACIAS, against several of the new bubble Companies. These fell, but in
* Macpherson's Hist. of Commerce, vol. iii. p. 90. ed. 1805. Mr. Hutcheson observes, “ To speak in a gaming style, the South Sea “stock must be allowed the honour of being the Gold Table ; “the better sort of bubbles, the Silver Tables, and the lower sort “ of these, the Farthing Tables for the footmen!” (Treatises,
† Tindal's Hist, vol. vii. p. 357.
falling drew down the whole fabric with them. As soon as distrust was excited, all men became anxious to convert their bonds into money; and then at once appeared the fearful disproportion between the paper promises and the coin to pay. Early in September, the South Sea Stock began to decline: its fall became more rapid from day to day, and in less than a month it had sunk below 300. In vain was money drained from all the distant counties and brought up to London. In vain were the goldsmiths applied to, with whom large quantities of stock were pawned: most of them were broke or fled. In vain was Walpole summoned from Houghton to use his influence with the Bank; for that body, though it entered into negotiations, would not proceed in them, and refused to ratify a contract drawn up and proposed by the Minister.* Once lost, the public confidence could not be restored: the decline progressively continued, and the news of the crash in France completed ours. Thousands of families were reduced to beggary; thousands more were threatened with the same fate; and the large fortunes made, or supposed to be made, by a few individuals, served only by comparison to aggravate the common ruin. Those who had sported most proudly on the surface of the swollen waters were left stranded and bare by the ebbing of that mighty tide. The resentment and rage were universal. "I perceive," says a contemporary, "the very
name of a South Sea man grows abominable in every “county;” † and a cry was raised not merely against the South Sea Directors, not merely against the Ministry, but against the Royal Family, against the King himself. Most of the statesmen of the time had more or less dabbled in these funds. Lord Sunderland lost considerably ; Walpole, with more sagacity, was a great gainer S; the Duke of Portland, Lord Lonsdale, and Lord Irwin, were
* Hutcheson's Second Postscript, Sept. 24. 1720. Treatises, p. 89. See also in my Appendix a letter from Lord Hervey to H. Walpole, Sept. 12. 1735.
Mr. Brodrick to Lord Midleton, Sept. 27. 1720.
Coxe's Memoirs, vol. i. p. 730. Walpole sold out at the highest price (1000), saying, as he well might, “ I am fully satisfied.” His wife continued to speculate a little longer on her own account.
reduced to solicit West India governments; and it is mentioned as an exception, that “neither Lords Stan“hope, Argyle, nor Roxburgh, have been in the stocks."* Townshend, I believe, might also be excepted. But the public indignation was pointed chiefly against Sir John Blunt as projector, and against Sunderland and Aislabie as heads of the Treasury; and it was suspected, how truly will afterwards appear, that the King's mistresses and several of his Ministers, both English and German, had received large sums in stock to recommend the project. In short, as England had never yet undergone such great disappointment and confusion, so it never had so loudly called for confiscation and blood.
That there was some knavery to punish, I do not deny, and I shall presently show. It seems to me, however, that the nation had suffered infinitely more by their own self-willed infatuation than by any fraud that was or could be practised upon them. This should not have been forgotten when the day of disappointment came. But when a people is suffering severely, from whatever cause, it always looks round for a victim, and too often strikes the first it finds. It seeks for no proof; it will listen to no defence; it considers an acquittal as only a collusion. Of this fatal tendency our own times may afford a striking instance. Whilst the cholera prevailed at Paris and Madrid, it was seen that the mob, instead of lamenting a natural and unavoidable calamity, were persuaded that the springs had been poisoned, and ran to arms for their
revenge. During this time, express after express was sent to the King at Hanover, announcing the dismal news, and pressing his speedy return. George had intended to make a longer stay in Germany; but seeing the urgency of the case he hastened homewards, attended by Stanhope, and landed at Margate on the 9th of November. It had been hoped that His Majesty's presence would have revived the drooping credit of the South Sea Funds, but it had not that effect; on the contrary, they fell to 135 at the tidings that Parliament was further prorogued for a
* Mr. Drummond to Mr. D. Pulteney, November 24. 1720. (Coxe's Walpole.)
fortnight. That delay was necessary to frame some scheme for meeting the public difficulties, and this task, by universal assent, and even acclamation, was assigned to Walpole. Fortunately for that Minister he had been out of office when the South Sea Act was passed; he had opposed it as he had opposed all the measures, right or wrong, of Stanhope’s and Sunderland's government; and its unpopularity, therefore, turned to his reputation with the country. Every eye was directed towards him ; every tongue invoked him, as the only man whose financial abilities, and public favour, could avert the country's ruin. Nor did he shrink from this alarming crisis. Had he stood aloof, or joined the opposition, he would probably have had the power to crush the South Sea Directors and their abettors, and especially to wreak his vengeance upon Sunderland ; and he is highly extolled by a modern writer for magnanimity in resisting the temptation.* But though Walpole undoubtedly deserves great praise through all his administration for placability and personal forbearance, yet I can scarcely think the present case an instance of it. In this case the line of interest exactly coincided with the line of duty. Would not the King have shut out Walpole for ever from his confidence had Walpole headed this attack on his colleagues ? Would not a large section, at least, of the Whigs, have adhered to their other chiefs ? Was it not his evident policy, instead of hurling down the objects of popular outcry, to befriend them in their inevitable fall, and then quietly to step into their places, with the consent, perhaps even with the thanks, of their personal adherents ?
Meanwhile the German Ministers and mistresses, full of fear for themselves, and in utter ignorance of England, were whispering, it is said, the wildest schemes. One spoke of a pretended resignation to the Prince of Wales ; another wished to sound the officers of the army, and try to proclaim absolute power; another again advised to apply to the Emperor for troops. But such mad proposals, if, indeed, they were ever seriously made, were coun
* Coxe's Memoirs, vol. i. p. 138. A letter in his second volume (p. 194.) from Pulteney, then a friend of Walpole, confirms the view I have taken
teracted by the English Ministers, and still more, no doubt, by the King's own good sense and right feeling.
On the 8th of December Parliament met in a mood like the people's, terror-stricken, bewildered, and thirsting for vengeance. In the House of Commons parties were strangely mixed ; some men, who had dipped in dishonest practices, hoped by an affected severity to disarm suspicion ; others, smarting under their personal losses, were estranged from their political attachments. Whigs and Tories crossed over, while the Jacobites, enjoying and augmenting the general confusion, hoped to turn it in their
own behalf. The King's opening speech lamented the unhappy turn of affairs, and urged the seeking a remedy. This passed quietly in the Lords; but when Pulteney moved the Address in the Commons, Shippen proposed an angry amendment, and produced a violent debate. “ Miscreants” _“scum of the people”. “ mies of their country;" such were the names given to the South Sea Directors. One member complained that the Ministry had put a stop to all the little bubbles, only in order to deepen the water for the great one. Lord Molesworth admitted that the Directors could not be reached by any known laws; “but extraordinary “crimes,” he exclaimed, “call for extraordinary reme“ dies. The Roman lawgivers had not foreseen the pos“sible existence of a parricide; but as soon as the first “ monster appeared, he was sewn in a sack, and cast “ headlong into the Tiber; and as I think the contri
vers of the South Sea Scheme to be the parricides of “ their country, I shall willingly see them undergo the
same punishment!” Such was the temper of the times ! On this occasion, Walpole spoke with his usual judgment, and with unwonted ascendency. He said that if the city of London were on fire, wise men would be for extinguishing the flames before they inquired after the incendiaries, and that he had already bestowed his thoughts on a proposal to restore Public Credit, which, at a proper season, he would submit to the wisdom of the House. Through his influence, chiefly, the amendment of Shippen was rejected by 261 against 103 ; but next day on the Report no one ventured to oppose the insertion of words “ to punish the authors of our present mis