« EdellinenJatka »
the 4th of April, the minority was only 17, notwithstanding an able speech from Lord Cowper, who compared the project to the Trojan horse, ushered in with great pomp and acclamation, but contrived for treachery and destruction. But like every other statesman at this time, he did not foresee the real point or extent of danger; and nothing could be more erroneous than his prediction, that “the main public intention “of this Bill, the repurchase of annuities, would meet “ with insuperable difficulties.” Such, on the contrary, was the rising rage for speculation, that on the passing of the Bill very many of the annuitants hastened to carry their orders to the South Sea House, before they even received any offer, or knew what terms would be allowed them!- ready to yield a fixed and certain income for even the smallest share in vast but visionary schemes !
The offer which was made to them on the 29th of May (eight years and a quarter's purchase) was much less favourable than they had hoped ; yet nevertheless, six days afterwards, it is computed that nearly two thirds of the whole number of annuitants had already agreed.*
In fact, it seems clear, that during this time, and throughout the summer, the whole nation, with extremely few exceptions, looked upon the South Sea Scheme as promising and prosperous. Its funds rapidly rose from 130 to above 300. Walpole, although one of its opponents, readily, as we have seen, joined the Ministry at this period under very mortifying circumstances, which he would certainly not have done, had he foreseen the impending crash, and the necessity that would arise for his high financial talents. Lord Townshend concurred in the same view. Atterbury thought it a great blow to Jacobitism. He charitably hints to James, in his letters, that some attempt from the Duke of Ormond might “disorder our finances, and throw us into “a good deal of confusion.” But if the advice of this minister of peace and good will towards men cannot be
Boyer's Polit. State, vol. xix. p. 518.
taken in this respect, he then anticipates that “the “grand money schemes will settle and fix themselves “in such a manner that it will not be easy to shake " them.”* Such being the feeling, not merely of the Ministerial party, but of most of their opponents, it seems scarcely just to cast the blame of the general delusion on the Ministers alone, and to speak of them as deaf to warning and precipitate to ruin.
The example of these vast schemes for public wealth was set us from Paris. John Law, a Scotch adventurer had some years before been allowed to establish a public bank in that city; and his project succeeding, he engrafted another upon it of an “Indian Company,” to have the sole privilege of trade with the Mississippi. The rage for this speculation soon became general : it rose to its greatest height about December, 1719; and the “actions,” or shares, of the new Company sold for more than twenty times their original value. The Rue Quincampoix, the chief scene of this traffic, was thronged from daybreak by a busy and expecting crowd, which disregarded the hours of meals, and seemed to feel no hunger or thirst but that of gold, nor could they be dispersed until a bell at night gave them the signal to withdraw. The smallest room in that street was let for exorbitant sums; the clerks were unable to register the growing multitude of claimants; and it is even said that a little hunchback in the street gained no less than 50,000 francs by allowing eager speculators to use his hump for their desk.f Law, the projector of this System, as it was called, at once became the greatest subject in Europe. “I have seen him come to Court,” says Voltaire, “ followed humbly by Dukes, by Marshals, and by Bi
shops ;” and even Dubois, the Prime Minister, and Orleans, the Regent, might be said to tremble at his nod. Arrogance and presumption, the usual faults of upstarts, daily grew upon him: he said publicly, before some English, that there was but one great kingdom in Europe, and one great town, and that was France and Paris. I And at
* Letters to James and to General Dillon, May 6. 1720. See Appendix. † Mém. de la Régence, tom, iv. p. 53. ed. 1749. # Lord Stair to Secretary Craggs, Sept. 9. 1719.
length he so far galled the pride or raised the jealousy of his countryman, Lord Stair, as to draw him into personal wrangling, and consequently interrupt the friendly correspondence between the French and British Governments. It was one main object of Stanhope's journey in January to re-establish harmony; but finding the two Scotsmen irreconcilable, and one of them supreme in France, he, in concert with Dubois, recalled Lord Stair, to England, and appointed Sir Robert Sutton his suc
Thus ended Stair's celebrated embassy, which Lord Hardwicke truly calls most important in its objects, most brilliant and spirited in its execution. But this last great error kept him under disgrace, or at least out of employment, for twenty years. In 1733, we find Horace Walpole write of him as one “whose haughty intriguing “ character has drawn upon him the displeasure of the “King." +
The connection of Law with the French Government was very profitable to the latter, who contrived to throw off 1500 millions of public debts from their shoulders upon his; but this very circumstance, and the natural revulsion of high-wrought hopes, soon began to shake his air-built edifice. Two or three arbitrary Royal Decrees to support him served only to prove that credit is not to be commanded. The more the public was bid to trust, the more they were inclined to fear, and the more eager they became to realise their imaginary profits. No sooner was the bubble touched, than it burst. Before the end of 1720, Law was compelled not only to resign his employments, but to fly the kingdom for his life; a few speculators were enriched, but many thousand innocent families ruined. Still, however, in the early part
* Lord Stanhope to Abbé Dubois, Dec. 18. 1719. (Appendix); and Lord Stair's apologetic letters in the Hardwicke State Papers, vol. ii. pp. 603—615. † Hardwicke State Papers, vol. ii. p. 521.
To Baron Gedda, 1733. This, however, was after the Excise Scheme.
§ In 1723, Walpole wished to promote the restoration of Law in France, since the power might fall into much worse hands for England. (To Sir Luke Schaub, April 19. 1723.) But the public resentment was far too violent to admit of such a scheme. It is very remarkable as the strongest proof of the ascendency of Lord Stanhope of that year the crash had not yet begun, and the rage of speculation spread over from France to England. In fact, from that time downward, it may be noticed that each of the two countries has been more or less moved by the internal movements of the other; and there has been scarcely any impulse at Paris which has failed to thrill and vibrate through every member of the British Empire.
As soon as the South Sea Bill had received the Royal Assent in April, the Directors proposed a subscription of one million, which was so eagerly taken, that the sum subscribed exceeded two. A second subscription was quickly opened, and no less quickly filled. The most exaggerated hopes were raised, and the most groundless rumours set afloat; such as that Stanhope had received overtures at Paris to exchange Gibraltar and Port Mahon for some places in Peru! The South Sea trade was again vaunted as the best avenue to wealth ; objections were unheard or over-ruled; and the friends of Lord Oxford might exult to see his visions adopted by his opponents.* In August, the stocks, which had been 130 in the winter, rose to 1000! Such general infatuation would have been happy for the Directors, had they not themselves partaken of it. They opened a third, and even a fourth subscription, larger than the former; they passed a resolution, that from Christmas next their yearly dividend should not be less than fifty per cent.; they assumed an arrogant and overbearing tone. have made them Kings,” says a Member of Parliament, " and they deal with every body as such !” † But the public delusion was not confined to the South Sea Scheme; a thousand other mushroom projects sprung up in that
over Dubois and the French Government, that it was he who, from Hanover, planned and counselled all the steps for the expulsion of Law and the restoration of public credit in France. (M. Destouches to Dubois, Sept. 8. 1720. See Appendix.)
“ You remember when the South Sea was said to be Lord “Oxford's brat. Now the King has adopted it, and calls it his “ beloved child : though perhaps you may say, if he loves it no better " than his son, it may not be saying much !” (Duchess of Ormond to Swift, April 18. 1720.)
| Mr. Brodrick to Lord Midleton, Sept. 13. 1720.
teeming soil. This evil had been foreseen, and, as they hoped, guarded against by Ministers. On the very day Parliament rose they had issued a Royal Proclamation against “ such mischievous and dangerous undertakings, “especially the presuming to act as a corporate body, or “raising stocks or shares without legal authority.” But how difficult to enforce that prohibition in a free country! How impossible, when almost immediately on the King's departure, the Heir Apparent was induced to publish his name as a Governor of the Welsh Copper Company! In vain did the Speaker and Walpole endeavour to dissuade him, representing that he would be attacked in Parliament, and that “ The Prince of Wales's Bubble” would be cried in Change Alley.* It was not till the Company was threatened with prosecution, and exposed to risk, that His Royal Highness prudently withdrew, with a profit of 40,0001.
Such an example was tempting to follow; the Duke of Chandos and the Earl of Westmoreland appeared likewise at the head of bubbles ; and the people at large soon discovered that to speculate is easier than to work. Change Alley became a new edition of the Rue Quincampoix. The crowds were so great within doors, that tables with clerks were set in the streets. In this motley throng were blended all ranks, all professions, and all parties; Churchmen and Dissenters, Whigs and Tories, country gentlemen and brokers.
An eager strife of tongues prevailed in this second Babel; new reports, new subscriptions, new transfers, flew from mouth to mouth; and the voice of ladies (for even many ladies had turned gamblers) rose loud and incessant, above the general din. A foreigner would no longer have complained of the English taciturnity.f Some of the Companies hawked about were for the most extravagant objects; we find
* Secretary Craggs to Earl Stanhope, July 12. 1720.
† A French traveller, a few years afterwards, declares that the “ Actions du Sud et les Galions d'Espagne ” were almost the only subjects on which Englishmen would talk. In general, he says, we are quite silent. “L'on boit et fume sans parler. Je connais un “Anglais, qui, toutes les fois qu'on veut le forcer à rompre le silence,
a coutume de répondre, que parler c'est gâter la conversation ! ” (Lettres d'un Français, tom. ii. p. 108. ed. 1745.)