Page images

right of trade to the company as against English subjects. Whether this was a sound financial scheme or not, the speculation which it created and the ruin which followed in 1720 were in no sense necessary sequels to Harley's plan. The speculation in which a few years hence high and low, politicians and the public, madly rushed, arose from one of tbose financial fevers from which from time to time England has suffered. In its inception the enterprise as against other English traders had a monopoly, and in India and North America two great monopolistic corporations were then achieving success. It looked for its immediate profit to a sure and undoubted source of revenue—the slave trade. No word at the beginning of the eighteenth century was better known among merchants than assiento, by which was understood the right to supply the Spanish colonies with negroes. By the preliminaries of peace signed in September, 1711, this right, hitherto enjoyed by the French, was to be granted exclusively to the English, and Louis relinquished a privilege which in those days was regarded as of the highest value. How closely, therefore, this company was associated with Harley's administration, how much the success of his chief financial scheme was involved with the success of his main political object, is obvious. No wonder that when Torcy told Prior that the article in regard to the Spanish trade was impossible to be granted,' he says:

'My heart ached extremely, and I was ready to sink, but, recollecting myself, I thought it time to say that if this was to continue a maxim I was very sorry that my coming hither was of no effect, and that I looked upon myself as very unhappy, while I told him with the same plainness, ouverture de cæur, that he used to me that it was impossible that peace should be made on any other terms.' (Harley Papers, vol. iii. p. 36.) The loss of this treaty would have caused the failure of this plan; the signing of the preliminaries assured its success.

But just as Harley years before adopted Cunningham's plan for a Land Bank, so now De Foe's fertile brain is apparent in this scheme. On July 17, 1711, a remarkable letter from De Foe to Harley clearly points to previous communications having taken place between the Lord Treasurer and his assistant. After a few words to the effect that he writes ' in pursuance of your Lordship's orders of putting my

thoughts in writing on the subject of the trade to the • South Seas, there comes a careful memorandum.

• The present difficulty in the affair of the South Sea trade seems to consist in the notion of what we call a Free-trade, and the dissatisfactions that some people are industrious to spread arise from the differing construction which people put upon the thing called a Free-trade, and the insuperable difficulties which seem to attend it.

'All our merchants know that the Spaniards (I mean by Spaniards the government of old Spain) in whatsoever circumstance considered, whether in peace or war, under Philip of Bourbon or Charles of Austria, will never be brought to consent to a general liberty of commerce with any colony or settlement the English may make on the coast of America Then, after some further discussion of various points, De Foe concludes

I presume two great ends must be answered in the proposal :-

(1st) Respecting the Government, that a debt of nine millions be at once satisfied and the Government eased of so great a demand.

“(2nd) That the creditors for that debt may receive some advantage above their 6 per cent. that may be so considerable as to raise their actions, and make them gainers by their subscription. ... (Harley Papers, vol. iii. p. 50.)

In this communication the dangers which threatened the Company are clearly indicated—that though possessed of a monopoly in name it had not one in fact, and, as the quotation shows, towards its end the terms arranged between the Government and the Company are clearly and pointedly stated. But there is a yet earlier letter of July 11. After a commencement in the mendicant manner, thanking for pecuniary aid, De Foe proceeds to refer to the revenue and the new undertaking of the trade to the South Seas;' but the length of his remarks on the other subjects of this communication seems to have prevented him from entering on that day into details in regard to the South Sea scheme.

On July 23, however, he writes again. To the scheme contained in this letter for the planting of colonies in Chili it is unnecessary to refer. It is the commencement which is interesting, because the obvious inference is that for some years schemes for trading in the South Seas had not only been fermenting in De Foe's brain, but had been formulated on paper and submitted even to the late King :

The two papers I have already sent your Lordship were only the thoughts in general which, in obedience to your commands, I have reduced to form on the South Sea expedition. I here offer to your Lordship a scheme for the practice; I hope it may not be less acceptable to you for that it has been formerly proposed, since I can assure you no eye ever saw the draft except his late Majesty and the Earl of Portland, and the originals were always in my own hand, till my Lord Nottingham's fury forced me to burn them with other papers to keep

and the should be contrar fall; he

them out of his hands. They are here rough and indigested, but if you approve any of them in the gross I shall single it out to put in a dress more suitable for your service. Meantime I shall go on to lay the remaining schemes before you.' (Harley Papers, vol. iii. p. 59.)

Reading these remarkable letters, noting that they occur before the preliminaries of peace were signed and before the Company began its work, remembering how much reliance Harley placed on De Foe's judgement, his own want of imagination and initiative, it is impossible to doubt that the author of the South Sea scheme was not only the drudging parliamentary statesman, but also the imaginative and persistent writer who has lived in the memories of his countrymen not as a politician or a financier, but as the author of the Journal of the Great Plague and of that romance which has still its many readers at the present day.

The head of the administration by which the commercial and the political results of the Treaty of Utrecht were obtained should have been by it placed in an impregnable position. On the contrary, the conclusion of the peace was the beginning of Harley's fall; he had reached the summit of his power after Guiscard's assault in 1711. Peace concluded left Harley and Bolingbroke face to face with the future. The cardinal object of their policy-in attaining which there had at least on one occasion been a serious dispute—which served as a bond was gone, and the field of domestic politics was left free for the most passionate conflicts. Harley was a moderate Whig by conviction and temperament, Bolingbroke was a Tory from ambition and policy. Thus, apart from their peculiar personal positions, a conflict between the two men was now inevitable. Again, Bolingbroke, abler, stronger, more ambitious than Harley, was serving under him—it was impossible for him to continue a subordinate. Yet Harley had attained the chief place; though not a man consumed by ambition, he still loved political business, he had a good deal of stubborn pride, and no man will willingly and quietly sink into the second place. A struggle for supremacy was therefore certain. Boling broke up to this time had no active personal dislike of Harley. I began, indeed, in my 'heart,' he says, speaking of the events of 1712 many years afterwards, 'to renounce the friendship which till that . time I had preserved inviolable for Oxford. But he had a contempt for him which grew to the bitterest detestation, and the Lord Treasurer had to make way. In each of the following letters, written in 1713, there is visible impatience struggling with something of an attempt not to break into active hostility. But Harley, after the manner of a modern personage, might very well have said 'J'y suis, j'y reste.' He was not the man to make a brilliant defence of his position, neither was he one to retire without being pushed from his place. The first of these two letters is written on December 3, 1713, from Windsor Castle :

*I am sorry there is little show of government when the difficulties we have to struggle with require that all the powers of it should be exerted. I can truly say I am ready to contribute all the little in my sphere whenever your commands direct me. The only reason why I did not attend you this week was the belief that you intended to be here to-day, and therefore, pray my Lord, do not once entertain a thought that I give myself airs, or have the least lukewarmness. I see a man bere every night that does the former with a witness. The pigmy stretches and struts, and fancies hiniself a giant.* I hope you will be satisfied when I see you that I have not been idle. (Harley Papers, vol. iii. p. 369.) The next is from Whitehall, on December 17:—

'Though my head aches with writing all day, I cannot, however, leave my office till I have sent you the enclosed. I have given the Queen an account of their contents, and have taken that occasion to insinuate the danger of letting things run any further on in Ireland, I have expressed myself warmly but in general terms, and hope I have not done amiss. I see an opportunity of giving new strength, new spirit to your administration, and of cementing a firmer union between us, and between us and those who must support us. If you go to Windsor alone on Saturday, I'll talk to you on the subject. If I am wrong you will not lose much time in a coach on the road. Believe me for once, what I always am, and have been to you, sincere, however I may have been too warm and, your Lordship, allow the expression, too jealous.' (Harley Papers, vol. iii. p. 373.)

The treaty of commerce between Great Britain and France was one of the first causes of difference. This engagement was based on Free Trade principles; the eighth and ninth articles of the Treaty provided that English and French should enjoy the same commercial privileges as to duties and customs as the most favoured nation; that the English should repeal all prohibitions of French goods which had been imposed since 1664, and that no French goods imported into England should pay higher duties than similar goods imported from any other European country ; on the other hand, the French were to repeal all prohibitions of English goods since 1664.


* Dartmouth.

This scheme was far too bold and farseeing, too far in advance of public opinion, to have been evolved by Harley. Bolingbroke, with his philosophic turn of mind, his large views, his cynical contempt for public opinion, was its originator. On June 18 the treaty was lost by a majority of nine votes. The reason of the majority was, wrote Bolingbroke to Lord Strafford, that there had been • during two or three days' uncertainty an opinion spread

that the Lord Treasurer gave up the point. It is more probable that Harley, aware of the public and commercial dislike of the treaty, was secretly assisting its enemies. At that very time he was in close confidence with Halifax, • the founder of the financial system of the Revolution.' It would be entirely in accord with Harley's financial opinions to object to his masterful colleague's advanced views and to have thwarted them by underhand means.*

But the difference between the aims of the Lord Treasurer and of the Secretary of State were so fundamental and so marked—the one a Whig, and the other a Tory—that agreement was impossible. It was inevitable that the weaker must be supplanted by the stronger. But politicians have to be got rid of by political means, and Bolingbroke in 1714 decided upon a measure agreeable to the most bigoted Tories by which to strengthen himself with his party. He introduced the Schism Bill in May 1714, which was to prevent schoolmasters from carrying on their occupation unless they had taken the sacrament. It was a blow aimed at the Dissenters, a measure highly gratifying to the High Churchmen and extreme Tories, but distinctly harmful to the welfare of the nation. It placed Harley in a dilemma. He had never sympathised with the Church movement, and he was sincerely anxious to promote peace and goodwill in England. The measure was one in

* The following letter, written on May 28 by Halifax to Harley, may refer to this subject, since the first debate on the Bill took place on May 14. On the other hand the letter closely follows some which refer to securing the Protestant succession :

'I should be wanting to the confidence and favour your Lordship showed me in your last letter, if I did not acquaint you that I have so far discoursed some of my friends as to be able to assure you that your Lordship may depend upon their being ready to concur with your Lordship, if you think fit to oppose the wild proceeding with which we are threatened. I am ready to attend your Lordship at St. James's, or any where else you shall appoint, if you really think I can serve you, and desire I should. (Harley Papers, vol. iii. p. 292.)

« PreviousContinue »