Historical Outline of Restoration and 18th-Century British Literature * * * Alok Yadav * *

Walpole ministry (1722-42)

[¶1] With the death of Sunderland in April 1722, Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745; created first earl of Orford in 1742) assumed the functions of a "prime minister" as First Lord of the Treasury, with Harrington and Newcastle as the two Secretaries of State, and Hardwicke as Lord Chancellor. Walpole's ministry of 22 years was of extraordinary duration by contemporary norms; his longetivity in power was sustained by a variety of practices of buying off the allegiance of Members of Parliament, through his control of patronage in government offices and perks. This led to recurrent charges of "corruption" (indeed, of having "reduced corruption to a system"). Eventually, there emerged a "Patriot" opposition to the "rule" of this minister (displacing the authority of the king), a "rule" characterized as "Robinocracy" by Walpole's opponents. Walpole was supported by a chorus of Court Whigs and placemen; the "Patriot" opposition consisted of Tories, "country" or "old" Whigs, and others, less ideologically motivated and more eager simply to partake of the spoils of office. Many literary writers--Henry Fielding and Alexander Pope among them--aligned themselves with the "Patriot" opposition to Walpole, though Walpole himself also had a stable of paid propagandists for the ministry's cause. Daniel Defoe served in this capacity, as he had earlier for the Tory ministry of Robert Harley, earl of Oxford.

[¶2] In foreign affairs, Walpole pursued a "pacific" policy, relying on alliances to maintain a balance of power rather than plunging the country into wars with its enemies. He was driven by a fiscal concern to keep down the expenses of war and of preparations for war, but this often put him out of step with the popular clamor for war. (Since the war debts were financed by a land tax, the "popular" classes and merchants and financiers--who did not own a lot of landed property--were less directly affected by the financial costs of war than were the landed gentry; Walpole's policy sought to address the interests of landed proprietors first and foremost.) Later in the 18th century, Walpole's fiscal conservatism was praised by men such as Adam Smith, but for many of his contemporaries Walpole was a magnet for abuse and villification. This was especially apparent in the accusations of pusillanimity directed against Walpole for his failure to retaliate aggressively against Spanish depredations on British shipping and smuggling to the Spanish colonies--until he was finally forced to declare war on Spain on 19 October 1739 (the War of Jenkins' Ear).

[¶3] For many of his contemporaries, Walpole's wallowing in the wealth that his office brought him was much more palpable than any efforts to keep the government's finances in order: "his ostentatious display of suburban sophistication in Chelsea and aristocratic opulence at Houghton provoked much critical comment" (Langford 1989: 21). This was especially objectionable to contemporaries because Walpole was a parvenu rather than a born aristocrat: "He was to be the only Hanoverian Prime Minister before Addington in 1801 who did not inherit blue blood from either his father or his mother" (Langford 1989: 34). So, too, Walpole was derided as the "Skreenmaster" (and depicted as a screen in graphic satires) from the time of his role in the South Sea Bubble scandal, "when he had shielded the most highly placed villains from parliamentary or judicial retribution, thereby preserving the court of George I from possible ruin, and advancing his own political career" (Langford 1989: 22); his subsequent actions protecting political supporters who were guilty of abuses of various kinds reinforced the sense of the appropriateness of this epithet, and the low opinion of his personal morality. A particularly low point was reached in 1729-30 when Colonel Francis Charteris, a friend of Walpole, was given a royal pardon after having been convicted for raping a housemaid.

[¶4] A number of satires--literary and graphic--were produced in critique of Walpole. Graphic satires included William Rayner's Robin's Reign (1731) and the anonymous Robin's Progress (1735). John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (1728) was received as a specific critique of Walpole himself, whether or not it was so intended. "The roll call of criminals in Act I included 'Robin of Bagshot, alias Gorgon, alias Bluff Bob, alias Carbuncle, alias Bob Booty'; the celebrated scene in which the partners in crime, Peachum and his nominal goaler Lockit, grew to suspect and finally quarrel with each other, was treated as a hit at Walpole's deteriorating relationship with Townshend; and the repeated references to the 'Great Man' in association with unsavoury characters of the criminal underworld was inevitably taken to have a political connotation" (Langford 1989: 23). Henry Fielding's satiric attack on Walpole in Jonathan Wild did not appear till 1743, the year after Walpole's fall from power, but his earlier criticisms in his dramatic revue, the Historical Register for the Year 1736, led to the enactment of the Stage Licensing Act of 1737. The most sustained critique of Walpole's ministry was provided by The Craftsman, an opposition periodical established in 1726 by Lord Bolingbroke and William Pulteney. Opposition writers denounced Walpole through various epithets ("Leviathan," "Great Man") and through allusions to historical figures, "favorites" who perniciously exercised great power, such as Cardinal Wolsey (in the reign of Henry VIII) and Sejanus (in the reign of Tiberius) (see C. B. Ricks, "Wolsey in the Vanity of Human Wishes." Modern Language Notes 73 [1958]: 563-68).

[¶5] The greatest crisis of Walpole's ministry, before its actual demise, was the Excise Crisis of 1733, induced by Walpole's desire to shift the financial burden away from the land tax and onto taxes on consumption. Despite the appeal of this measure to the self-interest of the propertied class, Walpole miscalculated the strength of popular opposition to the scheme and was ultimately forced to withdraw the proposal. His ministry suffered losses in the general election of 1734, though he retained his majority, and he was subsequently always on the defensive, having lost his dominant hold on the dynamics of the workings of the political nation. He resigned on 11 February 1741/2.


Primary Texts

Ralph, James. A Critical History of the Administration of Sir Robert Walpole. London, 1743.

Secondary Works

Beasley, Jerry. "Portraits of a Monster: Robert Walpole and Early English Prose Fiction." Eighteenth-Century Studies 14 (1981): 406-31.

Dickinson, H. T. Walpole and the Whig Supremacy. London, 1973.

Gerrard, Christine. The Patriot Opposition to Walpole: Politics, Poetry, and National Myth, 1725-1742. 1994.

Goldgar, Bertrand A. Walpole and the Wits: The Relations between Politics and Literature, 1722-1742. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1976.

Goldsmith, M. M. "Faction Detected: Ideological Consequences of Robert Walpole's Decline and Fall." History 64 (1979): 1-19.

Percival, Milton. Political Ballads Illustrating the Administration of Sir Robert Walpole. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1916.

Plumb, J. H. Sir Robert Walpole: The Making of a Statesman. London, 1956.

Plumb, J. H. Sir Robert Walpole: The King's Minister. London, 1960.

Rogers, Nicholas. "Resistance to Oligarchy: the City Opposition to Walpole and His Successors, 1725-47." London in the Age of Reform. Ed. J. Stevenson. Oxford, 1977. 1-20.

Target, Simon. "Government and Ideology during the Age of Whig Supremacy: The Political Argument of Sir Robert Walpole's Newspaper Propagandists." Historical Journal 37 (1994): 289-317.

Williams, Basil. "The Foreign Policy of England under Walpole." English Historical Review 15 (1900): 251-77, 479-95, 665-96; 16 (1901): 67-84, 303-28, 439-52.

[revised 26 May 2008]