Sir Robert Walpole - Dangerous Seats by Eugene L. Wolfe
Imperfect Political Tranquilizer of Sir Robert Walpole
The years following the 1688 Glorious Revolution saw such intense competition between parliamentary factions that the period came to be called the era of ‘the rage of party.’ Both the Lords and the Commons repeatedly felt compelled to prevent violence and primarily duels from breaking out among their members. The political temperature began to fall with the Hanoverian Succession of 1714, partly because Tory support for a Jacobite rebellion led to the party’s exclusion from ministerial office for half a century. But credit also is due to Sir Robert Walpole, Britain’s first Prime Minister, who became the longest to hold that post in large part because of a knack for avoiding wars and other political issues liable to generate great passions. So, it is perhaps not a little ironic that Sir Robert was tied to two of the most significant episodes of parliamentary violence of George I’s reign.
The first incident came in 1733, a bit more than halfway into Walpole’s almost 21-year tenure as premier. Seeking to reduce the tax on land, he pushed for an excise on tobacco. This proved to be a rare political miscalculation, arousing considerable public antipathy. For one thing, the ‘optics’ of the legislation were awkward: a levy that would fall disproportionately on the poor was being used to reduce a tax paid mainly by the rich. For another, the excise would hurt powerful vested interests, particularly traders used to evading (fraudulently) customs duties. Crowds began to surround parliament as it discussed the legislation, support for which began to dwindle. Eventually, Walpole felt compelled to abandon the bill in order to avoid an embarrassing defeat.
It was at this point that the excitement really began. Walking through the Commons lobby shortly thereafter with a few other MPs, Walpole was ‘surrounded by a clamorous mob, not of rabble but of well-dressed people.’ Some of them seized his cloak, the collar of which was so tightly fastened that the prime minister was nearly strangled. Sir Robert was saved when a colleague, Henry Pelham, pushed him into a passageway and, standing at its entrance with his sword drawn, asked the assailants, ‘Now, gentlemen, who will be the first to fall?’ The mob quietly dispersed.
Typically, the prime minister managed to turn what had been a relatively minor, if for him frightening, scuffle to his political advantage. Claiming barely to have escaped assassination, Walpole secured a parliamentary resolution against assaulting, insulting or menacing MPs, a measure even his most strident critics felt unable to oppose. He went on to secure the removal of some courtiers who had supported his opponents.
This talent for turning defeat into something like victory repeatedly frustrated and angered Walpole’s opponents, even more so because he had few scruples about testing his maxim that ‘every man has his price.’ Indeed, the rancor generated by his methods was such that they were implicated in an almost fatal parliamentary duel more than a year after the end of his premiership.
In the House of Commons in March 1743 William Chetwynd told Horatio Walpole that both he and his elder brother should be hanged for their actions while in power. This resulted in the MPs exchanging ‘hot words’ behind the Speaker’s chair. Soon Chetwynd led Horatio into the lobby to fight. The younger Walpole sought to avoid combat in such a public place, but his antagonist insisted. Both drew their swords at the bottom of the stairs. In short order, Walpole had backed Chetwynd against a post, ‘and might have run him through had not a clerk arrived to beat down their swords.’ Chetwynd, slightly wounded, then departed in search of a surgeon while Walpole returned to the Commons to speak in debate. The Speaker, evidently worried about a recurrence, subsequently sought assurances from both MPs that they would pursue the matter no further. This would mark the closest MPs came to killing each other, inside the House of Commons at least. But parliamentary duels would continue for another century.
Eugene L. Wolfe's book Dangerous Seats: Parliamentary Violence in the United Kingdom is available for purchase now.