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Wellington and the results of Catholic Emancipation

Taken from The Life of Field-Marshall Arthur, Duke of Wellington by Charles Duke Yonge (London, 1860), p. 214 ff.

[214] But in the House of Commons an attack was made upon the Duke's policy, and that too on a matter affecting him personally, which it was much harder satisfactorily to repel. He had been greatly deceived when he affirmed that his duel with Lord Winchilsea had quelled hostility or stifled calumny. He was equally deceived in thinking that the satisfaction of the Irish Roman Catholics at the relief which he had procured for them would be sufficient to bring them back to the paths of order and tranquillity. On the contrary, O'Connell himself, who, while urging the concession, had been the loudest in proclaiming the gratitude which they would feel for it, the moment it was granted turned with redoubled animosity upon those who had granted it, heaping upon them personally the most unmeasured abuse: the Duke was a "stunted corporal," Peel "a bigot"; both were men whom no one could trust, as "having been false to their own party, and therefore incapable of being true to any"; while the Protestant adherents of the Government were "a pack of bloodhounds," all connection with whom was to be washed off as a foul stain by every friend of Ireland: he proclaimed openly that the ministers [215] had yielded, not to reason but to fear; that no obedience whatever should be paid to that clause in the Relief Bill, which enjoined the suppression of the monastic orders, and that the Government would not dare to enforce it. He lifted up his voice for a repeal of the Union with a louder cry than he had ever demanded emancipation, and before three months had passed succeeded in inflaming the evil passions of the different religious sects in his country to such a height, that on the next anniversary of the battle of the Boyne, within three months after the passing of the Relief Bill, some of the most violent and blood-stained faction-fights took place that had disgraced Ireland for many years.

The leaders of the Orange Society were almost, as culpable, though not so mischievous. They looked upon themselves as the especial champions of Protestant ascendancy, and openly accused the Duke of such " unbounded ambition'' as to aspire to seize the throne on the next vacancy; actually going so far as to present an address to George IV, conjuring him to open his eyes to the designing treachery of his minister, which the new police lately established was designed and prepared to assist. But in mere violent personal abuse some of the ultra-Tory papers in England surpassed all rivalry; -and one, the Morning Journal, in the course of the summer of 1829, had published a series of articles assailing the Government as a body, and the Duke and the Lord Chancellor by name, on account of their conduct on the Roman Catholic question. The accusation made against Lord Lyndhurst was one which a judge could not well pass over, being no less than a charge that he had [216] prostituted his high position so far as to sell for large sums the appointment to important offices in his gift; but the reproaches levelled at the Duke were confined to virulent language, without any attempt being made to justify it by facts. He was called " an imperious Minister," " an ambitious Minister," "a dangerous Minister;" it was said that in carrying the Relief Bill he had been guilty " either of the grossest treachery, or else of the most arrant cowardice, or else of treachery, cowardice, and artifice united." He was described as a man of " despicable cant and affected moderation;" as "destitute of mercy, compassion, and of those more kindly and tender sympathies which distinguish the heart of a man from that of a proud dictator and tyrant." It was asserted also that his measures had made "the King himself so unpopular that his Majesty dared not show himself in public, or even go to the theatre;" and that the King was so well aware of the feelings with which he was regarded in consequence of those measures, that "he had lately evinced more than even a marked coldness to the Duke."

It might have been thought that if there had ever lived any one who could afford to laugh at charges of treachery, artifice, and cowardice, it would have been a soldier and statesman who had already spent upwards of forty years in doing loyal service to his Sovereign and his country, whose unswerving love of candour and truth had extorted admiration and confidence even from those who had never admired or even understood truth and candour before; and who had established the superiority of his nation over the whole world in a hundred battles. But Wellington's irritability was not yet allayed; perhaps it was in some degree increased by the disappointment which the disturbances in Ireland must have [217] caused him; and in an evil hour he directed Sir James Scarlett, the Attorney-General, to prosecute Mr. Alexander, the proprietor of the Morning Journal, for libels upon himself, the Government, and the King; upon the last mentioned, because it was argued that " to represent the feelings or opinions of his Majesty as under the coercion of his ministers tended to degrade him, and to bring his Government into contempt." It may be doubted whether the eloquence of any advocate could now persuade any jury to call the statements objected to libels; but Scarlett was unrivalled in the conduct of a case and in the management of juries, and he obtained a verdict which (in spite of a strongly-pronounced recommendation of the defendant to the mercy of the court in consideration of the fact that the articles in question had been written at a time of unprecedented agitation) was followed by a sentence upon Mr. Alexander of a year's imprisonment, and of a fine of a hundred pounds, while he was further obliged to find heavy security for his good behaviour for three years.

At the beginning of March these prosecutions were brought under the notice of the House of Commons by Sir C. Wetherell, whose indignation was no doubt sharpened by the fact that, in consequence of his opposition to the Emancipation Bill, he bad been deprived of the office of Attorney-General to make way for Scarlett. His zeal was further sharpened by the friendship with which he was regarded by the Duke of Cumberland, whose chaplain was avowed to be the author of one of the libels complained of, but who, nevertheless, was passed over in the prosecution, the framers of which, by a very unusual stretch of authority, preferred attacking the publisher to proceeding against the author. Though Sir Charles's language was strong, he yet carried the House with him [218] when he denounced the prosecutions as " partial, unfair, oppressive; as "a vexatious, a tyrannical, an unjust proceeding;" compared them to the dealings of the Star-Chamber, or to the traditionary stories of the timid vengeance of Tiberius. It is sad to think that the Duke of Wellington should, in an hour unworthy of himself, have given ground for the application of such language to his conduct, and should have disarmed his friends of any adequate reply. Who could deny Sir Charles's assertion that, while the whole nation acknowledged the boundless gratitude which they owed to him for his warlike achievements, they had also a right when he became a minister to separate the civilian from the soldier, to speak of him as a minister, and, looking on him in that light, to animadvert upon his actions as open to legitimate criticism? Sir Charles denied that the expressions complained of in the articles of the Morning Journal were libellous. Most of them, in fact, he affirmed to be true; arguing that no one could rise to be a minister in such a country as ours who was not ambitious, and that every one who was ambitious was necessarily dangerous. He did not deny that much of Mr. Alexander's language was coarse, vulgar, reprehensible, for which he might fitly have been called to the bar of the House, and reprimanded; but he maintained — supporting his arguments by a reference to cases in which former ministers, such as Canning, had been attacked in violent language—that to bring its utterer to a criminal bar was almost unprecedented, and utterly unjustifiable. The reply of the Attorney-General was confined chiefly to his own personal defence in respect of the manner in which he, as a lawyer, had conducted the [219] prosecutions; and Peel, to whose lot it fell to justify the prosecutions themselves, made a most feeble defence relying chiefly on the argument that, as one of the libels was stated to have proceeded from a dependent of a royal duke, that circumstance rendered it more imperative than it otherwise might have been to show that it could be justified neither in laet nor in law.Had it proceeded from any person in a less conspicuous situation, he admitted that he himself should not have been inclined to solicit the protection of a court of law.

So unpopular have Government prosecutions of the press at all times been that there was no event of the Duke's administration which made him more unpopular; and certainly, if we look at one portion of the alleged libels, which were contemptible from their virulenl coarseness of language, as well as from the intrinsic absurdity of the charges which they alleged, and at the vague generalities of the remainder, which were couched in terms so equivocal as not necessarily to convey any reproach at all, it is impossible to avoid feeling deep regret that the Duke on this occasion departed from his wonted equanimity, and by his ill-judged prosecution of a vulgar enemy invested him with the honourable appearance of a martyr, when his own conduct, if passed over with a wise and becoming disdain, would have stamped him as a foul-mouthed railer, beneath punishment only because he was beneath notice.


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