The Corrupt Wisdom of Robert Walpole

Robert_Walpole,_1st_Earl_of_Orford_by_Arthur_Pond
Robert Walpole, sporting some of the most intense eyebrows in history. Painting by Arthur Pond

Just 45 when the scandal broke, Robert Walpole had warned against the whole idea of the company in the first place and had landed in prison in 1712 on corruption charges for his trouble. Even if they were a little trumped up, Walpole was hardly a saint himself. Yet “In that corrupt age only through corruption could wisdom rule.”[1] He had even invested in the South Sea Company, never one to let a minor prison sentence get in the way of making a literal 1,000% profit on his own shares when he sold at peak bubble. But more importantly he used his reputation as a defender of the people to publicly call for justice, even as he carefully worked with Blunt and the other members of the South Sea Company’s inner circle to ensure only certain politically convenient victims were caught in the blast radius. When the ledger of the South Sea Trading Company’s bookkeeper, Robert Knight, threatened to expose the full scale of the company’s bribery, Walpole conveniently arranged for Knight to disappear. Knight hopped ship to the Spanish Netherlands, then from there orchestrated Knight’s escape from Austrian custody when he was later apprehended. As the king himself would have been caught up in the scandal, this earned Walpole the support of some very powerful friends. Walpole was so successful at the role he was sometimes referred to as the cabinet’s Screenmaster-General.[2]

Job done, inconvenient friends, and very convenient enemies jailed or exiled, Walpole now settled into his new role as First Lord of the Treasury in 1721. Fond of the high life, Walpole had an appetite for food, drink, women, fine paintings, women, mansions, women[3], and most especially power. He had never finished his education and a brief flirtation with the clergy had only put him off the notion of God entirely. As his confidante the Queen Caroline lay dying he suggested she call in the Archbishop of Canterbury to administer last rites, in order to “satisfy all the wise and good fools, who will call us atheists if we don’t pretend to be as great fools as they are”.[4]

Walpole's_reign2
One of many satirical cartoons ragging on Walpole’s government. Two decades is a long time in power, and the press often soured or bit back at Walpole for his control. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

And yet, “he knew mankind, not their writings; he consulted their interests, not their systems”.[5] Often, “interests” meant bribes, and Walpole spent aggressively buying off anyone who resisted his charms of persuasion or coercion, or just to ensure that the press kept saying what he wanted it to say. He also benefited from the position of his brother in law, Charles Townshend, serving as the Secretary of State. Foreign and financial portfolios well in hand, Walpole proceeded to first dismantle then utterly destroy his opposition in the 1720’s. Relying on personal relationships, his own intelligence and charisma, and above all his strong relationships with both Georges I and II along with Queen Caroline, Walpole never gave the impression of ruling by any notion of popular consent or legitimate governance. Yet so successfully had he worked the crisis and so intimately did he understand the levers of power that Walpole would manage to run Great Britain until 1742, a legacy so enduring he is often considered Britain’s first Prime Minister. Yet when he fell, he would owe it as much as his rise to power to the South Sea Company’s machinations; a final troublesome seed planted in bad faith that reaped even Walpole when harvest time came at last.

[1] Durant(s). WW (A), fanboying a little hard on Walpole. In: (1944) The Story of Civilization Book IX: The Age of Voltaire. Simon & Schuster.

[2] Incidentally, the author’s name when he’s moonlighting as a nightclub dj.

[3] “When he ceased to talk politics…he could talk of nothing but women, and he dilated on his favorite theme with a freedom which shocked even that plain-spoken generation.” Durant 1944

[4] Durant 1944

[5] Ibid.

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