Слике страница
PDF
ePub

In the coalition ministry, 1783, Sheridan and Richard Burke were Secretaries to the Treasury.

The defeat of the India Bill, the annihilation of the coalition ministry, and the general election of 1784 followed. No less than 160 followers of the “coalition” lost their seats. It was a poor consolation to be called “Fox's Martyrs.”

Pitt's administration was now in a state of perfect security, and apparently no topic was likely to come on the political stage either to excite party spirit, or to give an opportunity for political eloquence. But a subject now arose, combining the importance of a national question with the directness of a personal attack. The impeachment of Warren Hastings afforded Sheridan one of the opportunities rarely given by fortune, still more rarely taken advantage of by genius. For several years Edmund Burke had been working on the Indian question, but although his speeches and essays remain as monuments of eloquence and learning, they were but coldly received. One of his greatest speeches is that on the debts of the Nabob of Arcot; yet Pitt and Grenville, having heard it, discussed whether it needed a reply, and decided that it did not. While conducted mainly by Edmund Burke the prosecution languished, and apparently Warren Hastings was to retire with the honours of the contest. But marvellous was the power of Sheridan's oratory-one speech changed everything. On the 7th of February, 1787, he delivered in the House of Commons the speech on the Begum Princesses of Oude. Its effect upon the

audience had no parallel in history. Burke declared it to be “the most astonishing effort of eloquence, argument, and wit united, of which there was any record or tradition.” Fox said, “all that he had ever heard, all that he had ever read, when compared with it, dwindled into nothing, and vanished like vapour before the sun.” Pitt acknowledged “that it surpassed all the eloquence of ancient and modern times, and possessed everything that genius or art could furnish to agitate and control the human mind.” There is no report of this speech. Sheridan was asked to try and furnish one, but he contented himself with leaving to imagination the task of justifying the eulogies he obtained. Sheridan's second great speech, as manager of the impeachment, was delivered in Westminster Hall, and lasted four days. I do not attempt to give any passages of the speech, but I repeat Burke's eulogium “Of all the various species of oratory, of every kind of eloquence that had been heard, either in ancient or modern times, whatever the acuteness of the Bar, the dignity of the Senate, or the morality of the Pulpit could furnish, had not been equal to what that House had that day heard in Westminster Hall.” When Sheridan delivered this speech he was thirty-six years of age. The short-hand report of this second speech is in existence, and Moore has quoted many passages from it. We have no time to read them to-day, nor do I think it possible for a verbatim report of a successful speech to read well. In speaking there must be repetition—there must be the connecting links of thought—there must be many superfluities, which, at the moment they are heard, assist the orator, and are the delight of the audience. But these very repetitions annoy the reader. For reading, the style of Sallust or of Tacitus is the best. The orator must be content with fame, that rests upon little that can be tested by posterity. Words fresh from the brain, spoken with the impress of thought upon them, delight the audience, but often read cold, tame, and laboured. Sheridan's fortunes culminated to the highest point this year. He was acknowledged to be the first orator of the age. Pecuniary difficulties had not yet appeared prominently. He had a happy home. He was loved by all within his own circle, and enjoyed the best London society.

The consequences of the great American Revolution now began to appear. The French Revolution was now commencing. Old institutions were crumbling into dust. The great problems of the natural rights of man seemed about to be solved. A career open to talent was demanded by the unemployed and the ambitious. Liberty of action, equality of rights, fraternity of nations, became the watchwords of the struggle on the one side. Nor in our day is the struggle over. But the most distinguished advocate on the popular side, was now to leave the popular side for ever; and Edmund Burke turned against the French Revolution the whole force of his grand intellect. Burke's writings from this time contradict the whole of his former life, and he became in politics as violent a Tory as he had been

hitherto a Whig. It was during the session of 1790 that Burke in the House of Commons first publicly began to secede from his party. In a discussion on the Army Estimates he declared, that so strongly opposed was he to any—the least-tendency towards the means of introducing a democracy like that of the French, as well as to the end itself, that if any friend of his could concur in such measures, he would abandon his best friends and join with his worst enemies to oppose either the means or the end. Fox replied with moderation. He said he was averse to all extremes, and concluded by the memorable compliment to Burke, that if he were to put all the political information he had gained from books, from science, and from knowledge of the world on the one side, and the improvement which he had derived from his Right Honourable Friend's instruction and conversation on the other, he would be at a loss to decide to which to give the preference. The scene would have passed over had not Sheridan declared his difference with Burke. He conceived the French Revolution to be as just as the English Revolution had been. He defended the national Assembly. He could not understand the charge of their having overthrown the laws, the justice, and the revenues of the country. Their laws, said Sheridan, were capricious despotism—their justice, the partial adjudications of venal magistrates—their revenues were national bankruptcy. Edmund Burke retorted angrily and declared, that he and Sheridan were henceforth separated in politics. In May, 1791,

the celebrated scene occurred in the House when Burke declared his friendship with Fox was at an end for ever.

The first real trouble of life was now to fall upon Sheridan. Debts and difficulties did not make him unhappy. I do not think the rupture with Edmund Burke affected him much. Sheridan had used desperate language to Burke, and had called him a deserter and spy. But in the year 1792, Mrs. Sheridan died of consumption, in the 38th year of her age. By all contemporaneous accounts, never was there a more beautiful and accomplished person. But the devotion with which she was regarded by her sisters and by her husband's own family, the Sheridans and the Le Fanus in Dublin, showed that her fascination was of that best kind which, like charity, begins at home. The letters between her and Mrs. Le Fanu are a most charming record of true friendship. With earnest sympathy she followed her husband through his various pursuits. Love attended Genius as a servant. A wife of a Dramatist and Manager-she calculated the receipts of the house--assisted in adapting the music of the operas --read over the plays sent in for the stage. Volumes of her handwriting have remained to attest the labour with which she assisted in copying papers, pamphlets, extracts, all the miscellaneous details from which the speeches of the Orator were composed. The affectionate care with which she watched over her children finishes this charming picture of

« ПретходнаНастави »