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A History of the Four Georges and of William IV, V

341 Spencer Perceval was an able lawyer


England,

that had lost in three months Nelson and Pitt, was to lose a third great man in only eight months more. Pitt's body lay in Westminster; Pitt's Ministry was dissipated into air; Pitt's great opponent was called to the office for the last time, and for a very short time. Fox, as we are told by his biographer, Lord Russell, never felt personal enmity to Pitt. He said, with generous truth, that he never gave a vote with more satisfaction than his vote in support of the motion to pay Pitt's debts and to settle pensions on his nieces. He could not and did not indorse the proposal to confer honor on the memory of Mr. Pitt {340} as an "excellent statesman." He was ready to take office in the Ministry of All the Talents that Lord Grenville gathered together. He became Foreign Secretary and Leader of the House of Commons.

Fox, in office as out of office, had three great questions closely at heart: the treatment of Catholics, peace with France, and the Slave Trade. But Fox in office was obliged to face and recognize the difficulties, the solution of these questions. He admitted, reluctantly, the inadvisability of pressing the Catholic claims at a time when such pressure would prove destructive alike to the claims and to the Ministry that maintained them. He admitted, reluctantly, that the prospect of peace with France was very far from hopeful. He still dreamed of a speedy abolition of the Slave Trade, and to this end he attended Parliament too

persistently in defiance of the warnings of his failing health. He was tapped for dropsy; his condition grew worse; in the evening of September 13, 1806, he died. He was the greatest liberal of his age; the greatest friend of liberty. The Irish poet bade the Irish banshee wail for him on whose burning tongue, truth, peace, and freedom hung.

Fox was not long dead when the Ministry of All the Talents found itself in direct collision with its royal master. It had ventured to suggest that it should be permitted to Catholics and to Dissenters to serve the King and the country in the Army and Navy. This small concession was too vast for the bigotry of George. He would have none of it, and the obsequious Ministry consented to abandon the measure. This was not enough for George. He wanted to extract from the Ministry a formal promise in writing that it would never submit to the sovereign any measure that involved, or was in any way connected with, concessions to the Catholics. The Ministry was not obsequious to that ignoble degree. It refused to bind itself by any such degrading pledge; and, in consequence, it was turned out of office, and the Duke of Portland and Mr. Perceval reigned in its stead. The Ministry of All the Talents had lived neither a long nor a useful life.

{341}

Spencer Perceval was an able lawyer, a dexterous debater, a skilful Parliamentarian. He was privately an excellent man, with an excellence that the irony of Sydney Smith has made immortal. He was not quite the man to sit in the Siege Perilous that had been occupied in turn by Pitt and Fox. He held his office under difficult conditions. In 1810 the King, whose ailing mind was unhinged by the death of his daughter Amelia, lost his reason irreparably. Perceval had to fight the question of the Regency with a brilliant Opposition and a bitterly hostile Prince of Wales. He succeeded, in the January of 1811, in carrying his Regency Bill on the lines of the measure proposed in 1788. In May, 1811, he was shot dead, in the Lobby of the House of Commons, by a madman named John Bellingham, who had some crazy grievance against the Government.

The years from the January of 1811 to the January of 1820 are technically the last nine years of the reign of George the Third; they are practically the first nine years of the reign of George the Fourth. The nine years of the Regency were momentous years in the history of England. The mighty figure of Napoleon, whose shadow, creeping over the map of Europe, had darkened and shortened the life of Pitt, was still an abiding menace to England when the Prince of Wales became Regent. But England, that had lost so much in her struggle with the Corsican conqueror, who had now no Nelson to oppose to him on the high seas, and no Pitt to oppose to him in the council chamber, found herself armed against his triumphs in the person of a great soldier.


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