The era of independence which we have desired to mark distinctly to the reader's mind, may be said to terminate in 1797, with the hopeless secession of Grattan and his friends from Parliament. Did the events within and without the House justify that extreme measure? We shall proceed to describe them as they arose, leaving the decision of the question to the judgment of the reader.
The session of 1793, which extended into July, was, besides the Catholic Relief Bill, productive of other important results. Under the plea of the spread of French principles, and the widespread organization of seditious associations--a plea not wanting in evidence--an Arms Act was introduced and carried, prohibiting the importation of arms and gunpowder, and authorizing domiciliary visits, at any hour of the night or day, in search of such arms. Within a month from the passage of this bill, bravely but vainly opposed by Lord Edward Fitzgerald, and the opposition generally, the surviving Volunteer corps, in Dublin and its vicinity, were disbanded, their arms, artillery, and ammunition taken possession of either by force or negotiation, and the very wreck of that once powerful patriot army swept away. In its stead, by nearly the same majority, the militia were increased to 16,000 men, and the regulars from 12,000 to 17,000--thus placing at the absolute control of the Commander-in-Chief, and the chiefs of the oligarchy, a standing army of 33,000 men. At the same period, Lord Clare (he had been made an earl in 1792), introduced his Convention Act, against the assemblage in convention of delegates purporting to represent the people. With Grattan only 27 of the Commons divided against this measure, well characterized as "the boldest step that ever yet was made to introduce military government." "If this bill had been law," Grattan added, "the independence of the Irish Parliament, the emancipation of the Catholics, and even the English revolution of 1688, could never have taken place!" The teller in favour of the Convention Act was Major Wellesley, member for Trim, twenty years later--Duke of Wellington! It became and still remains the law of Ireland.
Against this reactionary legislation we must credit the session of '93, besides the Catholic Relief Bill and the East India Trade Bill, with Mr. Grattan's Barren Lands Bill, exempting all newly reclaimed lands from the payment of tithes for a period of seven years; Mr. Forbes's Pension Bill, limiting the pension list to 80,000 pounds sterling per annum, and fixing the permanent civil list at 250,000 pounds per annum; and the excellent measure of the same invaluable member, excluding from Parliament all persons holding offices of profit under the crown, except the usual ministerial officers, and those employed in the revenue service. This last salvo was forced into the bill by the oligarchical faction, for whose junior branches the revenue had long been a fruitful source of provision.
Parliament met next, on the 21st of January, '94, and held a short two-months' session. The most remarkable incidents of these two months were the rejection of Mr. George Ponsonby's annual motion for parliamentary reform, and the striking position taken by Grattan, Curran, and all but seven or eight of their friends, in favour of the war against the French republic. Mr. Ponsonby proposed, in the spirit of Flood's plan ten years earlier, to unite to the boroughs four miles square of the adjoining country, thus creating a counterpoise to the territorial aristocracy on the one hand, and the patrons of boroughs on the other; he also proposed to extend the suffrage to every tradesman who had served five years' apprenticeship, and gave each county three instead of two members, leaving intact, of course, the forty-shilling freehold franchise. Not more than 44 members, however, divided in favour of the new project, while 142 voted against it! Had it passed, the parliamentary history of the next six years could never have been written.
It was on this Reform bill, and on the debate on the address, that Grattan took occasion to declare his settled and unalterable hostility to those "French principles," then so fashionable with all who called themselves friends of freedom, in the three kingdoms. In the great social schism which had taken place in Europe, in consequence of the French revolution of 1789-'91, those kingdoms, the favourite seat of free inquiry and free discussion, could not hope to escape. The effects were visible in every circle, among every order of men; in all the churches, workshops, saloons, professions, into which men were divided. Among publicists, most of all, the shock was most severely felt; in England it separated Burke and Windham from Fox, Erskine, Sheridan, and Grey; in Ireland it separated Grattan and Curran from Lord Edward Fitzgerald, Arthur O'Conor, Addis Emmet, Wolfe Tone, and all those ardent, able, and honest men, who hailed the French, as the forerunner of a complete series of European republics, in which Ireland should shine out, among the brightest and the best.
Grattan, who agreed with and revered Burke, looked upon the "anti-Jacobin war," as a just and necessary war. It was not in his nature to do anything by halves, and he therefore cordially supported the paragraph in the address pledging Ireland's support to that war. He was a constitutionalist of the British, not of the French type. In the subsequent Reform debate he declared that he would always and ever resist those who sought to remodel the Irish constitution on a French original. He asserted, moreover, that great mischief had been already done by the advocates of such a design, "It"--this design--"has thrown back for the present the chance of any rational improvement in the representation of the people," he cried, "and has betrayed a good reform to the hopes of a shabby insurrection." Proceeding in his own condensed, crystalline antithesis, he thus enlarged on his own opinions: "There are two characters equally enemies to the reform of Parliament, and equally enemies to the government--the leveller of the constitution, and the friend of its abuses; they take different roads to arrive at the same end. The levellers propose to subvert the King and parliamentary constitution by a rank and unqualified democracy--the friends of its abuses propose to support the King and buy the Parliament, and in the end to overset both, by a rank and avowed corruption. They are both incendiaries; the one would destroy government to pay his court to liberty; the other would destroy liberty to pay his court to government; but the liberty of the one would be confusion, and the government of the other would be pollution."
We can well understand that this language pleased as little the United Irishmen as the Castle. It was known that in private he was accustomed to say, that, "the wonder was not that Mr. Sheares should die on the scaffold, but that Lord Clare was not there beside him." He stood in the midst of the ways, crying aloud, with the wisdom of his age and his genius, but there were few to heed his warnings. The sanguine innovator sneered or pitied; the truculent despot scowled or menaced; to the one his authority was an impediment, to the other his reputation was a reproach. It was a public situation as full of conflict as man ever occupied, and we are not astonished, on a nearer view, that it led, after three years hoping against hope, to the despairing secession of 1797.
A bright gleam of better things shot for an instant across the gloomy prospect, with which the year '94 closed for the country. Lord Westmoreland was recalled, and Lord Fitzwilliam, largely connected with Ireland by property, and one of the most just and liberal men in England, was to be his successor. The highest expectations were excited; the best men congratulated each other on the certain promise of better times close at hand; and the nation, ever ready to believe whatever it wished to believe, saw in prospect, the oligarchy restrained, the patriots triumphant, and the unfinished fabric of independence completed, and crowned with honour.
This new reign, though one of the shortest, was one of the most important Ireland ever saw. Lord Fitzwilliam, the nephew of Lord Rockingham, the first to acknowledge the constitution of 1782, had married a Ponsonby; he was a Burke whig--one of those who, with the Duke of Portland, Earl Spencer, and Mr. Windham, had followed the "great Edmund," in his secession from the Fox-and-Sheridan majority of that party, in 1791. Pitt, anxious to conciliate these new allies, had brought them all into office in 1794--Earl Fitzwilliam being placed in the dignified position of President of the Council. When spoken of for the Viceroyalty he wrote to Grattan, bespeaking his support, and that of "his friends, the Ponsonbys;" this letter and some others brought Grattan to London, where he had two or three interviews with Pitt, the Duke of Portland, and Lord Fitzwilliam. Better still, he made a pilgrimage to Beaconsfield, and had the benefit of the last advice of the aged Burke. With Pitt he was disappointed and dissatisfied, but he still hoped and expected great good from the appointment of Lord Fitzwilliam to the office of Viceroy. It seems to have been fully understood that the new Lord Lieutenant would have very full powers to complete the gracious work of Catholic emancipation: with this express understanding, Mr. Grattan was pressed to accept the Chancellorship of the Exchequer, but steadily declined; he upheld in that position Sir Henry Parnell, an old personal, rather than political friend, one of a family of whom Ireland has reason to retain a grateful recollection. He was, however, with Ponsonby, Curran, and others of his friends in both Houses, added to the Privy Council, where they were free to shape the measures of the new administration. At the King's levee, on the 10th of December, when Lord Fitzwilliam was sworn in, the aged Burke, in deep mourning for his idolized son, attended; Grattan was so much spoken to by the King as to draw towards him particular attention; Mr. Pitt, the Duke of Portland, and other ministers, were present. All took and held the tone that complete emancipation was a thing settled: Burke congratulated Grattan on the event, and the new Viceroy was as jubilant and as confident as anybody, that the great controversy was at length to be finally closed under his auspices.
On the 4th of January, Lord Fitzwilliam reached Dublin; and on the 25th of March he was recalled. The history of these three months--of this short-lived attempt to govern Ireland on the advice of Grattan--is full of instruction. The Viceroy had not for a moment concealed his intention of thoroughly reforming the Irish administration. On his arrival at the Castle, Mr. Cooke was removed from the Secretaryship, and Mr. Beresford from the Revenue Board. Great was the consternation, and unscrupulous the intrigues of the dismissed. When the Parliament met at the end of January, Grattan assumed the leadership of the House of Commons, and moved the address in answer to the speech from the throne. No opposition was offered--and it passed without a division. Immediately, a bill granting the Catholics complete emancipation--rendering them eligible even to the office of Chancellor, withheld in 1829--was introduced by Grattan. Then the oligarchy found their voices. The old cry of "the Church in danger" was raised, delegations proceeded to London, and every agency of influence was brought to bear on the King and the English cabinet. From the tenor of his letters, Lord Fitzwilliam felt compelled in honour to tell Mr. Pitt, that he might choose between him and the Beresfords. He did choose--but not till the Irish Parliament, in the exuberance of its confidence and gratitude, had voted the extraordinary subsidy of 20,000 men for the navy, and a million, eight hundred thousand pounds, towards the expenses of the war with France! Then, the popular Viceroy was recalled amid the universal regrets of the people. The day of his departure from Dublin was a day of general mourning, except with the oligarchical clique, whose leaders he had so resolutely thrust aside. To them it was a day of insolent and unconcealed rejoicing; and, what is not at all uncommon under such circumstances, the infatuated partisans of the French revolution, rejoiced hardly less than the extremest Tories, at the sudden collapse of a government equally opposed to the politics of both. Grattan, than whom no public man was ever more free from unjust suspicion of others, always remained under the conviction that Pitt had made merely a temporary use of Lord Fitzwilliam's popularity, in order to cheat the Irish out of the immense supplies they had voted; and all the documents of the day, which have since seen the light, accord well with that view of the transaction. Lord Fitzwilliam was immediately replaced by Lord Camden, whose Viceroyalty extended into the middle of the year 1798: a reign which embraced all that remains to us to narrate, of the Parliamentary politics of the era of Independence.
The sittings of Parliament were resumed during April, May, and June, but the complete emancipation bill was rejected three to one--155 to 55; the debates were now marked, on the part of Toler, Duigenan, Johnson, and others, with the most violent anti-Catholic spirit. All this tended to inflame still more the exasperated feeling which already prevailed in the country between Orangemen and Defenders. Thus it came, that the High Court of Parliament, which ought to have been the chief school of public wisdom--the calm correcting tribunal of public opinion--was made a principal engine in the dissemination of those prejudices and passions, which drove honest men to despair of constitutional redress, and swelled the ranks of the secret political societies, till they became co-extensive with the population.
The session of 1796 was even more hopeless than the immediately preceding one. A trade motion of Grattan's on the address commanded only 14 votes out of 140; in the next session his motion in favour of equal rights to persons of all religious creeds, obtained but 12 votes out of 160! From these figures it is clear that above a third of the members of the House no longer attended; that of those who did attend, the overwhelming and invariable majority--ten to one--were for all the measures of repression and coercion which marked these two sessions. The Insurrection Act, giving power to the magistrates of any county to proclaim martial law; the Indemnity Act, protecting magistrates from the consequences of exercising "a vigour beyond the law;" the Riot Act, giving authority to disperse any number of persons by force of arms without notice; the Suspension of the habeas corpus (against which only 7 members out of a House of 164 voted)--all were evidences to. Grattan, that the usefulness of the House of Commons, as then constituted, was, for the tune, lost or destroyed. It is quite clear that he came to this conviction slowly and reluctantly; that he struggled against it with manly fortitude through three sessions; that he yielded to it at length, when there was no longer a possibility of resistance,--when to move or to divide the House, had become a wretched farce, humiliating to the country, and unworthy of his own earnest and enthusiastic patriotism.
Under these circumstances, the powerless leader and his devoted staff resolved to withdraw, formally and openly, from further attendance on the House of Commons. The deplorable state of the country, delivered over to an irresponsible magistracy and all the horrors of martial law; the spread among the patriotic rising generation of French principles; the scarcely concealed design of the Castle to goad the people into insurrection, in order to deprive them of their liberties; all admonished the faithful few that the walls of Parliament were no longer their sphere of usefulness. One last trial was, however, made in May, 1797, for a reform of Parliament. Mr. George Ponsonby moved his usual motion, and Curran, Hardy, Sir Lawrence Parsons, Charles Kendall Bushe, and others, ably supported him. The division was 30 to 117. It was on this debate, that Grattan, whose mournful manner contrasted so strongly with his usual enthusiasm, concluded a solemn exposition of the evils the administration were bringing on the country, by these affecting words:--"We have offered you our measure--you will reject it; we deprecate yours--you will persevere; having no hopes left to persuade or to dissuade, and having discharged our duty, we shall trouble you no more, and after this day shall not attend the House of Commons." The secession thus announced was accomplished; at the general election, two months later, Grattan and his colleague, Lord Henry Fitzgerald, refused to stand again for Dublin; Curran, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, Arthur O'Conor, and others, followed his example. A few patriots, hoping against hope, were, however, returned, a sort of forlorn hope, to man the last redoubt of the Constitution. Of these was William Conyngham Plunkett, member for Charlemont, Grattan's old borough, a constitutionalist of the school of Edmund Burke, worthy to be named among the most illustrious of his disciples.
In the same July, on the 7th of the month, on which the Irish elections were held, that celebrated Anglo-Irish statesman expired at Beaconsfield, in the sixty-seventh year of his age. His last thoughts--his last wishes, like his first--were with his native land. His regards continued fixed on the state of Ireland, while vision and faculty remained. His last efforts in writing and conversation were to plead for toleration, concession and conciliation towards Ireland. The magisterial gravity of Burke was not calculated to permit him to be generally popular with an impulsive people, but as years roll on, and education extends its dominion, his reputation rises and brightens above every other reputation of his age, British or Irish. Of him no less truly than powerfully did Grattan say in the Imperial Parliament, in 1815: "He read everything, he saw everything, he foresaw everything. His knowledge of history amounted to a power of foretelling; and when he perceived the wild work that was doing in France, that great political physician, intelligent of symptoms, distinguished between the access of fever and the force of health; and what other men conceived to be the vigour of her constitution, he knew to be no more than the paroxysm of her madness; and then, prophet-like, he denounced the destinies of France, and in his prophetic fury, admonished nations."