George III., grandson of the late king, commenced, in October, 1760, at the age of two and twenty, the longest reign in British history. Including the period of the regency, he reigned over his empire nearly sixty years --an extraordinary term of royal power, and quite as extraordinary for its events as for its extreme length.
The great movement of the Irish mind, at the beginning of this reign, was the limitation of the duration of Parliament, hitherto elected for the King's life. This reform, long advocated out of doors, and by the more progressive members within the House, was reserved for the new Parliament under the new reign. To this Parliament were returned several men of great promise, men of a new generation, nurtured in the school of Swift and Malone, but going even beyond their masters in their determination to liberate the legislature of their country from the undue influence of the crown and the castle. Among those new members were three destined to national celebrity, Dr. Lucas, Mr. Hussey Burgh, and Mr. Dennis Bowes Daly; and one destined to universal reputation--Henry Flood. This gentleman, the son of a former Chief Justice, intermarried into the powerful oligarchical family of the Beresfords, was only in his 28th year when first elected member for Kilkenny; but, in point of genius and acquirements, he was even then the first man in Ireland, and one of the first in the empire. For a session or two he silently observed the forms of the House, preparing himself for the great contest to come; but when at last he obtained the ear of his party he was heard to some purpose. Though far from advocating extreme measures, he had abundant boldness; he was not open to the objection levelled against the leader of the past generation, Mr. Malone, of whom Grattan said, "he was a colony-bred man, and he feared to bring down England upon Ireland."
The Duke of Bedford vacated the viceroyalty in 1761, and Lord Halifax took his place. In the first parliamentary session, Dr. Lucas introduced his resolutions limiting the duration of Parliament to seven years, a project which Flood afterwards adopted and mainly contributed to carry. The heads of the bill embodying these resolutions were transmitted to London by the Lord-Lieutenant, but never returned. In 1763, under the government of the Marquis of Hertford, similar resolutions were introduced and carried, but a similar fate awaited them. Again they were passed, and again rejected, the popular dissatisfaction rising higher and higher with every delay of the reform. At length, in the session of 1767, "the Septennial Bill," as it was called, was returned from England, changed to octennial, and with this alteration it passed into law, in February, 1768. A new Parliament the same year was elected under the new act, to which all the friends of the measure were triumphantly returned. The faithful Lucas, however, survived his success little better than two years; he died amid the very sincere regrets of all men who were not enemies of their country. At his funeral the pall was borne by the Marquis of Kildare, Lord Charlemont, Mr. Flood, Mr. Hussey Burgh, Sir Lucius O'Brien, and Mr. Ponsonby.
Lord Halifax, and his chief secretary, Mr. Hamilton (known to us as "the single-speech Hamilton," of literary history), received very graciously the loyal addresses presented by the Catholics, soon after his Majesty's accession. In a speech from the throne, the Viceroy proposed, but was obliged to abandon the proposition, to raise six regiments of Catholics, under their own officers, to be taken into the service of Portugal, the ally of Great Britain. His administration was otherwise remarkable neither for its length nor its importance; nor is there anything else of consequence to be mentioned of his lordship, except that his nephew, and chief secretary, had the honour to have Edmund Burke for his private secretary, and the misfortune to offend him.
During the government of the Marquis of Hertford, and his successor, Lord Townsend (appointed in 1768), the Patriot party contended on the ground of rendering the judges independent, diminishing the pension list, and modifying the law of Poynings, requiring heads of bills to be sent into England, and certified by both Privy Councils, before they could be passed upon by the legislature. The question of supply, and that of the duration of Parliament, being settled, these reforms were the next objects of exertion. When we know that the late King's mistresses, the Queen Dowager of Prussia, Prince Ferdinand, and other connections of the royal family, equally alien to the country, were pensioners to the amount of thousands of pounds annually on the Irish establishment, we can understand more clearly the bitterness of the battle Mr. Flood and his colleagues were called upon to fight in assailing the old system. But they fought it resolutely and perseveringly. Death had removed their most unscrupulous enemy, Primate Stone, during the Hertford administration, and the improved tone and temper of public opinion would not tolerate any attempt to raise up a successor of similar character. Lord Townsend, an old campaigner and bon vivant, was expressly chosen as most capable of restoring the old system of government by closeting and corruption, but he found the Ireland of his day very materially altered from the defenceless province, which Stone and Dorset had attempted to cajole or to coerce, twenty years before.
The Parliament of 1769--the first limited Parliament which Ireland had seen since the revolution--proved, in most respects, worthy of the expectations formed of it. John Ponsonby was chosen Speaker, and Flood regarded, around him, well-filled benches and cheering countenances. The usual supply bill was passed and sent up to the castle, but on its return from England was found to be altered--15,000 men, among other changes, being charged to the Irish military establishment, instead of 12,000, as formerly. The Commons, resolute to assert their rights, threw out the bill, as had been done in 1753, and the Lord Lieutenant, protesting in the House of Lords against their conduct, ordered them to be prorogued. Prorogation followed prorogation, till February, 1771, the interval being occupied in closeting and coquetting with members of the opposition, in the creation of new places, and the disposal of them to the relatives of those capable of being bought. No one was surprised, when the Houses reassembled, to find that a bare majority of the Commons voted a fulsome address of confidence to the Lord Lieutenant. But this address, Speaker Ponsonby indignantly refused to present. He preferred resignation to disgrace, and great was the amazement and indignation when his friend, Mr. Perry, elected by a bare majority, consented to take the post--no longer a post of honour. In justice to Mr, Perry, however, it must be added, that in the chair as on the floor of Parliament, he still continued the patriot--that if he advanced his own fortunes, it was not at the expense of the country--that some of the best measures passed by this and the subsequent Parliament, owed their final success, if not their first suggestion, to his far-seeing sagacity.
The methods taken by Lord Townsend to effect his ends, not less than those ends themselves, aroused the spirit and combined the ranks of the Irish opposition. The press of Dublin teemed with philippics and satires, upon his creatures and himself. The wit, the scholarship, the elegant fancy, the irresistible torrent of eloquence, as well as the popular enthusiasm, were against him, and in 1772, borne down by these combined forces, he confessed his failure by resigning the sword of state into the hands of Lord Harcourt.
The new Viceroy, according to custom, began his reign by taking an exactly opposite course to his predecessor, and ended it by falling into nearly the same errors and abuses. He suggested an Absentee-tax, which was introduced by Flood, but rejected through the preponderating influence of the landed aristocracy. In preparing the tables of expenditure, he had caused arrears amounting to 265,000 pounds, and an annual increase of 100,000 pounds, to be added to the estimates. Moreover, his supply bill was discovered, at the second reading, to extend over two years instead of one--a discovery which occasioned the greatest indignation. Flood raised his powerful voice in warning, not unmingled with menace; Burgh declared, that if any member should again bring in such a bill, he would himself move his expulsion from the House; while George Ogle, member for Wexford, proposed that the bill itself should be burned before the porch, by the common hangman. He was reminded that the instrument bore the great seal; to which he boldly answered, that the seal would help to make it burn the better. It was not thought politic to take notice of this revolutionary retort.