Charles, fourth Duke of Richmond, succeeded the Duke of Bedford, as Viceroy, in April, 1807, with Lord Manners as Lord Chancellor, John Foster, Chancellor of the Exchequer--for the separate exchequer of Ireland continued to exist till 1820--and Sir Arthur Wellesley as Chief Secretary. Of these names, the two last were already familiar to their countrymen, in connection with the history of their own Parliament; but the new Chief Secretary had lately returned home covered with Indian laurels, and full of the promise of other honours and victories to come.
The spirit of this administration was repressive, anti-Catholic and high Tory. To maintain and strengthen British power, to keep the Catholics quiet, to get possession of the Irish representation and convert it into a means of support for the Tory party in England, these were the leading objects of the seven years' administration of the Duke of Richmond. Long afterwards, when the Chief Secretary of 1807 had become "the most high, mighty and noble prince," whom all England and nearly all Europe delighted to honour, he defended the Irish administration of which he had formed a part, for its habitual use of corrupt means and influence, in arguments which do more credit to his frankness than his morality. He had "to turn the moral weakness of individuals to good account," such was his argument. He stoutly denied that "the whole nation is, or ever was corrupt;" but as "almost every man of mark has his price," the Chief Secretary was obliged to use corrupt influences "to command a majority in favour of order;" however the particular kinds of influence employed might go against his grain, he had, as he contended, no other alternative but to employ them.
With the exception of a two months' campaign in Denmark --July to September, 1807--Sir Arthur Wellesley continued to fill the office of Chief Secretary, until his departure for the Peninsula, in July, 1808. Even then he was expressly requested to retain the nominal office, with power to appoint a deputy, and receive meanwhile the very handsome salary of 8,000 pounds sterling a year. In the wonderful military events, in which during the next seven years Sir Arthur was to play a leading part, the comparatively unimportant particulars of his Irish Secretariate have been long since forgotten. We have already described the general spirit of that administration: it is only just to add, that the dispassionate and resolute secretary, though he never shrank from his share of the jobbery done daily at the Castle, repressed with as much firmness the over-zeal of those he calls "red-hot Protestants," as he showed in resisting, at that period, what he considered the unconstitutional pretensions of the Catholics. An instance of the impartiality to which he was capable of rising, when influenced by partisans or religious prejudices, is afforded by his letter dissuading the Wexford yeomanry from celebrating the anniversary of the battle of Vinegar Hill. He regarded such a celebration as certain "to exasperate party spirit," and "to hurt the feelings of others;" he, therefore, in the name of the Lord-Lieutenant, strongly discouraged it, and the intention was accordingly abandoned. It is to be regretted that the same judicious rule was not at the same tune enforced by government as to the celebration of the much more obsolete and much more invidious anniversaries of Aughrim and the Boyne.
The general election which followed the death of Fox, in November, 1806, was the first great trial of political strength under the Union. As was right and proper, Mr. Grattan, no longer indebted for a seat to an English patron, however liberal, was returned at the head of the poll for the city of Dublin. His associate, however, the banker, La Touche, was defeated; the second member elect being Mr. Robert Shaw, the Orange candidate. The Catholic electors to a man, under the vigorous prompting of John Keogh and his friends, polled their votes for their Protestant advocate; they did more, they subscribed the sum of 4,000 pounds sterling to pay the expenses of the contest, but this sum Mrs. Grattan induced the treasurer to return to the subscribers. Ever watchful for her husband's honour, that admirable woman, as ardent a patriot as himself, refused the generous tender of the Catholics of Dublin. Although his several elections had cost Mr. Grattan above 54,000 pounds--more than the whole national grant of 1782--she would not, in this case, that any one else should bear the cost of his last triumph in the widowed capital of his own country.
The great issue tried in this election of 1807, in those of 1812, 1818, and 1826, was still the Catholic question. All other Irish, and most other imperial domestic questions were subordinate to this. In one shape or another, it came up in every session of Parliament. It entered into the calculations of every statesman of every party; it continued to make and unmake cabinets; in the press and in every society, it was the principal topic of discussion. While tracing, therefore, its progress, from year to year, we do but follow the main stream of national history; all other branches come back again to this centre, or exhaust themselves in secondary and forgotten results.
The Catholics themselves, deprived in Ireland of a Parliament on which they could act directly, were driven more and more Into permanent association, as the only means of operating a change in the Imperial legislature. The value of a legal, popular, systematic, and continuous combination of "the people" acting within the law, by means of meetings, resolutions, correspondence, and petitions, was not made suddenly, nor by all the party interested, at one and the same time. On the minds of the more sagacious, however, an impression, favourable to such organized action, grew deeper year by year, and at last settled into a certainty which was justified by success.
In May, 1809, the Catholic Committee had been reconstructed, and its numbers enlarged. In a series of resolutions it was agreed that the Catholic lords, the surviving delegates of 1793, the committee which managed the petitions of 1805 and 1807, and such persons "as shall distinctly appear to them to possess the confidence of the Catholic body," do form henceforth the General Committee. It was proposed by O'Connell, to avoid "the Convention Act," "that the noblemen and gentlemen aforesaid are not representatives of the Catholic body, or any portion thereof." The Committee were authorized to collect funds for defraying expenses; a Treasurer was chosen, and a permanent Secretary, Mr. Edward Hay, the historian of the Wexford rebellion--an active and intelligent officer. The new Committee acted with great judgment in 1810, but in 1811 Lord Fingal and his friends projected a General Assembly of the leading Catholics, contrary to the Convention Act, and to the resolution just cited. O'Connell was opposed to this proposition; yet the assembly met, and were dispersed by the authorities. The Chairman, Lord Fingal, and Drs. Sheridan and Kirwan, Secretaries, were arrested. Lord Fingal, however, was not prosecuted, but the Secretaries were, and one of them expiated by two years' imprisonment his violation of the act. To get rid of the very pretext of illegality, the Catholic Committee dissolved, but only to reappear under a less vulnerable form, as "the Catholic Board."
It is from the year 1810 that we must date the rise, among the Catholics themselves, of a distinctive line of policy, suited to the circumstances of the present century, and the first appearance of a group of public men, capable of maintaining and enforcing that policy. Not that the ancient leaders of that body were found deficient, in former times, either in foresight or determination; but new times called for new men; the Irish Catholics were now to seek their emancipation from the imperial government; new tactics and new combinations were necessary to success; and, in brief, instead of being liberated from their bonds at the good will and pleasure of benevolent Protestants, it was now to be tested whether they were capable of contributing to their own emancipation,--whether they were willing and able to assist their friends and to punish their enemies.
Though the Irish Catholics could not legally meet in convention any more than their Protestant fellow-countrymen, there was nothing to prevent them assembling voluntarily, from every part of the kingdom, without claim to delegation. With whom the happy idea of "the aggregate meetings" originated is not certainly known, but to O'Connell and the younger set of leading spirits this was a machinery capable of being worked with good effect. No longer confined to a select Committee, composed mainly of a few aged and cautious, though distinguished persons, the fearless "agitators," as they now began to be called, stood face to face with the body of the people themselves. The disused theatre in Fishamble Street was their habitual place of meeting in Dublin, and there, in 1811 and 1812, the orators met to criticise the conduct of the Duke of Richmond--to denounce Mr. Wellesley Pole--to attack Secretaries of State and Prime Ministers--to return thanks to Lords Grey and Grenville for refusing to give the unconstitutional anti-Catholic pledge required by the King, and to memorial the Prince Regent. From those meetings, especially in the year 1812, the leadership of O'Connell must be dated. After seven years of wearisome probation, after enduring seven years the envy and the calumny of many who, as they were his fellow-labourers, should have been his friends; after demonstrating for seven years that his judgment and his courage were equal to his eloquence, the successful Kerry barrister, then in his thirty-seventh year, was at length generally recognized as "the counsellor" of his co-religionists --as the veritable "Man of the People." Dangers, delays and difficulties lay thick and dark in the future, but from the year, when in Dublin, Cork and Limerick, the voice of the famous advocate was recognized as the voice of the Catholics of Ireland, their cause was taken out of the category of merely ministerial measures, and exhibited in its true light as a great national contest, entered into by the people themselves for complete civil and religious freedom.
Sir Arthur Wellesley had been succeeded in 1810 in the Secretaryship by his brother, Mr. Wellesley Pole, who chiefly signalized his administration by a circular against conventions, and the prosecution of Sheridan and Kirwan, in 1811. He was in turn succeeded by a much more able and memorable person--Mr., afterwards Sir Robert Peel. The names of Peel and Wellington come thus into juxtaposition in Irish politics in 1812, as they will be found hi juxtaposition on the same subject twenty and thirty years later.
Early in the session of 1812, Mr. Perceval, the Premier, had been assassinated in the lobby of the House of Commons, by Bellingham, and a new political crisis was precipitated on the country. In the government which followed, Lord Liverpool became the chief, with Castlereagh and Canning as members of his administration. In the general election which followed, Mr. Grattan was again returned for Dublin, and Mr. Plunkett was elected for Trinity College, but Mr. Curran was defeated at Newry, and Mr. Christopher Hely Hutchinson, the liberal candidate, at Cork. Upon the whole, however, the result was favourable to the Catholic cause, and the question was certain to have several additional Irish supporters in the new House of Commons.
In the administrative changes that followed, Mr. Peel, though only in his twenty-fourth year, was appointed to the important post of Chief Secretary, The son of the first baronet of the name--this youthful statesman had first been elected for Cashel, almost as soon as he came of age, in 1809. He continued Chief Secretary for six years, from the twenty-fourth to the thirtieth year of his age. He distinguished himself in the House of Commons almost as soon as he entered it, and the predictions of his future premiership were not, even then, confined to members of his own family. No English statesman, since the death of William Pitt, has wielded so great a power in Irish affairs as Sir Robert Peel, and it is, therefore, important to consider, under what influence, and by what maxims he regulated his public conduct during the time he filled the most important administrative office in that country.
Sir Robert Peel brought to the Irish government, notwithstanding his Oxford education and the advantages of foreign travel which he had enjoyed, prejudices the most illiberal, on the subject of all others on which a statesman should be most free from prejudice--religion. An anti-Catholic of the school of Mr. Perceval and Lord Eldon, he at once constituted himself the principal opponent of Grattan's annual motion in favour of Catholic Emancipation. That older men, born in the evil time, should be bigots and defenders of the Penal Code, was hardly wonderful, but a young statesman, exhibiting at that late day, such studied and active hostility to so large a body of his fellow subjects, naturally drew upon his head the execrations of all those whose enfranchisement he so stubbornly resisted. Even his great abilities were most absurdly denied, under this passionate feeling of wrong and injustice. His Constabulary and his Stipendiary Magistracy were resisted, ridiculed, and denounced, as outrages on the liberty of the subject, and assaults on the independence of the bench. The term Peeler became synonymous with spy, informer, and traitor, and the Chief Secretary was detested not only for the illiberal sentiments he had expressed, but for the machinery of order he had established. After half a century's experience, we may safely say, that the Irish Constabulary have shown themselves to be a most valuable police, and as little deserving of popular ill-will as any such body can ever expect to be, but they were judged very differently during the Secretaryship of their founder; for, at that time, being new and intrusive, they may, no doubt, have deserved many of the hard and bitter things which were generally said of them.
The first session of the new Parliament in the year 1813-- the last of the Duke of Richmond's Viceroyalty--was remarkable for the most important debate which had yet arisen on the Catholic question. In the previous year, a motion of Canning's, in favour of "a final and conciliatory adjustment," which was carried by an unexpected majority of 235 to 106, encouraged Grattan to prepare a detailed Emancipation Bill, instead of making his usual annual motion of referring the Catholic petitions to the consideration of the Committee. This bill recited the establishment of the Protestant succession to the crown, and the establishment of the Protestant religion in the State. It then proceeded to provide that Roman Catholics might sit and vote in Parliament; might hold all offices, civil and military, except the offices of Chancellor or Keeper of the Great Seal in England, or Lord-Lieutenant, Lord Deputy, or Chancellor of Ireland; another section threw open to Roman Catholics all lay corporations, while a proviso excluded them either from holding or bestowing benefices in the Established Church. Such was the Emancipation Act of 1813, proposed by Grattan; an act far less comprehensive than that introduced by the same statesman in 1795, into the Parliament of Ireland, but still, in many of its provisions, a long stride in advance.
Restricted and conditioned as this measure was, it still did not meet the objections of the opponents of the question, in giving the crown a Veto in the appointment of the bishops. Sir John Hippesley's pernicious suggestion--reviving a very old traditional policy--was embodied by Canning in one set of amendments, and by Castlereagh in another. Canning's amendments, as summarised by the eminent Catholic jurist, Charles Butler, were to this effect:--
"He first appointed a certain number of Commissioners, who were to profess the Catholic religion, and to be lay peers of Great Britain or Scotland, possessing a freehold estate of one thousand pounds a year; to be filled up, from time to time, by his Majesty, his heirs, or successors. The Commissioners were to take an oath for the faithful discharge of their office, and the observance of secrecy in all matters not thereby required to be disclosed, with power to appoint a Secretary with salary (proposed to be five hundred pounds a year), payable out of the consolidated fund. The Secretary was to take an oath similar to that of the Commissioners.
"It was then provided, that every person elected to the discharge of Roman Catholic episcopal functions in Great Britain or Scotland should, previously to the discharge of his office, notify his then election to the Secretary; that the Secretary should notify it to the Commissioners, and they to the Privy Council, with a certificate 'that they did not know or believe anything of the person nominated, which tended to impeach his loyalty or peaceable conduct;' unless they had knowledge of the contrary, in which case they should refuse their certificate. Persons obtaining such a certificate were rendered capable of exercising episcopal functions within the United Kingdom; if they exercised them without a certificate, they were to be considered guilty of a misdemeanor, and liable to be sent out of the kingdom.
"Similar provisions respecting Ireland were then introduced."
"The second set of clauses," says Mr. Butler, "was suggested by Lord Castlereagh, and provided that the Commissioners under the preceding clauses--with the addition, as to Great Britain, of the Lord Chancellor, or Lord Keeper, or first Commissioner of the Great Seal for the time being, and of one of his Majesty's principal Secretaries of State, being a Protestant, or such other Protestant member of his Privy Council as his Majesty should appoint--and with a similar addition in respect to Ireland--and with the further addition, as to Great Britain, of the person then exercising episcopal functions among the Catholics in London--and, in respect to Ireland, of the titular Roman Catholic Archbishops of Armagh and Dublin,--should be Commissioners for the purposes thereinafter mentioned.
"The Commissioners thus appointed were to take an oath for the discharge of their office, and observance of secrecy, similar to the former, and employ the same Secretary, and three of them were to form a quorum.
"The bill then provided, that subjects of his Majesty, receiving any bull, dispensation, or other instrument, from the See of Rome, or any person in foreign parts, acting under the authority of that See, should, within six weeks, send a copy of it, signed with his name, to the Secretary of the Commissioners, who should transmit the same to them.
"But with a proviso, that if the person receiving the same should deliver to the Secretary of the Commission, within the time before prescribed, a writing under his hand, certifying the fact of his having received such a bull, dispensation, or other instrument, and accompanying his certificate with an oath, declaring that 'it related, wholly and exclusively, to spiritual concerns, and that it did not contain, or refer to, any matter or thing which did or could, directly or indirectly, affect or interfere with the duty and allegiance which he owed to his Majesty's sacred person and government, or with the temporal, civil, or social rights, properties, or duties of any other of his Majesty's subjects, then the Commissioners were, in their discretion, to receive such certificate and oath, in lieu of the copy of the bull, dispensation, or other instrument.
"Persons conforming to these provisions were to be exempted from all pains and penalties, to which they would be liable under the existing statutes; otherwise, they were to be deemed guilty of a high misdemeanor; and in lieu of the pains and penalties, under the former statutes, be liable to be sent out of the kingdom.
"The third set of clauses provided that, within a time to be specified, the Commissioners were to meet and appoint their Secretary, and give notice of it to his Majesty's principal Secretaries of State in Great Britain and Ireland; and the provisions of the act were to be in force from that time."
On the second reading, in May, the Committee of Parliament, on motion of the Speaker, then on the floor, struck out the clause enabling Catholics "to sit and vote in either House of Parliament," by a majority of four votes: 251 against 247. Mr. Ponsonby immediately rose, and, observing that, as "the bill without the clause," was unworthy both of the Catholics and its authors, he moved the chairman do leave the chair. The committee rose, without a division, and the Emancipation Bill of 1813 was abandoned.
Unhappily, the contest in relation to the Veto, which had originated in the House of Commons, was extended to the Catholic body at large. Several of the noblemen, members of the board, were not averse to granting some such power as was claimed to the crown; some of the professional class, more anxious to be emancipated than particular as to the means, favoured the same view. The bishops at the time of the Union, were known to have entertained the idea, and Sir John Hippesley had published their letters, which certainly did not discourage his proposal. But the second order of the clergy, the immense majority of the laity, and all the new prelates, called to preside over vacant sees, in the first decade of the century, were strongly opposed to any such connexion with the head of the State. Of this party, Mr. O'Connell was the uncompromising organ, and, perhaps, it was his course on this very subject of the Veto, more than anything else, which established his pretensions to be considered the leader of the Catholic body. Under the prompting of the majority, the Catholic prelates met and passed a resolution declaring that they could not accept the bill of 1813 as a satisfactory settlement. This resolution they formally communicated to the Catholic Board, who voted them, on O'Connell's motion, enthusiastic thanks. The minority of the Board were silent rather than satisfied, and their dissatisfaction was shown rather by their absence from the Board meetings than by open opposition.
Mr. O'Connell's position, from this period forward, may be best understood from the tone in which he was spoken of in the debates of Parliament. At the beginning of the session of 1815, we find the Chief Secretary (Mr. Peel) stating that he "possesses more influence than any other person" with the Irish Catholics, and that no meeting of that body was considered complete unless a vote of thanks to Mr. O'Connell was among the resolutions.