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RICHARD BRINSLEY SHERIDAN was born at Dublin in September, 1751. His father, Thomas Sheridan, author of the first attempt at a Pronouncing Dictionary of our language, was a distinguished teacher of elocution, and during most of his life was connected with the stage. This fact very naturally turned the attention of young Sheridan, even from his boyhood, to theatrical composition; and, being driven to strenuous exertion in consequence of an early marriage, he became a dramatic writer at the age of twenty-four. His first production was The Rivals, which, by the liveliness of its plot and the exquisite humor of its dialogue, placed him at once in the first rank of comic writers. His next work was the opera of The Duenna, which was performed seventy-five times during the season in which it was first produced, and yielded him a very large profit. In the year 1776, in conjunction with two friends, he purchased Garrick's half of the Drury Lane Theater; and becoming proprietor of the other half at the end of two years, he gave his father the appointment of manager. He now produced his School for Scandal, which has been regarded by many as the best comedy in our language. This was followed by The Critic, which was equally admirable as a farce; and here ended, in 1779, his "legitimate offerings on the shrine of the Dramatic Muse.” He still, however, retained his proprietorship in Drury Lane, which would have furnished an ample support for any one but a person of his expensive and reckless habits.
Mr. Sheridan had cherished from early life a very lively interest in politics; and now that his thirst for dramatic fame was satiated, his ambition rose higher, and led him to seek for new distinction in the fields of oratory. He had already made the acquaintance of Lord John Townsend, Mr. Windham, and other distinguished members of the Whig party, and was desirous of forming a political connection with Mr. Fox. To promote this object, Townsend made a dinner-party early in 1780, at which he brought them together. Speaking of the subject afterward, he said, "I told Fox that all the notions he might have conceived of Sheridan's talents and genius from the · Rivals,' &c., would fall infinitely short of the admiration of his astonishing powers which I was sure he would entertain at the first interview. Fox told me, after breaking up from dinner, that he had always thought Hare, after my uncle, Charles Townsend, the wittiest man he had ever met with, but that Sheridan surpassed them both, infinitely." Sheridan, on his side, formed the strongest attachment for Mr. Fox as a man and a political leader, and was soon after placed on terms of equal intimacy with Mr. Burke. He was admitted to Brooks's Club-house, the head-quarters of the Whigs, and soon after became a member for Stafford, at an expense of £2000.
Mr. Sheridan's maiden speech was delivered on the 20th of November, 1780. The House listened to him with marked attention, but his appearance did not entirely satisfy the expectations of his friends. Woodfall, the reporter, used to relate that · The following lines of Tickell give the character of Brooks:
And know, I've bought the best Champagne from Brooks ;
Exults to trust, and blushes to be paid.
Sheridan came up to him in the gallery, when the speech was ended, and asked him, with much anxiety, what he thought of his first attempt. “I am sorry to say," replied Woodfall, “ that I don't think this is your line—you had better have stuck to your former pursuits.” Sheridan rested his head on his hand for some minutes, and then exclaimed, with vehemence, “ It is in me, and it shall come out of me."" He now devoted himself with the utmost assiduity, quickened by a sense of shame, to the cultivation of his powers as a speaker ; and having great ingenuity, ready wit, perfect self-possession, and a boldness amounting almost to effrontery, he made him. self at last a most dexterous and effective debater.
During the short administration of the Marquess of Rockingham, in 1782, Mr. Sheridan came into office as Under Secretary of State; but on the decease of Rockingham, he resigned in common with Fox, Burke, and others, when Lord Shelburne was made prime minister in preference to Mr. Fox. Mr. William Pitt now came into the ministry, at the age of twenty-three, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, and undertook, soon after, to put down Mr. Sheridan by a contemptuous allusion to his theatrical pursuits. “No man,” said he “ admires more than I do the abilities of that right honorable gentleman—the elegant sallies of his thought, the gay effusions of his fancy, his dramatic turns, and his epigrammatic point. If they were reserved for the proper stage, they would no doubt receive the plaudits of the audience; and it would be the fortune of the right honorable gentleman, sui plausu gaudere theatri.” Mr. Sheridan replied to this insolent language, with admirable adroitness, in the following words : “On the particular sort of personality which the right honorable gentleman has thought proper to make use of, I need not comment.
The propriety, the taste, and the gentlemanly point of it must be obvious to this House. But let me assure the right honorable gentleman that I do now, and will, at any time he chooses to repeat this sort of allusion, meet it with the most perfect good humor. Nay, I will say more. Flattered and encouraged by the right honorable gentleman's panegyric on my talents, if I ever engage again in the composition he alludes to, I may be tempted to an act of presumption, and attempt an improvement on one of Ben Jonson's best characters, that of the Angry Boy, in the Alchymist.” The effect was irresistible. The House was convulsed with laughter; and Mr. Pitt came very near having the title of the Angry Boy fastened on him for the remainder of his life.
When the administration of Lord Shelburne gave way to the Coalition Ministry of Mr. Fox and Lord North, in 1783, Sheridan was again brought into office as Secretary of the Treasury. The defeat of Mr. Fox's East India Bill threw him out of power at the close of the same year; and from that time, for more than twenty-two years, he was a strenuous and active opponent of Mr. Pitt.
In the year 1787, Mr. Burke, who had devoted ten years to the investigation of English atrocities in India, called forth the entire strength of the Whig party for the impeachment of Warren Hastings. To Mr. Sheridan he assigned the management of the charge relating to the Begums or princesses of Oude. It was a subject peculiarly suited to his genius; and, aided by an intimate knowledge of the facts, which was supplied him by the researches of Burke, he brought forward the charge in the House of Commons, on the 7th of February, 1787. His speech on this occasion was so imperfectly reported that it may be said to be wholly lost. It was, however, according to the representation of all who heard it, an astonishing exhibition of eloquence. The whole assembly, at the conclusion, broke forth into expressions of tumultuous applause. Men of all parties vied with each other in their encomiums; and Mr. Pitt concluded his remarks by saying that “an abler speech was perhaps never delivered.” A motion was made to adjourn, that the House might have time to recover their calmness and "collect their reason,” after the excitement they had
* To exult in the applause of his own theater.
undergone; and Mr. Stanhope, in seconding the motion, declared that he had come to the House prepossessed in favor of Mr. Hastings, but that nothing less than a miracle could now prevent him from voting for his impeachment. Twenty years after, Mr. Fox and Mr. Windham, two of the severest judges in England, spoke of this speech with undiminished admiration. The former declared it to be the best speech ever made in the House of Commons. The latter said that “the speech deserved all its fame, and was, in spite of some faults of taste, such as were seldom wanting in the literary or in the parliamentary performances of Sheridan, the greatest that had been delivered within the memory of man."
When the Commons voted to impeach Mr. Hastings, Sheridan was chosen one of the managers, and had assigned to him the charge relating to the Begums of Oude. He was thus called upon to reproduce, as far as possible, his splendid oration of the preceding year, in presence of an assembly still more dignified and august, and under circumstances calculated to inflame all his ambition as an orator and a man. The expectation of the public was wrought up to the highest pitch. During the four days on which he spoke, the hall was crowded to suffocation; and such was the eagerness to obtain seats, that fifty guineas were in some instances paid for a single ticket. These circumstances, undoubtedly, operated to the injury of Mr. Sheridan. They aggravated those “ faults of taste” which were spoken of by Mr. Windham. They led him into many extravagances of language and sentiment; and though all who heard it agreed in pronouncing it a speech of astonishing power, it must have been far inferior in true eloquence to his great original effort in the House of Commons. His success in these two speeches was celebrated by Byron in the following lines, which are, however, much more applicable to Burke than to Sheridan:
When the loud cry of trampled Hindostan
Till vanquished senates trembled as they praised. Contrary to what might have been expected, Mr. Sheridan never attempted, in after life, that lofty strain of eloquence which gained him such rapturous applause on this occasion. “Good sense and wit were the great weapons of his oratoryshrewdness in detecting the weak points of an adversary, and infinite powers of raillery in exposing them.” This is exactly the kind of speaking which has always been
* It was natural, in respect to such a speech, that some erroneous or exaggerated statements should have been given to the public. There is an anecdote related by Bissett, in his Reign of George III., which must be regarded in this light. Bissett says, “ The late Mr. Logan, well known for his literary efforts, and author of a masterly defense of Mr. Hastings, went that day to the House, prepossessed for the accused and against the accuser. At the expiration of the first hour, he said to a friend, 'All this is declamatory assertion without proof;' when the second was finished, “ This is a wonderful oration ;' at the close of the third, “ Mr. Hastings has acted unjustifiably;' the fourth, * Mr. Hastings is a most atrocious criminal;' and at last, Of all monsters of iniquity, the most enormous is Warren Hastings !'”
Now the natural and almost necessary impression made by this story is, that Mr. Logan, previous to hearing this speech, had written his “masterly defense of Mr. Hastings;" and that, being thus “prepossessed" and committed in favor of the accused, he experienced the remarkable change of views and feelings here described. But the fact is, his defense of Hastings was written after the speech in question was delivered ; and Mr. Logan therein charged the Commons with having acted, in their impeachment of Hastings," from motives of personal animosity-not from regard to public justice." It is incredible that a man of Mr. Logan's character-a distinguished clergyman of the Church of Scotland-should have written such a pamphlet, or brought such a charge, only a few months after he had expressed the views of Mr. Hastings ascribed to him above. This anecdote must, therefore, have related to some other person who was confounded with Mr. Logan, and may be numbered with the many uncertainties which are current under the name of Literary History.
most popular in the House of Commons. It made Mr. Sheridan much more formidable to Mr. Pitt, during his long and difficult administration, than many in the Opposition ranks of far greater information and reasoning abilities. Notwithstanding his habitual indolence, and the round of conviviality in which he was constantly engaged, Sheridan contrived to pick up enough knowledge of the leading topics in debate to make him a severe critic on the measures of Mr. Pitt. If authorities or research were necessary, he would frankly say to his friends who desired his aid, “ You know I am an ignoramus--here I am-instruct me, and I'll do my best.” And such was the quickness and penetration of his intellect, that he was able, with surprising facility, to make himself master of the information thus collected for his use, and to pour it out with a freshness and vivacity which were so much the greater because his mind was left free and unencumbered by the effort to obtain it. A curious instance is mentioned of his boldness on such occasions, when his materials happened to fail him. In 1794, when he came to reply to the argument of Mr. Hastings' counsel on the Begum charge, his friend, Mr. Michael Angelo Taylor, undertook to read for him any papers which it might be necessary to bring forward in the course of his speech. One morning, when a certain paper was called for, Mr. Taylor asked him for the bag containing his documents. Sheridan replied, in a whisper, that he had neither bag nor papers—that they must contrive, by dexterity and boldness, to get on without them. The Lord Chancellor, in a few moments, called again for the minutes of evidence. Taylor pretended to send for the bag, and Sheridan proceeded with the utmost confidence, as if nothing had happened. Within a few minutes the “papers” were again demanded, when Mr. Fox ran up to Taylor, and inquired anxiously for the bag. "The man has no bag,” says Taylor, in a whisper, to the utter discomfiture of Mr. Fox. Sheridan, in the mean time, went on-taking the facts for granted—in his boldest strain. When stopped by the court, and reproved for his negligence in not bringing forward the evidence, he assumed an indignant tone, and told the Chancellor that, “as a manager of the impeachment in behalf of the Commons, he should conduct the case as he thought fit , that it was his most ardent desire to be perfectly correct in what he stated; and that, should he fall into error, the printed minutes of the evidence would correct him !"
With all this apparent negligence, however, the papers of Mr. Sheridan, after his death, disclosed one remarkable fact, that his wit was most of it studied out beforehand. His commonplace book was found to be full of humorous thoughts and sportive turns, put down usually in a crude state just as they occurred to his mind, and afterward wrought into form for future use. To this collection we may trace a large part of those playful allusions, keen retorts, sly insinuations, and brilliant salliesthe jest, the frolic, and the fun—which flash out upon us in his speeches in a manner so easy, natural, and yet unexpected, that no one could suspect them of being any thing but the spontaneous suggestions of the moment. His biographer has truly said that, in this respect, “ It was the fate of Mr. Sheridan throughout life—and in a great degree, perhaps his policy - to gain credit for excessive indolence and carelessness, while few persons, with so much natural brilliancy of talents, ever employed more art and circumspection in their display.”
Mr. Sheridan usually took part in every important debate in Parliament, and gained much applause, in 1803, by a speech of uncommon eloquence, in which he endeavored to unite all parties for the defense of the country, when threatened with invasion by France. In the course of this speech, he turned the ridicule of the House upon Mr. Addington, the prime minister, in a way which was not soon forgotten. Mr. Addington was one of those “ respectable” half-way men with whom it is difficult to find fault, and yet whom nobody confides in or loves. He was the son of an eminent physician, and there was something in his air and manner which savored
of the profession, and had given him, to a limited extent, the appellation of "The Doctor.” Mr. Sheridan, in the course of his speech, adverting to the personal dislike of many to Mr. Addington, quoted the lines of Martial :
Non amo te, Sabine, nec possum dicere quare;
Hoc tantum possum dicere, non amo te; and added the English parody :
I do not like you, Doctor Fell;
I do not like you, Doctor Fell. His waggish emphasis on the word doctor, and his subsequent repetition of it in the course of his speech, called forth peals of laughter; and thenceforth the minister was generally known by the name of the Doctor. The Opposition papers took up the title, and twisted and tortured it into every form of attack, till Mr. Addington was borne down and driven from office by mere ridicule—a weapon which is often more fatal than argument to men of moderate abilities in high political stations.
Mr. Sheridan had always lived beyond his means, and was utterly ruined in 1809, by the burning of the Drury Lane Theater, which comprised all his property. He was also betrayed by his convivial habits into gross intemperance. Wine being no longer of sufficient strength to quicken his faculties for conversation or debate, stronger liquors were substituted. A person sitting one evening in a coffee-house, near St. Stephen's Chapel, saw, to his surprise, a gentleman with papers before him, after taking tea, pour the contents of a decanter of brandy into a tumbler, and drink it off without dilution. He then gathered up his papers and went out. Shortly after, the spectator, on entering the gallery of the House of Commons, heard the brandy-drinker, to his astonishment, deliver a long and brilliant speech. It was Mr. Sheridan! The natural consequences of such a life were not slow in overtaking him: he soon became bankrupt in character and health, as well as in fortune. The relief which he occasionally obtained from his friends served only to protract his misery. He was harassed with writs and executions, at the moment when he was sinking under disease ; and a sheriff's officer, but for the intervention of his physician, would have carried him in his blanket to prison. A powerful writer in the Morning Post now called the attention of the public to his wretched condition. Oh! delay not to draw aside the curtain within which that proud spirit hides its sufferings. Prefer ministering in the chambers of sickness to mustering at the splendid sorrows which adorn the hearse'--I say, life and succor against Westminster Abbey and a funeral !" Men of all ranks were roused. His chamber was crowded with sympathizing friends, but it was too late. He died on the 7th of July, 1816, at the age of sixty-four, a melancholy example of brilliant talents sacrificed to a love of display and convivial indulgence. He was buried with great pomp in the only spot of the Poet's Corner which remained unoccupied. His pall was borne by royal and noble dukes, by earls and marquesses, and his funeral procession was composed of the most distinguished nobility and gentry of the kingdom.
• The Scottish members having deserted Mr. Addington in some debate about this time, Mr. Sheridan convulsed the House by suddenly exclaiming, in the words of the messenger to Macbeth, Doctor, "the Thanks fly from thee!"
5 Mr. Moore, in the following lines, gave vent to his feelings at the conduct of those who deserted Sheridan in his poverty, but crowded around his death-bed and flocked to his funeral with all the tokens of their early respect and affection :
How proud they can press to the funeral array
Of him whom they shunn'd in his sickness and sorrow-
Whose pall shall be held up by nobles to-morrow!