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The coalition between lord North and Mr. Fox having driven lord Shelburne from the helm, Mr. S. came again into office in April, 1783, as one of the secretaries of the treasury; and he continued in that situation until the failure of Mr. Fox's well known India-bill enabled the royal advisers to dismiss the ministers, and soon afterward to dissolve the parliament. In spite of the unpopularity caused by the coalition, Mr. S. was again returned for Stafford, and renewed his parliamentary conflicts with Mr. Pitt; which, however, claim little attention when compared with the reputation which he acquired in the early part of the proceedings against Mr. Hastings. They began in the house of commons in April, 1786; and Mr. S., being chosen by the managers of the prosecution to bring forwards, in the next session, the charge relative to the case of the Begums or princesses of Oude, found in the pathetic circumstances of this part of the impeachment an ample field for the display of his oratory. Nothing could surpass the effect of his celebrated speech on this subject, 7th February, 1787; a speech which lasted above five hours, and made such an impresa sion as to call forth first repeated plaudits, and immediately afterward a motion for adjournment, that the members might have time to collect their scattered senses, and exercise a sober judgment when removed from the spell of the magician.”
* Mr. Burke declared it to be “the most astonishing effort of eloquence, argument, and wit united, of which there was any record or tradition.” Mr. Fox was not behind-hand with the leader of the impeachment in the measure of his panegyric; for he said, * All that he had ever heard, all that he had ever read, when compared with it, dwindled into nothing, and vanished like vapour before the sun.
.” Even Mr. Pitt is reported to have acknowledged “ that it surpassed all the eloquence of ancient or modern times, and possessed every thing that genius or art could furnish to agitate and control the human mind.”)
The eloquence of the accusers of Mr. Hastings, and the partial support of Mr. Pitt, having led a majority of the house to vote charges of impeachment against that late governor-general, the next display of the talents of the leading managers took place before the peers assembled in Westminster Hall. Here Mr. Sheridan's oratorical reputation was carried to the highest pitch by his speech of 13th June, 1788: language itself seemed too poor to furnish adequate expressions for the exuberance of his mind; and the picture of the sufferings of the aged princess of Oude was wrought up with magical effect. “This day,” said Mr. Burke, “ has Mr. Sheridan made a display of talents unparalleled in the annals of oratory, and amazed the thousands who hung with rapture on his accents.”
The second volume of this work contains very little of the private life of Sheridan, whose attention was now almost wholly engrossed by parliamentary business. The king's illness in 1788 ap
peared at last to hold out a prospect of office to him and his coadjutors: but their imprudent assertion of the right of the prince to step into the immediate and uncontrolled exercise of the royal power was injurious to their cause, and proved not the most inconsiderable of the means which enabled Mr. Pitt to preserve a majority in parliament until the king's recovery. The next grand political question was the French revolution, in which Sheridan for a time took part with Mr. Fox, both dissenting from their hitherto venerated colleague Burke. The difference between the latter and Sheridan attracted the public attention less, but it was of earlier date, and perhaps of deeper foundation, than the celebrated rupture between Burke and Fox. Our armament against Russia in 1790, the debates on the finances, and the discussions on parliamentary reform, all furnished favourable occasions for the exertion of Sheridan's elocution. In the end of 1792, when war with revolutionary France was deemed inevitable by the ministry, and when Mr. Fox almost alone ventured to recommend the measure of sending an ambassador to the Jacobins who ruled Paris, Sheridan gave a cordial support to his political leader; treating with ridicule the addresses of the French to their partisans in England, and contending that there was no sufficient cause for plunging the nation into hostilities. The death of Louis XVI., the subsequent overthrow of the most distinguished men in France, and the final horrors of the reign of Jacobinism, unfortunately concurred to give popularity to the contest, and to invest with an appearance of necessity that which many judicious men regarded at first as a needless and unfortunate rupture. At last, however, the separate pacification of Austria, and the open threat of invading this country with an overpowering force, united in the cause those who had originally been most adverse to it, and among others Mr. Sheridan; who, at the time of the unfortunate mutiny in the fleet in 1797, took a decided part with government, and, some time afterward, gave no slight stimulus to the patriotic sentiments of the day by his tragedy of Pizarro. On other questions, however, he continued hostile to the ministry, and in none more than in the grand discussions relative to the union with Ireland. Of Bonaparte, he at first thought favourably: but the restless and aggrandising spirit betrayed by him in the year of peace (1802) effectually undeceived Mr. Sheridan, and gave rise to some of his finest parliamentary effusions.
'Though in the tablet and volume of his mind there may be some marginal note about cashiering the king of Etruria, yet the whole text is occupied with the destruction of England. This is the first vision that breaks upon him through the gleam of the morning; this is his last prayer at night, to whatever deity he addresses it, whether to Jupiter or Mahomet; to the goddess of battles or the goddess of reason.'
“ He says he is an instrument in the hands of Providence; that he is an envoy of God. He says he is an instrument in the hands
of Providence to restore Switzerland to happiness, and to elevate Italy to splendor and importance. I think he is an instrument in the hands of Providence to make the English love their constitution the better; to cling to it with more fondness; to hang round it with greater tenderness.'
On the formation of the Fox and Grenville ministry, in February 1806, Mr. Sheridan was evidently intitled to a place of emolument; although his careless habits made it altogether undesirable to introduce him into the cabinet. Mr. Fox is said to have advi. sed him to accept a patent place, as affording him an income that would be secure in any event: but this he declined, less perhaps from a confidence in the permanency of the new ministry than from a dread of the odium that might have attended such a choice. We pass over his election for Westminster in 1806, and his failure in the succeeding summer, when a change of ministers led to a dissolution of parliament. He was then returned for Ilchester, and was one of those who raised their voice in the house against the expedition to Copenhagen: but his brilliant day was now beginning to pass: he was drawing to his sixtieth year; and a constitution naturally strong had been much shaken by incessant irregularities. The assassination of Mr. Perceval in the spring of 1812 led to a proposition, real or ostensible, for the introduction of the opposition into office, and Mr. S. has been loudly blamed for secretly attempting to counteract the prospects of his political associates: but we have no room to dwell on this mysterious part of our politics, particularly as, at the general election which ensued, Mr. S. was excluded from parliament. His circumstances now became more embarrassed than ever: his health declined rapidly; and it was only in an occasional effusion of convivial wit that it was possible to recognize the last star of the most brilliant constellation of British orators.
Mr. Sheridan's death took place on the 7th of July, 1816, in his 65th year: he had been twice married, having lost his first wife in 1792: his second, the present widow, was Miss Ogle, daughter of the dean of Winchester: who had the precaution both to settle her portion on herself and children, and to prevail on Sheridan to set apart a farther sum from the sale of shares in the theatre: this formed their chief resource in his latter years, and is now a provision for his only surviving son.
The habitual imprudence of this distinguished character is perfectly familiar to our readers, and it is needless to enlarge on the endless disappointments which it brought on him in political as well as in private life: but the extent of his early errors, through vacillation and speculative ardor, are less generally known. No one could have a more favourable introduction into the highest departments of the drama. We have seen that, aided by the councils of Garrick, and supported by monied friends, Sheridan became, before his 28th year, almost sole proprietor of our greatest theatre, and was required to attend only to the higher departments of the concern, the choice of managers and the preparation of new pieces; of detail of every kind, whether relative to the actors or the expenses of the theatre, he was wholly independent. This fair prospect he marred by an impatience to figure in a sphere which was not only entirely different from his proper line, but already occupied by men of the first ability. His effusions of eloquence on Mr. Hastings's trial (1787 and 1788) have been surpassed by no orator of the same standing in parliament: but on no future occasion did he rise to the grandeur of these displays. His whole career, indeed furnished a distressing proof of native talent impeded by a want of culture; illustrating both the drama and the senate for a season, but falling into the shade at the time when continued exertion would have brought it forth in augmented splendor. How different is this from the account which we had occasion to render some years ago (M. R. vol. lxxx.) of the progress of Gibbon; whose uncertainty and change of plan lasted only until he had fixed on an adequate object; and who, when once thoroughly engaged, retired from parliament and the attractions of a town-life, to dedicate himself with unremitted application to the completion of a permanent monument of fame.
On the more culpable irregularities of Sheridan, we decline to enlarge: but every reader of sensibility will be concerned to learn that even Mr. Fox had latterly conceived (vol. ii. p. 340) an aver. sion to his visits. Of his carelessness, the public have heard many anecdotes, but none could be more striking than an admission made by himself in a chancery-suit connected with the theatre; in which (vol. ii. p. 312) he acknowledged that a letter from the duke of Bedford's solicitor had lain for twelve months unopened among his papers. Similar negligence was evinced in the spring of 1799, when the tragedy of Pizarro was in preparation for Drury-Lane. The original play of Kotzebue was intitled The Spaniards in Peru; and a bad translation of it, having been shown to Sheridan early in the season, was immediately adopted by him as the basis of an improved drama. This intention coming to the knowledge of a person acquainted with the German language, a new translation was commenced by him, and notice sent to Sheridan that, unless the sum of 1001. was paid, it would be continued and printed. Sheridan, aware that a previous publication would greatly injure the success of the piece, complied with this unhandsome proposition, and paid the money, but still proceeded slowly with his task. Soon afterward, a friend informed him that Mrs. Plumptre had been engaged to translate a series of Kotzebue's plays, and among others The Spaniards in Peru: and the MS. of the translation was shown to a mutual friend, who prevailed on Mrs. P. to write a note to Mr. S., stating that, according to her previous agreement with the bookseller, the translation would be published in about six weeks, unless Mr. S. wished for a longer delay.
"A month elapsing without Mrs. Plumptre's hearing any thing more, she naturally concluded that Mr. Sheridan was grown indifferent upon the subject, and the translation was printed, wher, two days before it was to be published, he made his proposed visit. He was full of apologies for not having sooner paid attention to her note, but said the truth was, that he had only read it the day before.“ All the notes and letters I receive," he said,
are thrown into a bag, and I read them when I am at leisure. It so happened that a longer period than usual elapsed without my looking them over; but yesterday, when I went into the country, I took the bag with me, read the letters in the carriage, and there I found your note.”
Fortunately, in this case there was no unhandsome intention, and the publication of the translation was postponed.
It has often happened to celebrated orators to lower themselves in the scale of reputation by venturing to appeal to the public in print: but such was not the fate of Sheridan, whose printed compositions were eminently successful, because they were works of imagination, and in no way dependent on extent of research. His erudition, if we except the classics and English poetry, was very limited: in the transaction just mentioned, he begged from Mrs. Plumptre a copy of her translation, as he was much perplexed with those he had,' and was quite unacquainted with German. "Indeed,” he said, (vol. ii. p. 296.) “ I know nothing of modern languages: I can with difficulty puzzle out a sentence of French by the help of a grammar and dictionary.” It was some years previous to this in 1796) that an attempt was made by Mr. Ireland to impose on the public the MS. of Vortigern as a genuine production of Shakspeare. Sheridan, after a slight inspection of the papers, agreed to purchase the play for the theatre; and it is amusing to observe the impressions of a mind so penetrating and judicious, but too indolent to make that thorough investigation which the importance of the matter required.
Previous to the signing of the agreement, he and Richardson went to inspect the fair copy of the play which had been made from the manuscript. After perusing several pages, Mr. Sheridan came to one line which was not strictly correct, upon which, turning to Mr. Ireland, he remarked, “This is rather strange; for though you are acquainted with my opinion as to Shakspeare, yet, be it as it may, he certainly always wrote poetry.” Having perused a few pages further, he again paused, and laying down the manuscript, spoke to the following effect: “ There are certainly some bold ideas; but they are crude and undigested. It is very odd; one would think that Shakspeare must have been very young when he wrote the play. As to the doubting whether it be really his, or not, who can possibly look at the papers and not believe them ancient?" ;