Per Scriptum E. Wesley - Mackinac Center Intern
If ever a glorious concept of government arose from a scandalous politician, Sir Robert's Walpole's career would fit the description. Despite embezzlement and voting trickery, Walpole's central position in English government set a precedent for a new executive branch within Parliament. Although the term Prime Minister wasn't recognized as a British office until 1905, Walpole is considered the first Prime Minister of Great Britain. Almost of his energies were merely political. He never possessed some great goal for the government, but rather took things as they came. Of course, this may have had a good effect, as he didn't push some sort of arbitrary agenda on the people of Great Britain. Notwithstanding the fact that his contemporary David Hume would not usually be someone trustworthy of character analysis, Hume does give modern readers a tap into the times. In A Character of Sir Robert Walpole, Hume colorfully writes, "During his time trade has flourished, liberty declined, and learning gone to ruin. As I am a man, I love him; as I am a scholar, I hate him; as I am a Briton, I calmly wish his fall." Walpole became the First Lord Commissioner of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1715, but it wasn't until his second term, beginning on April 3, 1721, that he began establishing procedures for a new and distinct office. He couldn't have been more wrong about his apparent "insignificance." Walpole politically defined the executive for the rest of the Western World to follow.
Sir Robert Walpole was born on August 26, 1676 in Houghton, Norfolk, where his wealthy family had owned the Houghton Hall estate for four hundred years. He attended Great Durham school as a boy, and studied at Eton College in 1690. By that time, King Charles II had died, Parliament had deposed Charles's Catholic brother James II, and William III of Orange was now king. After attending King's College Cambridge from 1696 to 1698, Walpole inherited the Houghton Hall upon the death of his father in 1701, and became an MP to the House of Commons for the Castle Rising district. His political carrier had begun.
Being an ardent Whig, Walpole's often crafty political influence brought Whigs to power in Parliament. While Queen Anne was on the throne, Walpole became Secretary at War in 1708 and Treasurer of the Navy in 1709. However in 1712, the opposing Tory Party accused Walpole of accepting payments that were illegal as Secretary of War, and after being found guilty, Walpole spent six mounts locked up in the Tower of London. Queen Anne's death in 1714 and George I's subsequent coronation gave the Whigs a political advantage. King George I distrusted the Tories, as they more likely to follow the Stuart line to the throne and disregard or marginalize him. Walpole soon rose to power again, and became First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1715. According to the King's desire, Walpole devised a plan that would rig elections in Whig favor. He bribed targeted districts with limited electorates in order to win. As the election results did not fairly represent public opinion, riots broke out and were suppressed with the Riot Act. Despite a temporary resignation in 1717 when the Whig Party was split, he returned in 1720 as Paymaster General.
The events of 1720 paved Walpole's road to power. During the South Sea Bubble scandal, Walpole pumped public funds into the sinking company to protect aristocratic directors. This brought him disfavor with the public but equal popularity among prominent leaders, and in an age when public opinion was second in political preference and weight to influential aristocrats, Walpole's efforts didn't go unnoticed. Because of these dealings, he returned to his prestigious post as First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer for the second time on April 3, 1721. In 1722, Walpole's counter espionage network uncovered a Tory plot to restore James II's son to the throne (just the sort of thing George I feared from the Tories). George I was properly grateful, and returned the favor with indisputable prestige and personal benefits. Indeed, proof of George I's lavishness on Walpole is still apparent today from the exquisite remodeling begun in 1722 of Walpole's Houghton Hall estate (click the link to view). It was during his second term as First Lord that Walpole began to display the vestments of a modern prime minister. He developed a unique cabinet system based on patronage, and put the House of Commons at the forefront of parliamentary power. Because of this political focus, Britain avoided war for a while. This, in turn, contributed to the stability in government that was much needed in these heated and divided times.
When George II ascended the throne in 1727, Walpole was temporarily replaced by Spencer Compton as First Lord, but was soon reinstalled to the position partly due to his friendship with George II's wife Caroline. Soon after, Walpole attempted to lower the land tax on the wealthy land owners in favor for taxing salt, which he believed would be fairer. This would seem to be popular with the Tory gentry, as they owned most of the land. However, the Tories, seeing the opportunity for a popular demonstration, decided to protest along side the common man in order to weaken Walpole's power. Apparently, they valued political position above personal gain. Walpole backed off of the tax proposal in 1733, and was now in an unstable political position going into the 1734 elections. Once again, intentional voting trickery proved more effective than the opposition. When all else failed, Walpole fell back on political tricks in order to secure his power, "winning" the election. George II then gave 10 Downing Street to Walpole as First Lord in 1735. This remains the residence of the British Prime Minister today.
Walpole's disapproval for a war with Spain eventually led to his political downfall, and he resigned in 1742, after which he was given a position in the House of Lord's (when he is quoted as saying, "My Lord Bath, you and I are now as insignificant men as any in England"). His twenty years as prime minister is still a record. When Walpole died on March 18, 1745, he left behind a political office that would only mature with time. The English prime minister phenomenon pioneered a new executive branch that would be a pattern to other nations in the future. In America, the concept of prime minister was united with the Enlightenment political philosophy of separation of powers to form the modern Western three branch government system. Sir Robert Walpole was simply pursuing his own political gains, but the effect was the beginning of an idea. On the surface of it, Walpole did little to advance liberty through his policy, but his political organization did much to bring about concepts of limited government and liberty throughout the Western world and beyond.
Image of Robert Walpole prime minister of Britain from Wikipedia