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1751–1816

The marvellous breadth of human nature could hardly be better illustrated than by the fact that two such man as Burke and Sheridan were contemporaries. Both were Irishmen, born in Dublin, both orators and members of the Whig party, associated in Parliament; and both were orators of the very highest calibre and genius; and yet no two men could well have been more different in all that goes to make character. Sheridan was more the typical Celt than Burke; he overflowed with the purest wit and humor, and was gifted with the wider variety of talent. But he had, what not all Irishmen possess, extraordinary powers of application and sustained diligence, and the faculty not merely of imagining great things, but of doing them. He had already lived one life and achieved a national reputation, before he entered politics; yet a political career had always been his prime ambition; and after he had conquered the stage and made a fortune from it, he turned to Parliáment as the consummation of his hopes. For a time, fortune seemed disposed to deny him the high place he coveted here; the very renown which he gathered elsewhere stood in his way; but he was not the man to be defeated by a first rebuff; he only applied himself more persistently to his task, and presently his hour of triumph came, and it was as complete as he could have desired. Richard Brinsley Butler Sheridan was born in 1751, got his education at Harrow School, married a pretty singer, and settled in London in 1773. Within seven years he had written all his incomparable Plays, making him the first dramatist of the age. Among them are “The Rivals,” “The Critic,” and the “School for Scandal.” In 1780 he entered Parliament as Whig member for Stafford; four years later he had been Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs and Secretary of the Treasury; and in 1787, at the trial of Warren Hastings, he had put the cap-stone to the edifice of his renown by delivering that speech, of which Burke declared that it was the most astonishing effort of eloquence of which there is any record or tradition. Sheridan was then thirty-six years old, and had been in London fourteen years. In fact he was a man who could not fail. His literary training had given that appreciation of the force and value of words—that discrimination and felicity in their employment, and that wealth and readiness of resource which formed the most available foundation for the superstructure of eloquence. For the latter he prepared himself studiously; but he was vitally helped by a natural gift of insight into character; by his abounding humor; by his wit; and by a natural shrewdness and manly good sense, which recommended him to the solid intelligence of Englishmen. It is obvious that such a man as Sheridan, with his eye, his voice, his manner, his vivacity and dramatic power, must depend for much of the wonderful effects he produced upon his actual appearance and movements before his audience. By allowing our imagination to come to the aid of our intelligence, however, we may form an approximate notion, from the published report of the speech delivered at Warren Hastings's trial, of what the reality must have been; we can see the noble hall, the vast audience, composed of the foremost men of England, the accused, himself a man of matchless ability; and above all, the brilliant, graceful figure of the marvellous Irishman, filling the eye and ear, master of laughter and of tears, making the heart leap in the bosom, and compelling the pride of intellect to acknowledge him its lord.

SPEECH AT THE TRIAL OF WARREN
HASTINGS

Y LORDS: I shall not waste your lordships' time nor my own by any preliminary observations on the importance of the subject before you, or on the propriety of our bringing it in this solemn manner to a final decision." My honorable friend [Mr. Burke], the principal mover of the impeachment, has already executed the task in a way the most masterly and impressive. He, whose indignant and enterprising genius, roused by the calls of public justice, has, with unprecedented labor, perseverance, and eloquence, excited one branch of the legislature to the vindication of our national character, and through whose means the House of Commons now makes this embodied stand in favor of man against man's iniquity, need hardly be followed on the general grounds of the prosecution. Confiding in the dignity, the liberality, and intelligence of the tribunal before which I now have the honor to appear in my delegated capacity of a manager, I do not, indeed, conceive it necessary to engage your lordships' attention for a single moment with any introductory animadversions. But there is one point which here presents itself that it becomes me not to overlook. Insinuations have been thrown out that my honorable colleagues and myself are actuated by motives of malignity against the unfortunate prisoner at the bar. An imputation of so serious a nature cannot be permitted to pass altogether without comment; though it comes in so loose a shape, in such whispers and oblique hints as to prove to a certainty that it was made in the consciousness, and, therefore, with the circumspection of falsehood. I can, my lords, most confidently aver, that a prosecution more

-* This speech was delivered before the House of Lords, sitting as a High Court of Parliament, June, 1788.

disinterested in all its motives and ends; more free from personal malice or personal interest; more perfectly public, and more purely animated by the simple and unmixed spirit of justice, never was brought in any country, at any time, by any body of men, against any individual. What possible resentment can we entertain against the unfortunate prisoner? What possible interest can we have in his conviction? What possible object of a personal nature can we accomplish by his ruin? For myself, my lords, I make this solemn asseveration, that I discharge my breast of all malice, hatred, and ill-will against the prisoner, if at any time indignation at his crimes has planted in it these passions; and I believe, my lords, that I may with equal truth answer for every one of my colleagues. We are, my lords, anxious, in stating the crimes with which he is charged, to keep out of recollection the person of the unfortunate prisoner. In prosecuting him to conviction, we are impelled only by a sincere abhorrence of his guilt, and a sanguine hope of remedying future delinquency. We can have no private incentive to the part we have taken. We are actuated singly by the zeal we feel for the public welfare, and by an honest solicitude for the honor of our country, and the happiness of those who are under its dominion and protection. With such views, we really, my lords, lose sight of Mr. Hastings, who, however great in some other respects, is too insignificant to be blended with these important circumstances. The unfortunate prisoner is, at best, to my mind, no mighty object. Amid the series of mischiefs and enormities to my sense seeming to surround him, what is he but a petty nucleus, involved in its laminae, scarcely seen or heard of? This prosecution, my lords, was not, as is alleged, “begot in prejudice, and nursed in error.” It originated in the clearest conviction of the wrongs which the natives of Hindostan have endured by the maladministration of those in whose hands this country had placed extensive powers; which ought to have been exercised for the benefit of the governed, but which was used by the prisoner for the shameful purpose of oppression. I repeat with emphasis, my lords, that nothing personal or malicious has induced us to institute this prosecution. It is absurd to suppose it. We come to your lordships' bar as the representatives of the Commons of England; and, as acting in this public capacity, it might as truly be said that the Commons, in whose name the impeachment is brought before your lordships, were actuated by enmity to the prisoner, as that we, their deputed organs, have any private spleen to gratify in discharging the duty imposed upon us by our principals. Your lordships will also recollect and discriminate between impeachment for capital offences and impeachment for high crimes and misdemeanors. In an impeachment of the former kind, when the life of an individual is to be forfeited on conviction, if malignity be indulged in giving a strong tincture and coloring to facts, the tenderness of man's nature will revolt at it; for, however strongly indignant we may be at the perpetration of offences of a gross quality, there is a feeling that will protect an accused person from the influence of malignity in such a situation; but where no traces of this malice are discoverable, where no thirst for blood is seen, where, seeking for exemplary more than sanguinary justice, an impeachment is brought for high crimes and misdemeanors, malice will not be imputed to the prosecutors if, in illustration of the crimes alleged, they should adduce every possible circumstance in support of their allegations. Why will it not? Because their ends have nothing abhorrent to human tenderness. Because, in such a case as the present, for instance, all that is aimed at in convicting the prisoner is a temporary seclusion from the society of his countrymen, whose name he has tarnished by his crimes, and a deduction from the enormous spoils which he has accumulated by his greedy rapacity. I. The only matter which I shall, in this stage of my inquiry, lay before your lordships, in order to give you an impression of the influence of the crimes of the prisoner over the country in which they were committed, is to refer to some passages in a letter of the Earl of Cornwallis. You see, my lords, that the British government, which ought to have been a blessing to the powers in India connected with it, has proved a scourge to the natives, and the cause of desolation to their most flourishing provinces. Behold, my lords, this frightful picture of the consequences of a government of violence and oppression! Surely the condition of wretchedness to which this once happy and independent prince is reduced by our cruelty, and the ruin which in some way has been brought upon his country, call loudly upon your lordships to interpose, and to rescue the national honor and reputation from the infamy to which both will be exposed if no investigation be made into the causes of their calamities, and no punishment inflicted on the authors of them. By policy as well as justice you are vehemently urged to vindicate the English character in the East; for, my lords, it is manifest that the native powers have so little reliance on our faith, that the preservation of our possessions in that division of the world can only be effected by convincing the princes that a religious adherence to its engagements with them shall hereafter distinguish our India government. To these letters what answer shall we return? Let it not, my lords, be by words, which will not find credit with the natives, who have been so often deceived by our professions, but by deeds which will assure them that we are at length truly in earnest. It is only by punishing those who have been guilty of the delinquencies which have ruined the country, and by showing that future criminals will not be encouraged or countenanced by the ruling powers at home, that we can possibly gain confidence with the people of India. This alone will revive their respect for us, and secure our authority over them. This alone will restore to us the alienated attachment of the much-injured nabob, silence his clamors, heal his grievances, and remove his distrust. This alone will make him feel that he may cherish his people, cultivate his lands, and extend the mild hand of parental care over a fertile and industrious kingdom, without dreading that prosperity will entail upon him new rapine and extortion. This alone will inspire the nabob with confidence in the English government, and the subjects of Oude with confidence in the nabob. This alone will give to the soil of that delightful country the advantages which it derived from a beneficent Providence, and make it again what it was when invaded by an English spoiler, the garden of India. It is in the hope, my lords, of accomplishing these salutary ends, of restoring character to England and happiness to India, that we have come to the bar of this exalted tribunal. In looking round for an object fit to be held out to an oppressed people, and to the world as an example of national justice, we are forced to fix our eyes on Mr. Hastings. It is he, my

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