Robert Walpole: Famous Heads Of State

Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford, in his earlier political years. He served as British Prime Minister from 1721 to 1742, under Kings George I and George II.

5. Early Life

Robert Walpole, the third son of Colonel Robert Walpole and Mary Burwell, was born at Houghton Hall, Norfolk, England on August 26th, 1676. He was educated at Great Dunham, Norfolk, and went to Eton from 1690 to 1696. This was immediately followed by King’s College, Cambridge, which he then attended until 1698. The death of his elder brother terminated his academic career, and instead of entering the church, he returned to Norfolk to help manage his family's estates. He married in 1700, and inherited the family estate on the death of his father that year, along with the family’s Parliamentary seat for the Castle Rising borough.

4. Rise to Power

Walpole, a member of the Whig Party, quickly made his mark in the House of Commons, thanks in large to his strong oratorical skills and moderate, though firmly-held, political beliefs. In 1705, he was on the council which controlled naval affairs and, in 1708, was promoted to the title of Secretary of War. His dedication to Parliament, in conjunction with his strong debating skills, made him an effective leader in the opposition to the governing majority party, the Tories. The Tories had him impeached and sent to the Tower of London in 1712, but three years later Walpole had his revenge, being appointed First Lord of the Treasury, and then as Chancellor of the Exchequer by King George I in 1715.

3. Contributions

Though Walpole first regarded the title as an insult, he effectively became Britain’s first Prime Minister. In the role, he dominated the country’s political arena throughout the reigns of George I and II until 1742. Fortunately, Walpole was on hand when the speculative frenzy dubbed the "South Sea Bubble" almost ruined both the royal court and the political ruling class, and threatened the stability of the country. The South Sea Company, a joint-stock venture involved in trade and fishing operations in the New World and South Seas, had their investment "bubble" burst in 1720. This left thousands of people, mostly in London, financially ruined. Nonetheless, Walpole’s political skill and prowess saved many in the Whig Party from a violent end in the turmoil that ensued, and restored confidence in Parliament.

2. Challenges

Walpole needed every ounce of skill he had, for his long rule was never free from crises, particularly in terms of foreign affairs. His policy of peace abroad and low taxation at home appealed to the independent aristocrats who sat in Parliament, but many of these, especially those he had driven into opposition, regarded this passive approach to foreign affairs as a betrayal of Britain’s interests. Eventually, the growing difficulties with Spain over trade in the West Indies was seized on by the opposition to embarrass Walpole. He tried his utmost to settle the dispute with Spain through negotiation but, in 1739, had his hand forced to reluctantly declare war on them. This conflict became known as the War of Jenkins' Era, and meant to establish trading dominance in the Caribbean and other New World waters.

1. Death and Legacy

Though disapproving of it, Walpole was blamed for the lack of British success the War of Jenkins' Era. Thusly, in 1742 he was forced to resign over it, along with other minor issues. The King named Robert the "Earl of Orford", and though retired and generously pensioned, Walpole continued playing an active role in politics until his death in March of 1745. Contemporary opponents dubbed Walpole the ‘Screen-Master General’, referring to a puppet-master adept at making everyone dance on his strings. The consensus of opinion today is in broad, if less bitter agreement. The first British Prime Minister is often remembered as a maintainer of the system rather than a reformer of it.


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