While their adversaries were divided by differences of principle and without leaders of real eminence, the Whigs stood as one man on the principles of the Revolution and produced great leaders who carried them into effect. They submitted with admirable discipline to the guidance of a knot of great nobles, to the houses of Bentinck, Manners, Campbell, and Cavendish, to the Fitzroys and Lennoxes, the Russells and Grenvilles, families whose resistance to the Stuarts, whose share in the Revolution, whose energy in setting the line of Hanover on the throne, gave them a claim to power. It was due yet more largely to the activity with which the Whigs devoted thenselves to the gaining and preserving an ascendency in the House of Commons. The support of the commercial classes and of the great towns was secured not only by a resolute maintenance of public credit, but by the special attention which each ministry paid to questions of trade and finance. Peace and the reduction of the land-tax conciliated the farmers and the landowners, while the Jacobite sympathies of the bulk of the squires, and their consequent withdrawal from all share in politics, threw even the representation of the shires for a time into Whig hands.
Of the county members, who formed the less numerous but the weightier part of the lower House, nine-tenths were for some years relatives and dependents of the great Whig families. Nor were coarser means of controlling Parliament neglected. The wealth of the Whig houses was lavishly spent in securing a monopoly of the small and corrupt constituencies which made up a large part of the borough representation. It was spent yet more unscrupulously in parliamentary bribery. Corruption was older than Walpole or the Whig Ministry, for it sprang out of the very transfer of power to the House of Commons which had begun with the Restoration. The transfer was complete, and the House was supreme in the State; but while freeing itself from the control of the Crown, it was as yet imperfectly responsible to the people. It was only at election time that a member felt the pressure of public opinion. The secrecy of parliamentary proceedings, which had been needful as a safeguard against royal interference with debate, served as a safeguard against interference on the part of constituencies. This strange union of immense power with absolute freedom from responsibility brought about its natural results in the bulk of members.
A vote was too valuable to be given without recompense; and parliamentary support had to be bought by places, pensions, and bribes in hard cash. But dexterous as was their management, and compact as was their organization, it was to nobler qualities than these that the Whigs owed their long rule over England. They were true throughout to the principles on which they had risen into power, and their unbroken administration converted those principles into national habits. Before their long rule was over, Englishmen had forgotten that it was possible to persecute for difference of opinion, or to put down the liberty of the press, or to tamper with the administration of justice, or to rule without a Parliament.
That this policy was so firmly grasped and so steadily carried out was due above all to the genius of Robert Walpole. Born in 1676, he entered Parliament two years before William's death as a young Norfolk landowner of fair fortune, with the tastes and air of the class from which he sprang. His big square figure, his vulgar good-humoured face were those of a common country squire. And in Walpole the squire underlay the statesman to the last. H e was ignorant of books, he " loved neither writing nor reading," and if he had a taste for art, his real love was for the table, the bottle, and the chase. He rode as hard as he drank. Even in moments of political peril, the first despatch he would open was the letter from his gamekeeper. There was the temper of the Norfolk fox-hunter in the "doggedness " which Marlborough noted as his characteristic, in the burly self-confidence which declared " If I had not been Prime Minister I should have been Archbishop of Canterbury," in the stubborn courage which conquered the awkwardness of his earlier efforts to speak, or met single-handed at the last the bitter attacks of a host of enemies. There was the same temper in the genial good-humour which became with him a new force in politics.
No man was ever more fiercely attacked by speakers and writers, but he brought in no "gagging Act" for the press; and though the lives of most of his assailants were in his hands through their intrigues with the Pretender, he made little use of his power over them. Where his country breeding showed itself most, however, was in the shrewd, narrow, honest character of his mind. Though he saw very clearly, he could not see far, and he would not believe what he could not see. He was thoroughly straightforward and true to his own convictions, so far as they went. "Robin and I are two honest men," the Jacobite Shippen owned in later years, when contrasting him with his factious opponents: "he is for King George and I am for King James, but those men with long cravats only desire place either under King George or King James." He saw the value of the political results which the Revolution had won, and he carried out his "Revolution principles " with a rare fidelity through years of unquestioned power. But his prosaic good sense turned sceptically away from the poetic and passionate sides of human feeling.
Appeals to the loftier or purer motives of action he laughed at as " school-boy flights." For young members who talked of public virtue or patriotism he had one good-natured answer: "You will soon come off that and grow wiser".
How great a part Walpole was to play no one could as yet foresee. Though his vigour in the cause of his party had earned him the bitter hostility of the Tories in the later years of Anne, and a trumped-up charge of peculation bad served in 1712 as a pretext for expelling him from the House and committing him to the Tower, at the accession of George the First Walpole was far from holding the commanding position he was soon to assume. The first Hanoverian Ministry was drawn wholly from the Whig party, but its leaders and Marlborough found themselves alike set aside. The direction of affairs was entrusted to the new Secretary of State, Lord Townshend; his fellow Secretary was General Stanhope, who was raised to the peerage. It was as Townshend's brother-in-law, rather than from a sense of his actual ability, that Walpole successively occupied the posts of Paymaster of the Forces, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and First Lord of the Treasury, in the new administration. The first work of the Ministry was to meet a desperate attempt of the Pretender to gain the throne. There was no real prospect of success, for the active Jacobites in England were few, and the Tories were broken and dispirited by the fall of their leaders.