1902 Encyclopedia > Henry Grattan

Henry Grattan
Irish statesman and orator
(1746-1820)




HENRY GR ATT AN, (1746-1820), Irish statesman and orator, was born 3d July 1746. His father, a Protestant, was for many years recorder of the city of Dublin, and from 1761 to 1766 its representative in the Irish parliament; and his mother was a daughter of Thomas Marlay, chief justice of Ireland. Both at school and at Trinity College, Dublin, which he entered in 1763, young Grattan greatly distinguished himself, especially in the study of the classics; and several well-authenticated anecdotes indicate also that the more prominent moral characteristics displayed in his public career had begun to assert their strength at a very early period. While still attending the university he discarded the Tory principles of his father, who, dying in 1766 before his irritation had time to moderate, testified his resentment by depriving him of the paternal mansion, and of all property not secured by settlement. Having in-herited, however, a small inalienable patrimony he resolved to study for the bar, and in 1767 he entered the Middle Temple, London. He was called to the Irish bar in 1772, but never obtained a large practice; and indeed from the time that he left the university he seems to have concen-trated his attention chiefly on politics and the study of popular oratory. He early acquired a passionate admira-tion of the great orators of Greece and Rome, and while in London he spent the most of his evenings in the galleries of the House of Commons or at the bar of the Lords, anxious to profit by every opportunity of obtaining an insight into the art of eloquence, his enthusiasm for which had received additional stimulus from the genius of Lord Chatham. Of the eloquence of Chatham he has given a detailed and graphic description in one of his letters, and he also wrote an admirable portraiture of his character, which was inserted as a note in the political publication Barataría conducted by Sir Hercules Langrishe. The knowledge obtained from the study of the best specimens of ancient and modern oratory, and that gained from wit-nessing the debates in the English parliament, Grattan began sedulously to apply to the purposes of his own dis-cipline. By the constant practice of recitation to imaginary audiences, and by taking part frequently in private theatri-cals, he succeeded in overcoming to a remarkable extent his great physical defects, so as to acquire a clear and rounded articulation, an emphasis in some respects admir-ably consonant with his meaning, and a certain ease in a style of elocution which was effective partly by reason of its very singularity. At the same time, by practising the habit of writing out the principal passages of his speeches, and subjecting them to a constant mental revision, he attained to the possession of a diction which for clearness, epigrammatic vigour, polished beauty of phrase, and the power of illuminating a whole subject by sudden flashes of meaning conveyed in a single sentence, is unsurpassed in modern oratory. He was equally diligent also in per-fecting his political knowdedge by a careful study of the history and political constitution both of ancient and modern nations; and the minor accomplishment of pro-ficiency as a pistol shot, at that time essential to every Irish politician who would be prepared for all emergencies, was cultivated by him with the same dogged perseverance which he displayed in other matters.

When therefore, under the auspices of Lord Charlemont, Grattan in 1775 entered the Irish parliament, he had already all his powers under full command, and had so trained and disciplined his natural genius that it was able to exert its influence with untrammelled freedom. The period at which he began public life was one of the most critical in his country's history; and it is within the limits of strict truth to affirm that he inaugurated a new era in her political condition, and that, whether for good or for evil, and whether by the direct success of his efforts or by the modifying or opposing influences they called into exercise, he has had a greater share than any other indi-vidual in determining her present relation to the United Kingdom. Through the writings of Molyneux and Swift, the beginnings of a true national sentiment had been pre-viously awakened; and the first step in the path of constitu-tional reform had been taken, when by the advocacy of Flood the Octennial Bill of 1768 was passed, which limited the duration of parliaments to eight years, instead of as formerly making their continuance depend upon the life of the sovereign; but Flood himself—whose friendship and influence were a powerful element in determining Grattan to adopt a political career—had, like less formid-able agitators, succumbed to the intrigues of the " castle," and, although possessed of a private fortune which placed him beyond the suspicion of being governed chiefly by mer-cenary considerations, had consented to hamper his political action by accepting a sinecure office; and it seemed as if the germs of a better future had already begun to rot in a soil of such political corruption. The difficulty of the task which Grattan had set before him was also increased by a peculiarity in the case of Ireland which requires to be emphasized. Her political constitution, and, with the exception of the restrictions which paralysed her trade, the laws which were inflicting upon her such moral and physical misery, did not nominally differ to any great extent from those of the country by which she was in reality governed. She possessed intact her separate nationality; she was* blessed with the boon of a national parliament; she had a legal administration of her own, including the right of trial by jury ; and she enjoyed something resembling the privileges of municipal government. She possessed these things, however, scarcely more than in form; and she possessed them in such a form that, instead of being the guarantees of her liberty, they increased her sense of bondage, and directly fostered discontent and chronic mutiny. Though the Test Act and the penal laws were actually enforced with less rigour than in England, yet from the numbers who came within their sweep their disastrous influence was incal-culably increased. They excluded four-fifths of her other-wise eligible population from the jury box and from muni-cipal and parliamentary suffrage ; they had produced con-fiscations on almost a national scale with all the evils con-sequent on absenteeism ; and from their operation there had resulted an ignorance, a poverty, a violation of the rights of conscience, not confined to a few thousands, helplessly dispersed throughout the kingdom, but afflicting the great mass of the people, and both by their direct and their reflex action poisoning the springs of the whole national life. Her judges besides were liable to dismissal at pleasure, and her parliament had no independent authority, and by its very constitution was subject to corrupt influences far exceeding those in operation in the English parliament, and such as virtually to deprive it of independence of vote, almost as completely as it had been deprived of the power of legislation. Still that parliament constituted a kind of centre for political discussion and for the propagation and diffusion of political ideas, and it was by means of it that Grattan and his associates determined to work out the political and social regeneration of their country. Almost as soon as he entered parliament, Grattan became the acknowledged leader of the opposition, not only from the influence exerted by his oratory within the House, but from its power to kindle the enthusiasm of the people, and to create out of the chaos of shapeless and discordant elements the united sympathy and purpose of a true national life. In this he received an assistance from ex-ternal events which was embarrassing as well as helpful;— from the American rebellion, which was the result of a struggle for rights similar to those he was contending for; from the war with France, which led to the creation of a volunteer army in Ireland that became a kind of political convention ; and ultimately from the French Eevolution, which in Ireland, more than in any other country of Europe, aroused wild desires after political freedom.

In February 1778 Grattan moved an address to the crown, to the effect that the condition of Ireland was no longer endurable, and although the motion was supported by only a small minority, the discussion bore fruit in the same year by the concession of free export of all produce except woollens, and by the modification of the penal laws to the extent of allowing the Catholics to hold leases for 999 years. In the following year the volunteers by their deter-mined attitude crowned with success his efforts, along with Flood and Burgh, to effect the total repeal of the restriction Acts, and the same year saw also the repeal of the Test Act. With a view to increase and take advantage of the rising tide of national sentiment, Grattan on April 19th 1780 moved his famous resolutions that the " king with the con-sent of the parliament of Ireland was alone competent to 'enact laws to bind Ireland, and that Great Britain and Ireland were indissolubly united, but only under a common sovereign;" but so satisfied was he with the tone of the debate that, unwilling needlessly to irritate or embarrass the English Government, he did not press his motion to a division. An agitation was, however, begun in the follow-ing year against Poyning's Act and the Mutiny Act, and Grattan besides supported the introduction of a bill per-mitting the Catholics to inherit and hold property on the same terms as other subjects. In order also to bring pressure to bear on the English Government, Grattan, Flood, and Charlemont met privately in the beginning of 1782, and drew up for the consideration of the volunteers' dele-, gates two resolutions in reference to independence ; and to these Grattan, on his own responsibility and without the knowledge of Flood and Charlemont, added a third in favour of the measure for the relaxation of the penal laws against the Catholics. All these resolutions were adopted by the delegates unanimously, and Grattan, strong in armed sup-port, repeated his motion for a declaration of independence, which, although it was lost, aroused such general enthusiasm that, wdien on the 16th April he rose to move a Declara-tion of Bights, he in a brilliant oration congratulated his hearers and his country on the triumphant issue of the struggle, his first words being—" I am now about to address a free people." So completely did his eloquence rise to what was deemed the greatness of the occasion that its effect has seldom been equalled in the annals of oratory; and in the state of high-wrought excitement that prevailed, the Government, then doubtful as to the result of the siege of Gibraltar by the French and Spaniards, did not dare to refuse the boon which had already been in reality appro-priated without their permission, and on the 17th May resolutions were passed unanimously, pledging the English parliament to redress the grievances complained of. In recognition of Grattan's services the Irish parliament was prepared to have voted him a grant of £100,000; but he was with difficulty persuaded to accept half that sum, and only agreed to do so from the consideration that, by reliev-ing him from the necessity of practising at the bar, it would enable him to devote the whole of his energies to politics. He determined, however, that this gift should not in any way bias his political action, and when Flood, supported by the volunteer convention, brought forward his motion for repeal, he at the expense of his popularity moved its rejection—a procedure which also gave rise to an extraordinary scene of mutual recrimination between the two orators. For the next ten years Grattan carried on the struggle for the re-form of Irish abuses with almost no success; and his Place and Pension Bill, and bills to make the great officers of government responsible for their proceedings, to prevent revenue officers from voting at elections, and to abolish ecclesiastical tithes, were all rejected. Pitt, at one time disposed to promote emancipation, became lukewarm in his zeal after the rejection in 1785 of Mr Orde's bill for the removal of trade restrictions, which, on account of a clause binding the parliament to re-enact England's navigation laws, was opposed by Grattan as involving a principle that implied a revocation of the constitution ; nor did the action of the Irish parliament in the regency dispute of 1789 tend to smooth the relations between the two countries. At last in 1793 parliamentary suffrage was conceded to the Catho-lics as a sop to the fury of the United Irishmen; but the concession served only to whet the appetite for further redress, and when the hope of obtaining this, after reaching the verge of certainty by the appointment of Fitzwilliam as lord-lieutenant, was suddenly dashed by his recall, the spirit of brooding discontent increased until ultimately it resulted in the bloody rebellion of 1798. Previous to its occurrence Grattan had withdrawn from parliament. It has been surmised by Mr Froude that in urging on the question of emancipation Grattan wished to effect a complete separation from England, and perhaps calculated, though a Protestant, on obtaining as the reward of his services the first place in the new commonwealth; but besides that the conjecture is unnecessary, since it was quite a possible supposition that emancipation might have proved the best method of confirming the loyalty of the Catholics, — and it was most certainly a better method than union without emancipation,'—it is without a shadow of proof to support it, and would also have implied treachery on his part of the blackest kind, while treachery of any kind is belied by the whole course of his political life. In 1800 Grattan, though in feeble health, entered the Irish parliament as member for Wicklow, specially to oppose the motion for union, a measure whose bitterness was not rendered less distasteful to. him from the time, manner, and means employed for its accomplishment. He regarded its suc-cess as almost the nullification of Ireland's partial freedom, and the indefinite postponement of the attempt to remedy her wrongs. Though knowing from the beginning that; to contend against the influence of the Government was hopeless, he exerted all his eloquence in condemnation of, the measure ; and his last words in the Irish Parliament were—"I will remain anchored here with fidelity to the fortunes of my country, faithful to her freedom, faithful to her fall." In the course of these debates Grattan was three times virulently attacked by Mr Corry, chancellor of the exchequer, but at last retaliated with overwhelming effect. In the duel which followed Corry was wounded.

After the Union Grattan withdrew for a time from public life, but, in order to lend his assistance to the pass-ing of the Catholic Belief Bill, he in 1805 entered the English parliament as member for Malton; and in the following year he was returned by Dublin, which he had formerly represented in the Irish parliament. Although his speeches in the new arena did not detract from his fame, the union had effected so great a change in his political standpoint that the inspiration which had for-merly given to his eloquence such a glow of confident ardour, and had braced his powers to such supreme efforts, was no longer present. He refused to take office in the Fox ministry, but he nevertheless gave the Whigs his sup-port on all important occasions; and by voting with the Government on the Irish Insurrection Bill of 1807, he showed that his regard for the general welfare of the empire was

unaffected by the great political disappointment of his life. After the rejection of the Catholic Relief Bill of 1813, which was accompanied by a clause reserving to the English sovereign the power of veto in the election of Catholic bishops, the Catholic board repudiated the proposed compromise and declined to entrust Grattan further with their cause. He, however, gave it the same energetic support as formerly, and after 1815 he never spoke in the English parliament on any other subject. In 1819 his motion was defeated by the small majority of two; and on the reassembling of parliament in the following May, he undertook, con-trary to the advice of his physician, a journey to London in order again to bring forward the subject, but died a few days after his arrival, 4th June 1820. He received the honour of a public funeral and a grave in Westminster Abbey, where he lies near the tombs of Pitt and Fox.

Lord Byron, who had heard Grattan only in the English House of Commons, says that he would have come near to his ideal of a perfect orator but for his harlequin manner: and he also states that Curran was in the habit of taking him off by bowing to the very ground and thanking God that he had no peculiarities of gesture or appearance. His features were large and plain, and he was low in stature and so awkwardly formed that probably he never could have acquired a very graceful gesture ; but the gravity and impressiveness of his bearing banished all sense of the ridiculous, and perhaps even the odduess and violence of his attitudes assisted to dissipate the feeling in his hearers of his personal insignificance. His voice, though not harsh, was deficient both in mellowness and volume, and when not elevated by emotion into shrillness had a low drawling accent. He succeeded, however, by virtue of appropriate emphasis and of concentrated energy, in bring-ing home to his hearers all the various shades of the passion and purpose of his discourse, and this perhaps with greater vividness than if it had been accomplished by means of an elocution which, if less faulty, would not have expressed so well his own peculiar individuality. In private life he was simple, genial, and courteous, and the felicity of his language, flavoured by an enunciation and manner that were all his own, lent to his conversation a rare and peculiar charm.

His speeches suffer much from imperfect reporting, but their leading characteristics can be determined with considerable accuracy. Great labour, direct and indirect, was bestowed on their preparation, and few speeches show so many traces of art; but it is art transfused and palpitating with enthusiasm, and therefore, though defective in ease and simplicity, they cannot be charged with artificiality or affectation. In regard to the chief fault of his style,—the excessive use of epigram,—it must be remembered that he made it supply the place both of wit and of direct argument; and that it never wearied his audience by a monotony of stilted smartness, but, by its incisive vigour and its startling originality, rendered his speeches perhaps unequalled for sustained brilliancy and interest. His oratorical triumphs were won, not by the stately marshalling of arguments and illustrations towards a climax, but by sudden surprises from so many directions, and so closely following each other that resistance to his attacks soon became impossible. In regard to subject-matter his speeches do not suffer from comparison even with those of Burke. His favourite method of enforcing his arguments was by illustrations either of similarity or of contrast drawn from history or from contemporary events ; and while in this way he exhibited in every possible light the plausibility of his contentions, he gave dignity and elevation to his theme by removing it from the narrow sphere of party politics, and connecting it with principles of universal and permanent consequence. Much of the effect of his eloquence was due to the boldness of his statements and of his allusions and imagery, a boldness which, though often amounting to hardihood, never overstepped the boundaries between the sublime and the ridiculous. In remarkable contrast to other Irish orators, and especially to his great contemporary Curran, he possessed neither wit nor humour, and this no doubt accounts for the sustained and pitiless vehemence of his invectives against opponents who had thoroughly roused his auger. These attacks were rendered the more formidable from his power of delineating character by epithets, the graphic force of which had an almost electrical effect. This power he ex-ercised, however, more frequently for purposes of laudation than censure, and perhaps the finest examples of it in his speeches are two short incidental allusions to Fox and Burke. A remarkable union of boldness with moderation and restraint characterized his statesmanship as it did his oratory, for while he embraced within his scheme of reform the whole circle of Ireland's wrongs and disabilities, and was prepared to face the consequences of all constitutional changes, however great, which justice seemed to demand, his unswerving aim, in the face both of strong provocation from the Government and of the powerful assaults of popular clamour, was not to loosen but to cement the ties which bound Ireland to Great Britain. That his political conduct was governed too much by abstractions, and had too little regard to expediency, is a conclusion which has been both affirmed and denied, but in any case it will be admitted by most that his beneficial influence on Irish politics has been less felt by the direct accomplishment of his aims than through the moral effect of his enlightened and incorruptible patriotism, and the gradual change which has taken place in the mental attitude of English statesmen towards his country.

Grattan's Speeches, with prefatory observations, the whole comprising a brief review of the most important political events in the history of Ireland were published at Dublin in 1811. His Speeches in the Irish and in the Imperial Parliament, edited by his son, in 4 volumes, appeared at London in 1822, and his Miscellaneous Works also in the same year. See his Memoirs by his son Henry Grattan, Esq., M.P., in 5 volumes, London, 1839-46; Lecky's leaders of Public Opinion inlreland, 2d edition, 1872; and, among various notices by contemporaries, especially that in vol. vii. of the Dublin University Magazine, which, notwithstanding political bias, gives a remarkably unprejudiced representation of his character and abilities, and that by Lord Brougham in the 1st vol. of his collected works. The political events of the period are of course graphically narrated by Mr Froude in his English in Ireland, vols. ii. and iii., but his principal design is to show the pernicious effects of Grattan's efforts. Among the ablest criticisms of Mr Fronde's work is that by W. E. H. Lecky in Macmillans Magazine for January 1873 and June 1874. (T. F. H.)








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