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Sheridan first distinguished himself in Parliament by a speech concerning the employment of the military during the riots. Its object was to ascertain the circumstances in which it might be necessary to have recourse to the military power, and to inquire whether that necessity, in the case of the riots, was not owing to the negligence of the magistracy. Burke voted for his motions, but did not exert himself in their support. He probably thought that it was impossible to define, a priori, what should constitute such a necessity.
In a discussion concerning Indian affairs, Lord North proposed certain regulations of the commercial profits and territorial acquisitions of the East India Company, against which Burke made a very eloquent speech, intended to shew that the plan of the Minister was a violation of chartered rights; an attempt to rob the Company, in order to extend the influence of the Minister, by an addition of lavish and profligate corruption.
The detractors from Burke have endeavoured to prove, that his defence of chartered rights, on this and preceding questions concerning India affairs, and the proposed infringement of charters by the East India bill in 1783, were inconsistent with each other.
That allegation I shall consider when I come to Mr. Fox's bills.
Towards the close of the session Burke made a motion concerning the extreme rigour that had been used to the inhabitants of St. Eustatius, after the capture of that island. He described their sufferings, and the rapacity of the conquerors, in the strongest colours; and took, as he usually did, a large and general view of the subject; investigating, from history and from tļie writings of the civilians, the right of conquerors to the effects of the conquered ; and endeavouring to prove that the seizure of private property belonging to enemies, in such circumstances, was a violation of the law of nations. If by the law of nations is meant the custom of civilized states, in
their various relations, it does not appear that Burke made out his case. Besides, Admiral Rodney, the captor of St. Eustatius, was absent, and it would have been unjust to have instituted an inquiry into his conduct without giving him an opportunity of answering to the charges. The implicit adınirers of Burke may impute the proposed prosecution of a victorious commander to humanity; impartial examiners of his conduct will more readily attribute it to party spirit.
A motion was made, and introduced by the energetic eloquence of Fox, for the house to resolve itself into a committee, to consider of the American war. The motion was supported by the whole force of Opposition, a combination of talents of the highest rank, seldom united,—by Sheridan, by Dunning, by Pitt, by Burke, and by Fox. Each of these orators, all fit for being leaders of a political party, exerted his eloquence on the question. The motion was negatived; and soon after the session closed. When we consider the number of enea mies with whoin Britain had to cope, we might supose that she would be compelled to act chiefly on the defensive. This, however, was not the case.
Her offensive operations were vigorous, and in some cases successful. Admiral Kempenfelt, with an inferior force, defeated a French Fleet off Ushant. Admiral Parker fought the Dutch off the Dogger Bank, with little advantage to either side. In the West Indies, the British, after capturing St. Eustatius, had several actions with the French fleets; but without any signal advantages on either side. In America, the British were victorious by sea : by land several successful inroads were made into the provinces, and affairs for some time wore rather a favourable aspect; but received a fatal reverse in the capture of the brave Cornwallis, with the whole of the southern army. This event contributed, more than any that had yet happened, to produce an irresistible conviction in the minds of the British, that the subjugation of America was impracticable.
As mankind in general judge more from EVENTS than from PLANS, the discomfiture of our forces produced great clamours against the Ministry; even from those who had before been most strenuous in recommending the coercion of America, and most sanguine in their expectation of success. The Opposition, from the arrival of the accounts, which came about the commencement of the Christmas holidays, proposed to proceed against the Ministry with a vigour now animated by a well grounded expectation of success. Many, who had professed themselves the friends of Lord North, either now really disapproving of his measures, or, what is as probable, foreseeing that he could not much longer continue in office, left himn.
It was concerted, that the attack should be begun, immediately after the recesș, by Mr. Fox, who was to make a motion for an investigation into the conduct of Lord Sandwich. Indisposition for some days prevented that orator from attending the house: