Robert Walpole (1676-1745) was a British statesman who is most well known for being the first British Prime Minister, though the title of Prime Minister did not officially exist at the time. During his lifetime, Walpole earned a great amount of political titles and worked his way into (and back into!) the Prime Minister position.
Like many British Prime Ministers since, Walpole attended Eton and Cambridge University. While in school, Walpole planned on becoming a clergyman someday. But after the death of both his father and eldest brother, Walpole inherited his father’s large estate. This hefty inheritance enabled him financially to get involved with politics at a young age.
Like his father, Walpole was member of the Whig political party (favored modernization, economic protection, and Congress having more power than the presidency) and in 1701, he became a member of Parliament for Castle Rising in Norfolk. Being highly educated, Walpole was a very skilled public speaker, a talent that he used to gain favor and power. By 1709, a 33-year-old Walpole already held the title of Secretary of War, Treasurer of the Navy, and was a member of the Admiralty Board. But when the Tories came to power in 1710, Walpole became a threat and a target; Walpole was accused of accepting illegal payments and bribery as Secretary of War and underwent a trial. Though many people agreed that he was innocent and believed the trial was unfair, Walpole was found guilty and spent the next six months imprisoned in the Tower of London.
In 1714, however, the Tories quickly fell from power upon the crowning of George I. Upon the death of Lord Halifax, head of the administration, Walpole was promoted to First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1715. In his two year in these positions, Walpole created a sinking fund, which was successfully used to reduce national debt. But when the Whig party became split over a disagreement in 1717, Walpole resigned, leaving the Whigs in parliament split.
In 1719-1720, Walpole was able to get the Peerage Bill, which would have minimized the monarch’s power to create new royal titles, rejected. This action put Lord Stanhope and Lord Sunderland, the effective heads of the Cabinet, out of their positions. Quickly, Walpole swooped in and returned to the Cabinet, claiming the title of Paymaster of the Forces. Narrowly avoiding association with the South Sea Bubble scandal in late 1720 by heeding the warning of an advisor to sell his shares, Walpole benefitted from the resignation of many Cabinet members that were found to be involved. Walpole’s big day came in April 1721; he was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer, Leader of the House of Commons, and most importantly, First Lord of the Treasury. Walpole’s title as First Lord is what we now consider the start of his reign as Britain’s Prime Minister.
In the following years leading up to 1726, Walpole was able to collaborate on a treaty with France and Prussia, put a stop to any immediate threats to Britain, and end the financial crisis, which gained him favor from both the people and King George I. But when George I died in 1727, Walpole’s title was endangered. It ended up being Caroline, George II’s wife and Walpole’s good friend, who convinced George II that Walpole was the right man for the job. Proving Caroline correct, Walpole went on to settle the Treaty of Vienna, thus creating an Anglo-Austrian alliance, which further strengthened his popularity and power.
Throughout his time as Prime Minister, Walpole made every effort to keep a policy of avoiding military action whenever possible. While this policy was initially appreciated and respected, it became a problem for Walpole in 1739 when disputes under the Treaty of Seville arose in the West Indies. Walpole argued and fought for a non-violent resolution, but was outnumbered by those who disagreed, namely the King, the House of Commons, and even the Cabinet. Having no other choice, Walpole declared the War of Jenkins Ear, a decision that lost him much public favor. In addition, the Prince of Cornwall (George II’s estranged son) was gaining loyalty in Parliament, while many also began questioning Walpole’s older age. Seeing his lessening popularity, Walpole resigned. George II made him a part of the House of Lords as the Earl of Orford in 1742, ending Walpole’s infamous and unprecedented run in British politics.
Luscombe, Stephen. “Prime Ministers of Great Britain and of the United Kingdom:
Robert Walpole.” BritishEmpire.co.uk. web. 10 March 2013.
“Robert Walpole, 1st earl of Orford.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia
Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 10 Mar. 2013. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic//>.
Wikipedia contributors. “Robert Walpole.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 5 Mar. 2013. Web. 9 Mar. 2013.
http://www.bbc.co.uk. BBC. web. 11 March 2013.