SHERIDAN, Richard Brinsley (1751-1816), of Harrow, Mdx.
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Family and Education
bap. 4 Nov. 1751, 2nd s. of Thomas Sheridan by his w. Frances Chamberlaine. educ. Harrow 1762-8; M. Temple 1773. m. (1) 13 Apr. 1773, Elizabeth Ann (d. 7 July 1792), da. of Thomas Linley, 1s. 1da.; (2) 27 Apr. 1795, Esther Jane, da. of Rev. Newton Ogle, dean of Winchester, 1s.
Under-sec. of state for foreign affairs Apr.-July 1782; sec. to Treasury Apr.-Dec. 1783; receiver of duchy of Cornwall 1805; P.C. 7 Feb. 1806; treasurer of the navy 1806-7.
The son of an Irish actor and teacher of rhetoric, Sheridan made his way by his brilliant literary gifts, while his wit and charm made him sought after in the most fashionable society, as well as the literary and theatrical world. At the age of twenty-two, after an unsettled childhood and shiftless youth, he contracted a romantic marriage with the celebrated singer, Elizabeth Linley, and, settling in London, produced in rapid succession the brilliantly witty comedies which made his name: The Rivals (1775), The Duenna (1775), The School for Scandal (1777), and The Critic (1779). In 1776 he purchased Drury Lane and went into theatrical management, a connexion which lasted till his death.
A close friend, and for many years a devoted follower, of Fox, Sheridan was inevitably attracted towards politics. In 1779 he founded a short-lived paper, The Englishman, to which Fox and his friends contributed anti-Administration articles, and soon afterwards he became involved in the agitation for parliamentary reform. On 19 Mar. 1780, as chairman of the sub-committee of the Westminster Association, he presented a report urging shorter Parliaments. Before the general election of 1780 he canvassed Wootton Basset and Honiton, but in the end stood for the venal borough of Stafford, and was returned after an expensive contest. Sheridan entered the House with a brilliant reputation, and his maiden speech on 20 Nov. 1780, though merely on election matters, was heard ‘with particular attention, the House being uncommonly silent while he was speaking’.1 Yet, according to Wraxall,2
Though Sheridan manifested, from the first time that he presented himself to public notice as a speaker, the greatest talents for debate, yet he found many impediments, prejudices, and obstacles to surmount his progress. His theatrical connexions as manager of Drury Lane exposed him to attacks which a man of less wit, suavity of disposition and ascertained spirit could not have parried ... In fact he won his way by superior talent, good humour and argument ... Sheridan laboured uphill with slow but uniform pace, sustained altogether by his own prodigious abilities, admirable wit, and insuperable command of temper, all which were powerfully seconded by Fox’s steady friendship.
From the first he proved a master of riposte. Walpole writes (to Mason, 3 Mar. 1781) that during the debate of 26 Feb. 1781 Sheridan ‘demolished’ John Courtenay, a fellow wit. His first major speech was on 5 Mar. 1781, when he proposed measures for the better regulation of the Westminster police, because their ‘wretched and miserable state’ at the time of the Gordon riots had led to the potentially dangerous use of the army. He was also active in condemning military and naval incompetence in the conduct of the war, selecting for special attack Germain and Sandwich, describing the latter, 7 Feb. 1782, as ‘a man born for the destruction of the British navy’.3 By the time of North’s fall Sheridan was established as one of the leading figures in the House on the Opposition side and an obvious candidate for office. ‘For God’s sake improve the opportunity to the utmost’, his brother wrote to him on 27 Mar. Sheridan replied on 2 Apr. that he had obtained the under-secretaryship of state for foreign affairs:4
It is the situation of all others that I have thought the rightest for me to take. I wanted to force myself into business, punctuality, and information; and when I resolved to be in this way I resolved also to sacrifice every other object. The want of attention or knowledge of business shall not positively be an objection to me in anything I am at hereafter.
Three months later he resigned with Fox. To stay would have been to lose their characters, he wrote to Thomas Grenville on 4 July, but he feared that the new Opposition was ‘woefully thinned and disconcerted’.5 He himself took little part in debate before February 1783, when he attacked Shelburne’s peace preliminaries and got involved in a celebrated exchange with Pitt: on 14 Feb. he demanded that details should be laid before the House, a ‘preposterous’ suggestion, according to Pitt, since the treaty was still not concluded. Sheridan at once replied that Pitt’s youth and inexperience had prevented him from discovering the precedents to be found in the Journals. To this Pitt retorted that he admired Sheridan’s abilities, ‘the elegant sallies of his thought, the gay effusions of his fancy, his dramatic turns and epigrammatic parts ... if they were reserved for the proper stage they would no doubt receive what the honourable gentleman’s abilities always did receive, the plaudits of the audience ... But this was not the proper scene for the exhibition of these elegances’. He was answered, wrote Walpole, ‘excellently, coolly, civilly, but severely, by Sheridan, who applied to, and fixed on him the name of the Angry Boy’.6 ‘A degree of mutual alienation seemed always to subsist between him and Sheridan’, wrote Wraxall, ‘founded on the incompatibility of their characters, tempers, and humours.’7
Sheridan was at first opposed to the coalition with North, and declared later that he had advised Fox against it on the grounds that it might cost him his popularity;8 but he overcame his scruples and accepted office as secretary to the Treasury. Once again he threw himself into the part:9 ‘Sheridan trains on as a man of business and attention’, Lord Sheffield wrote to William Eden, 13 June 1783. His numerous speeches were now almost exclusively devoted to financial and Treasury affairs, though on 7 May 1783 he spoke in support of Pitt’s motion for parliamentary reform: he was only disappointed that it did not go far enough; ‘the shortening the duration of Parliament was one of those objects which, in his mind, was most properly pursued, as a measure to correct the great vice in the representation of the people—their subserviency to Government in consequence of their long lease obtained from the people’.10 On 8 Dec. 1783 he defended Fox’s East India bill, and in conclusion entertained the House by taking up several passages from Milton, Shakespeare, and the Book of Revelation quoted by previous speakers and citing spontaneously ‘with the most happy ease and correctness, passages from almost the same pages that controverted their quotations and told strongly for the bill’.11 Whenever he now spoke, wrote Wraxall,12 the House
anticipated a rich repast of wit without acrimony, seasoned by allusions and citations the most obvious yet delicate in their application. At this period of his life, when he was not more than thirty-three years of age, his countenance and features had in them something peculiarly pleasing, indicative at once of intellect, humour, and gaiety. All these characteristics played about his lips when speaking, and operated with inconceivable attraction.
After the dismissal of the Coalition Sheridan was to the fore in opposing the new Administration. On 12 Jan. 1784, having attacked Pitt ‘in terms of great severity’, he went at considerable length into the question at issue between the prerogative of the Crown and the privileges of the Commons; and ‘illustrated by several very apt and beautiful examples the new idea of Mr. Fox, that the practice of our constitution was more perfect than the theory’. In the new Parliament he spoke on a wide variety of subjects, though continuing to show a special interest in financial matters. He did not take part in the early debates in which Burke proceeded against Hastings; when challenged by Hastings’s agent, John Scott, he denied in the House, 6 Mar. 1786, that he had attempted to do a deal with Hastings:
With regard to India affairs, he had thought there were but two lines of conduct to be pursued after those emphatic resolutions of 28 May 1782 ... The one was to recall Mr. Hastings immediately, by the strong arm of Parliament, and punish him exemplarily; the other, to bring in an India bill, in which, on grounds of expediency ... no retrospect should be had, but all the clauses should look to the future. So thinking, when the India bill ... was preparing the latter measure appeared to him the most expedient ... he had sent a friend to the honourable gentleman ... to know whether Mr. Hastings would come home if recalled.
Though Sheridan lacked Burke’s moral fervour, he took part in many of the subsequent debates concerning Hastings. On 21 June 1786 he drew the attention of the House to ‘the receipt of an extraordinary large diamond, said to have been sent to Mr. Hastings, and presented to his Majesty at an extraordinary and critical period of time’.13 On 8 Feb. 1787 he presented the fourth charge against Hastings, concerning the resumption of jagirs and the confiscation of the treasures of the princesses of Oude. The theme appealed to the showman in Sheridan, and he was reported to have ‘bragged of what he would do’.14 His speech lasted five and a half hours and made a tremendous impact. It was, wrote Sir William Dolben:15
The most perfect in point of arrangement of the head of accusation, the most acute and penetrating in point of investigation, the most severe and piercing in point of satire, and the most brilliant and affecting in point of oratory and elocution that I believe was ever delivered in Parliament. I dared not trust myself, under such a state of captivation to decide criminally against any man ... and therefore ... I moved to adjourn.
Sir Gilbert Elliot wrote to his wife that the conclusion, where Sheridan’s ‘whole powers were employed to their utmost stretch, and indeed his whole feelings wound to their utmost pitch, worked the whole House up into such a paroxysm of passionate enthusiasm on the subject and of admiration for him, that there was a universal shout, nay even clapping for half-a-second’. When he was appointed one of the managers of Hastings’s impeachment, his speech in Westminster Hall was looked forward to as a public entertainment. ‘The expectation of the public, I believe, never rose so high’, wrote Elliot on 28 May 1788, ‘I have been told that tickets sold at twenty-five guineas a-piece.’ And on 5 June:
I think the circumstances in which Sheridan appears on this occasion must occasion a disadvantage for which there is no possible remedy. I mean that of his coming on in the character of a favourite actor for the gratification of their taste and pleasure, to give them a specimen and display of eloquence and oratory, must put the real business so much aside.16
Even so, he thought Sheridan’s speech had been ‘the work of a man of very extraordinary genius’. But the Duchess of Devonshire noted in her diary on 20 Nov. 1788 that Sheridan was ‘heartily tired of Hastings’s trial and fearful of Burke’s impetuosity. [He] says he wishes Hastings would run away, and Burke after him.’17 Sheridan, wrote Wraxall,18 ‘could indeed occasionally lend the force of his powerful mind, for a limited time to one object, as he did in Hastings’s case, when he attracted such universal admiration. Nor did he ever as a Member of the House of Commons, betray want of information on whatever subject he spoke; but these were in general short and desultory efforts, not long continued or laborious operations.’ Sheridan was also notoriously incapable of applying himself to business matters; his theatrical concerns were more and more chaotic, and his financial embarrassment acute.
Sheridan was on increasingly intimate terms with the Prince of Wales, and during the debate of 27 Apr. 1787 on the Prince’s debts, was one of his spokesmen in the House. Referring to Rolle’s hints about a marriage with Mrs. Fitzherbert, Sheridan said that ‘not speaking lightly without authority’, he was confident that it was the Prince’s ‘decided wish ... that whatever related to him should be discussed openly’.19 And after Fox’s assertion that he could authoritatively deny the marriage, Sheridan, wrote Daniel Pulteney,20 ‘attempted very foolishly’ to repair the situation by a tribute to Mrs. Fitzherbert. In 1788, at the beginning of the King’s illness, Sheridan was reported to be ‘high in the Prince’s favour’, and W. W. Grenville wrote to Lord Buckingham, 13 Nov.: ‘Sheridan appears to be consulted on all occasions.’ ‘Sheridan and Lord Loughborough are those who more immediately correspond with the Prince’, wrote Lord Bulkeley to Buckingham, 25 Nov., ‘with which I believe the old Rockinghams were much dissatisfied, in short there is every reason to believe there is a division among them.’21 On 10 Dec. the Duchess of Devonshire, reporting Fox’s declaration of the Prince’s automatic right to assume the Regency, wrote: ‘I think Grey and Sheridan, though resolved to go through with Fox, are in their hearts against it’; and on 11 Dec.: ‘Sheridan seems out of spirits and I fear much some little bickerings between Fox and him.’22 The following day, when the question of right was before the House, Sheridan ‘argued against the discussion of any such proposition, maintaining that it was neither likely to tend to the promotion of the good or the peace of the public’, and pointed out ‘the danger of provoking that claim to be asserted ... which he observed had not yet been preferred’.23 This, wrote W. W. Grenville, was ‘such a blunder ... as I never knew any man of the meanest talents guilty of before ... I never remember such an uproar as was raised by his threatening us with the danger of provoking the Prince to assert his right.’24 ‘I hear great abuse of the imprudence of Sheridan’s speech last night’, wrote the Duchess of Devonshire,25 and though Fox and Sheridan were united in attacking Pitt’s proposals for limiting the Regency, rumours of dissension continued. Presumably to allay them, Sheridan, on 16 Jan. 1789, after a fierce attack on Pitt, paid an elaborate tribute to Fox, declaring it was ‘the pride and glory of his life to enjoy the happiness and honour of his friendship’. And on 2 Feb. he told the House that Fox ‘stood higher in the opinion of his royal Highness than any other person; and the reason was his royal Highness reposed the greatest confidence where he found the greatest merit’.26 Sheridan himself was in a peculiar position: high in the Prince’s favour, he seems to have drafted the reply to Pitt’s proposals of 30 Dec., and was an obvious candidate for office. But Elliot, discussing a possible chancellor of the Exchequer, wrote: ‘Sheridan has not the public confidence’.27 And the archbishop of Canterbury told William Eden that, while Sheridan would ‘willingly submit’ to that office, things were ‘not yet ripe enough for the manager of Drury Lane to be manager of the House of Commons’.28
Like Fox, Sheridan welcomed the outbreak of the French revolution, and on 9 Feb. 1790 answered Burke’s denunciation of it:29
He could not conceive how it was possible for ... any man who valued our own constitution, and revered the revolution that obtained it for us, to unite with such feelings an indignant and unqualified abhorrence of all the proceedings of the patriotic party in France. He conceived theirs to be as just a revolution as our own, proceeding upon as sound a principle and a greater provocation. He vehemently defended the general view and conduct of the National Assembly: he could not even understand what we meant by the charge against them, of having overturned the laws, the justice, and the revenues of their country. What were their laws? The arbitrary mandates of capricious despotism. What their justice? The partial adjudications of venal magistrates. What their revenues? National bankruptcy.
Burke and Sheridan seem always to have disliked each other, and this episode marked their political separation. Sheridan remained with Fox in opposition after the outbreak of the French war, though in later days they drifted apart, and Sheridan became the target for attack from his former associates.
He died 7 July 1816.
Ref Volumes: 1754-1790
Author: Mary M. Drummond
- 1. R. B. Sheridan, Speeches, i. 2.
- 2. Mems. ii. 84.
- 3. Debrett, ii. 98-107; v. 418-19.
- 4. W. S. Sichel, Sheridan, i. 589; ii. 18.
- 5. Buckingham, Courts Cabinets Geo. III, i. 54.
- 6. Debrett, ix. 274, 285; Walpole, Last Jnls. ii. 483-4.
- 7. Mems. ii. 431.
- 8. Speeches, i. 83.
- 9. Auckland Corresp. i. 53.
- 10. Debrett, ix. 734.
- 11. Speeches, i. 72.
- 12. Mems. iii. 368.
- 13. Debrett, xii. 517-18; xix. 321, 325; xx. 397-400.
- 14. Dan. Pulteney to Duke of Rutland, HMC Rutland, iii. 369.
- 15. To J. E. Dolben, 9 Feb. 1787, Dolben mss, Northants RO.
- 16. Life Letters Sir Gilbert Elliot, i. 123; ii. 204-8.
- 17. Sichel, Sheridan, ii. 404.
- 18. Mems. iii. 380.
- 19. Stockdale, xi. 346-7.
- 20. HMC Rutland, iii. 387.
- 21. Courts Cabinets Geo. III, i. 451; ii. 15.
- 22. Sichel, Sheridan, ii. 414.
- 23. Stockdale, xvi. 36-37.
- 24. Courts Cabinets Geo. III, ii. 56.
- 25. Sichel, Sheridan, ii. 416.
- 26. Stockdale, xvi. 220-8, 350-1.
- 27. Life Letters, ii. 261.
- 28. Auckland Corresp. ii. 267.
- 29. Stockdale, xix. 73-74.