Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Melville's Impeachment


The last English impeachment occurred in 1806, and involved Henry Dundas, the Lord Melville.  Lord Henry Cockburn writes of an incident that occurred after Dundas' acquittal, involving Walter Scott, which appears unfavorable to the author, on the surface.  The incident took place on on June 27, 1806. Cockburn treats the issue equitably, in his “Memorials of his Time”.


‘…There were two occurrences more
important — the Impeachment of Lord Melville; and the
proposed reform of the Court of Session.

The charges against Lord Melville were groundless,
and were at last reduced to insignificancy. To those
who knew the pecuniary indifference of the man, and
who think of the comparative facility of peculation in
those irregular days, the mere smallness of the Bums
which he was said to have improperly, touched, is of
itself almost sufficient evidence of his innocence. If he
had been disposed to peculate, it would not have been
for farthings. Nevertheless, his impeachment did more
to emancipate Scotland than even the exclusion of his
party from power. His political omnipotence, which
without any illiberality on his part, implied, at that time,
the suppression of all opposition, had lasted so long and
so steadily, that in despair the discontented concurred in
the general impression that, happen what might, Harry
the ninth would always be uppermost. When he was
not only deprived of power, but subjected to trial, peo-
ple could, scarcely believe their senses. The triumphant
anticipations of his enemies, many of whom exulted with
premature and disgusting joy over the ruin of the man,
were as absurd as the rage of his friends who railed,
with vain malignity, at his accusers and the Constitution.
Between the two, the progress of independence was ma-
terially advanced. A blow had been struck which, not-
withstanding his acquittal, relaxed our local fetters. Our
little great men felt the precariousness of their power;
and even the mildest friends of improvement — those who,
though opposed to him, deplored the fall of a distinguish-
ed countryman more than they valued any political bene-
fit involved in his misfortune, were relieved by seeing
that the main-spring of the Scotch pro-consular system
was weakened.

It was at a public dinner in honor of the acquittal
(27th June, 1806) that Scott produced, and his friend
James Ballantyne sang, that unfortunate song so often
brought against him afterwards, in which, Fox being
then in his last illness, there is a line cheering "Tally-
ho to the Fox" If, as was said, Scott really intended
this as a shout of triumph over the expiring orator, it was
an indecency which no fair license of party zeal can pal-
liate. But I am inclined to believe that nothing was
meant beyond one of the jocular, and not unnatural, ex-
ultations over the defeated leaders of the impeachment,
of which the song is composed. There were some import-
ant persons, however, whose good opinion by this indis-
cretion was lost to Scott forever.*

* Lockhart's explanation (Life of Scott, chap. 15) is, that Scott having (ap-
parently) just accepted of his Clerkship of Session from the Whigs, thought
it necessary to show his independence by abusing them. It seems absurd
to impute this to a sensible man. Besides, it does not hit the blot. It was
not abuse of the Whigs that gave offence, but a supposed triumphant cheer
over Fox's approaching death. ..’

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