J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, December 21, 2012

“Any other individual than Rigby would have been disconcerted”

Recently I ran across a lively passage in Nathaniel Wraxhall’s memoirs of the debate in Parliament on 4 Mar 1782, as opponents of Lord North’s government pressed for an end to the American War.

M.P. Richard Rigby rose to speak. Wraxhall recalled:
Never could he have appeared more opportunely on the Scene, or at a Moment when his Exertions were more necessary to re-invigorate the ministerial Ranks. His very Figure and Aspect, unblushing, fearless, confident, as if formed to stem the Torrent of Opposition even when most violent, powerfully aided the Effect of his Oratory.
Rigby spoke with what Wraxhall described as “blunt, not to say contemptuous, Levity.” However, he defended the government’s ministers without continuing to endorse their American policy.

Rigby made a slip as he acknowledged that he had been paymaster of the British army since 1768, meaning he supplied the specie used to pay the soldiers and accumulated a steady profit from doing so. Wraxhall wrote:
Rigby having, in the Progress of his Speech, said rather unadvisedly, that “he was tired of the American War, though as Paymaster of the Forces, he was by no Means tired of receiving Cash;” which singular Expression he however qualified by adding, that “he could nevertheless speak his Opinion honestly, uninfluenced by his Place;” Mr. [William] Pitt remarked with great Severity on the Words. He observed, that “if the Right Honorable Gentleman was not tired of receiving, the Nation was weary of paying, Cash to a Person, who profited more by the War than any four Members of that Assembly.”

Almost any other Individual than Rigby, would have been disconcerted by so invidious a Comment, coming too from such a Quarter. But, he, far from shrinking back, or exhibiting the slightest Mark of Discomposure, stood up; and directing his Looks, as well as his Reply, to Pitt and [Charles James] Fox, who sate very near each other on the Opposition Side of the House, almost under the Gallery, “I will just venture to remark,” said he, “that however lucrative my Office may be, it has been held by the Fathers of the two Honorable Members who spoke last; and I make little Doubt that whenever I may be compelled to quit it, those Gentlemen themselves may have an Eye to getting Hold of it. I repeat, I am not at all tired of receiving Money; but I am not to be told, because I receive the Emoluments of my Place, that I am therefore the Author of my Country’s Ruin.”

Neither Fox nor Pitt attempted any Retort.

Still, Lord North resigned before the month was out. Fox and Pitt would vie to be prime minister. Rigby’s successors as paymaster would be two other opposition politicians, Edmund Burke and Isaac Barré. Elections had consequences.

[The thumbnail above is a sketch of Rigby from “series of small, whole length caricature portraits of prominent members of the Whig Coalition and opponents of the American War,” offered by Michael Finney Antique Books & Prints.]

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