He was the younger son of a prominent Whig family of Norfolk. After the death of his father and elder brothers he was returned (1701) to Parliament from the family borough of Castle Rising, and in 1702 he took the seat for King's Lynn, from which he was regularly returned thereafter. Walpole soon made his mark as a hardworking administrator. In 1708 he was appointed secretary of war and later (1710-11) was treasurer of the navy. As a Whig, he led the opposition in Parliament to the Tory administration of 1710-14 and as a consequence was falsely convicted (1712) of corruption and spent some months in the Tower of London.
The accession of George I (1714) returned the Whigs to power, and Walpole served variously as paymaster of the forces, first lord of the treasury, and chancellor of the exchequer (1715) under his brother-in-law, Viscount Townshend, and James Stanhope (later 1st Earl Stanhope). The dismissal of Townshend led to Walpole's resignation (1717), and together they formed an opposition nominally headed by the prince of Wales (later George II). The two returned to office in 1720.
The Height of Power
Soon after Walpole's return to office in 1720, he was called upon to salvage the financial wreckage resulting from the South Sea Bubble, in which he himself lost a substantial amount of money. This marked the turning point of his career. His successful handling of this matter led to his appointment (1721) as first lord of the treasury and chancellor of the exchequer. He shared power with John Carteret (later 1st Earl Granville) until 1724 and with Townshend, whom he left in charge of foreign affairs, until 1730, but thereafter his ascendancy was complete until 1742.
He enjoyed the confidence of both George I and George II, influencing the latter through his friendship with the queen, Caroline of Ansbach, and handled Parliament with unprecedented skill. His control of Parliament was due partly to the dispensation of royal patronage, partly to the electoral management of Thomas Pelham-Holles, duke of Newcastle, but also to Walpole's own debating skills and the popularity of many of his policies.
In financial policy, his strongest point, he created the sinking fund to reduce the national debt. He mollified the largely Tory gentry by reduction of the land tax and promoted trade by awarding bonuses for exports and encouraging the production of raw materials by the colonies. Walpole's plan to reduce smuggling and make London a free port by replacing tariffs on wine and tobacco with an excise tax was defeated in 1733, largely because of widespread popular prejudice against excise. After this debacle Walpole dismissed all the officeholders who had voted against him, an action that created a much stronger opposition group than he had previously faced.
It was on foreign policy that the opposition against him finally coalesced. Walpole had pursued a policy of friendship with France and avoidance of war, and he had managed (against fierce opposition) to keep Great Britain neutral during the War of the Polish Succession (1733-35). In 1739, however, the war party forced him into the War of Jenkins's Ear (1739-41; see Jenkins's Ear, War of), which in turn involved Britain in a general European war (see Austrian Succession, War of the). Military reverses increased the opposition, and Walpole was forced to resign in 1742. Walpole was created earl of Orford and remained politically powerful until his death.
Walpole is usually described as the first prime minister of Great Britain, but he was not a prime minister in the modern sense. Although management of Parliament, and particularly the House of Commons, was an essential part of his power, so too was royal favor, on which he ultimately depended. The purge of his ministry in 1733, sometimes hailed as a major step in the development of cabinet solidarity, could not have been accomplished without royal support. Moreover, the contention that there was any idea of cabinet solidarity is refuted by the fact that when Walpole left office his most important colleagues remained in the ministry. Walpole's primacy was achieved and maintained through his own political talents and the circumstances of the time; he made little impact on constitutional development.
See biographies by C. R. Stirling Taylor (1931) and J. H. Plumb (2 vol., 1956-61, repr. 1973); study by H. T. Dickinson (1973); bibliography by Alan Downie (1990).
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