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Horace Walpole - Early American

ISSUE:  Spring 1931

Atall, thin gentleman entered the Princess Amelia’s drawing room in Cavendish Square one evening in December, 1775. He was pale, with brilliant dark eyes under arched brows, and a mouth somewhat tightly closed but charmingly, curved, at once discreet and gay. The hair, drawn back from a high forehead, was fashionably powdered and queued, and the ruffles at neck and sleeves were of the finest lace. Chapeau bas tightly pressed under his arm, he advanced with a peculiar gait, knees bent and slightly tipping as though crossing a wet street, perhaps an elegant affectation, perhaps, alas! the result of racking gout. This was “Horry” Walpole, and he and the rest of the company were gathered together for their customary game of Loo—”Loo it was called, but politics is was.”

Lady Mary Coke was mounted on her high horse. Always delightfully extreme, on this occasion she “outdid her usual outdoings.” She was discoursing on the cruelty of the American rebels. It seemed they had the habit of tearing out their enemies’ eyes. Mr. Walpole smiled, a private smile, but Lady Mary, saw it and pounced upon him: “And you—you are glad of it.” No, No, he was not glad, not exactly glad, he answered deprecatingly; only comforted. Mr. Walpole was too gallant to dispute a lady’s facts. Besides, Lady Mary was one of his special divinities for whom he ran errands, imported perfumes and silks, and performed a thousand gentle offices; and had he not written to her, in true Arcadian style, that it was the dearest wish of his heart to tend a few sheep with her on their neighboring hills. Such tender relations demanded deference, so Mr. Walpole protested merely that he felt comforted. He had heard they put people’s eyes in again. At least he concluded so, “as nobody has returned without his eyes.” This little matter settled, he brought the party amicably back to the cards, groaning however within himself: “In good truth, I think we are pulling out our own eyes, and nobody seems to have a nostrum for putting them in again.”


Mr. Walpole saw the Revolutionary War coming on and he saw it through. From the Stamp Act to Yorktown his letters provide a chronicle of the period. Winding in between the frivolities of society and the intimate joys of an antiquary and author, runs a chain of satirical, humorous, and sometimes passionate comment on the story of America as it was received in England—not exactly a cross-section of public opinion, cross perhaps, but rather a section of the private opinion of a very wayward gentleman.

He had reasoned out the problem for himself and had long since accepted Independence as the inevitable conclusion while Dr. Johnson was still thundering against the colonists and Lord Chatham was protesting with his dying breath against separation and while Burke and even Fox were still working and hoping for reconciliation.

The hard-headed, hard-working colonists would not seem to be just the type of forked radish that would appeal to an airy orchid of leisure and culture, but somehow Mr. Wal-pole’s sympathies were with them from the beginning. Early in the day he perceived the fact that they were fighting for his liberty as well as their own, so he mounted all his available guns on his battlements at Strawberry Hill and made war on the war even before war was declared. Perhaps Horace had inherited from his father the opinion that it was best to let the Americans alone. “It must be a bolder Minister than I am to tax the Colonies,” said old Sir Robert.

In 1765 Horace Walpole was in Paris whither he had fled after his first serious attack of gout. He had been very ill and was now merely a gay shadow fluttering about in the salons and galleries of Paris, the only place where one is never too old to be young. Illness and various disgusts on the one hand and the charms of Strawberry Hill and the delights of collecting on the other, had determined him to resign his seat in the House of Commons and have done with public affairs. He was sick to death of politics and did not want to hear anything about them. Yet, at the very, time that he was repeating to all his friends that he was done with politics for good and all, he was begging Lady Hervey to send him all the pamphlets on American affairs, nor could he help writing to his cousin, General Conway, who had just come into office as Secretary of State, “Pray, put the Colonies into a good humour.” General Conway’s Government did indeed shortly afterwards repeal the Stamp Act, to the great joy of His Majesty’s Dominions across the sea, and also to that of Mr. Walpole, who wrote to one of his friends: “Are your Cousins Cortez and Pizarro [maliciously thus naming two ex-Ministers] heartily mortified that they are not to roast and plunder the Americans?”

Mr. Walpole did, indeed, resign his seat and dedicate himself to a life of sociability and dilettantism, building his pseudo-Gothic villa at Twickenham and filling it with curious and lovely things; but politics slipped into his castle of ease, and even in his mediaeval gallery or his Beauty Room hung with portraits of the ladies of Charles IPs Court, his mind was greatly occupied with the quarrel between Old and New England.

The good done by the repeal of the Stamp Act was soon undone, and unpleasant accounts began coming from America. The Bostonians will not drink tea with Parliament, Mr. Walpole informed his life-long correspondent, Sir Horace Mann, the British Minister at Florence. Shortly afterwards the faithful letter-writer reported the bill modifying the charter of the rebellious city. “Its parliamentary name is Regulations for Boston. Its essence, the question of sovereignty, over America.” And he wrote to another friend: “There are manoeuvres on foot against the colonists that will curdle your blood. . . . The other-side-of-the-waterists are not doux comme des moutons and yet we do intend to eat them.” In a pleasant gossipy letter he passed on the news of Lexington. “The Americans have picked General Gage’s pocket of three pieces of cannon and interrupted some troops that were going to him.”

Soon a sloop, “indeed a man of war” arrived with an account of the transactions of the General Congress. “The Americans have acted like men, gone to the bottom at once. . . . Our conduct has been that of pert children; we have thrown a pebble at a mastiff, and are now surprised it was not frightened, and now we are at our wits’ end—which was no great journey.”

There was scarcely any Opposition in Parliament, although beyond the seas there was an Opposition so big that most folk called it a rebellion. Considering the immense tract of country occupied by the so-called rebels, Mr. Walpole thought that perhaps England ought rather to be called in rebellion. “The war with America goes on briskly, that is, as far as voting goes. We are raising soldiers and seamen—so are the Americans; and, unluckily, can find a troop as easily as we a trooper.”

“Cousin America has eloped with a Presbyterian parson,” and Horry teased his correspondents by writing the date of his letters as such a year of the immortal reign of George III by the want of Grace late King of America.

The reported British success at Bunker Hill seemed to Horace Walpole very equivocal as “the conquerors lost three to one more than the vanquished. The last do not pique themselves on modern good breeding, but level only at the officers, of whom they have slain a vast number. We are a little disappointed, indeed, at their fighting at all, which was not in our calculation. . . . Well! we had better have gone on robbing the Indies; it was a more lucrative trade.”

It was wafted over to England that General Washington had refused the salary voted to him by Congress. An ominous sign, thought Mr. Walpole: “If those folk will imitate both the Romans and the Cromwellians in self-denial and enthusiasm, we shall be horridly plagued with them.”

About this time he sketches a burlesque history of the war up to date. “Mrs. Britannia orders her Senate to proclaim America a continent of cowards, and vote it should be starved unless it will drink tea with her. She sends her only army to be besieged in one of her towns, and half her fleet to besiege the terra firma; but orders her army to do nothing, in hopes that the American Senate at Philadelphia will be so frightened at the British army being besieged in Boston, that it will sue for peace. At last she gives her army leave to sally out, but being twice defeated, she determines to carry, on the war so vigorously till she has not a man left, that all England will be satisfied with the total loss of America; and if everybody is satisfied, who can be blamed?”


Mr. Walpole’s “dear old blind woman,” the Marquise du Deffand, longed to lay hands on him again, so in the summer of 1775 he set out for Paris; and, roads, horses, postilions, tides, winds, moons, and captains being in the pleasant-est humour in the world, he was transported quickly and agreeably to that city. His delightful friend came to see him the instant he arrived and sat by while he stripped and dressed, for, as she said, since she could not see, there was no harm in his being stark. She had arranged a wonderful programme for him. It was a moment of pomp and diversion, as the King’s sister was being married. Mr. Walpole went to the ball and saw Marie Antoinette in all her glory. He could look at no one but the Queen. Dressed in silver and diamonds and feathers somewhat lower than the Monument, she was a statue of beauty when standing or sitting, grace itself when moving. They said she did not dance in time. Well, then! “it is wrong to dance in time.” Madame du Deffand kept him going day and night; but in all this wild whirl of dazzling Queens, beautiful duchesses who embraced one until one’s cheeks were smeared with red like an Indian’s, and salons where pet dogs were biting the company arid philosophers were arguing away Church and King and supping at midnight, Mr. Walpole found time to write a long letter on the American situation to Sir Horace Mann. As the missive was not to go by British post, it was an opportunity, to write freely without fear of compromising his friend.

The Americans “have hitherto not made one blunder; and the Administration have made a thousand; besides the two capital ones, of first provoking, and then of uniting the colonies. The latter seem to have as good heads as hearts, as we want both. . . . Probably the war will be long. . . . If England prevails, English and American liberty is at an end! . . . Parliament is to vote twenty-six thousand seamen. What a paragraph of blood is there. With what torrents must liberty be preserved in America! In England what can save it? Oh, mad, mad England 1” As Horace Walpole saw it, whichever way the war should end, it would be disastrous. “The Court has staked everything against derpoHsm; heads up—the free Constitution of England is lost, tails—the overseas dominion is gone.” He loved the constitution of England more than the acres and so, at the very beginning of the war, this dainty and thin-skinned gentleman took a stand that must have seemed almost treasonable to many of his friends: “I most heartily wish success to the Americans.”

Back again from Paris, Mr. Walpole resumed his particolored life; but whether he played Loo at the Princess’ (“my greatest earthly joy”) or entertained a party, of wits for a week-end in the country or gossiped with the dear dowagers that roosted around Strawberry Hill, he was usually alone in his views of that “little dispute,” as George Selwyn. light-heartedly called the American War.

Society had at last begun to notice what was going on, and, along with feathers in the hair and the new fad for coming late to parties, the war became fashionable.

“You must prepare, Madame, to talk American,” wrote Mr. Walpole to the Countess of Upper Ossory. George Selwyn had said that he was going to take a master to teach him to hold his own as a wit in the war talk of the drawing room. “There is no other topic to be heard. . . . You must lay aside your Botany . . . and study imports and exports and charters and geography and religion and government, and such light reading. . . . People discuss at first but are only angry and personal at last; and to be sure that is more amusing.”

The personal touch may have been amusing at times, and it was all very well when a lovely lady berated him for a rebel and a republican. Such attacks could be repelled with nonsense, of which Mr. Walpole had always a great store and which he preferred to what is usually called sense; but dispute was spoiling the gay civilities of life. When all his world were congratulating themselves on the British successes of Long Island and the capture of New York, Horry fairly shut himself up in his house “not to be wished joy for what he was very sorry for.” “I scorn to triumph myself and it is very difficult to keep my temper when others do, and after all, an angry old man out of Parliament and that can do nothing but be angry, is a ridiculous animal.”

Ridiculous or not, he did what he could. There was the Opposition to be goaded into action. They were hopelessly out-voted but nevertheless they were not to sit down and do nothing if Mr. Walpole could help it. “Give the Ministers no respite, my dear Lord,” he wrote to the Duke of Richmond, “pelt and harass them with questions and delays. I will engage to furnish you with motions and grievances to midsummer,” and right away he suggests a couple of dozen annoying subjects of inquiry—a pleasant hot-weather programme for an amiable young Duke who liked to enjoy life. The inertness of the minority party fretted Mr. Walpole terribly. “The crudest thing that has been said of the Americans by the Court is that they were encouraged by the Opposition. You might as soon light a fire with a wet dish-clout,” he remarked scornfully.

Two recruits, the Earl of Upper Ossory and his brother, the Honorable Richard Fitz-Patrick, came over to that party in 1775, and Mr. Walpole had the pleasure of writing to Lady Ossory: “Be perfectly at ease and happy, our Lady, for our Lord spoke with modesty, decency, dignity, sense and conviction.” So said this ardent friend, though he had to confess that he had been out of town and knew nothing of the matter. Charles Fox had made such a pathetic Sloge of the two brothers that every feeling eye was in tears. Mr. Walpole was immediately going about the town to hear all their praises, “but I must not expect them in some houses.” Certainly not, but he picked up that her Ladyship was supposed to have influenced her husband to the step and that Mr. Walpole had been the serpent who had incited Eve to the mischief.


Strawberry Hill was his refuge. There he could be as busy and trifling as he liked, building a divine little “mouse” or hexagon closet and hanging it with blue damask for a special set of pictures, or enshrining a new relic among his curiosities. In October, 1777, a present was given him that thrilled his Whiggish heart to the core. This prize was the spurs worn by King William III at the Battle of the Boyne—the very rowels that goaded the steed that bore the hero that won the battle that established the liberty of England. They would be the most sacred treasure in his collection, Mr. Walpole wrote, half-laughing, half-serious, to the donor; and there was but one man in the world worthy to wear them and to whom Mr. Walpole would be tempted to cede them. The hero at whose feet this playful homage was laid was at that moment grimly fighting intrigue and preparing to winter with his ragged army on the hills about Valley, Forge. It was a far cry from the gilded, wainscotted cabinet to that bleak and hungry encampment.

Ships were few and slow that year and it was an uneasy time. In the most correct circles it was not quite the thing to talk of America. “The tone was, just to ask with an air of anxiety if there was anything new, and then to be silent.” A nice observance of such little matters showed the real man of fashion. It was feared that Burgoyne had penetrated too far. The hunting season was on, but there was a feeling that the General was not having good sport , in his woods and vague reports of a disaster began to circulate. Courtiers and military men protested stoutly. “Take it from me, it is a flying rumor” said one of Selwyn’s set to a blustering old general. Flying rumors or flying men, the stocks took the matter seriously. “Lord!” said Lady Melbourne, standing before the fire and adjusting her feathers in the glass, “they, say the stocks will blow up; that will be very comical.”

“This letter will not be j)receded by nine postilions blowing horns,” Mr, Walpole wrote, conveying the news of Saratoga to His Majesty’s representative at Florence. It was a great blow to British pride. There was no joy for Walpole in the misfortunes of his country. “Can the events of a civil war ever be welcome news?” he asked sadly; “however, I must rejoice that the Americans are to be free, as they had a right to be, and as I am sure they have shown they deserve to be. . . . I am content that liberty will exist anywhere, and amongst Englishmen, even across the Atlantic.”

Madame du Deffand kept Mr. Walpole very well posted in French news though she professed that it bored her horribly to write a gazette instead of occupying herself with the important discussion of their two characters. Dr. Franklin had arrived in France in December, 1776, and a few days later was introduced in the salon of the Marquise. She describes his costume and his presentation at Court, but she would rather Seigneur Franklin should be making his bow to King Neptune at the bottom of the sea than that he should bring about war between England and France, for that would interrupt her precious letters from across the Channel. Not long afterwards there was talk of the British Government negotiating with Franklin for reconciliation with the Colonies. It was not quite four years since that day at the Privy Council when the Doctor had been covered with scorn and ridicule by the Solicitor-General of Great Britain while the highest officials of the realm laughed and applauded. “Were I Franklin,” said Walpole, remembering that scene, “I would order the Cabinet Council to come to me at Paris with ropes about their necks and then kick them back to St. James’s”—a pleasing dramatic fancy but not in character for the philosophic Doctor.

The world, Mr. Walpole complained, seemed topsy-turvy and everybody around him lunatic. “I thought that liberty, for which England has struggled and fought for seven hundred years, was natural and dear to Englishmen. No such thing! Ought we to say in our political litany as we do in our religious, ‘thy service is perfect freedom.’ “

They had killed the hen that laid a golden egg every day, and now they must defend the very, shop at home where they had sold their eggs. The quiet little village of Twickenham had grown a camp, even the domestic servants were learning to fire. “We must act offensively,” said one of the war party to Mr. Walpole. “I thought we had done that sufficiently already,” replied Horry, “for we have offended all the world.” And when Spain had offered to mediate: “Bounce! You may be our enemy too if you please. There!”


When France became openly at war with England it was almost a relief to Mr. Walpole, for now he could hope for success for his country, at least in one quarter. His system was that of Fox at this time. He was desperately eager to withdraw all forces from America and bend all energies on smashing France. The French and Spanish fleets cruised unmolested at the entrance of the Channel, and the Government, crying out “like a child that has set his frock on fire,” announced to the country that invasion was imminent.

Well! the French will soon be here. Lady Ossory, had best come to town so that Lady Anne, aged eleven, could take lessons of Vestris, the fashionable dancer, and learn to make a curtsey like a Christian, against the arrival of the French; —anything to get her Ladyship to London, for Walpole liked mightily to gossip away the long winter evenings by her drawing room fire. He was not going so much into the great world, for his private enemy, the Gout, was pressing him hard, and it may be said, in passing, quite unjustly, for iced water was the daily drink of this early American. Harold, his venerable cat, successor to Selima who perished in the Tub of Goldfishes, died about this time, and the Seneschal of Strawberry was not altogether grieved, for if the French should sail up the river and burn and devastate the Castle he felt that he had not the strength to carry this old member of his family on his shoulders like Anchises out of smoking Troy,.

With danger so near home, “blockaded without and block-headed within,” it was not easy for him to maintain his stand. Even his dear Countess of Upper Ossory chided him for wrong-headedness and, in return, got properly scolded black and blue. “If it is not a just war, no honest man can wish success to it.”

“Were I young and of heroic texture, I would go to America; as I am decrepit and have the bones of a sparrow, I must die on my perch”; but “when you turn courtier,” he warned her ladyship, “I will peck my bread and water out of another hand.”

But the French did not come and there was no descent upon Mr. Walpole beyond the usual summer invasion of his great-nieces, the Ladies Waldegrave, who may still be seen in Sir Joshua Reynold’s picture putting their pretty heads together over their embroidery. Of course they had to be entertained. One day the elderly uncle would be risking his life with them in a boat (“Lady Malpas gave us up for gone”) and on another would be escorting them to a party. There being a lack of beaux one night, he was even forced to throw away his stick and danced, nay, swam down three dances very gracefully to an air that had been in fashion fifty years before.

But to such a passionate patriot those were cruel times. “In the earlier part of our correspondence,” he wrote to the Minister at Florence, “I was sending you victories, fresh and fresh, by every post.” That was in the great days of Pitt, and the chronicler had written “our bells are worn threadbare ringing for victories,” but now it was nothing but defeats. He had never wanted to be anything himself, he wrote, but he took a great pride in his country’s glory. “I condemn my countrymen, but I cannot, and would not, divest myself of my love to my country—and, when my hour comes, I will steal into its bosom, and love it to the last.”

Even so, he could not put on the face of the day and act grief at the defeat of Lord Cornwallis. The town was in a hubbub at the news. A second British army taken in a dragnet. It was almost insupportable to see England fallen so low, but it must mean the end of the American war; and General Conway, Mr. Walpole’s closest friend, was the one who carried in the House of Commons the motion that the war should end. “This is not the Lord’s doing but the Commons’, and it is marvellous in our eyes,” wrote Mr. Walpole. “If it produces the two points I have at heart, the recovery of the Constitution and peace, I shall be content, and will never think on politics more.”


“America is growing too mighty to be kept in subjection to half a dozen exhausted nations in Europe”; these words were written six years before the Declaration of Independence, and it was not in New England nor in Virginia that they were penned, but on the banks of the Thames by a delicate gentleman in a Gothic villa. It was back in the Spring of 1770. His two passions, the lilacs and the nightingales, were “in bloom,” and he had been giving a country fete. Beneath the library window lay an enchanting little landscape, all verdure and gaiety. Green enamelled lawns set in filigree hedges slope to the river, and across, stretches a delicious meadow that loses itself in noble woods; the fields are speckled with cattle, boats and barges are moving on the stream, and coaches and horsemen on the road; in the distance a cluster of houses, with a church, encircle a silver loop of water like a tiny seaport.

But Mr. Walpole is looking beyond the horizon at a scene of pathless prairies and great rushing waters and dark waving forests—”I have many visions about that country. I fancy I see twenty empires and republics forming upon vast scales all over that continent. . . . I entertain myself with the idea of a future senate in Carolina and Virginia—”


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