The Dublin-born playwright and theatre manager, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, was a Whig MP during a turbulent period of political factionalism. He was a contemporary of great parliamentarians like Edmund Burke, Charles James Fox and the Younger Pitt.
Although already famous for a string of theatrical successes in the 1770s, he was unable to obtain a Commons seat through either patronage or buying a constituency. Instead, Sheridan took the third way of wooing those independent voters who were not already ‘bought'. After toying with standing at Honiton, he chose Stafford at the 1780 election. After spending over £1,000, he was returned for the two-member seat in second place.
His maiden speech on 20 November 1780, defending himself against an election petition by a defeated candidate at Stafford, has been the subject of mixed reviews. A contemporary report stated that he was heard "with particular attention, the House being uncommonly silent while he was speaking". In contrast with the spectacular political rise of his bitter political rival, Pitt, Sheridan's early Commons career, under the tutelage of his friend Fox was relatively uneventful, though peppered with moments of oratorical success.
When Lord North's long Tory premiership finally ended in early 1782, Sheridan was expected to be given a position in any new government. However, factional in-fighting meant that his first taste of office, as under-secretary of state for foreign affairs, only lasted three months before he followed Fox back into opposition. But, when a surprising coalition of Fox and North combined to oust Lord Shelburne's minority government in early 1783, Sheridan returned as secretary to the Treasury.
By 1783, Sheridan was an entertaining parliamentary performer, full of literary flourishes, best deployed when defending the government's bill to reform the East India Company in December that year.
That bill caused the King to dismiss the Fox-North coalition and appoint the 24-year-old Pitt as prime minister. Though not expected to survive for very long, Pitt actually remained Premier until 1801, condemning Sheridan to many years in opposition.
During this period, Sheridan involved himself in the great political questions of India, Irish union, the regency crisis and the domestic and foreign fallout of the French Revolution. He remained active in opposition, even when political allies like Fox had virtually boycotted Parliament in despair.
He made a star turn in one of the period's great dramas, the impeachment and prolonged trial of the Governor-General in India, Warren Hastings. In February 1787, over five and a half hours, he presented one of the main charges in a widely-praised speech. Burke described it as "the most astonishing effort of eloquence, argument and wit united."
The final years of his Commons career, following the resignation of Pitt's government in 1801, saw more political upheaval, but only a brief period of non-Tory government. In Lord Grenville's ‘Ministry of All the Talents' in 1806-07, he was Treasurer of the Navy. But, when Fox died in September 1806, Sheridan was overlooked when it came to selecting his successor as leader of the Whigs.
Theatrical affairs intruded in February 1809, during a debate on the war in Spain. The foreign secretary's speech was interrupted by cries of "Fire! Fire!". Sheridan, "in a low tone, stated... that Drury Lane theatre was on fire." When an MP suggested the debate be adjourned, Sheridan stoically declined the offer, saying: "Whatever might be the extent of the individual calamity," he did "not consider it of a nature worthy to interrupt their proceedings on so great a national question."
He then abandoned Stafford for the prestigious seat of Westminster, and fought two close and bitter contests there, being successful in the November 1806 general election, but losing decisively in the general election the following May. He was then found a seat at Ilchester, thanks to the influence, and the wallet, of the Prince of Wales. A plan to return to his old seat at Stafford at the 1812 general election misfired when he was decisively beaten, much to his own surprise. This was more than a political setback, as it made him more vulnerable to his creditors. Many attempts were made by Sheridan and his friends and patrons to find him another constituency, but to no avail.
Despite a long and celebrated political career at the centre of affairs, his actual achievements were relatively few, and it is as a playwright and not a politician that he is largely remembered.
Next month: Sir Edward Harland and Gustav Wolff
This article was first published in Total Politics magazine.