Portrait of Sir Robert Walpole, studio of Jean-Baptiste van Loo, 1740

Portrait of Sir Robert Walpole, studio of Jean-Baptiste van Loo, 1740

This month’s eighteenth-century hottie is Robert Walpole, England’s first prime minister. I taught John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera last month in my eighteenth-century literature class. Of course, you can’t teach that play without talking about Walpole.

Walpole was born in 1676, the same year that my favorite Restoration comedy, Sir George Etherege’s The Man of Mode premiered. In 1701, he was elected to Parliament as a member of the Whig party. In 1721 be became Lord of the Treasury. By 1730, he was the undisputed leader of the Whig party and, more importantly, the Prime Minister of the country. (He was also the first minister to reside at 10 Downing Street.)

Writers like Gay despised Walpole because he used a patronage system, giving MPs honors and positions based on their support for his policies. Today, this system doesn’t seem all that foreign or controversial, but in the 1730s it vehemently debated and criticized by writers like Gay, Alexander Pope, and Jonathan Swift.

These and other writers argued that this system was inherently corrupt, based on interest and greed rather than the good of the country. Criticism of Walpole’s administration was also publicized in what we now know as political cartoons, satiric prints that mocked Walpole, the patronage system, and his policies.