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The father of this distinguished orator was an unfortunate man of letters, who having offended his opulent family by marrying a dowerless beauty, was thrown upon the world with an allowance of only 1501. a year, which being inadequate to his support, he left his native country (Ireland) for the purpose of qualifying himself as a barrister in the courts at Westminster. He had previously distinguished himself by the production of several prose pieces and poetical effusions; and, in consequence of his reputation as an author, associated, on his arrival in London, with Whitehead, Churchill, Colman, the elder, and other literary men. He also became a zealous
partisan of the celebrated Wilkes; but these connexions rather tended to his injury than his benefit as a professional man. Making no progress at the bar, he at lengih abandoned the law in despair, and became a wine merchant. A fatality however seemed to attend him; he failed in business and succeeded in pothing that he subsequently attempted. In a few years, repeated disappointments destroyed bis constitution; and he died heart-broken at an early age, on the first anniversary of his son's birth. His beautiful widow, who was a relative of Sheridan, went on the stage in order to support herself and her child: she made her first appearance at Drury Lane theatre, in the character of Jane Shore to Garrick's Lord Hastings; but her talents as an actress not being sufficiently brilliant for the metropolitan boards, she was compelled to accept of a provincial engagement; and after performing for some years at various country theatres, she, at length, married a member of the profession which'necessity had driven her to adopt.
Her son, the celebrated George Canning, was born in the parish of Mary-le-bone, on
the 11th of April, 1770. His paternal uncle who was a merchant of some eminence, undertook the care of his education, and, at a proper age, sent him to Eton, where the talents of young Canning developed themselves so rapidly, that he be came a senior scholar when only in his fifteenth year. Shortly afterwards he edited a periodical, called the Microcosm; the contributors to which were John and Robert Smith, Freer, Lord H. Spencer, and two or three more of his school-fellows. The 2d, 11th, 12th, 22d, and six or eight other numbers of this publication, have been attributed to the youthful editor's pen.
Canning left Eton in 1787, and entered at Christchurch, Oxford, where he soon distinguished himself for application and talents. He gained several prizes by his Latin essays; and his orations were so admirable as to produce a general impression that he would attain to great eminence in whatever profession he might be advised to adopt. He quitted college too early to obtain a degree, and immediately after became a student at Lincoln’s-inn. In London he fully supported the high reputation for natural abilities and great acquirements which he had obtained at Oxford. His wit
, erudition, and pleasing deportment, soon rendered him conspicuous : his society was very generally courted, and he was looked upon by those who knew him, as a remarkably promising young man. His relation, Sheridan, introduced him to Fox, Grey, and Burke; by the latter of whom it is said, hé was induced to abandon his profession for the study of politics. In order to obtain tact and confidence as a public speaker, he frequented debating clubs, which at that time, were much more respectable than, generally speaking, they became subsequently to the period of the French revolution ; and, at length, he displayed talents so powerful and varied, as to attract the admiration of Lord Lansdowne, who predicted to Bentham, that he would one day become prime minister of England.
From Canning's whiggish connexions, it was gene
rally supposed that the line he was to take, as Moore observes, in the house of commons, seemed already, according to the usual course of events, marked out fur him. The opposition was so confident of his support, that Sheridan spoke of him in parliament as the future advocate of free and liberal opinions. Canning, however was either in fear of being eclipsed by his talented leaders, if he enrolled himself in the ranks of opposition, or entertained an opinion that he had more chance of obtaining the preferment he sought as a partisan, rather than an opponent, of the ministry. Accordingly, in 1793, he entered parliament as member of Newport, in the Isle of Wight, under the auspices of Pitt, to whom he had probably been introduced by his college friend Mr. Jenkinson, afterwards the first Lord Liverpool.
At the latter end of January, 1794, he delivered his maiden speech, in which he displayed considerable talent; but, at the same time, indulged in so much contemptible levity towards Fox, that, however highly he might have gratified his patron, he must have disgusted the moderate men of all parties. His subsequent conduct, for some time in parliament, was rather daring than brilliant he bearded the political giants on the opposition benches with an effrontery that, while it tended to increase his value as a ministerial skirmisher, lowered him materially in general estima. tion. Without a solitary exception, he supported and eulogized the measures brought forward by the premier, and as invariably opposed and ridiculed the propositions of his political antagonists; acting, on all occasions, less as a partisan than a retained advocate of the
ministry. He was so evidently the political creature of Pitt, that he frequently incurred such sarcastic reproaches, as equalled, if they did not exceed, in severity, the invectives which he frequently lavished on the opposition. Francis, on one occasion, thus corrected him for his flippancy :-“The young gentleman, who is just escaped from his school and his
Is carried off by
classics, and is neither conversant in the constitution or the laws of his country, imprudentiy ventures to deliver opinions, the effect of which is merely to degrade him in the opinion of the world.” On another occasion, Courteney said of him “We have seen the honourable gentleman attach bimself to the minister, apparently for the purpose of promoting his own for tunes : Thus, a light straw, whirl'd round by ev'ry blast,
me dog's tail at last. » In 1796, Canning obtained a visible reward for his services, being appointed one of the under secretaries of state; “Mr. Aust," as Fox observed in the house of commons," having been superannuated to make room for him, although still as fit for business as at any former period of his life.” About this time, Canning was returned member for Wendover; and during the two following years, he appears to have devoted himself with great zeal to the duties of his office. In 1799, he took a conspicuous part in the debates relative to the union with Ireland; and it is worthy of remark, that, while he advocated the views of his patron in his speeches on this subject, he avoided, with great dexterity, committing himself in
any manner relative to the catholic question.
During the same year, 1799, he married Joan, one of the daughters and co-heiresses of General Scott. By this union, Canning's pecuniary independence was achieved, and his political consequence considerably increased: his wife's sisters having been previously married—the one to Lord Down, and the other to the Marquess of Titchfield, afterwards Duke of Portland. He now began to assume somewhat more importance in his party, but without emancipating himself from the thraldom of Pitt, whose measures, right or wrong, he continued to support with unabáted zeal and increasing talent, not only as a parliamentary speaker, but as a satirical writer. In conjunction with Ellis and Freer, he established the Anti-Jacobin Examiner, a periodical which, from the malignancy it displayed, and the cool ease with which it immolated its political victims, has been rather appropriately termed the literary Robespierre of its day.
In 1801, Pitt, with his immediate partizans, withdrew from office; they were succeeded by Addington and his friends, whom, as soon as Pitt began to vote against them, Canning assailed with great vehemence. At this period, to adopt an expression of his best biographer, he proved himself to be Pitt's whipper-out, as well as his whipper-in. During the debate relative to the Irish militia bill, he accused ministers of being neither consistent nor uniform. “They know not,” he continued, “what they propose, and take no effectual means of carrying their plans into effect. They never advance boldly to their object, but
'Obliquely waddle to the end in view."" Nor did he cease, by his pen, to eulogize his great political leader, or to vituperate those whom Pitt thought proper to oppose. About this time he produced that celebrated song in which “the heaven born minister” is described
as the pilot that weathered the storm ;" and wrote those satirical effusions, The Grand Consultation, &c. which may rather be characterized as venomous than caustic, and certainly do much more credit to his head than his heart.
At length, the administration of Addington and his friends was dismissed, and Pitt resumed the premiership, with Canning paddling in his wake as treasurer of the navy. Pitt died in 1806; and on a proposition being made to pay his debts, which was warmly supported by his great political antagonist, Fox, Canning insisted that the amount required for that purpose ought not to be considered as an eleemosynary grant to posthumous necessities, but as a public debt due to a public servant.
The friends of the departed premier now retired from office and the administration of All the Talents,