Henry Flood

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 1 (Spring 1999), Volume 7

(Trinity College, Dublin)

(Trinity College, Dublin)

Though he was one of the towering figures of eighteenth-century Irish Patriotism, Henry Flood is little remembered today. Unlike Henry Grattan, with whom he is frequently twinned in historical memory, popular valorisation was not to be his destiny. Thus, there are no statues in his honour; no pubs which bear his name and, most significantly, no phase of parliamentary history called after him. If this can be accounted for by the fact that personally as well as politically Flood had less to offer the coalition of constitutional and Catholic nationalists who forged Grattan’s heroic image in the nineteenth century, it must not obscure the fact that Flood was an abler parliamentary performer. During the thirty-one years that he was an MP he made a seminal contribution to the definition and popularisation of political patriotism, to the elaboration of ‘the 1782 constitution’ and to the advancement of parliamentary reform in Britain as well as in Ireland in the name of his particular political grail which was to make the Patriot aspiration of equality for Irish Protestants with their British co-subjects a legal reality.
Henry Flood’s political renown during his lifetime derived primarily from the fact that he was the most talented Patriot politician of his generation. He achieved this reputation though his was a personality which did not encourage confidence nor win trust. He could be ‘uncommonly pleasing’ in social situations and generous to those whom he held in high esteem. However, he was also secretive and disinclined to confide in his political colleagues. The prevailing impression was that he was ‘overbearing in council…too ardent in debate…[and]…unyielding to persuasion’. As a result, he made few close political friends.

‘Splendid talents and superior abilities’

The reserve, remoteness and hauteur which so non-plussed Flood’s peers in the 1770s and 1780s was less in evidence when he first attracted political notice in the early 1760s. His passport to eminence was his oratorical skill, but it was not just that he was possessed of ‘splendid talents and superior abilities’; in the words of Henry Grattan junior, he ‘introduced oratory into the House of Commons’. Prior to him, debate was staid, dispassionate and undemonstrative; during his lifetime it became mannered, energetic and argumentative and he was one of the foremost exponents of this style of public speaking.
Flood’s oratorical prowess was first and foremost the product of hard work. Like Grattan, he prepared all his ‘great speeches’ in advance and learned them by heart. This lent itself to a style of speaking that was at once ‘more…dignified and pompous’ than was the fashion at Westminster, but it mattered little since this was the style that was admired in Ireland. More importantly, and in vivid contrast to Grattan whose language was ‘lofty, magnificent [and] copious, Flood did not subordinate reason, information and insight to oratorical pyrotechnics. He also excelled in the cut and thrust of parliamentary debate.
Flood’s exceptional debating skills ensured he was a commanding presence in the House of Commons for most of his political life. He made his maiden speech in 1762 when he was still in the Castle fold. He presented himself as an independent Patriot for the first time in the 1763-4 session and he made an instant impression. This derived in large part from the logic and intelligence of his contributions, but of equal significance was his willingness to take controversial stands on sensitive political issues such as Poynings’ Law, the pension list, the size of the military establishment and the duration of parliament. There was nothing intrinsically novel or especially radical in the positions he took on any of these issues, but his blend of Whig, commonwealth and patriot arguments elicited political as well as popular applause and enabled him, within a few years, to displace the redoubtable Edmund Sexten Pery as the most popular opposition politician of the day.

Henry Grattan. (Trinity College, Dublin)

Henry Grattan. (Trinity College, Dublin)

Flood was a better orator and a more radically-minded politician than Pery. However, he was less clear on what he wanted to achieve and on how best he might do so. As a result, he allowed himself to be persuaded on the accession to power in 1766 of his political hero William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, that he could co-operate with an Irish administration which was headed by a resident lord lieutenant who governed according to Whig and patriot principles. However, when he met with Chatham in January 1767, it quickly became clear that his vision of the government of Ireland did not coincide with the prime minister’s.

Townshend’s viceroyalty

Instead of a partnership with Chatham, Flood soon found himself at loggerheads with Dublin Castle arising out of his disapproval of the imperial style of government practised by Lord Townshend who guided the Irish administration between 1767 and 1772. Flood opposed Townshend discreetly at first because he entertained hopes of working with the administration and because the ratification, in 1768, of octennial legislation he promoted suggested that there was much he could achieve. However, once he perceived that Townshend was embarked on the same despotic course that the English Whigs charged Lord Bute he threw himself wholeheartedly into opposition. Indeed, he helped generate anti-Townshend sentiment among the politicised public as well as his parliamentary colleagues by inaugurating the Baratariana letters. This celebrated exercise in political propaganda enhanced Flood’s reputation and his standing as the country’s greatest living Patriot. Another personality would have been content with this, but Flood had already concluded that government office was necessary if he was to elevate the kingdom of Ireland to the same constitutional position as England and make the successful entry into British politics that was his ambition.
To many Irish Patriots, Flood’s belief that it was possible to remain faithful to Patriot principles and hold government office was a contradiction in terms. But Flood adhered to the traditional view, famously articulated by Samuel Johnson, that ‘a patriot is he whose public conduct is regulated by one single motive, the love of his country’.

Dublin Volunteers meeting on College Green by Francis Wheatley. (National Gallery of Ireland)

Dublin Volunteers meeting on College Green by Francis Wheatley. (National Gallery of Ireland)

Arising out of this, he could identify no good reason why an ambitious and able patriot politician who aspired fervently to improve the way in which the empire at large, as well as Ireland, was governed could not take office. Guided by this perception, and encouraged by the attempt to introduce an absentee tax in 1773, Flood effectively invited the Irish administration to recruit him. He did so in the knowledge that his decision could prove personally costly if it was interpreted by the public as an act of self-aggrandisement, since he had pointed out as far back as 1763 ‘that no man ever preserved his popularity after sacrificing the public interest to his own’. However, he was confident this would not happen when he accepted a vice-treasurership in 1775.

Public perception of betrayal

Unlike Denis Daly, Barry Yelverton, George Ogle and Lucius O’Brien who also moved from the Patriot benches to join the Irish administration during his lifetime, Henry Flood was not induced to do so by financial need. He was, at the same time, insistent that the deal he made with the administration met his extremely exigent conditions. As a result, it was only after tortuous negotiation that he accepted the vice-treasurership with the promise that he would be offered an office for life and supported politically in Kilkenny. The administration thus paid a very high price for his services. Surprisingly, Flood appears not to have calculated that it did so in order to neutralise the threat he posed the Castle interest in the House of Commons rather than to facilitate him advance reformist and Patriot policies. This was a serious error of judgement. So too was his failure to anticipate that Patriot public opinion would interpret his action as a betrayal. This flowed from the suspicion with which he (and, it must be added, most of his parliamentary colleagues) regarded the political public. Flood maintained in the House of Commons in 1781 that the best way ‘public men’ could respond to the ‘illiberal and brutal treatment’ they received from the public and the press ‘was by doing justice to the nation’ since this ‘seldom fails to bestow…good opinion upon the deserving’, but his own experiences (not least his forays into political propagandising) in the late 1760s and early 1770s indicated that political life was not so rational or the response of public opinion so predictable.
Flood sought and accepted office with the intention of ‘doing justice to the nation’. His Patriot reputation and the wish of the administration to avoid dramatic constitutional change meant it would prove difficult in the most benign of circumstances to identify an agreed legislative agenda; it became impossible following the outbreak of hostilities with the American colonists in 1776 since it obliged the Irish administration to concentrate its energies on its traditional policy of protecting British interests against change. This created something of a reformist vacuum which public opinion contrived to fill, and it is one of the great ironies of Henry Flood’s political life that the reforms he desired to make to the operation of the Anglo-Irish nexus and to the government of the kingdom of Ireland were advanced with unprecedented success during the time that he was an office holder by his onetime Patriot allies and a rejuvenated public opinion. Flood’s failure to anticipate this was a key factor in consigning him to the political margins during these years when he would, had he remained in opposition, have been to the fore harrying Dublin Castle and the government in London into conceding the commercial and constitutional equality that provided the political patriotism he espoused with its raison d’être.
Flood spent the bulk of his six years as an officeholder keeping a low profile and behaving, to outward appearances at least, like one of the sinecure officeholders he previously criticised. Had he possessed a less acutely developed sense of honour, he would have manufactured an early reason to resign and set about rebuilding his career as a popular Patriot politician. However, he was too proud to admit his error of judgement, and the fact that the Irish administration failed to implement its part of the exceptionally favourable personal arrangement he had concluded in 1775 provided him with a ready-made reason for sitting tight. Flood gave the Irish administration plenty of time because it was an article of faith with him that agreements should be honoured and because he stood to gain so handsomely if it did so. However, the Earl of Buckinghamshire (lord lieutenant 1777-81) paid him little notice with the result that Flood’s relations with Dublin Castle were strained throughout the four and a half years that Buckinghamshire was in Ireland and his reputation dipped accordingly with politicians and public alike. Indeed, his difficulties with Dublin Castle only ended when, following the Earl of Carlisle’s appointment to succeed Buckinghamshire in 1781, Flood determined to push matters to a showdown and he was dismissed from office for not supporting the Castle in the House of Commons.

Henry Flood 4

Though he refused to concede the point, Flood’s dismissal saved his political career. Once free of the constraints of office, he was at liberty to articulate the forceful Patriotism that was occluded in the late 1770s. His return was not welcomed by most of his erstwhile colleagues who now dominated the Patriot interest in the House of Commons, but Flood did not allow their hostility cow him into silence. Distrustful of government and opposition, hostile to party alliances and remote from practically everybody, he followed his own star regardless of what people thought. It did not elicit much applause at the outset, but as the prospects for legislative independence improved, Flood’s knowledge, parliamentary skill, and disinclination to compromise on matters of constitutional principle won him increasingly positive notices with the Patriot public.

Political resuscitation

Some critics maintained that Flood was motivated in the early 1780s by a desire to upstage the younger, more popular voices that had emerged while he was an office holder. This is unconvincing because it fails to give due weight to Flood’s singled-minded character and formidable intellect. Flood studied each constitutional grievance closely and arrived at his own independent assessment as to how it should be remedied, and no matter what his diagnosis was (and it tended to be more radical than that favoured by most Patriots) he showed no readiness to accommodate his point of view to that of the moderate Patriot mainstream. This is well illustrated by the fact that he was one of the few to criticise the constitutional concessions yielded in 1782. His criticisms drew down a torrent of abuse, but they were articulated with such logic and conviction that many were won over. As a result, Flood regained the esteem of the politicised middle classes who were distrustful of British intentions and who were eager to build on the momentum engendered by the campaign for legislative independence to gain access to parliament. Flood’s insistence that the constitutional concessions obtained by Grattan that constituted ‘legislative independence’ were not secure as long as Britain did not renounce its claim to legislate for Ireland was not conceded. But the recognition of the ‘legislative independence’ of the Irish parliament by Westminster in the spring of 1783 was sufficient to consolidate Flood’s reputation among the politicised Protestant public who feted him. It was a quite remarkable political resuscitation given his predicament two years earlier, and it provided Flood with an opportunity to re-establish himself as a Patriot politician of real influence.
Irish politics stood at a cross-roads in the spring of 1783. As a consequence of accelerated popular politicisation in the 1770s and early 1780s, the country’s Protestant middle classes were eager to reform the representative system. Moreover, they needed, as they acknowledged, political guidance. This provided Flood with an ideal opportunity to redefine popular politics and the role of the popular politician in late eighteenth-century Ireland but he did not seize the moment. It was not, as some commentators suggested, that he was more interested in eclipsing Grattan as the country’s pre-eminent Patriot. Rather, he could not conceive of himself as a popular politician because, for all his radical Patriot rhetoric, Flood shared Grattan’s and Charlemont’s conviction that politics was the responsibility of those whose position in society and education prepared them for that responsibility. All three were agreed on the desirability of parliamentary reform, but they could not conquer their suspicion of street politics.

Hostile to concessions to Catholics

Significantly, considering his earlier reserve on this point, Flood worked quite closely with the Volunteers in 1783-4, but he remained as hostile as ever to the suggestion emanating from radical circles that Catholics should be admitted to the political process. It was not that he was anti-Catholic per se. He maintained throughout his career that ‘every individual, in his private capacity, has by the fundamental laws of this country a right of private judgement with respect…to religion’, but he believed that the security of the Protestant interest in Ireland and the Anglo-Irish connection necessitated an exclusively Protestant political system.

The Irish House of Commons [1780] by Francis Wheatley. (Leeds City Art Gallery)

The Irish House of Commons [1780] by Francis Wheatley. (Leeds City Art Gallery)

This was an analysis shared by William Pitt (the younger) in the 1780s. However, because Flood was persona non grata with the political establishment in Britain as well as in Ireland he was in no position to forward Pitt’s ideas for a ‘Protestant reform’ when the Prime Minister tried to convince a hostile Irish administration in 1784 of the usefulness of such a programme and his own attempt to advance a Pittite-style reform in 1785 failed abysmally. Had he been in office and in good standing with the British and Irish administrations at this point, there is a good chance that Flood might have been able to advance the sort of progressive legislation he aspired to. He was neither. Indeed, he was now regarded with such deep suspicion by those in power on both sides of the Irish Sea as a result of his stand on legislative independence that his opinion carried little weight in government circles.
Consequently, in a decision almost as pregnant for his reputation as his acceptance of the vice-treasurership, he effectively took the first step on a road that, within a few years, was to see him virtually withdraw from Irish politics when he became a Westminster MP in 1783. This was something Flood had long aspired to, and which, given his conviction that he was no less a subject of the crown than any Englishman, did no violence to his political credo. But just as 1775 was the wrong time to take office, so 1783 was the wrong time for him to leave Ireland. To compound his problems, he failed to appreciate that if he was to make an impact at Westminster he had to choose carefully when and on what issue he offered his opinions. He made a number of impressive contributions during his years at Westminster, but the negative resonance of his maiden speech, his refusal to align himself with either of the main party interests, personal hostility and serious electoral complications ensured that he impressed only occasionally during the mid and late 1780s. Indeed just as his term in office proved an anti-climax after the drama of the 1760s and early 1770s, so his years at Westminster were anti-climactic compared with the early 1780s. As a result, he operated increasingly on the political margins until his failure to win a seat either at Westminster or at College Green in the 1790s brought the curtain down on what had been an eventful political life.
As many acknowledged after his death, Henry Flood was an exceptional parliamentarian who remained faithful to the principles of Protestant Patriotism throughout his political career. His assertive defence of the legal and constitutional rights of Irish Protestants earned him as much criticism in Britain as it did applause in the Irish Protestant nation, though his interest in British politics and his affection for things English vividly indicate that, no less than they, he was wholly committed to the retention of a secure Anglo-Irish connection.
But most of all, when his contemporaries came to recall Flood, their memory of him was as an orator, and it is fitting for this reason that this short article should conclude with the assessment of his great oratorical friend and rival, Henry Grattan:

He had his faults; but he had great powers, great public effect; he persuaded the old, he inspired the young; the Castle vanished before him. On a small subject he was miserable: put into his hand a distaff, and, like Hercules, he made sad work of it; but give him a thunderbolt, and he had the arm of a Jupiter.

James Kelly lectures in Irish history at St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra.

Further reading:

J. Kelly, Henry Flood: Patriots and Politics in Eighteenth-Century Ireland (Dublin 1998).


Copyright © 2024 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568