Henry Flood (1732 – 2 December 1791), Irish statesman, son of Warden Flood, Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench for Ireland, was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, and afterwards at Christ Church, Oxford, where he became proficient in the classics. He was a leading Irish politician, and a friend of Henry Grattan, the leader of the Irish Patriot Party.
His father was of good birth and fortune, but Henry suffered the stigma of being generally considered to be illegitimate. There is some confusion about the details but it seems that while his father and his mother Isabella Whiteside, lived together as man and wife they were not legally married. Henry himself married Lady Frances Beresford, daughter of Marcus Beresford, 1st Earl of Tyrone, who brought him a large fortune. In his early years he was handsome, witty, good-tempered, and a brilliant conversationalist. He had a natural gift of eloquence which had been cultivated and developed by study of classical oratory and the practice of elocution.
In 1759, he entered the Irish parliament as member for Kilkenny County, a seat he held until 1761. There was at that time no party in the Irish House of Commons that could truly be called national, and until a few years before there had been none that deserved even the name of an opposition. The Irish parliament was still constitutionally subordinate to the English privy council; it had practically no powers of independent legislation, and none of controlling the policy of the executive, which was nominated by the ministers in London. Though the great majority of the people were Roman Catholics, no person of that faith could either enter parliament or exercise the franchise; the penal code, which made it almost impossible for a Roman Catholic to hold property, to follow a learned profession, or even to educate his children, and which in numerous particulars pressed severely on the Roman Catholics and subjected them to degrading conditions, was as yet unrepealed, though in practice largely obsolete; the industry and commerce of Ireland were throttled by restrictions imposed, in accordance with the economic theories of the period, in the interest of the rival trade of Great Britain. Men like Anthony Malone and Hely-Hutchinson fully realized the necessity for far-reaching reforms; and it only needed the ability and eloquence of Flood in the Irish House of Commons to raise up an independent party in parliament, and to create in the country a public opinion with definite intelligible aims.
The chief objects for which Flood strove were the shortening of the duration of parliament which had then no legal limit in Ireland except that of the reigning sovereign’s life, the reduction of the scandalously heavy pension list, the establishment of a national militia, and, above all, the complete legislative independence of the Irish parliament. For some years little was accomplished; but in 1768 the English ministry, which had special reasons at the moment for avoiding unpopularity in Ireland, allowed an octennial bill to pass, which was the first step towards making the Irish House of Commons in some measure representative of public opinion.
It had become the practice to allow crown patronage in Ireland to be exercised by the owners of parliamentary boroughs in return for their undertaking to manage the House in the government interest. But during the viceroyalty of Lord Townshend the aristocracy, and more particularly these undertakers as they were called, were made to understand that for the future their privileges in this respect would be curtailed. When, therefore, an opportunity was taken by the government in 1768 for reasserting the constitutional subordination of the Irish parliament, these powerful classes were thrown into temporary alliance with Flood. In the following year, in accordance with the established procedure, a money bill was sent over by the privy council in London for acceptance by the Irish House of Commons. It rejected, but a reason for this course was assigned; namely, that the bill had not originated in the Irish House. In consequence parliament was peremptorily prorogued, and a recess of fourteen months was employed by the government in securing a majority by the most extensive corruption. Nevertheless, when parliament met in February 1771 another money bill was thrown out on the motion of Flood; and the next year Lord Townshend, the lord lieutenant whose policy had provoiced this conflict, was recalled. The struggle was the occasion of a publication, famous in its day, called Baratariana, to which Flood contributed a series of powerful letters after the manner of Junius, one of his collaborators being Henry Grattan.
The success which had thus far attended Flood’s efforts had placed him in a position such as no Irish politician had previously attained. He had, as an eminent historian of Ireland observes, proved himself beyond all comparison the greatest popular orator that his country had yet produced, and also a consummate master of parliamentary tactics. Under parliamentary conditions that were exceedingly unfavourable, and in an atmosphere charged with corruption, venality and subserviency, he had created a party before which ministers had begun to quail, and had inoculated the Protestant constituencies with a genuine spirit of liberty and self-reliance. Lord Harcourt, who succeeded Townshend as viceroy, saw that Flood must be conciliated at any price rather than risk the opposition of so formidable a leader.
Flood represented Callan between 1762 and 1776 and Longford Borough between 1768 and 1769. Accordingly, in 1775, he was offered and accepted a seat, in the Privy Council of Ireland and the office of vice-treasurer with a salary of £3500 a year. For this step. he has been severely criticized. Flood may reasonably have held that he had a better prospect of advancing his policy by the leverage of a ministerial position. The result, however, was that the leadership of the national party passed from Flood to Grattan, who entered the Irish parliament in the same session that Flood became a minister.
Flood continued in office for nearly seven years. Reelected for Enniskillen in 1777, he necessarily remained silent on the subject of the independence of the Irish parliament, and had to be content with advocating minor reforms as occasion offered. He was instrumental in obtaining bounties on the export of Irish corn to foreign, countries and other commercial concessions. On the other hand he failed to procure the passing of a Habeas corpus bill and a bill for making the judges irremovable, while his support of Lord North’s American policy gravely injured his popularity and reputation.
An important event in 1778 led indirectly to his recovering to some extent his former position in the country; this was the alliance of France with the revolted American colonies. Ireland was thereby placed in peril of a French invasion, while the English government could provide no troops to defend the island. A volunteer movement was then set on foot to meet the emergency; in a few weeks more than 40,000 men were under arms, officered by the country gentry, and controlled by Lord Charlemont. This volunteer force, in which Flood was a colonel soon made itself felt in politics.
A Volunteer Convention, formed with all the regular organization of a representative assembly, but wielding the power of an army, began menacingly to demand the removal of the commercial restrictions which were destroying Irish prosperity. Under, this pressure the government gave way; the whole colonial trade was in 1779 thrown open to Ireland for the first time, and other concessions were also extorted. Flood, who had taken an active though not a leading part in this movement, now at last resigned his office to rejoin his old party. He found to his chagrin that his former services had been to a great extent forgotten, and that he was eclipsed by Grattan.
When in a debate on the constitutional question in 1779 Flood complained of the small consideration shown him in relation to a subject which he had been the first to agitate, he was reminded that by the civil law if a man should separate from his wife and abandon her for seven years, another might then take her and give her his protection. But though Flood had lost control of the movement for independence of the Irish parliament, the agitation, backed as it now was by the Volunteer Convention and by increasing signs of popular disaffection, led at last in 1782 to the concession of the demand, together with a number of other important reforms.
No sooner, however, was this great success gained than a question arose known as the Simple Repeal controversy as to whether England, in addition to the repeal of the Acts on which the subordination of the Irish parliament had been based, should not be required expressly to renounce for the future all claim to control Irish legislation. The chief historical importance of this dispute is that it led to the memorable rupture of friendship between Flood and Grattan, each of whom assailed the other with unmeasured but magnificently eloquent invective in the House of Commons. In 1783, Flood was again returned to the house, this time for Kilbeggan. His view prevailed for a Renunciation Act such as he advocated was ungrudgingly passed by the English parliament of the same year and for a time he regained popularity at the expense of his rival. Flood next (November 1783) introduced a reform bill, after first submitting it to the Volunteer Convention.
The bill, which contained no provision for giving the franchise to Roman Catholics, which Flood always opposed, was rejected, ostensibly on the ground that the attitude of the volunteers threatened the freedom of parliament. The volunteers were perfectly loyal to the crown and the connection with England. They carried an address to the king, moved by Flood, expressing the hope that their support of parliamentary reform might be imputed to nothing but a sober and laudable desire to uphold the constitution and to perpetuate the cordial union of both kingdoms. The convention then dissolved, but Flood had desired, in opposition to Grattan, to continue it as a means of putting pressure on parliament for the purpose of obtaining reform.
In Dublin, he was a member of Daly’s Club.
In 1776, Flood had made an attempt to enter the British House of Commons. In 1783, he tried again, this time with success. He purchased a seat for Winchester from the duke of Chandos, and for the next seven years he was a member at the same time of both the British and Irish parliaments. He reintroduced, but without success, his reform bill in the Irish House in 1784; supported the movement for protecting Irish industries; but short-sightedly opposed Pitt’s commercial propositions in 1785. He remained a firm opponent of Roman Catholic emancipation, even defending the penal laws on the ground that after the Revolution, they were not laws of persecution but of political necessity; but after 1786, he does not appear to have attended the parliament in Dublin.
In the House at Westminster, where he refused to enrol himself as a member of either political party, he was not successful: Grattan remarked that Flood, at fifty, was too old a tree to be transplanted. His first speech, in opposition to Charles James Fox’s India Bill on 3 December 1783, disappointed the expectations aroused by his celebrity. His speech in opposition to the commercial treaty with France in 1787 was, however, most able; and in 1790 he introduced a reform bill which Fox declared to be the best scheme of reform that had yet been proposed, and which in Edmund Burke’s opinion retrieved Flood’s reputation. But at the dissolution in the same year he lost his seat in both parliaments, and he then retired to Farmley, his residence in County Kilkenny, where he remained till his death. He and Frances, who survived until 1815 had no children, and his property passed to a cousin, John Flood; a large bequest to Trinity College Dublin was declared invalid.
When Peter Burrowes, notwithstanding his close personal friendship with Grattan, declared that Flood was perhaps the ablest man Ireland ever produced, indisputably the ablest man of his own times, he expressed what was probably the general opinion of Flood’s contemporaries. Lord Charlemont, who knew him intimately though not always in agreement with his policy, pronounced him to be a man of consummate ability. He also declared that avarice made no part of Flood’s character. Lord Mountmorres, a critic by no means partial to Flood, described him as a pre-eminently truthful man, and one who detested flattery. Grattan, who even after the famous quarrel never lost his respect for Flood, said of him that he was the best tempered and the most sensible man in the world. In his youth he was genial, frank, sociable and witty; but in later years disappointment made him gloomy and taciturn. He was, like many of his class and time, a keen duelist, and killed a political rival, James Agar, in a duel in 1769. As an orator he was less polished, less epigrammatic than Grattan; but a clear reasoner and a greater master of sarcasm and invective.
Personal ambition often governed his actions, but his political judgment was usually sound; and it was the opinion of Bentham that Flood would have succeeded in carrlting a reform bill that might have preserved Irish parliamentary independence if he had been supported by Grattan and the rest of his party in keeping alive the Volunteer Convention in 1783. Though he never wavered in loyalty to the British crown and empire, Ireland never produced a more sincere patriot than Henry Flood.