• Daniel Ethan Finneran

On Impeachment: Warren Hastings

November 2019


The act of impeachment, a type of political censure currently on the tip of everyone’s tongue, has a long precedence in the English-speaking world. It has permeated, indeed, at the most contentious of times, defined the political tempests of the past three centuries. In the eighteenth-century, the world became aware of the infamous case against Warren Hastings (about which, at some length, I’ll write below). In the nineteenth, America witnessed the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, successor to and subverter of Lincoln’s restorative dream. In the twentieth, there was the impeachment of Richard Nixon and later that of Bill Clinton. The former, a Republican, was merely mendacious and resigned for his deceit; the latter, a Democrat, was promiscuous as well. Now, nearing the second decade of the twenty-first, we witness the impending impeachment of Donald Trump.


The last on this list is not my concern; in the coming days and weeks, enough ink will be spilt in his service. I’ll not contribute to the growing blot. Instead, I’ll focus on the first—on the great historical event that was the impeachment of Warren Hastings.


That said, some background will be a necessary accompaniment for the fullest appreciation of his peculiar case.


Though an English matter, we must begin with the Dutch. Following the lucrative, and yes, at times cruelly exploitative precedent established by those genial giants of Holland (by whom, at the distance of a few miles across the southern tip of the North Sea, the English were flanked) the Brits created their own version of a company whose foreign ventures would be focused, to the exclusion of all other subsequent lands colored in her majesty’s red, on the Asiatic east. Unoriginally, they called their new business the “British East India Company” when, in 1709, it was organized and first sent abroad.


The Dutch, a people of naval, commercial, and—as its inhabitants of today probably hope we’ll forget—colonial mastery behind whom not only the English, but the rest of Europe always trailed (the Empire State was, of course, initially known as New Amsterdam, as it would persist for nearly a decade before the birth of the Duke of York), had established its own “Dutch East India Company” over a century before. It was, in its time, a paragon of profitability and a shining source of the Netherland’s national pride. It remains, in ours, an exemplar of a truly global corporation by whose success, both literally and financially, all boats were made to rise. It was a corporation, at once protected by the state yet unfettered by its grasp, around which the incipient roots of the modern stock market grew. In more ways than one, we have it to thank for our own beloved Wall Street—a road on which we Americans all travel with hopeful expectation of a worthwhile yield.


England, not unfeeling to the influence of her neighbor’s extraordinary success, sought to cut for herself a slice of this prodigious pie. As stated, she was not so haughty as to be beneath mimicry. As it was to the Dutch so many years prior, a government-sanctioned monopoly was given to the British East India Company as the eighteenth century forged ahead. The British were following the Dutch step for step. In possession of this frankly anti-Smithian, anti-capitalistic decree, the British East India Company was given the exclusive and legally inviolable right its trade on the subcontinent of India. As you might’ve guessed, however, theirs wasn’t the only company for whom the Indian environment was deemed deliciously fertile ground. Late-comers to this dangerous game of international trade, the English were made to contend—sometimes quite bloodily—with the Dutch, French, and native armies by whom they were preceded and now confronted. No territorial claim, regardless of the protective barrier that is the expected advantage of age, was assumed to be privileged, and each approached the other with a sense of mutual suspicion and inhospitality. All sought for the adornment of their own empire and the inflation of their own purse a piece of this crumbling Mogul world.


It was about this time that the name of Robert Clive, a name wholly anathema to the liberal and humanitarian sentiments that so nobly distinguish us today, entered into the pages of history. That same British East India Company for which he worked (and, in time, in whose name he would become a military governor) had been recently dispossessed of its crown jewel—the entrepôt of Calcutta. This was a result of those aforementioned fights. Armed with a force of about three thousand men (of whom some two thousand were native Indians, with the remainder being of European descent), he defeated a phalanx of fifty-thousand. The slaughter was indiscriminate and the carnage widespread. We recognize the event, to the shame of the English-speaking world, as the Battle of Plassey. It was the inaugural event which would mark, for at least the next century to come, what would be Britain’s dominance in that region of the world.


Clive, in the model of an Anglican Cortes or Pizarro—nonpareil conquerors yet incorrigible fiends—was immune to the moral fallout of the atrocities that he had ordered. His consolation was that competition was now reduced. For him, with the added enticement of the profit to be had by the loot, that was enough. His scruples wavered not when told that, by effect of his design, the local Indian population upon whose lands his company had intruded, had been, for all intents and purposes, cleansed. Added to injury was the insult of insufficient food. The people, rendered politically incapable of supporting their own state, would now hardly be able to stand on their own two feet. It’s estimated that the famine of 1770 (for which Clive must be deemed solely responsible) reduced by at least a third the Indian population over which he sadistically presided. So desperately malnourished, the people couldn’t conceive of a revolt. While they might’ve had the intention, they lacked the vitality and the strength to effectuate this physically-demanding and vigorous aim. What’s more, the superior arms by which Clive and his men were advantaged would make any attempted fight against the British empire completely suicidal. Really, for the British troops under Clive’s command, there was no worry of a potential Indian insurrection or a movement toward resistance that couldn’t easily be squelched.


Thus, Bengal—thanks in part to the oft-associated instruments of commerce and cannon, word and sword—was established as a British territory. A fact of which we’re all aware, it remained so for many years (it wouldn’t be until 1947 that independence was declared). But Clive, comfortable with his purloined possessions and heavily-laden with coin, decided to move back to England and continue his conquest there. He was, to use the derisive nomenclature of the day, a nabob of the worst kind—one who, after entering the world with the burden of an inauspicious origin, went out to India, made a “killing” (sadly, in more ways than one), and returned to England a very wealthy man. In that ostensibly democratic nation, he sought political advancement with his wealth—a vote upon which one can always rely.

Upon his departure from the British East India Company, Clive was succeeded by the man to whom we’ll turn as the subject of the remainder of this article: Warren Hastings.


So far as our beloved “rags-to-riches” stories continue to prevail upon and move us, we should be stirred by hearing an account of the life of Hastings. Though previously titled, his family had fallen into an impecunious station out of which it couldn’t easily emerge. It was, from the time of his birth, Hastings’s challenge to raise himself up from this lowly and lonely beginning. His mother, having been delivered of the boy, failed to survive his infancy; she died soon after giving birth. His father, desperate for the kind of position of which he thought himself a rightful heir, sought his fortune on the western side of the globe. Whereas his son would later sail east, Hastings the elder opted for the Caribbean and the west. Little is recorded of his subsequent exploits.


Exiguously educated due to the failing of his funds, Hastings decided to enter into a trade. That profession for which he was best-suited, the navigation of the sea, is that same intrepid pursuit for which every British youth still yearns. Verily, as an insular people surrounded by Neptune’s awesome breadth, the desire for oceanic adventure is in the British man’s blood. Hastings was no exception to this enticement of the sea. Desperate for a voyage and, through a voyage, an advancement in his social standing, he enrolled himself as a volunteer under the command of that same Clive with whom we’ve already been acquainted. Hastings, under the tutelage of that tyrant, shared in the campaign of Calcutta, the rapine of the indigenous people’s labor, and the profit of his own person.


Militarily astute, Hastings was also administratively quite savvy. In the governance of a foreign land, such an ability is, as one can imagine, of almost incalculable value. Thus, he rose with a rapidity that would’ve dazzled his absentee father. In time, he became Governor of India—a nearly regal designation. Seemingly inheritances of Clive, Hasting’s politics were as severe as his morals were loose. He learned well from his teacher. He was accused by a local Indian official of bribery. Indeed, it was commonly assumed that there was “no species of peculation from which (Hastings) has thought it reasonable to abstain”. A full enumeration of his crimes was coming into existence with the oversight of a curious Parliamentary committee—a committee at whose head Charles James Fox and Edmund Burke sat in restive anticipation of an inevitable duel.


Upon Hastings’s retirement from his gubernatorial Indian reign, he returned to England—exhausted, wealthy, though not devoid of a desire for more. Awaiting him in the country of his birth was not the peerage nor even the pension for which he had come to hope, but a series of invectives and a charge of immorality to which he’d be made to respond. Edmund Burke, the consummate conservative and Irish-born MP, made an inquiry into Hastings’s dealings while he was the governor of that wretched Asian land. The House of Commons, in the transference of these materials to the ever-so bothersome Burke, was somewhat unforthcoming; Burke, it’s known, had become a rather contentious figure around whom a political schism was beginning to form. This rupture would be clearer at the outset of the French Revolution. Though oratorically brilliant and philosophically sound, he wasn’t prone to making Parliamentary friends. He was all passion and disputation and, to the discouragement of his interlocutors, he was usually right. No man could better convey a true opinion. Probably, though, he didn’t even need every last parcel of evidence attesting to Hastings’s misconduct of which those legislatures were in jealous possession. A small portion was enough to impeach.


And…impeach he did. At the very least, he tried. Burke organized and laid forth before the House of Commons a bill of charges against the now disreputable Hastings. The Hibernian conservative was now waging open political warfare against the returning Indian despot by whom he was so irrepressibly angered. At first, content with Hastings’s published denial of his alleged wrongdoing, the House declined to prosecute Burke’s case. This setback, though frustrating, was mercifully short-lived; Fox, politically far more potent than Burke, joined him in support of his cause. So too did Richard Sheridan, a fellow Irishman and Ciceronian who sat beside Burke in the House. This brought to Burke’s corner many a wavering Whig. So too, in time, did the younger William Pitt—precociously still in the second decade of his life. He was, as was his vaunted father, the Prime Minister of Great Britain and had no difficulty in serving as the party’s whip.


All forces, with the weighty exemption of the disgruntled Tories, were on board to impeach. The articles were presented in the House. Burke, being inclined to prose, left the speaking on this occasion to the estimable Sheridan, who was, at this point, an accomplished poet. For five hours, the author of The Rivals presented to the gathered MPs a list of the multitudinous crimes of which the fallen Hastings ought to be found guilty. Suspicions must arise when so histrionic and verbose a performance is deemed necessary for the conviction of a man. Facts, soberly stated, ought to win the day if there really is a day to be won. Sheridan, however, wasn’t fluent in the language of brevity. When finally he concluded, another vote was taken. This time, after its initial failure, the vote passed in favor of the impeachment of Hastings. Jubilant, Burke prepared the case that would be argued before the Peers.


It would be in the House of Lords, that landed and aristocratic body of noble names and sibilant S’s, where conviction would be procured. This time, however, Burke, rather than Sheridan, would be the one personally charged with prosecuting the case against Hastings. There, he would stand before that august body of the England’s elite and impugn the retired governor for having committed “high crimes and misdemeanors”—that ambiguous infringement of the law with whose lack of clarity we Americans continue to struggle. This subsequent stage of the impeachment proceeding was the event of the century—and that’s saying quite a lot; it was a century rife with events. A revolution in America had just concluded and another in France was underway.


Burke, in a deluge of a denunciation that was the accumulated result of the past seven years, made arguably his most historic speech. Its peroration is worth quoting at length:

“I impeach Warren Hastings, Esquire, of high crimes and misdemeanors.


I impeach him in the name of the Commons of Great Britain in Parliament assembled, whose parliamentary trust he has betrayed.


I impeach him in the name of all the Commons of Great Britain, whose national character he has dishonored.


I impeach him in the name of the people of India, whose laws, rights, and liberties he has subverted; whose properties he has destroyed; whose country he has laid waste and desolate.


I impeach him in the name and by virtue of those eternal laws of justice he has violated.

I impeach him in the name of human nature itself, which he has cruelly outraged, injured, and oppressed, in both sexes, in every age, rank, situation, and condition of life”.


A classicist at heart, as every conservative unconsciously is, Burke employed to great effect the use of the anaphora—an originally Greek instrument of speech. Made most famous by that greatest of modern orators, Winston Churchill, and his “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” address, the anaphora is the repetition of a word or phrase at the outset of sequential lines. Used immoderately, it becomes redundant; it becomes a phrase, suddenly lacking in originality, that’s both tiresome and over-wrought. Used, however, with the vigor of emphasis and the care of restraint, it becomes an unforgettable mantra. It becomes a phrase that now sits outside of time—like a spoken spirit living in an atemporal realm—that can’t help but lodge itself into the listener’s ear.


Indeed, I hear, again and again, as I reflect upon this resounding speech its concluding line: “I impeach him in the name of human nature itself”. Is there, if not “human nature itself”, any other authority of commensurate universality and clout to whom one can apply? Is there an invocation more fundamental than the ideal of Man in seeking the passage of judgment against man? I think not. Burke knew this, but was able to conceive of it because of the breadth of his sympathy and the capacity of his thought. Being a partly-Catholic Irishman in a fully-Anglican land, he knew only too well and too acutely what it was like to be in the oppressed class. He had walked in every man’s shoes—a sojourn at whose end one can’t help but feel for his fellow man. It’s as if Burke had within his very soul all the sentiments, grievances, and pains by which our poor species is burdened. And no one, with the painful exception of the African slave, was more burdened than the Indian was. Thus, Burke donned his footwear and went to work.


Irrespective of the unmentioned facts of the case (for whose details I refer you to another source), one can’t help but align his sympathies with and lend his support to Burke. This is especially true after being washed in the tidal force of his profuse wisdom and the wave of his rhetorical arc. But, perhaps in imitation of those cliffs of Dover behind which they stood, the Peers were unmoved. The saltiness of Burke’s censure failed to erode their insistence to acquit. They had no desire to damage the reputation of Hastings, much less to send him away ignominiously in shackles.


Thus, a full eight years and two hundred sessions after the initial opening of the impeachment proceedings, he was let go. The Peers, finding Burke insufferable and Hastings contrite, decided not to convict him. This dénouement, after nearly a decade’s time, was a somewhat unsatisfactory ending. It was an anti-climactic scene to what had been a riveting cause celebre. In the opinion of the upper echelon of English society, the Peer’s verdict was considered just; sure, Hastings had a devilish tendency to go about his work without the anchoring weights of morality and humanity, but he had, in fact, secured for England what would be, for at least the next two centuries, its beloved crown jewel. That must be worth something. He brought to heel that unstable subcontinent from whose sundry herbs and spices and uncompensated labor the crown would, without scruple, continue to profit.


But profit, for all his depravity and foreign intrigues, was the one thing of which Hastings now found himself in acute need; a decade of sustained legal fees had exhausted his pilfered funds. More valuable still, his public image had been damaged almost beyond the point of repair. A remedy could be sought for at least one of these two painful loses. Ill-suited to genteel poverty, Hastings reached out to his old employer for help. He found the East India Company more appreciative of his efforts than was Burke, and the company agreed to award him a sizeable annuity. It proved to be a pension on which—in luxuriant comfort on a newly-acquired estate—he could live out the rest of his three decades of life. Restored to his erstwhile wealth, he was also nearly returned to his former prestige. Time, as we know, has a way of acting as a solvent in whose currents all sins tend quietly to disappear. Before his death at the age of eighty-five, the public’s opinion had largely turned in his favor. Not quite a hero, he was at least celebrated as an important, imperial man. England’s empire thanked him for his endeavors—no matter the cruelty by which they were achieved.


That marks the conclusion of the impeachment of Warren Hastings. Charged in the House, acquitted by the Lords, it set a precedent not unfamiliar to us today. Even the worst of men can escape a public death. Such is the prestidigitation of the political stage.

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