The unfortunate prime minister
Great Britain has a better record for keeping heads of state alive than we do here in America. Only one prime minister has been assassinated in the nation’s long and turbulent history, an extraordinary demonstration of mass self-control, especially when you add Margaret Thatcher into the equation.
In our defense, the wives of monarchs historically don’t enjoy anywhere near as favorable a chance for reaching old age as First Ladies traditionally do.
Andro Linklater traces the roots of the prime minister’s demise and the reverberations of the murder in his intriguingly (and aptly) titled new book, Why Spencer Perceval Had To Die. The story is part political drama, part Biblical passion play, and part whodunit. On the surface, the whodunit aspect was deceptively easy to determine. Like vintage Agatha Christie, however, things were not quite as clear-cut as they seemed at the time of the dastardly deed.
Late in the afternoon of May 11, 1802, a failed businessman from Liverpool named John Bellingham walked into the lobby of the Parliament building and waited for the appearance of the prime minister. Bellingham felt himself mightily wronged by the government of Great Britain and, after much soul searching, decided to remedy the situation with a bullet. All other options, at least in his mind, had been exhausted.
Bellingham didn’t have to wait for long. Perceval had been abruptly summoned to address Parliament on the Orders in Council, a polarizing issue that the PM supported as a potent weapon against the inhuman slave trade flourishing in the world. Others saw the Orders as a crippling impediment to free enterprise that was causing enormous hardships among the working class.
As Perceval passed by, Bellingham leveled one of two pistols he carried with him and fired point black at the prime minister’s chest. The injury was fatal. Someone shouted to lock the doors in the lobby, but there was no need. The assassin made no move to escape or to excuse his action.
John Bellingham didn’t know Spencer Perceval. He had no grudge against him personally or any particular opinion of the Orders in Council. He felt badly that Perceval’s 11 children had lost their beloved father. He regretted the negative impact of his act upon his own wife and children. But Bellingham was certain that, once his case was presented in court, he would be exonerated. It seemed as if an enormous burden had finally been lifted from his shoulders. He had done what he needed to do to retain his self-respect.
Perceval was a divisive man in England. Despite his diminutive size and civil temperament, he possessed a unshakable sense of self-righteousness and the iron will necessary to implement it. He commanded a great respect from his peers in the government — even those who opposed his policies — and an almost universal disdain from the public. There was (literally) dancing in the streets when news of Perceval’s death began to circulate.
A lot of people wanted an end to Perceval’s intractability on the slavery issue and believed that his policy of detaining and searching foreign vessels in international waters was pushing England towards a war with the United States that no one wanted. Bellingham made his displeasure with his government no secret. Even though his reasons were purely personal, they could be used by unscrupulous men to rid themselves of an annoying problem permanently.
Much of Mr. Linklater’s book reads like a good detective novel and his convincing conclusions are all the more admirable for having been arrived at from a distance spanning 200 years. The two seemingly disparate personalities that existed within the assassin and his victim are not so terribly different when placed under close scrutiny. Both men suffered the ultimate penalty for their own distorted and/or exaggerated perceptions of good and evil. If Perceval’s revulsion for the institution of slavery was admirable, many of his other principles were not. If Bellingham’s finely-honed sense of correctness was battered by a business deal-gone-sour in Russia, his means of seeking remuneration had little to do with justice.
The book is not always an easy read, but that is probably attributable to the complexities of the times and to the contradictory natures of the two protagonists. Why Spencer Perceval Had To Die is a revealing examination of a little known, but tremendously important, historical moment that altered the course of the most powerful nation on earth. Its impact on America was profound as well and the reverberations extended down to the Civil War half a century later.
Why Spencer Perceval Had To Die will be published by Walker & Company in May.
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