A man named Walpole, Sir Robert Walpole

Over 30 years before the Declaration of Independence, Sir Robert Walpole pushed his native England to leave its American colonies alone. Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

By Amelia Tarallo
Hometown Weekly Staff

Like a great many countries, the United States named many of its towns after its political heroes. Our country's capital is named after our first president. Adams, Massachusetts is named after our second president. Revere is named after patriot Paul Revere.

But it seems almost strange to name a town after our country's former rulers.

So how did Walpole find itself named after the first and longest-serving British prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole?

The town of Walpole was incorporated in 1724, years before The United States won its independence from Great Britain. At the time, King George sat on the English throne. However, unlike Britain's more recent rulers, King George I was raised in Germany and spoke very little English. His predecessor, Queen Anne, had died childless, and the government had intended that George's mother, Sophia of Palatinate, would become queen after her. Unfortunately, she died before Queen Anne. Without the expectation that he would immediately be king, King George I inherited the throne, utterly unprepared for the task of ruling a great colonial power. His inability to rule effectively or communicate with his ministers allowed for others to gain more power in their position.

In particular, it led to the unofficial establishment of the prime minister position.

In 1720, Great Britain began to face an extraordinary economic crisis. The South Sea Company was a joint-stock company created in 1711 as an attempt to reduce Britain's growing debt. The company was relatively successful - that is, until its 1720 collapse. The resulting economic crisis led to an investigation that revealed there was corruption among those involved in the stock. The revelation caused many ministers to resign. Many of the people involved with the South Sea Company were imprisoned for their part in the corruption. The most troubling outcome: the South Sea Company's failure led to citizens of Great Britain distrusting their monarch and the government that had put them in this position.

The chaos of the economic crisis allowed Sir Robert Walpole to obtain power over the British government.

While some American towns changed their names, post-Revolution, to reflect their new-found independence, Walpole stuck with its namesake.  Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

While some American towns changed their names, post-Revolution, to reflect their new-found independence, Walpole stuck with its namesake. Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Sir Robert Walpole was born in 1676 in Houghton, Norfolk, England. Like his father, Walpole was a Whig politician who was first elected to Parliament in 1701. He had, in fact, invested in the South Sea Company and had made an enormous profit when he sold his shares. As someone who had benefited from the company and also held a government position, Walpole knew that it was necessary to regain trust from the British people. Following the economic crisis, Lord Walpole was elected as the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Leader of the House of Commons, and the First Lord of the Treasury. Through these positions, he obtained the power to refocus the government and convince people that they could trust their leaders.

Lord Walpole removed those in charge of the company while stripping their assets. Walpole then used their assets to pay those directly affected by the South Sea economic bubble.

Perhaps the most ironic part about Robert Walpole’s tenure as prime minister is that it possibly led to the United States becoming independent. During his time in power, Walpole wanted to ensure that Great Britain would lower its debt and strengthen its treasury. The colonies were perhaps Great Britain's most important investment. Not only did the colonies have a plethora of new resources, they also had a number of British citizens who wanted British products.

Walpole adopted a laissez-faire tactic, known today as salutary neglect, as a means to boost the return on Britain’s colonial investments. Walpole believed that the colonies in American would do best without economic interference from Great Britain. "If no restrictions were placed on the colonies, they would flourish,” he is noted as theorizing. During his time as prime minister, Walpole avoided enforcing any regulations or trade laws that could affect the productivity of the colonies.

In short, Walpole believed in a hands-off policy when it came to the American colonies.

The people of the colonies, including those living in the town of Walpole, lived independently, functioning without any interference from Great Britain. The colonists’ prosperity ended in the 1760s, years after Walpole’s death, when the traditional policy of salutary neglect ended and the British government began taxing and regulating trade to the American colonies - most notably through the famous Stamp Act of 1765. This soon led to unrest in the Americas, which would eventually precipitate the American Revolutionary War.

While many towns changed their British-rooted names after the Revolutionary War, it is no wonder why Walpole stuck with its namesake. In his twenty years as prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole managed to not only save Great Britain from falling into deeper debt, but also, inadvertently, to prove to the American colonists that they could thrive independently from their colonizers.

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