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Robert Walpole

Robert Walpole (August 26, 1676 - March 18, 1745) is generally regarded as the first British Prime Minister and is credited with having the longest term of office. Walpole served from 1721-42 -- during the reigns of George I and George II.

Walpole was born in Norfolk in 1676, and was educated at Eton College and Cambridge University. By the time he entered Parliament in 1701, as member for Castle Rising, he had witnessed much political change within the country. Within the Whig party (modern Liberal Party) to which he belonged, he was soon recognised as an outstanding talent. At the time of the accession of King George I of Great Britain, Walpole was already First Lord of the Treasury - an office still nominally held by the prime minister in modern times - as well as Chancellor of the Exchequer.

British monarchs were gradually ceasing to play an active role in politics, and Walpole's position was strengthened by the fact that the new king spoke no English and had little knowledge of British tradition. He was soon able to assemble a small group of ministers who effectively ran the country, as whose chairman he came to be seen as the leader of the Parliamentary government. He also developed a good relationship with the future King George II, and particularly with George's wife, the Princess of Wales, Caroline of Ansbach, thus ensuring he maintained his position when the succession passed to them in 1727.

As "prime minister" from 1721 to 1742, Walpole held the kind of power that has not been equalled by an ordinary politician, before or since, but, like all politicians, he eventually succumbed to the opposition manoeuverings led by Lord Carteret - resigning after the government was accused of rigging the Chippenham by-election. He was created Earl of Orford and was given the house now known as 10 Downing Street, which he presented to the nation to be used as the official residence of future prime ministers. He died in 1745.

Walpole's administration as "first minister" had important consequences. Walpole moved Britain toward a trading economy, where British merchants generated income as shippers and the state from port fees and warehousing. He was also minister during the time of the growth of stock markets, and he saw the personal and political gains to be had from stocks. He was instrumental in getting the national debt transferred into South Sea Company stocks, thereby retiring part of the debt and enriching the directors of the South Sea Company. Walpole's "fall" took the form of an elevation to the House of Lords, where he continued to influence the government in the House of Commons for some time. His influence through giving advice to the King was described as being the "Minister behind the curtain".

Walpole's political dealing, and his political power, led to a unification of opposition forces on a scale that had rarely been seen before. He was perhaps the most satirized politician in the entire 18th century. Most notably, after the success of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, he was often compared with the master criminal Jonathan Wild (most notably in Henry Fielding's work of the same name). Walpole could count Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, John Gay, Henry Fielding, and even Samuel Johnson among his enemies.