JAMES RALPH, a political and poetical writer of considerable note, is said to have been descended of mean parentage, and was born probably in America. There at least, from the Memoirs of Benjamin Franklin we learn that he became acquainted with that eminent man, who gives a favourable account of him, as being "ingenuous and shrewd, genteel in his address, and extremely eloquent." Franklin appears to have considered him, however, as a man who might be imposed on, and acknowledges "that he had a hand in unsettling his principles." The first effect of this was Ralph's leaving a wife and children in America, in 1725, and regardless of what became of them, forming another female connexion, by marriage, as it would appear, soon after he arrived with Franklin in England. He is also said to have assumed Franklin's name for some time, until a quarrel dissolved their friendship, such as it was. In 1728 he published his "Night," and in 1729, "Zeuma, or the Love of Liberty."
We hear no more of him, until his appearance in the "Dunciad," in which his poem of "Night" is alluded to in these lines:
Silence, ye Wolves, while Ralph to Cynthia howls,
And makes Night hideous — Answer him, ye Owls.
Warburton says these lines were inserted after the first edition of the Dunciad, and that he was not known to Pope, until he published a swearing-piece called "Sawney," very abusive of Pope, Swift, and Gay. He adds that "this low writer attended his own works with panegyrics in the Journals; and once, in particular, praised himself highly above Mr. Addison, in wretched remarks upon that author's account of English poets, printed in a London Journal, Sept. 1728. He was wholly illiterate, and knew no language, not even French. Being advised to read the rules of dramatic poetry before he began a play, he smiled and replied, 'Shakspeare writ without rules.' He ended at last in the common sink of all such writers, a political newspaper, to which he was recommended by his friend Arnall (see ARNALL), and received a small pittance for pay; and being detected 4h writing on both sides on one and the same day, he publicly justified the morality of his conduct."
Such is Warburton's account, heightened a little, unquestionably, by his regard for Pope, but, except where he calls him illiterate, not much beyond the truth; for Ralph's pen was completely venal, and both his principles and his distresses prevented any consideration on the moral part of his conduct. He had by this time produced on the stage, "The Fashionable Lady," an opera, "The Fall of the Earl of Essex," a tragedy; and afterwards, "The Lawyer's Feast," a farce, and "The Astrologer," a comedy, none of which had much success. He was a writer, in 1739, in the "Universal Spectator," a periodical paper; but from his letters to Dr. Birch, in the British Museum, it appears that he was no great gainer by any of his performances. There is an excellent pamphlet, however, attributed to him, which was published about 1731, a "Review of the Public Buildings of London;" but from the style and subject, we should suppose his name borrowed. In 1735 he commenced a managing partner with Fielding in the Haymarket theatre; but, as Davies says, "he had no other share in the management than viewing and repining at his partner's success."
At length he became an attendant on the "levees of great men," and luckily applied himself to political writing, for which he was well qualified. When the duchess of Marlborough, about 1742, published memoirs of her life, Ralph was employed to write an answer, which he called "The other side of the question." This, says Davies, was written with so much art, and made so interesting, by the author's management, that it sold very well. His pamphlets and political papers at length appeared of so much importance, that towards the latter end of the Walpole administration, it was thought proper to buy him off with an income. Whether his paper called "The Remembrancer," recommended him to Doddington, lord Melcombe, or was written in consequence of his acquaintance with that statesman, does not appear; but from Doddington's celebrated "Diary," we learn that he was much in the confidence of the party assembled round the prince of Wales, and was not only constantly employed to carry messages and propositions to the leaders of the party, but was frequently consulted as to the subject of such messages. Nor indeed do his talents as a politician seem much inferior to those who employed him. He had likewise before this acquired considerable fame by his "Use and Abuse of Parliaments," 1744, 2 vols. 8vo, and still more by his "History of England, during the reign of William III:; with an introductory review of the reigns of Charles II. and James II." 1744-6, 2 vols. folio, written upon principles avowed by his party. This was always considered as an useful work. Ralph had read a great deal, and was very conversant in the history and politics of this country. He applied himself, with great assiduity, to the study of all writings upon party matters: and had collected a prodigious number of pamphlets relating to the contests of whig and tory, the essence of which he incorporated in his work so as to make it a fund of curious information and opinions, of which more regular historians might afterwards avail themselves. Mr. Fox, in his late "Historical Work," pronounces him "an historian of great acuteness, as well as diligence, but who falls sometimes into the common error of judging too much from the event."
Notwithstanding his importance with his party, who, we may suppose, provided for him while he was of service to them, his turn for the stage had not left him, and he was continually teazing Garrick (to whom he had been introduced by Doddington), to encourage him in his error. Garrick saw that he was not qualified to write for the stage, and was candid enough to tell him so. Davies also says that Garrick had so much friendship for him, that he prevailed upon the minister, Mr. Pelham, to settle a pension upon him. The editor of Doddington's "Diary" relates this in a different way. After some remarks on Doddington's selfish motives, he adds, "But all this may be strictly honourable within the verge of a court; and on this account, I could patiently hear his lordship recommend Mr. Ralph as a very honest man, and in the same pages inform us, that he was ready to be hired to any cause; that he actually put himself to auction to the two contending parties (the Bedford and Pelhams), and that, after several biddings, the honest Mr. Ralph was bought by the Pelhams." If, however, Garrick was in any way the means of closing this bargain, Ralph soon forgot the obligation, and in his "Case of Authors by profession," published in 1758, conveys many insinuations against Garrick, as a manager. Garrick was so irritated, that he never spoke to him afterwards, nor would go into any company where there was a chance of meeting him.
The death of the prince of Wales was a severe blow to Ralph. In a letter to Doddington he thus states his situation — "My brain, such as it is, is my whole estate. I lost half a year's pension, when I went into the prince's service. I lost another £100 about the same time by a bankrupt bookseller. His royal highness died in my debt £65 every farthing of which I had a thousand pressing occasions for; it is almost two years since that event. I did not alter my manner of living except in a few particulars thereon: 1. because I was put in hope that friends would have been found to assist, if not provide for me, till I could again be useful; 2d, because I thought it for their credit, that I should not appear a ruined man, while they continued to honour me with their countenance; and 3dly, because I knew I should be provided for (if ever I was provided for at all) in exact conformity to the figure I lived in, which I cannot yet be humble enough to suppose is better than I have pretensions to, unless the pretensions of players, fiddlers, rope-dancers, &c. to a decent manner of living, should be thought better than mine," &c.
On the death of George II. Ralph, according to Mr. Davies's account, attained the summit of his wishes: by the interest of the earl of Bute, a pension of £600 per annum was bestowed upon him, but he did not live to receive above one half year's income. A fit of the gout proved fatal to him at his house at Chiswick, Jan. 24, 1762. He died almost in the arms of lord Elibank and sir Gilbert Elliot, from whom Mr. Davies had this information. His character may be gathered from the preceding particulars. He left a daughter, to whom a pension of £150 was granted in consequence of some papers found in her father's possession, which belonged to the prince of Wales, and contained a history of his life, said to be written by himself, tinder the title of" The History of Prince Titi." The late Dr. Rose of Chiswick, who was Ralph's executor, gave up those papers to the earl of Bute, and the pension was granted to Miss Ralph, who died, however, about a month after her father. It has been thought, with much probability, that "The History of Prince Titi" was the composition of Ralph himself. Besides the above daughter, he left a son, if we may rely on the following paragraph in all the papers of May 22, 1770, erroneous certainly in other particulars: "Mr. Ralph, who died a few days since, was the son of that great historian. He enjoyed a pension of £150 a year, which the late and present king settled on his father for writing the History of Scotland."