Page images

the Tories had usually opposed it. The Whigs, when in office under Walpole, maintained and multiplied places and pensions because they were at their disposal, and were powerful instruments in maintaining their majority. The Tories acted in the same manner when they regained power under George III. If, at a time when they were in almost hopeless opposition, they took a different course, they were merely adopting the ordinary tactics of an Opposition.

The great triumph of Whig principles that was achieved at the Revolution was much less due to any general social, or intellectual development than to the follies of a single sovereign, and the abilities of a small group of statesmen. For a long time, indeed, the tendency of events had been in the opposite direction. In the earlier periods of English history, perhaps the most important element of English liberty lay in the great multitude of independent yeomen or small landed proprietors. In the reign of Henry VI., Fortescue had declared that in no other country in Europe were they so numerous as in England, and he attributed to this fact a very large part of the well-being of the nation.1 For many generations, however, this class had been steadily declining. The relaxation of the feudal system enabled proprietors to alienate their land; the increase of wealth had the inevitable result of accumulating landed properties; the great extension of the woollen trade, combined with the high rate of agricultural wages under Henry VII., made it the interest of landlords to turn arable land into pasture; the sudden alteration in the value of money resulting from the discoveries of precious metals in America, and the violent changes in the distribution of wealth produced by the confiscation of Church property aggravated the tendency; and in

'Fortescue, De Laudibus Legum Angliæ, cap. xxix.

the latter Tudor reigns there were bitter complaints that the small proprietors were being rapidly absorbed, that tenants were being everywhere turned adrift, and that great tracts which had once been inhabited by a flourishing yeomanry were being converted into sheepwalks. More, Roger Ascham, Harrison, Latimer, Strafford, and Bacon bear abundant testimony to the magnitude of the evil. A long series of attempts was made to check it by laws placing obstacles in the way of new inclosures, prohibiting the pulling down of farmhouses to which twenty acres of arable land were attached, restraining the number of sheep in a flock, and even regulating the number of acres under tillage; but this legislation, which had oeen warmly eulogised, and in part originated, by Bacon, was probably imperfectly executed and was certainly insufficient to arrest the tendency. The yeomanry formed the chief political counterpoise to the country gentry. In the Civil War they were conspicuous on the side of the Parliament, and even after the Restoration it was estimated that there were more than 160,000 small landed proprietors in England. Every year, however, their number diminished.' If they continued in the country districts, they sank into peasants, or rose into country gentry, and in the first case they lost all political power, while in the second case they usually passed into the Tory ranks. The towns, and the commercial classes who inhabited them, had, no doubt, rapidly increased under the Stuarts, but they had hardly made a corresponding advance in political importance. The guilds which gave the commercial classes a large

'See Eden's Hist. of the Working Classes, i. 73, 115; Macaulay's Hist. chap. iii.; Fischel On the Constitution, pp. 315, 316, and the admirable chapter on the History of the English Pea

santry in Mr. Thornton's Overpopulation. Bacon has dwelt strongly on the evil in his History of Henry VII. and in his essay On the True Greatness of Kingdoms.

amount of political concentration, had disappeared. The modern inventions that have given manufacturing industry an unparalleled extension had not yet arisen, and by a recent and skilful innovation the political power of the commercial classes had been fatally impaired. Under Charles II. the corporations most hostile to the Crown had been accused of petty irregularities and misdemeanours. Sentences of forfeiture had been pronounced against them; new charters were granted, framed in such a manner that the members were necessarily subject to the approval of the Crown, and by this process almost the whole borough representation throughout England had been reduced to a condition of complete subserviency. The judicial bench has more than once proved the most formidable bulwark against the encroachments of despotism, but in England the judges were removable at pleasure, and had become the mere creatures of the Crown. In no age, and in no country have State trials been conducted with a more flagrant disregard for justice and for decency, and with a more scandalous subserviency to the Crown, than in England under Charles II., and eleven out of the twelve judges gave their sanction to the claim of his successor to dispense with the laws.

Nor was the balance of intellectual influences more favourable to freedom. There existed, it is true, a small body of able men who adopted the principles of Sidney or of Locke, and who often carried them almost or altogether to the verge of republicanism; but the universities, which were the very centres of intellectual life, were thoroughly Tory. Hobbes, who was the most influential freethinker of the Restoration, advocated a system of the most crushing despotism, and the ecclesiastical influences which exercised an overwhelming influence over the great mass of the English people were eminently inimical to freedom. In the old

Catholic times an Archbishop of Canterbury had combined with the barons at Runnymede, and, in opposition to the Pope and to his legate, had wrested the great charter of English liberty from the sovereign, but the Church which succeeded to the sceptre of Catholicism was essentially Erastian, and the instincts of its clergy were almost uniformly despotic. The free spirit generated in the Reformation had taken refuge in Puritanism, but in the reaction that accompanied and followed the Restoration, Puritanism seemed hopelessly discredited and crushed. The hostility which the country gentry and the established clergy had always felt towards it was intensified by the many battles which the first had fought, and by the many humiliations which the latter had undergone, while the populace hated it for its austerity, and the deepest feelings of the English nation were stung to madness at the memory of their slaughtered king. The doctrine of nonresistance in its extreme form was taught in the Homilies of the Church, embodied in the oath of allegiance,1 in the corporation oath of Charles II.,2 and in the declaration prescribed by the Act of Uniformity,3 enrolled by great Anglican casuists among the leading tenets of Christianity, and persistently enforced from the pulpit. It had become, as a later bishop truly said, 'the distinguishing character of the Church of England.' 4 At a time when the constitution was still unformed, when every institution of freedom and every bulwark against despotism was continually assailed, the authorised religious teachers of the nation were incessantly inculcating this doctrine, and it may probably be said

'I, A B, do declare and believe that it is not lawful upon any pretence whatever to take up arms against the king.'

213 Car. II. c. 2.

14 Car. II. stat. ii. c. 1. See the dying profession of Lake, Bishop of Chichester, Lathbury's Hist. of the Nonjurors, p. 50.

without exaggeration that it occupied a more prominent position in the preaching and the literature of the Anglican Church than any other tenet in the whole compass of theology. Even Burnet and Tillotson, who were men of unquestionable honesty, and who subsequently took a conspicuous part on the side of the Revolution, when attending Russell in his last hours, had impressed upon him in the strongest manner the duty of accepting the doctrine of the absolute unlawfulness of resistance, and had clearly intimated that if he did not do so they could feel no confidence in his salvation.' The clergy who attended Monmouth at his execution told him he could not belong to the Church of England unless he acknowledged it. The University of Cambridge in 1679, and the University of Oxford on the occasion of the death of Russell, authoritatively proclaimed it, and the latter university consigned the leading Whig writings in defence of freedom to the flames, and prohibited all students from reading them.3 The immense popularity which the miracle of the royal touch had acquired, indicated only too faithfully the blind and passionate loyalty of the time; nor was there any other period in English history in which the spirit of independence and the bias in favour of freedom which had long characterised the English people were so little shown as in the years that followed the Restoration.

It was impossible that this could last. The enthusiasm of loyalty was strung to so high a pitch that reaction was inevitable, but had it not been for a very rare combination of causes it would never have been carried to the point of revolution. The immorality of the court of Charles which shocked the sober feelings

1 Birch's Life of Tillotson (2nd ed.), 109–122.

2 See Fox's James II. p. 265. See on these decrees Cooke's

Hist. of Parties, i. 105, 345–355. Somers' Tracts, viii. 420–424; ix. 367.

« PreviousContinue »