Page images
[ocr errors]

The law limiting the duration of Parliament to three years was, indeed, as we have seen, replaced by the Septennial Act, and three of the clauses of the Act of Settlement were in a few years repealed. That excluding all servants of the Crown from the House of Commons would have destroyed the harmony between the executive and legislative bodies, which is one of the chief advantages of parliamentary government, and by withdrawing the ministers from the Lower House, would have fatally weakened its influence. That compelling every member of the privy council to sign his opinions was thought an excessive restriction on the liberty of statesmen. That forbidding the sovereign to leave the British isles without the consent of Parliament was revoked at the desire of George I. But these were comparatively small matters. The great legislative changes that were effected at the Revolution-the immobility of the judges, the reform of the trials for treason, the liberty of the press, the more efficient control of the income of the sovereign, the excision from the oath of allegiance of the clause which, in direct contradiction to the great charter, asserted that under no pretence whatever might subjects take up arms against their king; the establishment of Presbyterianism in Scotland, and the partial toleration of Dissenters in England, have all been justified by history as measures of real and unquestionable progress.

The English Revolution belongs to a class of successful measures of which there are very few examples in history. In most cases where a permanent change has been effected in the government and in the modes of political thinking of a country, this has been mainly because the nation has become ripe for it through the action of general causes. A doctrine which had long been fervently held, and which was interwoven with the social fabric, is sapped by intellectual scepticism, loses its hold on the affections of the people, and becomes unrealised, obsolete, and incredible. An institution which was once useful and honoured has become unsuited to the altered conditions of

society. The functions it once discharged are no longer

needed, or are discharged more efficiently in other ways, and as modes of thought and life grow up that are not in harmony with it, the reverence that consecrates it slowly ebbs away. Social and economical causes change the relative importance of classes and professions till the old political arrangements no longer reflect with any fidelity the real disposition of power. Causes of this kind undermine institutions and prepare great changes, and it is only when they have fully done their work that the men arise who strike the final blow, and whose names are associated with the catastrophe. Whoever will study the history of the downfall of the Roman Republic; of the triumph of Christianity in the Roman Empire; of the dissolution of that empire; of the mediæval transition from slavery to serfdom; of the Reformation, or of the French Revolution, may easily convince himself that each of these great changes was the result of a long series of religious, social, political, economical, and intellectual causes, extending over many generations. So eminently is this the case, that some distinguished writers have maintained that the action of special circumstances and of individual genius, efforts, and peculiarities, counts for nothing in the great march of human affairs, and that every successful revolution must be attributed solely to the long train of intellectual influences that prepared and necessitated its triumph.

It is not difficult, however, to show that this, like most very absolute historical generalisations, is an exaggeration, and several instances might be cited in which a slight change in the disposition of circumstances, or in the action of individuals, would have altered the whole course of history. There are, indeed, few streams of tendency, however powerful, that might not, at some early period of their career, have been arrested or deflected. Thus the whole religious and moral sentiment of the most advanced nations of the world has been mainly determined by the influence of that small nation which inhabited Palestine; but there have been periods when it was more than probable that the Jewish race would have been as completely absorbed or extirpated as were the ten tribes, and

every trace of the Jewish writings blotted from the world. Not less distinctive, not less unique in its kind, has been the place which the Greek, and especially the Athenian, intellect has occupied in history. It has been the great dynamic agency in European civilisation. Directly or indirectly it has contributed more than any other single influence, to stimulate its energies, to shape its intellectual type, to determine its political ideals and canons of taste, to impart to it the qualities that distinguish it most widely from the Eastern world. But how much of this influence would have arisen or have survived if, as might easily have happened, the invasion of Xerxes had succeeded, and an Asiatic despotism been planted in Greece? It is a mere question of strategy whether Hannibal, after Cannæ, might not have marched upon Rome and burnt it to the ground, and had he done so, the long train of momentous consequences that flowed from the Roman Empire would never have taken place, and a nation widely different in its position, its character, and its pursuits, would have presided over the developments of civilisation. It is, no doubt, true that the degradation or disintegration of Oriental Christianity assisted the triumph of Mohammedanism; but if Mahomet had been killed in one of the first skirmishes of his career, there is no reason to believe that a great monotheistic and military religion would have been organised in Arabia, destined to sweep with resistless fanaticism over an immense part both of the Pagan and of the Christian world, and to establish itself for many centuries and in three continents as a serious rival to Christianity. As Gibbon truly says, had Charles Martel been defeated at the battle of Poitiers, Mohammedanism would have almost certainly overspread the whole of Gallic and Teutonic Europe, and the victory of the Christians was only gained after several days of doubtful and indecisive struggle. The obscure blunder of some forgotten captain, who perhaps moved his troops to the right when he should have moved them to the left, may have turned the scale, and determined the future of Europe. Even the changes of the French Revolution, prepared

as they undoubtedly were by a long train of irresistible causes, might have worn a wholly different complexion had the Duke of Burgundy succeeded Lewis XIV. and directed, with the intelligence, and the liberality that were generally expected from the pupil of Fénelon, the government of his country. Profound and searching changes in the institutions of France were inevitable, but had they been effected peacefully, legally, and gradually, had the shameless scenes of the Regency and of Lewis XV. been avoided, that frenzy of democratic enthusiasm which has been the most distinctive product of the Revolution, and which has passed, almost like a new religion, into European life, might never have arisen, and the whole Napoleonic episode, with its innumerable consequences, would never have occurred.

The English Revolution is an example, though a less eminent one, of the same kind. It was a movement essentially aristocratic. The whole course of its policy was shaped by a few men who were far in advance of the general sentiments of the nation. The King, in spite of his great abilities, was profoundly unpopular, and his cold and unsympathetic manners, and his manifest dislike to the island over which he reigned, checked all real enthusiasm even among the Whigs. The Church was sullen and discontented, exasperated by the Act of Toleration, which the clergy were anxious to repeal, implacably hostile to the scheme of comprehension, by which William wished to unite the Protestant bodies, and to the purely secular theory of government which triumphed at the Revolution. In the existing state of public opinion it was impossible that any system which the Church disliked could be really popular, and many causes, both just and unjust, contributed to the discontent. The moral feelings of the community were scandalised by the spectacle of a child making war upon her father, by the base treachery of many whom the dethroned sovereign had loaded with benefits, by the tergiversation of multitudes, who, in taking the oaths to a revolutionary Government, were belying the principles which for years they 3


had most strenuously maintained. There was an uneasy consciousness that the Revolution, though singularly unstained by bloodshed and by excess, was far from glorious to the English people. It was effected by a foreign prince with a foreign army. It was rendered possible, or, at least, bloodless, by an amount of aggravated treachery, duplicity, and ingratitude seldom surpassed in history. Besides this, national prosperity had rapidly declined. A great and by no means successful war was entailed upon the nation, and thousands of Englishmen had been mown down by the sword or by disease in Flanders and in Ireland. The lavish sums bestowed on Dutch favourites, the immense subsidies voted to the confederates in the war, the rapid increase of taxation, the creation of a national debt, and of great standing armies, the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act, the defeat of Steinkirk, when five regiments of Englishmen were cut to pieces by a superior force while whole battalions of allied forces remained passive spectators of the scene, the desolation of Ireland, the massacre of Glencoe, the abandonment of the Darien colonists, the 'rabbling' of about 300 Episcopalian clergymen in Scotland, the Partition Treaty, signed by William without consultation with any English minister except Somers, all added to the flame. The discontent was unreasonably, but not unnaturally, aggravated by a long series of bad harvests. From 1690 to 1699 there was hardly a single year of average prosperity. The loaf which in the last reign had cost threepence rose to ninepence. Great multitudes who had been employed in the woollen manufactories, or in the mines, were turned adrift. In the eight years from 1688 to 1696 it was stated in official documents that the value of the merchandise exported from England sank from 4,086,0871. to 2,729,520l., and the Post Office revenue from 76,318l. to 58,6721. Every shopkeeper and innkeeper bore witness to the increasing poverty. In every part of the kingdom there were accounts of rents being unpaid, of tenants breaking, of impoverished landlords; and alarming bread riots broke out at Worcester, Gloucester, Hereford,

« PreviousContinue »