Page images
PDF
EPUB

So ended the Rebellion of 1715, which reflected very little credit on any of those concerned in it. How little confidence the most acute observers felt in the stability of the dynasty is curiously illustrated by the fact, which has recently been discovered, that Shrewsbury, who in 1714 had, of all men, done most to bring it on the throne, was deeply engaged in 1715 in Jacobite intrigues, while Marlborough had actually furnished money for the enterprise of the Pretender. Had that enterprise ever worn a hopeful aspect, large classes would probably have rallied around it; but in England, at least, scarcely anyone was prepared to make serious sacrifices, or to encounter serious dangers for its success. Dislike to the foreign dynasty was general, but the conflict between the passion of loyalty and the hatred of Catholicism had lowered the English character. The natural political enthusiasm of the time was driven inwards and repressed. Divided sentiments produced weak resolutions, and a material and selfish spirit was creeping over politics. In this, as in the preceding reign, the Whigs showed themselves incomparably superior to their opponents in organisation, in energy, and in skill; but how little they counted upon the national gratitude or support was shown by the fact that one of their first cares, on the termination of the rebellion, was to pass the Septennial Act, in order to adjourn for several years a general election. Much was, indeed, said of the demoralisation of the country, and of the ruin of the country gentry, resulting from triennial elections; of the animosities planted in constituencies which had no time to subside; of the instability of a foreign policy depending on a constantly fluctuating legislature; but the real and governing motive of the change was the conviction that an election in 1717 would be probably fatal to the ministry and, very possibly, to the dynasty. The Bill, though it related specially to the constitution of the Lower House, was first introduced in the House of Lords, and as it was passed without

This very remarkable fact is established by two letters from Bolingbroke to the Pretender, dated respectively Aug. 20, and Sept. 25,

1715, extracted from the Stuart Papers, and given in the appendix to the 1st vol. of Lord Stanhope's Hist. of England.

a dissolution, Parliament not only determined the natural duration of future legislatures, but also prolonged the tenure of the existing House of Commons for four years beyond the time for which it was elected.

It was on this side that the great dangers of the dynasty lay. If the character of Parliament continued to fluctuate as rapidly as it had done in the first decade of the century; if the Church and the landed gentry continued to look on the reigning family with hostility or with a sullen indifference, it was inevitable, that the normal action of parliamentary government should soon bring the enemies of the dynasty into power. If the House of Brunswick was to continue on the throne, it was absolutely necessary that something should be done to clog the parliamentary machine, to prevent it from responding instantaneously to every breath of popular passion, to`strengthen the influence of the executive both over the House and over the constituencies. The first great step towards this end was the Septennial Act, but it would, probably, have proved less successful had not a long series of causes been in action which lowered still more the Tory sentiment in England, and gradually and almost insensibly produced a condition of thought and government very favourable to the policy of the Whigs.

In the first place, it was inevitable that the monarchical sentiment should be materially diminished by the mere fact that the title to the crown was disputed. In this respect the, position of England resembled that of a very large part of Europe, for the great multitude of disputed titles forms one of the most remarkable political characteristics of the early years of the eighteenth century. The throne of England was disputed between the House of Hanover and the House of Stuart. The Spanish throne was disputed between Philip V. and the Emperor. In Italy the Houses of Medici and of Farnese became extinct, and the successions of Tuscany and Parma were disputed by the Emperor and the Spanish Queen. In Poland the rival claims of Stanislaus, who was supported by Charles XII., and of Augustus, who was supported by Peter the Great, were

during many years contested by arms. In France the title of the young King was, indeed, undisputed, but his fragile constitution made men look forward to his speedy death, and parties were already forming in support of the rival claims of the Regent and of the King of Spain. Among the causes which were lowering the position of monarchy in Europe in the eighteenth century, the multiplication of these disputed titles deserves a prominent place. They shook the reverence for the throne; they destroyed the mystic sanctity that surrounded it; they brought the supreme authority of the nation into the arena of controversy.

In England, since the period of the Restoration, the doctrine of the Divine right of kings and of the absolute criminality of all rebellion, was, as we have seen, a fundamental tenet, not only of the Tory party, but also of the Established Church. But from the accession of George I. it began rapidly to decline. The enthronement of the new dynasty had, for a time at least, solved the doubtful question of the succession according to the principles of the Revolution. The chief offices in the Church were reserved for divines who accepted those principles. The inconsistencies of the clergy during the three preceding reigns had weakened their authority and broken the force of the Anglican tradition; and in the rapid disappearance of doctrinal teaching, and the silent conversion of Christianity into a mere system of elevated morality, a theory of government which based authority upon a religious dogma appeared peculiarly incongruous. The tendency was assisted by the religious scepticism of the most brilliant of the Tory chiefs. The theory of the Patriot King,' as far as it can be discerned through the cloud of vague though eloquent verbiage in which it is enveloped, is, that the power and prerogative of the sovereign should be greatly enlarged as the only efficient check upon the corruption of Parliaments; but in this, as in other of his later writings, Bolingbroke spoke of the theological doctrine which had once been the rallying cry of his party with unmitigated contempt.' It was, of course,

'As kings have found the great effects wrought in government by

[ocr errors]

the empire which priests obtain over the consciences of mankind, so priests

.

impossible that such a tone should have been employed by the Tory leader in the more active portion of his career; but his religious sentiments were, probably, very generally surmised, and there is, I believe, no evidence that he ever employed or countenanced the language of Sacheverell and his school.

There was another consideration which had a very powerful, influence in the same direction. The undoubted benefits which England obtained from the events of the Revolution were purchased not only by the evil of a disputed succession, but also by that of a party king. The very politicians who would naturally have been most inclined to magnify the royal authority learned to look upon the reigning sovereign as the head of their opponents, and to make it a main object of their policy to abridge his power. This change had been already foreshadowed in the severe restrictions the Act of Settlement imposed upon the Sovereign, and there were few subjects on which Tory pamphleteers dilated with more indignant eloquence than the facility with which the Whigs afterwards consented to relax its limitations.' Windham denounced in the strongest terms the unconstitutional conduct of the new king in endeavouring by a proclamation to influence the elections of 1715. The most jealous critics of the civil list were to be found in the Tory ranks. In 1722, when the House of Commons voted an address to the King, promising to enable him to suppress all remaining spirit of rebellion, it was the Tory Shippen who moved that the clause should be added with due regard to the liberty of the subject, the constitution in Church and State, and the laws now in force.' 2 Whatever may have been the private sentiments of its leaders, the party which assumed this attitude publicly

have been taught by experience that the best way to preserve their own rank, dignity, wealth, and power, all raised upon a supposed Divine right, is to communicate the same pretension to kings, and, by a fallacy common to both, impose their usurpations on a silly world. This they have done: and in the State as in the Church, these pretensions to a Divine

right have been carried highest by those who have had the least pretension to the Divine favour.'--The Idea of a Patriot King. See also the Dissertation on Parties, letters vi., viii., xiv.

1

See, for example, Atterbury's 'English Advice to the Freeholders of England.'-Somers' Tracts, vol. xiii. 2 Parl. Hist., viii. 37.

disclaimed the imputation of Jacobitism. Its members, indeed, well knew that that imputation was the main obstacle to their political success, but at the same time they regarded the royal power with constant jealousy, and their public language was in glaring opposition to that which had so long been the very shibboleth of their school.1

By a similar inversion, the deep English feeling of respect for law and for all duly constituted authority, was now turned against high monarchical views. English political opinion has usually been pre-eminently distinguished for its moderation, and this characteristic has been very largely due to two great events in English history. Democratic excesses had been completely discredited by the Commonwealth, while the Revolution had discredited extreme monarchical doctrines, by associating them with Jacobitism, and therefore with conspiracy against the law.

The influences that were at work, altering the position of the sovereign, were, it is true, not all in the same direction. The large standing armies that were maintained after the Revolution, the Riot Act, the increase of patronage resulting from extended establishments and from the National Debt, and lastly the prolongation of the duration of Parliaments, were all favourable to his power or his influence. Great institutions, however, cannot rest solely upon a material basis, and the causes that were at work lowering the English monarchy were such as no extension of patronage or even of prerogative could compensate. Divested of the moral and imaginative associations that encircled the legitimate line, deprived of the religious doctrine on which it had once been based, and alienated from the party who are the natural exponents of monarchical enthusiasm, it sank at once into a lower plane. The King could lay no claim to a Divine right. His title was exclusively parliamentary, and

1The Tories have been so long obliged to talk in the republican style that they seem to have made converts of themselves by their hypocrisy, and to have embraced the sentiments as well as the language of their adversaries.'-Hume's Essay

on Parties.

2 As Bolingbroke said, 'A notion was entertained by many that the worse title a man had, the better king he was likely to make.'-Dissortation on Parties, letter vi.

« PreviousContinue »