Lectures on Modern History/The Rise of the Whigs

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Lectures on Modern History by John Acton
XII. The Rise of the Whigs



The Liberal ideas bred in sectarian circles, here and in America, did not become the common property of mankind until they were detached from their theological root, and became the creed of a party. That is the transition which occupies the reign of Charles II. It is the era in which parties took the place of churches as a political force.

A gentleman has written to remind me that the Independents did not jointly or corporately renounce the connection between Church and State, or assert religious liberty as a principle of government. They did individually that which they never did collectively, and such individuals were acting conformably to the logic of the system. In the Petition of 1616 they say, "We deny also a national, a provincial, and diocesan church under the Gospel to be a true, visible, political church." John Robinson writes: "It is the Church of England, or State Ecclesiastical, which we account Babylon, and from which we withdraw in spiritual communion." In 1644 we are told: "Godwin is a bitter enemy to presbytery, and is openly for a full liberty of conscience, to all sects, even Turks, Jews, Papists." The author of the tract, What the Independents would have, writes that he thinks it a sin either to follow an erring conscience or to go against it; but to oppose it the greater sin, for he that will do the least sin against conscience is prepared in disposition to do the greatest. Therefore he reckons liberty of conscience to be England's chiefest good.

When I said that the English exiles in Holland came in contact with the most spiritual remnant of the Reformers, I meant the German Anabaptists. The English Baptists and the Quakers were as much opposed to the principle of persecution as the Independents I have quoted.

Only two conditions were imposed on Charles II. before he came over. One of these was liberty of conscience. Cromwell had died without leaving behind him an established Constitution, and his lieutenants succeeded no better than his son. The army refused to obey a parliament of their own creating, the remnant which remained when Pride expelled the majority. It was a parliament founded not on law but on violence, on the act of men thirsting for the king's blood. The simplest solution was to restore the Long Parliament, to give power to the Presbyterian majority, which had been excluded, and was not responsible for the miscarriages and the constitutional instability of the last eleven years. The idea was so obvious that it occurred to everybody — to Monk in Scotland, to Fairfax at York, and to the army which Lambert collected to meet Monk at Newcastle, and which dispersed without fighting for its own imperial supremacy.

It is worth while to study, in the second volume of Guizot's Richard Cromwell, the consummate policy with which Monk prepared the desired result. For the recall of the excluded members was the restoration to power of men who had persisted in negotiating with Charles I., of men who had been Royalists in season and out of season. They were no friends of arbitrary government; but it was certain that they would restore the monarchy. A premature rising of incautious Royalists was put down; and the object of Monk was to gain time, until the blindest could perceive what was inevitable. His hand was forced by Fairfax, who was ill with gout, but had himself lifted into the saddle, and raised Yorkshire for a free parliament. Under that flag Monk crossed the Tweed at Coldstream on New Year's Day. He was already the master of England, and met with no resistance on the way to Westminster. The Republicans, in their extremity, offered him the crown, which Monk refused. He likewise refused the offers of the king, who would have made him chancellor and grand constable, besides making lavish grants of money, which the general was believed to like. He knew that he was sure of his reward when the time came. It came quickly. The Long Parliament made way for a Convention Parliament, which renewed the fundamental laws, and finally abolished the feudal rights of the crown. Whilst these bills were being voted, Charles issued the Declaration of Breda, proposed by Monk, and resumed the crown without a struggle.

The nation was glad to escape from the misgovernment of the Republic, which had weighed heavily on numerous classes, and believed that the crown had received a lesson which could not be forgotten. The new government was not imposed by a victorious monarchy. It was an expression of the national wish. Parliament retained control, and there was no political reaction.

The changes now introduced went to strengthen not the prerogative, but the gentry, who were the governing class. They were relieved from the payment of feudal dues, by means of a tax which fell on other classes; members were taken from the towns and added to the country districts; and the militia, which was to protect society from the parliamentary army, was placed in the hands of the gentry. The new order of things was the work not of a party, but of a class. The dominant cavaliers were willing to refuse a share in their power to the old Puritan enemy, and passed every measure for inflicting disabilities on the Nonconformists. They were excluded from all offices, in the Church and in the State, even in the municipalities. In this way, by a religious test, the class that consisted mainly of Churchmen secured all political authority for themselves. They, however, added a political test. They imposed an oath in favour of non-resistance. Nobody could hold office who was not what was afterwards known as a Tory. This was Anglican doctrine; and the clergy set to work to rule the country in conjunction with the conservative country gentlemen, on a basis of principles laid down by Hobbes, the philosopher of the day, who denied the rights, and even the existence of conscience.

Clarendon was minister; and it was an ingenious and politic thing in his eyes to suppress the Roundhead by suppressing the Presbyterian. He had reflected more deeply than any man then living on the problem of Church and State; and he did not believe in the sacred fixity of divisions founded on schemes of Church government only. Archbishop Ussher had made great concessions to the Presbyterians. Baxter had made concessions to Prelacy. The see of Hereford was offered to him, and it was thought he might accept it. Leighton, who was as much the greatest Puritan divine in Scotland as Baxter in England, did accept the offer of a mitre, and became Archbishop of Glasgow. The restored government was intolerant, because, by intolerance, it could exercise political repression. This did not apply to the Catholics. Clarendon had pledged himself that they should profit by the indulgence which was afterwards promised at Breda. When he adopted the policy of coercion against the Puritans, he was unable to keep his promise. The unnatural situation could not last after his fall. The Puritans had made war upon the throne, and the Catholics had defended it. When it was restored, they proclaimed their principles in a series of voluntary declarations which dealt with the customary suspicions and reproaches, and fully satisfied the purpose aimed at by the oath of allegiance. No people could be more remote from the type of Allen and Parsons than the English Benedictines and the Irish Franciscans who hailed the revived monarchy. Against such men the old argument of Elizabethan persecutors was vain.

After the fall of Clarendon a different policy was attempted. The rigid exclusiveness of the Puritans had bequeathed one sinister vice to the English people. They were complacent in their insularity, and had a prejudice against the foreigner. It had been directed against Spain, for the sake of Plate fleets to seize and coasts to pillage; and now it was strongest against the Dutch, who were dangerous rivals by sea, both in peace and war. It was least, at that time, against France, whose great statesman, Mazarin, had made terms with the Republic, and retained the friendship of the restored king. A trivial dispute on the Guinea Coast was fanned into a quarrel by the Duke of York, who was a sailor, and who hoped to strengthen his position at home by his professional skill, in which he only partially succeeded. This is the war that terminated in the memorable change of front of the Triple Alliance, uniting the Dutch, the English, and the Swedes against France. It was a popular but totally ineffective measure; and in 1669 England abandoned her allies and went over to France. Lewis XIV. accomplished this important diplomatic success by the Treaty of Dover, the first in the process of events that overthrew the Stuart monarchy, and brought in the modern type of Constitution.

Soon after his return to England, Charles opened negotiations with Rome, which were carried on through one of his sons, born before Monmouth, who became a Jesuit; and he vainly endeavoured to obtain supplies from Alexander VII. Later on, he sought them in France. It was impossible, he said, to restore the royal authority unless it was done through the restoration of Catholicism. That could be secured, if Lewis would make him independent of the House of Commons. The scheme was prepared in January 1669, Arlington consenting, for a bribe of £12,000. It was decided to restore the Catholic Church in England by such a display of force as should be sufficient to raise the crown above the restraints of parliament. In execution of the design Lewis advanced £80,000, and undertook, in case of resistance, to furnish a force of 6000 men, to be a French garrison in England, for the repression of Protestants. The sum was much less than Charles demanded, for the object of the French king was not to strengthen, but to weaken him. The second point in the Treaty was that England engaged to support France in any claims she might have upon Spain. Lastly, England was to help her ally against Holland, in return for further payments and the annexation of Walcheren. But it was agreed to postpone the Dutch war until the year 1672. That is the solid substance of the phantom which is called the Popish Plot.

It was, in reality, a plot, under cover of Catholicism, to introduce absolute monarchy, and to make England a dependency of France, not only by the acceptance of French money, but by submission to a French army. Charles I. and his ministers had gone to the block for less than this.

If the thing should become known, nobody could foretell the consequences. Turenne was told, because he would be wanted if it came to blows; and Turenne told a lady of his aquaintance, who proved indiscreet. The king, in a fury, asked him how he could be such a fool. The marshal, not unaccustomed to the experience of being under fire, replied that he was not the only man who had been made a fool of by a woman, and King Lewis XIV. did not see his way to pursue the conversation. His political object was secured, even if nothing should be done in England to fulfil the agreement. He had Charles completely in his power. The secret text only needed to be divulged, in order to raise the country against him. He never again could be formidable. If all other devices for dividing him from his people were insufficient, this one could not fail. Many years later Lewis caused a book to be printed, by an Italian adventurer, in which the secret was revealed. The book was suppressed and the author imprisoned, for the sake of appearances. But one hundred and fifty-five copies were in circulation, and the culprit was released after six days. It became dangerous for Charles to meet parliament. The facts became known to Shaftesbury long before, and determined his course from the time of his dismissal from office, in November 1673. The scheme laid down in the Dover Treaty was a dangerous one, and after the beginning of the Dutch war there were no French troops to spare.

Charles tried another way to gain his purpose. Both he and his brother desired to establish Catholicism for its own sake. They were not converts, but they intended to be before they died. The difference was that James was ready to make some sacrifice for his religion, Charles was not. They both regarded it as the only means of putting the crown above the law. This could be done more safely by claiming the right to dispense from penalties and disabilities imposed by parliament. The idea, entertained as early as 1662, ripened ten years later, when the Penal Laws, as well as the intolerant legislation of Clarendon against the Puritans, which had been considered the safeguard of monarchy, were declared inoperative. The ministers, including Shaftesbury, expected to obtain the support of Nonconformists. This calculation proved delusive. The Dissenters, on an assurance that they would be relieved by parliament if they resisted the offers of the king, refused to accept them. The object of his declaration was too apparent, and was indeed too openly avowed. Just then the Duke of York became a Catholic, and although the fact was not made public, it was suspected. Ministers advised Charles to maintain his offer of indulgence and his claim to the dispensing power. Charles gave way and accepted his defeat. He gave way because Lewis advised it, and promised him more French regiments than had been stipulated for, as soon as he was again at peace with the Dutch.

The House of Commons followed up its victory by passing the Test Act, excluding Catholics from office. The Duke of York resigned his post as Lord High Admiral. It was, he said, the beginning of the scheme for depriving him of the succession to the throne. In November 1673 Shaftesbury, who had promoted the Declaration of Indulgence, was dismissed from office and went into opposition, for the purposes of which Lewis sent him £10,000. He learnt from Arlington the main particulars of the Treaty of Dover, and in the following month of January the secret was substantially made public in a pamphlet, which is reprinted in the State Tracts. From that moment he devoted himself to the exclusion of James.

In 1676 the Duke of York made it known that he had become a Catholic. This was so gratuitous that people took it to mean that he was strong in the support which the French king gave him. He was still true to the policy of the Dover Treaty, which his brother had abandoned, and still watched his opportunity to employ force for the restoration of his Church. All this was fully understood, and his enemy, Shaftesbury, was implacable.

When he had been five years out of office, in September 1678, Titus Oates appeared. Who the people were who brought him forward, with the auxiliary witnesses, Bedloe, Dangerfield, and Turberville, the one who received £600 for his evidence against Stafford, is still unknown. Shaftesbury was not the originator. He would not have waited so many years. His part in the affair was to employ the public alarm for the destruction of the Duke of York. Therefore, from the summer of 1678 there was a second plot. The first, consisting in the Treaty of Dover, drawn up by the Catholic advisers, Arundel, Bellasis, the historian Belling, and Leighton, the great archbishop's brother. The second was the Protestant plot against the Catholics, especially the Duke of York. The indignation against the real plot, that of Dover, was essentially political.

In February 1675 the opposition proposed to James to restore his offices if he would abandon Lewis. When the imperial ambassador, in July 1677, complained of the No Popery cry, they replied that there was no question of religion, but of liberty. In the case of Oates and his comrades, the political motive faded into insignificance beside the religious. At first the evidence was unsubstantial. Oates was an ignorant man, and he obtained credit only by the excitement and distrust caused by the discovery of the premeditated coup d'état. Godfrey, the magistrate who conducted the inquiry, warned James that the secretary of the Duchess of York was implicated. His name was Coleman, and he had time to destroy his papers. Some of them were seized. They spoke of a great blow which was being prepared against the Protestants. It appeared also that he was in the pay of Lewis, and had solicited his confessor, Père La Chaise, for a sum of £300,000 in order to get rid of parliament. It was argued that if such things were found in the papers he had not burnt, there must have been worse still in those which had perished. It showed that the scheme of Dover was still pursued, was still a danger. At that moment the magistrate who sent the warning disappeared. After some days his dead body was found at the foot of Green Berry Hill, now Primrose Hill; and one of the most extraordinary coincidences, so interesting in the study of historical criticism, is the fact that the men hanged for the murder were named Green, Berry, and Hill. It was of course suspected that Godfrey had perished because he knew too much.

For some time the excitement rose very high. On the day when two Jesuits were executed, one of the Catholic envoys writes that nothing else could have saved the lives of all the Catholics in London. Taking advantage of the state of public feeling, Shaftesbury proposed that James should be excluded from the succession for his religion. The crown was to go to the next heir, the Princess of Orange. This was thrown out by the Lords. Meantime the second Test Act expelled the Catholic peers from the House of Lords. James withdrew from the council, from the palace, and at last from the kingdom.

The second Exclusion Bill was founded, not on his religion, but on his politics, that is, his treasonable connection with the King of France. The opponents of exclusion proposed limitation of the royal power, in a manner such as that which has since prevailed. Charles preferred this amendment to the Constitution rather than an Act which enabled parliament to regulate the succession. William of Orange vigorously opposed it, as the same restraints might be retained when his wife came to the throne. Halifax, who defeated the Exclusion Bill and defended the Limitation Bill, assured the prince that it would never be applied, as James had no chance whatever of succeeding his brother. His only purpose in proposing his Bill was to preserve the succession, according to law, from parliamentary control.

In order to obtain evidence that should ruin James's prospects, it was resolved now to put the Catholic peers on their trial. Stafford came first. He had not been in the secret of the fatal Treaty. But the plans this time were cleverly laid. Although Lord Stafford was entirely innocent, Count Thun, the Austrian envoy, was profoundly impressed by the weight of the case against him and the weakness of the defence. He was beheaded amid shrieks of execration and exultation. Arundel was to come next; and Arundel did know enough to compromise the duke. But the plan had failed. Nothing had been discovered in Stafford's trial that could help the exclusion; and a revulsion of popular feeling followed. Monmouth was now put forward. If James could not be excluded he must make way for Monmouth, if Monmouth was legitimate. The king was pressed to acknowledge him. A black box was said to contain the necessary evidence of his mother's marriage. A bishop was spoken of who knew all about it. Monmouth himself accepted the idea. When the Duke of Plymouth died he refused to wear mourning. He would not mourn, he said, for a brother who was illegitimate. After the Test Act, the Exclusion Bill, the succession of Monmouth, the indefatigable Shaftesbury had still one resource. He tried an insurrection. When he found it impossible to draw the line between insurrection and murder, he thought the position dangerous, and went abroad. Russell and Sidney were put to death. Charles was victorious over his enemies. He owed his victory to the French king, who gave him £700,000, and enabled him to exist without a parliament for three years.

It was during this struggle against the overshadowing suspicion of the Dover Treaty that the Habeas Corpus Act was passed, and that Party took shape in England. In general, the old cavalier families, led by the clergy and the lawyers, acquiesced in the royal prerogative, the doctrine of passive obedience, the absolute and irresistible authority of that which Hobbes called Leviathan, meaning the abstract notion of the State. They had a passion for order, not for oppression; good government was as dear to them as to their opponents, and they believed that it would not be secured if the supreme authority was called in question. That was the Court Party, known as Tories. As time went on, after the Revolution, they underwent many developments. But at first they were simply defenders of royal authority against aggression, without any original ideas.

The Country Party was the party of reform. They were the people excluded from the public service by the oath in favour of non-resistance. They believed in the rightfulness of the war which the Long Parliament waged against the king, and were prepared, eventually, to make war against Charles II. That was the essential distinction between them and the Tories. They dreaded revolution, but, in an extreme case, they thought it justifiable. "Acts of tyranny," said Burnet, "will not justify the resistance of subjects, yet a total subversion of their constitution will." When Burnet and Tillotson urged this doctrine on Lord Russell, he replied that he did not see a difference between a legal and a Turkish Constitution, upon this hypothesis.

Whig history exhibits a gradual renunciation of Burnet's mitigated doctrine, that resistance is only justified by extreme provocation, and a gradual approach to the doctrine of Russell, on which the American Revolution proceeded. The final purpose of the Whigs was not distinct from that of their fathers in the Long Parliament. They desired security against injustice and oppression. The victors in the Civil War sought this security in a Republic, and in this they conspicuously failed. It was obvious that they made a mistake in abolishing the monarchy, the Established Church, and the House of Lords. For all these things came back, and were restored as it were by the force of Nature, not by the force of man.

The Whigs took this lesson of recent experience to heart. They thought it unscientific to destroy a real political force. Monarchy, Aristocracy, Prelacy, were things that could be made innocuous, that could be adjusted, limited, and preserved. The very essence of the new Party was compromise. They saw that it is an error to ride a principle to death, to push things to an extreme, to have an eye for one thing only, to prefer abstractions to realities, to disregard practical conditions. They were a little disappointing, a little too fond of the half-way house. Their philosophy, or rather their philosopher, John Locke, is always reasonable and sensible, but diluted and pedestrian and poor. They became associated with great interests in English society, with trade, and banking, and the city, with elements that were progressive, but exclusive, and devoted to private, not to national ends. So far as they went, they were in the right, ethically as well as politically. But they proceeded slowly beyond the bare need of the moment. They were a combination of men rather than a doctrine, and the idea of fidelity to comrades was often stronger among them than the idea of fidelity to truths. General principles were so little apparent in the system that excellent writers suppose that the Whigs were essentially English, Nonconformists, associated with limited monarchy, unfit for exportation over the world. They took long to outgrow the narrow limits of the society in which they arose. A hundred years passed before Whiggism assumed the universal and scientific character. In the American speeches of Chatham and Camden, in Burke's writings from 1778 to 1783, in the Wealth of Nations, and the tracts of Sir William Jones, there is an immense development. The national bounds are overcome. The principles are sacred, irrespective of interests. The charter of Rhode Island is worth more than the British Constitution, and Whig statesmen toast General Washington, rejoice that America has resisted, and insist on the acknowledgment of independence. The progress is entirely consistent; and Burke's address to the colonists is the logical outcome of the principles of liberty and the notion of a higher law above municipal codes and constitutions, with which Whiggism began.

It is the supreme achievement of Englishmen, and their bequest to the nations; but the patriarchs of the doctrine were the most infamous of men. They set up the monument to perpetuate the belief that the Catholics set fire to London. They invented the Black Box and the marriage of Lucy Waters. They prompted, encouraged, and rewarded the murderer Oates. They proclaimed that the Prince of Wales came in the warming pan. They were associated with the Rye House assassins; that conspiracy was their ruin. Charles triumphed, and did not spare his enemies. When he died, in spite of the Dover Treaty, of his paid subserviency to France, of the deliberate scheme to subvert the liberties of England, James, the chief culprit, succeeded, with undiminished power. The prostrate Whigs were at the mercy of Jeffreys.

But forty years of agitation had produced the leaven that has leavened the world. The revolutionary system was saved, because the king threw away his advantage. The Whig party became supreme in the State by a series of events which are the most significant in English History.