1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Bolingbroke, Henry St John, Viscount
BOLINGBROKE, HENRY ST JOHN, Viscount (1678–1751), English statesman and writer, son of Sir Henry St John, Bart. (afterwards 1st Viscount St John, a member of a younger branch of the family of the earls of Bolingbroke and barons St John of Bletso), and of Lady Mary Rich, daughter of the 2nd earl of Warwick, was baptized on the 10th of October 1678, and was educated at Eton. He travelled abroad during 1698 and 1699 and acquired an exceptional knowledge of French. The dissipation and extravagance of his youth exceeded all limits and surprised his contemporaries. He spent weeks in riotous orgies and outdrank the most experienced drunkards. An informant of Goldsmith saw him once “run naked through the park in a state of intoxication.” Throughout his career he desired, says Swift, his intimate friend, to be thought the Alcibiades or Petronius of his age, and to mix licentious orgies with the highest political responsibilities. In 1700 he married Frances, daughter of Sir Henry Winchcombe, Bart., of Bucklebury, Berkshire, but matrimony while improving his fortune did not redeem his morals.
He was returned to parliament in 1701 for the family borough of Wootton Bassett in Wiltshire. He declared himself a Tory, attached himself to Harley (afterwards Lord Oxford), then speaker, whom he now addressed as “dear master,” and distinguished himself by his eloquence in debate, eclipsing his schoolfellow, Walpole, and gaining an extraordinary ascendancy over the House of Commons. In May he had charge of the bill for securing the Protestant succession; he took part in the impeachment of the Whig lords for their conduct concerning the Partition treaties, and opposed the oath abjuring the Pretender. In March 1702 he was chosen commissioner for taking the public accounts. After Anne's accession he supported the bills in 1702 and 1704 against occasional conformity, and took a leading part in the disputes which arose between the two Houses. In 1704 St John took office with Harley as secretary at war, thus being brought into intimate relations with Marlborough, by whom he was treated with paternal partiality. In 1708 he quitted office with Harley on the failure of the latter's intrigue, and retired to the country till 1710, when he became a privy councillor and secretary of state in Harley's new ministry, representing Berkshire in parliament. He supported the bill for requiring a real property qualification for a seat in parliament. In 1711 he founded the Brothers' Club, a society of Tory politicians and men of letters, and the same year witnessed the failure of the two expeditions to the West Indies and to Canada promoted by him. In 1712 he was the author of the bill taxing newspapers. But the great business of the new government was the making of the peace with France. The refusal of the Whigs to grant terms in 1706, and again in 1709 when Louis XIV. offered to yield every point for which the allies professed to be fighting, showed that the war was not being continued for English national interests, and the ministry were supported by the queen, the parliament and the people in their design to terminate hostilities. But various obstacles arose from the diversity of aims among the allies; and St John was induced, contrary to the most solemn obligations, to enter into separate and secret negotiations with France for the security of English interests. In May 1712 St John ordered the duke of Ormonde, who had succeeded Marlborough in the command, to refrain from any further engagement. These instructions were communicated to the French, though not to the allies, Louis putting Dunkirk as security into possession of England, and the shameful spectacle was witnessed of the desertion by the English troops of their allies almost on the battlefield. Subsequently St John received the congratulations of the French minister, Torcy, on the occasion of the French victory over Prince Eugene at Denain.
In August St John, who had on the 7th of July been created Viscount Bolingbroke and Baron St John of Lydiard Tregoze, went to France to conduct negotiations, and signed an armistice between England and France for four months on the 19th. Finally the treaty of Utrecht was signed on the 31st of March 1713 by all the allies except the emperor. The first production of Addison's Cato was made by the Whigs the occasion of a great demonstration of indignation against the peace, and by Bolingbroke for presenting the actor Booth with a purse of fifty guineas for “defending the cause of liberty against a perpetual dictator” (Marlborough). In the terms granted to England there was perhaps little to criticize. But the manner of the peacemaking, which had been carried on by a series of underhand conspiracies with the enemy instead of by open conferences with the allies, and was characterized throughout by a violation of the most solemn international assurances, left a deep and lasting stain upon the national honour and credit; and not less dishonourable was the abandonment of the Catalans by the treaty. For all this Bolingbroke must be held primarily responsible. In June his commercial treaty with France, establishing free trade with that country, was rejected. Meanwhile the friendship between Bolingbroke and Harley, which formed the basis of the whole Tory administration, had been gradually dissolved. In March 1711, by Guiscard's attempt on his life, Harley got the wound which had been intended for St John, with all the credit. In May Harley obtained the earldom of Oxford and was made lord treasurer, while in July St John was greatly disappointed at receiving only his viscountcy instead of the earldom lately extinct in his family, and at being passed over for the Garter. In September 1713 Swift came to London, and made a last but vain attempt to reconcile his two friends. But now a further cause of difference had arisen. The queen's health was visibly breaking, and the Tory ministers could only look forward to their own downfall on the accession of the elector of Hanover. Both Oxford and Bolingbroke had maintained for some time secret communications with James, and promised their help in restoring him at the queen's death. The aims of the former, prudent, procrastinating and vacillating by nature, never extended probably beyond the propitiation of his Tory followers; and it is difficult to imagine that Bolingbroke could have really advocated the Pretender's recall, whose divine right he repudiated and whose religion and principles he despised. Nevertheless, whatever his chief motive may have been, whether to displace Oxford as leader of the party, to strengthen his position and that of the faction in order to dictate terms to the future king, or to reinstate James, Bolingbroke, yielding to his more impetuous and adventurous disposition, went much further than Oxford. It is possible to suppose a connexion between his zeal for making peace with France and a desire to forward the Pretender's interests or win support from the Jacobites. During his diplomatic mission to France he had incurred blame for remaining at the opera while the Pretender was present, and according to the Mackintosh transcripts he had several secret interviews with him. Regular communications were kept up subsequently. In March 1714 Herville, the French envoy in London, sent to Torcy, the French foreign minister in Paris, the substance of two long conversations with Bolingbroke in which the latter advised patience till after the accession of George, when a great reaction was to be expected in favour of the Pretender. At the same time he spoke of the treachery of Marlborough and Berwick, and of one other, presumably Oxford, whom he refused to name, all of whom were in communication with Hanover. Both Oxford and Bolingbroke warned James that he could have little chance of success unless he changed his religion, but the latter's refusal (March 13) does not appear to have stopped the communications. Bolingbroke gradually superseded Oxford in the leadership. Lady Masham, the queen's favourite, quarrelled with Oxford and identified herself with Bolingbroke's interests. The harsh treatment of the Hanoverian demands was inspired by him, and won favour with the queen, while Oxford's influence declined; and by his support of the Schism Bill in May 1714, a violent Tory measure forbidding all education by dissenters by making an episcopal licence obligatory for schoolmasters, he probably intended to compel Oxford to give up the game. Finally, a charge of corruption brought by Oxford in July against Bolingbroke and Lady Masham, in connexion with the commercial treaty with Spain, failed, and the lord treasurer was dismissed or retired on the 27th of July.
Bolingbroke was now supreme, and everything appeared tending inevitably to a Jacobite restoration. The Jacobite Sir William Windham had been made chancellor of the exchequer, important military posts were placed in the hands of the faction, and a new ministry of Jacobites was projected. But now the queen's sudden death on the 1st of August, and the appointment of Shrewsbury to the lord treasurership, instantly changed the whole scene and ruined Bolingbroke. “The earl of Oxford was removed on Tuesday,” he wrote to Swift on the 3rd of August, “the queen died on Sunday! What a world is this and how does fortune banter us!” According to Herville, the French envoy, Bolingbroke declared to him that in six weeks he could have secured everything. Nevertheless the exact nature of his projects remains obscure. It is probable that his statement in his letter to Windham that “none of us had any very settled resolution” is true, though his declaration in the Patriot King that “there were no designs on foot ... to place the crown on the head of the Pretender” is a palpable falsehood. His great object was doubtless to gain supreme power and to keep it by any means, and by any betrayal that the circumstances demanded; and it is not without significance perhaps that on the very day of Oxford's dismissal he gave a dinner to the Whig leaders, and on the day preceding the queen's death ordered overtures to be made to the elector.
On the accession of George I. the illuminations and bonfire at Lord Bolingbroke's house in Golden Square were “particularly fine and remarkable,” but he was immediately dismissed from office. He retired to Bucklebury and is said to have now written the answer to the Secret History of the White Staff accusing him of Jacobitism. In March 1715 he in vain attempted to defend the late ministry in the new parliament; and on the announcement of Walpole's intended attack upon the authors of the treaty of Utrecht he fled in disguise (March 28, 1715) to Paris, where he was well received, after having addressed a letter to Lord Lansdowne from Dover protesting his innocence and challenging “the most inveterate of his enemies to produce any instance of his criminal correspondence.” Bolingbroke in July entirely identified himself with the interests of the Pretender, whose secretary he became, and on the 10th of September he was attainted. But his counsel was neglected for that of ignorant refugees and Irish priests. The expedition of 1715 was resolved upon against his advice. He drew up James's declaration, but the assurances he had inserted concerning the security of the Church of England were cancelled by the priests. He remained at Paris, and endeavoured to establish relations with the regent. On the return of James, as the result of petty intrigues and jealousies, Bolingbroke was dismissed from his office. He now renounced all further efforts on the Pretender's behalf. Replying to Mary of Modena, who had sent a message deprecating his ill-will, he wished his arm might rot off if he ever used pen or sword in their service again!
He now turned to the English government in hopes of pardon. In March 1716 he declared his final abandonment of the Pretender and promised to use his influence to secure the withdrawal of his friends; but he refused to betray any secrets or any individuals. He wrote his Reflexions upon Exile, and in 1717 his letter to Sir W. Windham in explanation of his position, generally considered one of his finest compositions, but not published till 1753 after his death. The same year he formed a liaison with Marie Claire Deschamps de Marcilly, widow of the marquis de Villette, whom he married in 1720 after the death in 1718 of Lady Bolingbroke, whom he had treated with cruel neglect. He bought and resided at the estate of La Source near Orleans, studied philosophy, criticized the chronology of the Bible, and was visited amongst others by Voltaire, who expressed unbounded admiration for his learning and politeness. In 1723, through the medium of the king's mistress, the duchess of Kendal, he at last received his pardon, returned to London in June or July, and placed his services at the disposal of Walpole, by whom, however, his offers to procure the accession of several Tories to the administration were received very coldly. During the following winter he made himself useful in France in gaining information for the government. In 1725 an act was passed enabling him to hold real estate but without power of alienating it. But this had been effected in consequence of a peremptory order of the king, against Walpole's wishes, who succeeded in maintaining his exclusion from the House of Lords. He now bought an estate at Dawley, near Uxbridge, where he renewed his intimacy with Pope, Swift and Voltaire, took part in Pope's literary squabbles, and wrote the philosophy for the Essay on Man. On the first occasion which offered itself, that of Pulteney's rupture with Walpole in 1726, he endeavoured to organize an opposition in conjunction with the former and Windham; and in 1727 began his celebrated series of letters to the Craftsman, attacking the Walpoles, signed an “Occasional Writer.” He gained over the duchess of Kendal with a bribe of £11,000 from his wife's estates, and with Walpole's approval obtained an audience with George. His success was imminent, and it was thought his appointment as chief minister was assured. In Walpole's own words, “as St John had the duchess entirely on his side I need not add what must or might in time have been the consequence,” and he prepared for his dismissal. But once more Bolingbroke's “fortune turned rotten at the very moment it grew ripe,” and his projects and hopes were ruined by the king's death in June. Further papers from his pen signed “John Trot” appeared in the Craftsman in 1728, and in 1730 followed Remarks on the History of England by Humphrey Oldcastle, attacking the Walpoles' policy. The assault on the government prompted by Bolingbroke was continued in the House of Commons by Windham, and great efforts were made to establish the alliance between the Tories and the Opposition Whigs. The Excise Bill in 1733 and the Septennial Bill in the following year offered opportunities for further attacks on the government, which Bolingbroke supported by a new series of papers in the Craftsman styled “A Dissertation on Parties”; but the whole movement collapsed after the new elections, which returned Walpole to power in 1735 with a large majority.
Bolingbroke retired baffled and disappointed from the fray to France in June, residing principally at the château of Argeville near Fontainebleau. He now wrote his Letters on the Study of History (printed privately before his death and published in 1752), and the True Use of Retirement. In 1738 he visited England, became one of the leading friends and advisers of Frederick, prince of Wales, who now headed the opposition, and wrote for the occasion The Patriot King, which together with a previous essay, The Spirit of Patriotism, and The State of Parties at the Accession of George I., were entrusted to Pope and not published. Having failed, however, to obtain any share in politics, he returned to France in 1739, and subsequently sold Dawley. In 1742 and 1743 he again visited England and quarrelled with Warburton. In 1744 he settled finally at Battersea with his friend Hugh Hume, 3rd earl of Marchmont, and was present at Pope's death in May. The discovery that the poet had printed secretly 1500 copies of The Patriot King caused him to publish a correct version in 1749, and stirred up a further altercation with Warburton, who defended his friend against Bolingbroke's bitter aspersions, the latter, whose conduct was generally reprehended, publishing a Familiar Epistle to the most Impudent Man Living. In 1744 he had been very busy assisting in the negotiations for the establishment of the new “broad bottom” administration, and showed no sympathy for the Jacobite expedition in 1745. He recommended the tutor for Prince George, afterwards George III. About 1749 he wrote the Present State of the Nation, an unfinished pamphlet. Lord Chesterfield records the last words heard from him: “God who placed me here will do what He pleases with me hereafter and He knows best what to do.” He died on the 12th of December 1751, his wife having predeceased him in 1750. They were both buried in the parish church at Battersea, where a monument with medallions and inscriptions composed by Bolingbroke was erected to their memory.
The writings and career of Bolingbroke make a far weaker impression upon posterity than they made on contemporaries. His genius and character were superficial; his abilities were exercised upon ephemeral objects, and not inspired by lasting or universal ideas. Bute and George III. indeed derived their political ideas from The Patriot King, but the influence which he is said to have exercised upon Voltaire, Gibbon and Burke is very problematical. Burke wrote his Vindication of Natural Society in imitation of Bolingbroke's style, but in refutation of his principles; and in the Reflections on the French Revolution he exclaims, “Who now reads Bolingbroke, who ever read him through?” Burke denies that Bolingbroke's words left “any permanent impression on his mind.” Bolingbroke's conversation, described by Lord Chesterfield as “such a flowing happiness of expression that even his most familiar conversations if taken down in writing would have borne the press without the least correction,” his delightful companionship, his wit, good looks, and social qualities which charmed during his lifetime and made firm friendships with men of the most opposite character, can now only be faintly imagined. His most brilliant gift was his eloquence, which according to Swift was acknowledged by men of all factions to be unrivalled. None of his great orations has survived, a loss regretted by Pitt more than that of the missing books of Livy and Tacitus, and no art perishes more completely with its possessor than that of oratory. His political works, in which the expression is often splendidly eloquent, spirited and dignified, are for the most part exceedingly rhetorical in style, while his philosophical essays were undertaken with the chief object of displaying his eloquence, and no characteristic renders writings less readable for posterity. They are both deficient in solidity and in permanent interest. The first deals with mere party questions without sincerity and without depth; and the second, composed as an amusement in retirement without any serious preparation, in their attacks on metaphysics and theology and in their feeble deism present no originality and carry no conviction. Both kinds reflect in their Voltairian superficiality Bolingbroke's manner of life, which was throughout uninspired by any great ideas or principles and thoroughly false and superficial. Though a libertine and a free-thinker, he had championed the most bigoted and tyrannical high-church measures. His diplomacy had been subordinated to party necessities. He had supported by turns and simultaneously Jacobite and Hanoverian interests. He had only conceived the idea of The Patriot King in the person of the worthless Frederick in order to stir up sedition, while his eulogies on retirement and study were pronounced from an enforced exile. He only attacked party government because he was excluded from it, and only railed at corruption because it was the corruption of his antagonists and not his own. His public life presents none of those acts of devotion and self-sacrifice which often redeem a career characterized by errors, follies and even crimes.
One may deplore his unfortunate history and wasted genius, but it is impossible to regret his exclusion from the government of England. He was succeeded in the title as 2nd Viscount Bolingbroke, according to the special remainder, by his nephew Frederick, 3rd Viscount St John (a title granted to Bolingbroke's father in 1716), from whom the title has descended.
A life of Bolingbroke appeared in his lifetime about 1740, entitled Authentic Memoirs (in the Grenville Library, Brit. Mus.), which recounted his escapades; other contemporary accounts were published in 1752 and 1754, and a life by Goldsmith in 1770. Of the more modern biographies may be noted that in the Dict. of Nat. Biog. by Sir Leslie Stephen, 1897; by C. de Remusat in L'Angleterre au 18me siècle (1856), vol. i.; by T. Macknight (1863); by J. Churton Collins (1886); by A. Hassall (1889); and by Walter Sichel (1901–1902), elaborate and brilliant, but unduly eulogistic.
- Swift's Inquiry into the Behaviour of the Queen's Last Ministry; Mrs Delaney's Correspondence, 2 ser., iii. 168.
- Berwick's Mem. (Petitot), vol. lxvi. 219.
- Hist. MSS. Comm., Portland MSS. v. 235.
- Stuart MSS. (Roxburghe Club), ii. 383.
- Hist. MSS. Comm., MSS. of H.M. the King, Stuart Papers, i. p. xlviii.
- Sichel's Bolingbroke, i. 340; Lockhart Papers, i. 460; Macpherson, ii. 529.
- Wentworth Papers, 408.
- Hist. MSS. Comm., Stuart Papers, i. 500; Berwick's Mem. (Petitot), vol. lxvi. 262.
- Coxe's Walpole, i. 200; Stuart Papers, ii. 511, and also 446, 460.
- Hist. MSS. Comm., Onslow MSS. 515.
- Bolingbroke to Swift, June 24th, 1727. He adds, “to hanker after a court is below either you or me.”
- Sichel's Bolingbroke, ii. 267; Stanhope, ii. 163; Hist. MSS. Comm., Onslow MSS. 516, 8th Rep. Pt. III. App. p. 3. This remarkable incident is discredited by H. Walpole in Letters (ed. 1903), iii. 269; but he was not always well informed concerning his father's career.