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The Allies Had Obtained Success

British Isles Genealogy | Critical And Historical Essays, Volume I

The Allies had, during a short period, obtained success beyond their hopes. This was their auspicious moment. They neglected to improve it. It passed away; and it returned no more. The Prince of Orange arrested the progress of the French armies. Lewis returned to be amused and flattered at Versailles. The country was under water. The winter approached. The weather became stormy. The fleets of the combined kings could no longer keep the sea. The republic had obtained a respite; and the circumstances were such that a respite was, in a military view, important, in a political view almost decisive.

The alliance against Holland, formidable as it was, was yet of such a nature that it could not succeed at all, unless it succeeded at once. The English Ministers could not carry on the war without money. They could legally obtain money only from the Parliament and they were most unwilling to call the Parliament together. The measures which Charles had adopted at home were even more unpopular than his foreign policy. He had bound himself by a treaty with Lewis to re-establish the Catholic religion in England; and, in pursuance of this design, he had entered on the same path which his brother afterwards trod with greater obstinacy to a more fatal end. The King had annulled, by his own sole authority, the laws against Catholics and other dissenters. The matter of the Declaration of Indulgence exasperated one-half of his subjects, and the manner the other half. Liberal men would have rejoiced to see a toleration granted, at least to all Protestant sects. Many High Churchmen had no objection to the King's dispensing power. But a tolerant act done in an unconstitutional way excited the opposition of all who were zealous either for the Church or for the privileges of the people, that is to say, of ninety-nine Englishmen out of a hundred. The Ministers were, therefore, most unwilling to meet the Houses. Lawless and desperate as their counsels were, the boldest of them had too much value for his neck to think of resorting to benevolences, privy-seals, ship-money, or any of the other unlawful modes of extortion which had been familiar to the preceding age. The audacious fraud of shutting up the Exchequer furnished them with about twelve hundred thousand pounds, a sum which, even in better hands than theirs, would not have sufficed for the war-charges of a single year. And this was a step which could never be repeated, a step which, like most breaches of public faith, was speedily found to have caused pecuniary difficulties greater than those which it removed. All the money that could be raised was gone; Holland was not conquered; and the King had no resource but in a Parliament.

Had a general election taken place at this crisis, it is probable that the country would have sent up representatives as resolutely hostile to the Court as those who met in November 1640; that the whole domestic and foreign policy of the Government would have been instantly changed; and that the members of the Cabal would have expiated their crimes on Tower Hill. But the House of Commons was still the same which had been elected twelve years before, in the midst of the transports of joy, repentance, and loyalty which followed the Restoration; and no pains had been spared to attach it to the Court by places, pensions, and bribes. To the great mass of the people it was scarcely less odious than the Cabinet itself. Yet, though it did not immediately proceed to those strong measures which a new House would in all probability have adopted, it was sullen and unmanageable, and undid, slowly indeed, and by degrees, but most effectually, all that the Ministers had done. In one session it annihilated their system of internal government. In a second session it gave a death-blow to their foreign policy.

The dispensing power was the first object of attack. The Commons would not expressly approve the war; but neither did they as yet expressly condemn it; and they were even willing to grant the King a supply for the purpose of continuing hostilities, on condition that he would redress internal grievances, among which the Declaration of Indulgence held the foremost place.

Shaftesbury, who was Chancellor, saw that the game was up, that he had got all that was to be got by siding with despotism and Popery, and that it was high time to think of being a demagogue and a good Protestant. The Lord Treasurer Clifford was marked out by his boldness, by his openness, by his zeal for the Catholic religion, by something which, compared with the villainy of his colleagues, might almost be called honesty, to be the scapegoat of the whole conspiracy. The King came in person to the House of Peers for the purpose of requesting their Lordships to mediate between him and the Commons touching the Declaration of Indulgence. He remained in the House while his speech was taken into consideration; a common practice with him; for the debates amused his sated mind, and were sometimes, he used to say, as good as a comedy. A more sudden turn his Majesty had certainly never seen in any comedy of intrigue, either at his own play-house, or at the Duke's, than that which this memorable debate produced. The Lord Treasurer spoke with characteristic ardor and intrepidity in defense of the Declaration. When he sat down, the Lord Chancellor rose from the woolsack, and, to the amazement of the King and of the House, attacked Clifford, attacked the Declaration for which he had himself spoken in Council, gave up the whole policy of the Cabinet, and declared himself on the side of the House of Commons. Even that age had not witnessed so portentous a display of impudence.

The King, by the advice of the French Court, which cared much more about the war on the Continent than about the conversion of the English heretics, determined to save his foreign policy at the expense of his plans in favor of the Catholic church. He obtained a supply; and in return for this concession he cancelled the Declaration of Indulgence, and made a formal renunciation of the dispensing power before he prorogued the Houses.

But it was no more in his power to go on with the war than to maintain his arbitrary system at home. His Ministry, betrayed within, and fiercely assailed from without, went rapidly to pieces. Clifford threw down the white staff, and retired to the woods of Ugbrook, vowing, with bitter tears, that he would never again see that turbulent city, and that perfidious Court. Shaftesbury was ordered to deliver up the Great Seal, and instantly carried over his front of brass and his tongue of poison to the ranks of the Opposition. The remaining members of the Cabal had neither the capacity of the late Chancellor, nor the courage and enthusiasm of the late Treasurer. They were not only unable to carry on their former projects, but began to tremble for their own lands and heads. The Parliament, as soon as it again met, began to murmur against the alliance with France and the war with Holland; and the murmur gradually swelled into a fierce and terrible clamor. Strong resolutions were adopted against Lauderdale and Buckingham. Articles of impeachment were exhibited against Arlington. The Triple Alliance was mentioned with reverence in every debate; and the eyes of all men were turned towards the quiet orchard, where the author of that great league was amusing himself with reading and gardening.

Temple was ordered to attend the King, and was charged with the office of negotiating a separate peace with Holland. The Spanish Ambassador to the Court of London had been empowered by the States-General to treat in their name. With him Temple came to a speedy agreement; and in three days a treaty was concluded.

The highest honors of the State were now within Temple's reach. After the retirement of Clifford, the white staff had been delivered to Thomas Osborne, soon after created Earl of Danby, who was related to Lady Temple, and had, many years earlier, traveled and played tennis with Sir William. Danby was an interested and dishonest man, but by no means destitute of abilities or of judgment. He was, indeed, a far better adviser than any in whom Charles had hitherto reposed confidence. Clarendon was a man of another generation, and did not in the least understand the society which he had to govern. The members of the Cabal were ministers of a foreign power, and enemies of the Established Church; and had in consequence raised against themselves and their master an irresistible storm of national and religious hatred. Danby wished to strengthen and extend the prerogative; but he had the sense to see that this could be done only by a complete change of system. He knew the English people and the House of Commons; and he knew that the course which Charles had recently taken, if obstinately pursued, might well end before the windows of the Banqueting-House. He saw that the true policy of the Crown was to ally itself, not with the feeble, the hated, the downtrodden Catholics, but with the powerful, the wealthy, the popular, the dominant Church of England; to trust for aid not to a foreign Prince whose name was hateful to the British nation, and whose succors could be obtained only on terms of vassalage, but to the old Cavalier party, to the landed gentry, the clergy, and the universities. By rallying round the throne the whole strength of the Royalists and High Churchmen, and by using without stint all the resources of corruption, he flattered himself that he could manage the Parliament. That he failed is to be attributed less to himself than to his master. Of the disgraceful dealings which were still kept up with the French Court, Danby deserved little or none of the blame, though he suffered the whole punishment.

Danby, with great parliamentary talents, had paid little attention to European politics, and wished for the help of some person on whom he could rely in the foreign department. A plan was accordingly arranged for making Temple Secretary of State. Arlington was the only member of the Cabal who still held office in England. The temper of the House of Commons made it necessary to remove him, or rather to require him to sell out; for at that time the great offices of State were bought and sold as commissions in the army now are. Temple was informed that he should have the Seals if he would pay Arlington six thousand pounds. The transaction had nothing in it discreditable, according to the notions of that age, and the investment would have been a good one; for we imagine that at that time the gains which a Secretary of State might make, without doing any thing considered as improper, were very considerable. Temple's friends offered to lend him the money; but lie was fully determined not to take a post of so much responsibility in times so agitated, and under a Prince on whom so little reliance could be placed, and accepted the embassy to the Hague, leaving Arlington to find another purchaser.

Before Temple left England he had a long audience of the King, to whom he spoke with great severity of the measures adopted by the late Ministry. The King owned that things had turned out ill. "But," said he, "if I had been well served, I might have made a good business of it." Temple was alarmed at this language, and inferred from it that the system of the Cabal had not been abandoned, but only suspended. He therefore thought it his duty to go, as he expresses it, "to the bottom of the matter." He strongly represented to the King the impossibility of establishing either absolute government, or the Catholic religion in England; and concluded by repeating an observation which he had heard at Brussels from M. Gourville, a very intelligent Frenchman well known to Charles: "A king of England," said Gourville, "who is willing to be the man of his people, is the greatest king in the world, but if he wishes to be more, by heaven he is nothing at all!" The King betrayed some symptoms of impatience during this lecture; but at last he laid his hand kindly on Temple's shoulder, and said, "You are right, and so is Gourville; and I will be the man of my people."

With this assurance Temple repaired to the Hague in July 1674. Holland was now secure, and France was surrounded on every side by enemies. Spain and the Empire were in arms for the purpose of compelling Lewis to abandon all that he had acquired since the treaty of the Pyrenees. A congress for the purpose of putting an end to the war was opened at Nimeguen under the mediation of England in 1675; and to that congress Temple was deputed. The work of conciliation however, went on very slowly. The belligerent powers were still sanguine, and the mediating power was unsteady and insincere.

In the meantime the Opposition in England became more and more formidable, and seemed fully determined to force the King into a war with France. Charles was desirous of making some appointments which might strengthen the administration and conciliate the confidence of the public. No man was more esteemed by the nation than Temple; yet he had never been concerned in any opposition to any government. In July 1677, he was sent for from Nimeguen. Charles received him with caresses, earnestly pressed him to accept the seals of Secretary of State, and promised to bear half the charge of buying out the present holder. Temple was charmed by the kindness and politeness of the King's manner, and by the liveliness of his Majesty's conversation; but his prudence was not to be so laid asleep. He calmly and steadily excused himself. The King affected to treat his excuses as mere jest, and gaily said, "Go; get you gone to Sheen. We shall have no good of you till you have been there; and when you have rested yourself, come up again." Temple withdrew and stayed two days at his villa, but returned to town in the same mind; and the King was forced to consent at least to a delay.

But while Temple thus carefully shunned the responsibility of bearing a part in the general direction of affairs, he gave a signal proof of that never-failing sagacity which enabled him to find out ways of distinguishing himself without risk. He had a principal share in bringing about an event which was at the time hailed with general satisfaction, and which subsequently produced consequences of the highest importance. This was the marriage of the Prince of Orange and the Lady Mary.

In the following year Temple returned to the Hague; and thence he was ordered, in the close of 1678, to repair to Nimeguen, for the purpose of signing the hollow and unsatisfactory treaty by which the distractions of Europe were for a short time suspended. He grumbled much at being required to affix his name to bad articles which he had not framed, and still more at having to travel in very cold weather. After all, a difficulty of etiquette prevented him from signing, and he returned to the Hague. Scarcely had he arrived there when he received intelligence that the King, whose embarrassments were now far greater than ever, was fully resolved immediately to appoint him Secretary of State. He a third time declined that high post, and began to make preparations for a journey to Italy; thinking, doubtless, that he should spend his time much more pleasantly among pictures and ruins than in such a whirlpool of political and religious frenzy as was then raging in London.

But the King was in extreme necessity, and was no longer to be so easily put off. Temple received positive orders to repair instantly to England. He obeyed, and found the country in a state even more fearful than that which he had pictured to himself.

Those are terrible conjunctures, when the discontents of a nation, not light and capricious discontents, but discontents which have been steadily increasing during a long series of years, have attained their full maturity. The discerning few predict the approach of these conjunctures, but predict in vain. To the many, the evil season comes as a total eclipse of the sun at noon comes to a people of savages. Society which, but a short time before, was in a state of perfect repose, is on a sudden agitated with the most fearful convulsions, and seems to be on the verge of dissolution; and the rulers who, till the mischief was beyond the reach of all ordinary remedies, had never bestowed one thought on its existence, stand bewildered and panic-stricken, without hope or resource, in the midst of the confusion. One such conjuncture this generation has seen. God grant that we may never see another! At such a conjuncture it was that Temple landed on English ground in the beginning of 1679.

The Parliament had obtained a glimpse of the King's dealings with France; and their anger had been unjustly directed against Danby, whose conduct as to that matter had been, on the whole, deserving rather of praise than of censure. The Popish plot, the murder of Godfrey, the infamous inventions of Oates, the discovery of Colman's letters, had excited the nation to madness. All the disaffection which had been generated by eighteen years of misgovernment had come to the birth together. At this moment the King had been advised to dissolve that Parliament which had been elected just after his restoration, and which, though its composition had since that time been greatly altered, was still far more deeply imbued with the old cavalier spirit than any that had preceded, or that was likely to follow it. The general election had commenced, and was proceeding with a degree of excitement never before known. The tide ran furiously against the Court. It was clear that a majority of the new House of Commons would be, to use a word which came into fashion a few months later, decided Whigs. Charles had found it necessary to yield to the violence of the public feeling. The Duke of York was on the point of retiring to Holland. "I never," says Temple, who had seen the abolition of monarchy, the dissolution of the Long Parliament, the fall of the Protectorate, the declaration of Monk against the Rump, "I never saw greater disturbance in men's minds."

The King now with the utmost urgency besought Temple to take the seals. The pecuniary part of the arrangement no longer presented any difficulty; and Sir William was not quite so decided in his refusal as he had formerly been. He took three days to consider the posture of affairs, and to examine his own feelings; and he came to the conclusion that "the scene was unfit for such an actor as he knew himself to be." Yet he felt that, by refusing help to the King at such a crisis, he might give much offence and incur much censure. He shaped his course with his usual dexterity. He affected to be very desirous of a seat in Parliament; yet he contrived to be an unsuccessful candidate; and, when all the writs were returned, he represented that it would be useless for him to take the seals till he could procure admittance to the House of Commons; and in this manner he succeeded in avoiding the greatness which others desired to thrust upon him.

The Parliament met; and the violence of its proceedings surpassed all expectation. The Long Parliament itself, with much greater provocation, had at its commencement been less violent. The Treasurer was instantly driven from office, impeached, sent to the Tower. Sharp and vehement votes were passed on the subject of the Popish Plot. The Commons were prepared to go much further, to wrest from the King his prerogative of mercy in cases of high political crimes, and to alter the succession to the Crown. Charles was thoroughly perplexed and dismayed. Temple saw him almost daily and thought him impressed with a deep sense of his errors, and of the miserable state into which they had brought him. Their conferences became longer and more confidential; and Temple began to flatter himself with the hope that he might be able to reconcile parties at home as he had reconciled hostile States abroad; that he might be able to suggest a plan which should allay all heats, efface the memory of all past grievances, secure the nation from misgovernment, and protect the Crown against the encroachments of Parliament.

Temple's plan was that the existing Privy Council, which consisted of fifty members, should be dissolved, that there should no longer be a small interior council, like that which is now designated as the Cabinet, that a new Privy Council of thirty members should be appointed, and that the King should pledge himself to govern by the constant advice of this body, to suffer all his affairs of every kind to be freely debated there, and not to reserve any part of the public business for a secret committee.

Fifteen of the members of this new council were to be great officers of State. The other fifteen were to be independent noblemen and gentlemen of the greatest weight in the country. In appointing them particular regard was to be had to the amount of their property. The whole annual income of the counselors was estimated at 300,000. The annual income of all the members of the House of Commons was not supposed to exceed 400,000 The appointment of wealthy counselors Temple describes as "a chief regard, necessary to this constitution."

This plan was the subject of frequent conversation between the King and Temple. After a month passed in discussions to which no third person appears to have been privy, Charles declared himself satisfied of the expediency of the proposed measure, and resolved to carry it into effect.

It is much to be regretted that Temple has left us no account of these conferences. Historians have, therefore, been left to form their own conjectures as to the object of this very extraordinary plan, "this Constitution," as Temple himself calls it. And we cannot say that any explanation which has yet been given seems to us quite satisfactory. Indeed, almost all the writers whom we have consulted appear to consider the change as merely a change of administration, and so considering it, they generally applaud it. Mr. Courtenay, who has evidently examined this subject with more attention than has often been bestowed upon it, seems to think Temple's scheme very strange, unintelligible, and absurd. It is with very great diffidence that we offer our own solution of what we have always thought one of the great riddles of English history. We are strongly inclined to suspect that the appointment of the new Privy Council was really a much more remarkable event than has generally been supposed, and that what Temple had in view was to effect, under color of a change of administration, a permanent change in the Constitution.

The plan, considered merely as a plan for the formation of a Cabinet, is so obviously inconvenient, that we cannot easily believe this to have been Temple's chief object. The number of the new Council alone would be a most serious objection. The largest Cabinets of modern times have not, we believe, consisted of more than fifteen members. Even this number has generally been thought too large. The Marquess Wellesley, whose judgment on a question of executive administration is entitled to as much respect as that of any statesman that England ever produced, expressed, during the ministerial negotiations of the year 1812, his conviction that even thirteen was an inconveniently large number. But in a Cabinet of thirty members what chance could there be of finding unity, secrecy, expedition, any of the qualities which such a body ought to possess? If, indeed, the members of such a Cabinet were closely bound together by interest, if they all had a deep stake in the permanence of the Administration, if the majority were dependent on a small number of leading men, the thirty might perhaps act as a smaller number would act, though more slowly, more awkwardly, and with more risk of improper disclosures. But the Council which Temple proposed was so framed that if, instead of thirty members, it had contained only ten, it would still have been the most unwieldy and discordant Cabinet that ever sat. One half of the members were to be persons holding no office, persons who had no motive to compromise their opinions, or to take any share of the responsibility of an unpopular measure, persons, therefore, who might be expected as often as there might be a crisis requiring the most cordial co-operation, to draw off from the rest, and to throw every difficulty in the way of the public business. The circumstance that they were men of enormous private wealth only made the matter worse. The House of Commons is a checking body; and therefore it is desirable that it should, to a great extent, consist of men of independent fortune, who receive nothing and expect nothing from the Government. But with executive boards the case is quite different. Their business is not to check, but to act. The very same things, therefore, which are the virtues of Parliaments may be vices in Cabinets. We can hardly conceive a greater curse to the country than an Administration, the members of which should be as perfectly independent of each other, and as little under the necessity of making mutual concessions, as the representatives of London and Devonshire in the House of Commons are and ought to be. Now Temple's new Council was to contain fifteen members who were to hold no offices, and the average amount of whose private estates was ten thousand pounds a year, an income which, in proportion to the wants of a man of rank of that period, was at least equal to thirty thousand a year in our time. Was it to be expected that such men would gratuitously take on themselves the labor and responsibility of Ministers, and the unpopularity which the best Ministers must sometimes be prepared to brave? Could there be any doubt that an Opposition would soon be formed within the Cabinet itself, and that the consequence would be disunion, altercation, tardiness in operations, the divulging of secrets, everything most alien from the nature of an executive council?

Is it possible to imagine that considerations so grave and so obvious should have altogether escaped the notice of a man of Temple's sagacity and experience? One of two things appears to us to be certain, either that his project has been misunderstood, or that his talents for public affairs have been overrated.

We lean to the opinion that his project has been misunderstood. His new Council, as we have shown, would have been an exceedingly bad Cabinet. The inference which we are inclined to draw is this, that he meant his Council to serve some other purpose than that of a mere Cabinet. Barillon used four or five words which contain, we think, the key of the whole mystery. Mr. Courtenay calls them pithy words; but he does not, if we are right, apprehend their whole force. "Ce sont," said Barillon, "des Etats, non des conseils."

In order clearly to understand what we imagine to have been Temple's views, the reader must remember that the Government of England was at that moment, and had been during nearly eighty years, in a state of transition. A change, not the less real or the less extensive because disguised under ancient names and forms, was in constant progress. The theory of the Constitution, the fundamental laws which fix the powers of the three branches of the legislature, underwent no material change between the time of Elizabeth and the time of William the Third. The most celebrated laws of the seventeenth century on those subjects, the Petition of Right, the Declaration of Right, are purely declaratory. They purport to be merely recitals of the old polity of England. They do not establish free government as a salutary improvement, but claim it as an undoubted and immemorial inheritance. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that, during the period of which we speak, all the mutual relations of all the orders of the State did practically undergo an entire change. The letter of the law might be unaltered; but, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, the power of the Crown was, in fact, decidedly predominant in the State; and at the end of that century the power of Parliament, and especially of the Lower House, had become, in fact, decidedly predominant. At the beginning of the century, the sovereign perpetually violated, with little or no opposition, the clear privileges of Parliament. At the close of the century, the Parliament had virtually drawn to itself just as much as it chose of the prerogative of the Crown. The sovereign retained the shadow of that authority of which the Tudors had held the substance. He had a legislative veto which he never ventured to exercise, a power of appointing Ministers, whom an address of the Commons could at any moment force him to discard, a power of declaring war which, without Parliamentary support, could not be carried on for a single day. The Houses of Parliament were now not merely legislative assemblies, not merely checking assemblies; they were great Councils of State, whose voice, when loudly and firmly raised, was decisive on all questions of foreign and domestic policy. There was no part of the whole system of Government with which they had not power to interfere by advice equivalent to command; and, if they abstained from intermeddling with some departments of the executive administration, they were withheld from doing so only by their own moderation, and by the confidence which they reposed in the Ministers of the Crown. There is perhaps no other instance in history of a change so complete in the real constitution of an empire, unaccompanied by any corresponding change in the theoretical constitution. The disguised transformation of the Roman commonwealth into a despotic monarchy, under the long administration of Augustus, is perhaps the nearest parallel.

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Critical And Historical Essays, Volume I, Thomas Babbington Macaulay, 1843

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