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The Great Alteration

British Isles Genealogy | Critical And Historical Essays, Volume I

This great alteration did not take place without strong and constant resistance on the part of the kings of the house of Stuart. Till 1642, that resistance was generally of an open, violent, and lawless nature. If the Commons refused supplies, the sovereign levied a benevolence. If the Commons impeached a favorite minister, the sovereign threw the chiefs of the Opposition into prison. Of these efforts to keep down the Parliament by despotic force, without the pretext of law, the last, the most celebrated, and the most wicked was the attempt to seize the five members. That attempt was the signal for civil war, and was followed by eighteen years of blood and confusion.

The days of trouble passed by; the exiles returned; the throne was again set up in its high place; the peerage and the hierarchy recovered their ancient splendor. The fundamental laws which had been recited in the Petition of Right were again solemnly recognized. The theory of the English constitution was the same on the day when the hand of Charles the Second was kissed by the kneeling Houses at Whitehall as on the day when his father set up the royal standard at Nottingham. There was a short period of doting fondness, a hysterica passio of loyal repentance and love. But emotions of this sort are transitory; and the interests on which depends the progress of great societies are permanent. The transport of reconciliation was soon over; and the old struggle recommenced.

The old struggle recommenced; but not precisely after the old fashion. The Sovereign was not indeed a man whom any common warning would have restrained from the grossest violations of law. But it was no common warning that he had received. All around him were the recent signs of the vengeance of an oppressed nation, the fields on which the noblest blood of the island had been poured forth, the castles shattered by the cannon of the Parliamentary armies, the hall where sat the stern tribunal to whose bar had been led, through lowering ranks of pikemen, the captive heir of a hundred kings, the stately pilasters before which the great execution had been so fearlessly done in the face of heaven and earth. The restored Prince, admonished by the fate of his father, never ventured to attack his Parliaments with open and arbitrary violence. It was at one time by means of the Parliament itself, at another time by means of the courts of law, that he attempted to regain for the Crown its old predominance. He began with great advantages. The Parliament of 1661 was called while the nation was still full of joy and tenderness. The great majority of the House of Commons were zealous royalists. All the means of influence which the patronage of the Crown afforded were used without limit. Bribery was reduced to a system. The King, when he could spare money from his pleasures for nothing else, could spare it for purposes of corruption. While the defense of the coasts was neglected, while ships rotted, while arsenals lay empty, while turbulent crowds of unpaid seamen swarmed in the streets of the seaports, something could still be scraped together in the Treasury for the members of the House of Commons. The gold of France was largely employed for the same purpose. Yet it was found, as indeed might have been foreseen, that there is a natural limit to the effect which can be produced by means like these. There is one thing which the most corrupt senates are unwilling to sell; and that is the power which makes them worth buying. The same selfish motives which induced them to take a price for a particular vote induce them to oppose every measure of which the effect would be to lower the importance, and consequently the price, of their votes. About the income of their power, so to speak, they are quite ready to make bargains. But they are not easily persuaded to part with any fragment of the principal. It is curious to observe how, during the long continuance of this Parliament, the Pensionary Parliament, as it was nicknamed by contemporaries, though every circumstance seemed to be favorable to the Crown, the power of the Crown was constantly sinking, and that of the Commons constantly rising. The meetings of the Houses were more frequent than in former reigns; their interference was more harassing to the Government than in former reigns; they had begun to make peace, to make war; to pull down, if they did not set up, administrations. Already a new class of statesmen had appeared, unheard of before that time, but common ever since. Under the Tudors and the earlier Stuarts, it was generally by courtly arts, or by official skill and knowledge, that a politician raised himself to power. From the time of Charles the Second down to our own days a different species of talent, parliamentary talent, has been the most valuable of all the qualifications of an English statesman. It has stood in the place of all other acquirements. It has covered ignorance, weakness, rashness, the most fatal maladministration. A great negotiator is nothing when compared with a great debater; and a Minister who can make a successful speech need trouble himself little about an unsuccessful expedition. This is the talent which has made judges without law, and diplomatists without French, which has sent to the Admiralty men who did not know the stern of a ship from her bowsprit, and to the India Board men who did not know the difference between a rupee and a pagoda, which made a foreign secretary of Mr. Pitt, who, as George the Second said, had never opened Vattel, and which was very near making a Chancellor of the Exchequer of Mr. Sheridan, who could not work a sum in long division. This was the sort of talent which raised Clifford from obscurity to the head of affairs. To this talent Osborne, by birth a simple country gentleman, owed his white staff, his garter, and his dukedom. The encroachment of the power of the Parliament on the power of the Crown resembled a fatality, or the operation of some great law of nature. The will of the individual on the throne, or of the individuals in the two Houses, seemed to go for nothing. The King might be eager to encroach; yet something constantly drove him back. The Parliament might be loyal, even servile; yet something constantly urged them forward.

These things were done in the green tree. What then was likely to be done in the dry? The Popish Plot and the general election came together, and found a people predisposed to the most violent excitation. The composition of the House of Commons was changed. The Legislature was filled with men who leaned to Republicanism in politics, and to Presbyterianism in religion. They no sooner met than they commenced an attack on the Government, which, if successful, must have made them supreme in the State.

Where was this to end? To us who have seen the solution the question presents few difficulties. But to a statesman of the age of Charles the Second, to a statesman, who wished, without depriving the Parliament of its privileges, to maintain the monarch in his old supremacy, it must have appeared very perplexing.

Clarendon had, when Minister, struggled honestly, perhaps, but, as was his wont, obstinately, proudly, and offensively, against the growing power of the Commons. He was for allowing them their old authority, and not one atom more. He would never have claimed for the Crown a right to levy taxes from the people without the consent of Parliament. But when the Parliament, in the first Dutch war, most properly insisted on knowing how it was that the money which they had voted had produced so little effect, and began to inquire through what hands it had passed, and on what services it had been expended, Clarendon considered this as a monstrous innovation. He told the King, as he himself says, "that he could not be too indulgent in the defense of the privileges of Parliament, and that he hoped he would never violate any of them; but he desired him to be equally solicitous to prevent the excesses in Parliament, and not to suffer them to extend their jurisdiction to cases they have nothing to do with; and that to restrain them within their proper bounds and limits is as necessary as it is to preserve them from being invaded; and that this was such a new encroachment as had no bottom." This is a single instance. Others might easily be given.

The bigotry, the strong passions, the haughty and disdainful temper, which made Clarendon's great abilities a source of almost unmixed evil to himself and to the public, had no place in the character of Temple. To Temple, however, as well as to Clarendon, the rapid change which was taking place in the real working of the Constitution gave great disquiet; particularly as Temple had never sat in the English Parliament, and therefore regarded it with none of the predilection which men naturally feel for a body to which they belong, and for a theatre on which their own talents have been advantageously displayed.

To wrest by force from the House of Commons its newly acquired powers was impossible; nor was Temple a man to recommend such a stroke, even if it had been possible. But was it possible that the House of Commons might be induced to let those powers drop? Was it possible that, as a great revolution had been effected without any change in the outward form of the Government, so a great counter-revolution might be effected in the same manner? Was it possible that the Crown and the Parliament might be placed in nearly the same relative position in which they had stood in the reign of Elizabeth, and that this might be done without one sword drawn, without one execution, and with the general acquiescence of the nation?

The English people--it was probably thus that Temple argued--will not bear to be governed by the unchecked power of the Sovereign, nor ought they to be so governed. At present there is no check but the Parliament. The limits which separate the power of checking those who govern from the power of governing are not easily to be defined. The Parliament, therefore, supported by the nation, is rapidly drawing to itself all the powers of Government. If it were possible to frame some other check on the power of the Crown, some check which might be less galling to the Sovereign than that by which he is now constantly tormented, and yet which might appear to the people to be a tolerable security against maladministration, Parliaments would probably meddle less; and they would be less supported by public opinion in their meddling. That the King's hands may not be rudely tied by others, he must consent to tie them lightly himself. That the executive administration may not be usurped by the checking body, something of the character of a checking body must be given to the body which conducts the executive administration. The Parliament is now arrogating to itself every day a larger share of the functions of the Privy Council. We must stop the evil by giving to the Privy Council something of the constitution of a Parliament. Let the nation see that all the King's measures are directed by a Cabinet composed of representatives of every order in the State, by a Cabinet which contains, not placemen alone, but independent and popular noblemen and gentlemen who have large estates and no salaries, and who are not likely to sacrifice the public welfare in which they have a deep stake, and the credit which they have obtained with the country, to the pleasure of a Court from which they receive nothing. When the ordinary administration is in such hands as these, the people will be quite content to see the Parliament become, what it formerly was, an extraordinary check. They will be quite willing that the House of Commons should meet only once in three years for a short session, and should take as little part in matters of state as it did a hundred years ago.

Thus we believe that Temple reasoned: for on this hypothesis his scheme is intelligible; and on any other hypothesis his scheme appears to us, as it does to Mr. Courtenay, exceedingly absurd and unmeaning. This Council was strictly what Barillon called it, an Assembly of States. There are the representatives of all the great sections of the community, of the Church, of the Law, of the Peerage, of the Commons. The exclusion of one half of the counselors from office under the Crown, an exclusion which is quite absurd when we consider the Council merely as an executive board, becomes at once perfectly reasonable when we consider the Council as a body intended to restrain the Crown as well as to exercise the powers of the Crown, to perform some of the functions of a Parliament as well as the functions of a Cabinet. We see, too, why Temple dwelt so much on the private wealth of the members, why he instituted a comparison between their united incomes and the united incomes of the members of the House of Commons. Such a parallel would have been idle in the case of a mere Cabinet. It is extremely significant in the case of a body intended to supersede the House of Commons in some very important functions.

We can hardly help thinking that the notion of this Parliament on a small scale was suggested to Temple by what he had himself seen in the United Provinces. The original Assembly of the States-General consisted, as he tells us, of above eight hundred persons. But this great body was represented by a smaller Council of about thirty, which bore the name and exercised the powers of the States-General. At last the real States altogether ceased to meet; and their power, though still a part of the theory of the Constitution, became obsolete in practice. We do not, of course, imagine that Temple either expected or wished that Parliaments should be thus disused; but he did expect, we think, that something like what had happened in Holland would happen in England, and that a large portion of the functions lately assumed by Parliament would be quietly transferred to the miniature Parliament which he proposed to create.

Had this plan, with some modifications, been tried at an earlier period, in a more composed state of the public mind, and by a better sovereign, we are by no means certain that it might not have effected the purpose for which it was designed. The restraint imposed on the King by the Council of thirty, whom he had himself chosen, would have been feeble indeed when compared with the restraint imposed by Parliament. But it would have been more constant. It would have acted every year, and all the year round; and before the Revolution the sessions of Parliament were short and the recesses long. The advice of the Council would probably have prevented any very monstrous and scandalous measures; and would consequently have prevented the discontents which follow such measures, and the salutary laws which are the fruit of such discontents. We believe, for example, that the second Dutch war would never have been approved by such a Council as that which Temple proposed. We are quite certain that the shutting up of the Exchequer would never even have been mentioned in such a Council. The people, pleased to think that Lord Russell, Lord Cavendish, and Mr. Powle, unplaced and unpensioned, were daily representing their grievances and defending their rights in the Royal presence, would not have pined quite so much for the meeting of Parliaments. The Parliament, when it met, would have found fewer and less glaring abuses to attack. There would have been less misgovernment and less reform. We should not have been cursed with the Cabal, or blessed with the Habeas Corpus Act. In the mean time the Council, considered as an executive Council, would, unless some at least of its powers had been delegated to a smaller body, have been feeble, dilatory, divided, unfit for everything that requires secrecy and dispatch, and peculiarly unfit for the administration of war.

The Revolution put an end, in a very different way, to the long contest between the King and the Parliament. From that time, the House of Commons has been predominant in the State. The Cabinet has really been, from that time, a committee nominated by the Crown out of the prevailing party in Parliament. Though the minority in the Commons are Constantly proposing to condemn executive measures, or to call for papers which may enable the House to sit in judgment on such measures, these propositions are scarcely ever carried; and, if a proposition of this kind is carried against the Government, a change of Ministry almost necessarily follows. Growing and struggling power always gives more annoyance and is more unmanageable than established power. The House of Commons gave infinitely more trouble to the Ministers of Charles the Second than to any Ministers of later times; for, in the time of Charles the Second, the House was checking Ministers in whom it did not confide. Now that its ascendancy is fully established, it either confides in Ministers or turns them out. This is undoubtedly a far better state of things than that which Temple wished to introduce. The modern Cabinet is a far better Executive Council than his. The worst House of Commons that has sate since the Revolution was a far more efficient check on misgovernment than his fifteen independent counselors would have been. Yet, everything considered, it seems to us that his plan was the work of an observant, ingenious, and fertile mind.

On this occasion, as on every occasion on which he came prominently forward, Temple had the rare good fortune to please the public as well as the Sovereign. The general exultation was great when it was known that the old Council, made up of the most odious tools of power, was dismissed, that small interior committees, rendered odious by the recent memory of the Cabal, were to be disused, and that the King would adopt no measure till it had been discussed and approved by a body, of which one half consisted of independent gentlemen and noblemen, and in which such persons as Russell, Cavendish, and Temple himself had seats. Town and country were in a ferment of joy. The bells were rung; bonfires were lighted; and the acclamations of England were echoed by the Dutch, who considered the influence obtained by Temple as a certain omen of good for Europe. It is, indeed, much to the honor of his sagacity that every one of his great measures should, in such times, have pleased every party which he had any interest in pleasing. This was the case with the Triple Alliance, with the treaty which concluded the second Dutch war, with the marriage of the Prince of Orange, and, finally, with the institution of this new Council.

The only people who grumbled were those popular leaders of the House of Commons who were not among the Thirty; and, if our view of the measure be correct, they were precisely the people who had good reason to grumble. They were precisely the people whose activity and whose influence the new Council was intended to destroy.

But there was very soon an end of the bright hopes and loud applauses with which the publication of this scheme had been hailed. The perfidious levity of the King and the ambition of the chiefs of parties produced the instant, entire, and irremediable failure of a plan which nothing but firmness, public spirit, and self-denial on the part of all concerned in it could conduct to a happy issue. Even before the project was divulged, its author had already found reason to apprehend that it would fail. Considerable difficulty was experienced in framing the list of counselors. There were two men in particular about whom the King and Temple could not agree, two men deeply tainted with the vices common to the English statesman of that age, but unrivalled in talents, address, and influence. These were the Earl of Shaftesbury, and George Savile Viscount Halifax.

It was a favorite exercise among the Greek sophists to write panegyrics on characters proverbial for depravity. One professor of rhetoric sent to Isocrates a panegyric on Busiris; and Isocrates himself wrote another which has come down to us. It is, we presume, from an ambition of the same kind that some writers have lately shown a disposition to eulogize Shaftesbury. But the attempt is vain. The charges against him rest on evidence not to be invalidated by any arguments which human wit can devise, or by any information which may be found in old trunks and escritoires.

It is certain that, just before the Restoration, he declared to the Regicides that he would be damned, body and soul, rather than suffer a hair of their heads to be hurt, and that, just after the Restoration, he was one of the judges who sentenced them to death. It is certain that he was a principal member of the most profligate Administration ever known, and that he was afterwards a principal member oft the most profligate Opposition ever known. It is certain that, in power, he did not scruple to violate the great fundamental principle of the Constitution, in order to exalt the Catholics, and that, out of power, he did not scruple to violate every principle of justice, in order to destroy them. There were in that age some honest men, such as William Penn, who valued toleration so highly that they would willingly have seen it established even by an illegal exertion of the prerogative. There were many honest men who dreaded arbitrary power so much that, on account of the alliance between Popery and arbitrary power, they were disposed to grant no toleration to Papists. On both those classes we look with indulgence, though we think both in the wrong. But Shaftesbury belonged to neither class. He united all that was worst in both. From the misguided friends of toleration he borrowed their contempt for the Constitution, and from the misguided friends of civil liberty their contempt for the rights of conscience. We never can admit that his conduct as a member of the Cabal was redeemed by his conduct as a leader of Opposition. On the contrary, his life was such that every part of it, as if by a skilful contrivance, reflects infamy on every other. We should never have known how abandoned a prostitute he was in place, if we had not known how desperate an incendiary he was out of it. To judge of him fairly, we must bear in mind that the Shaftesbury who, in office, was the chief author of the Declaration of Indulgence, was the same Shaftesbury who, out of office, excited and kept up the savage hatred of the rabble of London against the very class to whom that Declaration of Indulgence was intended to give illegal relief.

It is amusing to see the excuses that are made for him. We will give two specimens. It is acknowledged that he was one of the Ministry which made the alliance with France against Holland, and that this alliance was most pernicious. What, then, is the defense? Even this, that he betrayed his master's counsels to the Electors of Saxony and Brandenburg, and tried to rouse all the Protestant powers of Germany to defend the States. Again, it is acknowledged that he was deeply concerned in the Declaration of Indulgence, and that his conduct on this occasion was not only unconstitutional, but quite inconsistent with the course which he afterwards took respecting the professors of the Catholic faith. What, then, is the defense? Even this, that he meant only to allure concealed Papists to avow themselves, and thus to become open marks for the vengeance of the public. As often as he is charged with one treason, his advocates vindicate him by confessing two. They had better leave him where they find him. For him there is no escape upwards. Every outlet by which he can creep out of his present position, is one which lets him down into a still lower and fouler depth of infamy. To whitewash an Ethiopian is a proverbially hopeless attempt; but to whitewash an Ethiopian by giving him a new coat of blacking is an enterprise more extraordinary still. That in the course of Shaftesbury's dishonest and revengeful opposition to the Court he rendered one or two most useful services to his country we admit. And he is, we think, fairly entitled, if that be any glory, to have his name eternally associated with the Habeas Corpus Act in the same way in which the name of Henry the Eighth is associated with the reformation of the Church, and that of Jack Wilkes with the most sacred rights of electors.

While Shaftesbury was still living, his character was elaborately drawn by two of the greatest writers of the age, by Butler, with characteristic brilliancy of wit, by Dryden, with even more than characteristic energy and loftiness, by both with all the inspiration of hatred. The sparkling illustrations of Butler have been thrown into the shade by the brighter glory of that gorgeous satiric Muse, who comes sweeping by in scepter pall, borrowed from her most august sisters. But the descriptions well deserve to be compared. The reader will at once perceive a considerable difference between Butler's

"politician, With more beads than a beast in vision,"

and the Achitophel of Dryden. Butler dwells on Shaftesbury's unprincipled versatility; on his wonderful and almost instinctive skill in discerning the approach of a change of fortune; and on the dexterity with which he extricated himself from the snares in which he left his associates to perish.

"Our state-artificer foresaw Which way the world began to draw. For as old sinners have all points O' th' compass in their bones and joints, Can by their pangs and aches find All turns and changes of the wind, And better than by Napier's bones Feel in their own the age of moons: So guilty sinners in a state Can by their crimes prognosticate, And in their consciences feel pain Some days before a shower of rain. He, therefore, wisely cast about All ways he could to ensure his throat."

In Dryden's great portrait, on the contrary, violent passion, implacable revenge, boldness amounting to temerity, are the most striking features. Achitophel is one of the "great wits to madness near allied." And again--

"A daring pilot in extremity, Pleased with the danger when the waves went high, He sought the storms; but, for a calm unfit, Would steer too near the sands to boast his wit."1

The dates of the two poems will, we think, explain this discrepancy. The third part of Hudibras appeared in 1678, when the character of Shaftesbury had as yet but imperfectly developed itself. He had, indeed, been a traitor to every party in the State; but his treasons had hitherto prospered. Whether it were accident or sagacity, he had timed his desertions in such a manner that fortune seemed to go to and fro with him from side to side. The extent of his perfidy was known; but it was not till the Popish Plot furnished him with a machinery which seemed sufficiently powerful for all his purposes, that the audacity of his spirit, and the fierceness of his malevolent passions, became fully manifest. His subsequent conduct showed undoubtedly great ability, but not ability of the sort for which he had formerly been so eminent. He was now headstrong, sanguine, full of impetuous confidence in his own wisdom and his own good luck. He, whose fame as a political tactician had hitherto rested chiefly on his skilful retreats, now set himself to break down all the bridges behind him. His plans were castles in the air: his talk was rhodomontade. He took no thought for the morrow: he treated the Court as if the King were already a prisoner in his hands: he built on the favor of the multitude, as if that favor were not proverbially inconstant. The signs of the coming reaction were discerned by men of far less sagacity than his, and scared from his side men more consistent than he had ever pretended to be. But on him they were lost. The counsel of Achitophel, that counsel which was as if a man had inquired of the oracle of God, was turned into foolishness. He who had become a by-word, for the certainty with which he foresaw and the suppleness with which he evaded danger, now, when beset on every side with snares and death, seemed to be smitten with a blindness as strange as his former clear-sightedness, and, turning neither to the right nor to the left, strode straight on with desperate hardihood to his doom. Therefore, after having early acquired and long preserved the reputation of infallible wisdom and invariable success, he lived to see a mighty ruin wrought by his own ungovernable passions, to see the great party which he had led vanquished, and scattered, and trampled down, to see all his own devilish enginery of lying witnesses, partial sheriffs, packed juries, unjust judges, bloodthirsty mobs, ready to be employed against himself and his most devoted followers, to fly from that proud city whose favor had almost raised him to be Mayor of the Palace, to hide himself in squalid retreats, to cover his grey head with ignominious disguises; and he died in hopeless exile, sheltered by the generosity of a State which he had cruelly injured and insulted, from the vengeance of a master whose favor he had purchased by one series of crimes, and forfeited by another.

1 It has never, we believe, been remarked, that two of the most striking lines in the description of Achitophel are borrowed from a most obscure quarter. In Knolles's History of the Turks, printed more than sixty years before the appearance of Absalom and Achitophel, are the following verses, under a portrait of the Sultan Mustapha the First:

"Greatnesse on goodnesse loves to slide, not stand, And leaves for Fortune's ice Vertue's firme land."

Dryden's words are

"But wild Ambition loves to slide, not stand, And Fortune's ice prefers to Virtue's land."

The circumstance is the more remarkable, because Dryden has really no couplet which would seem to a good critic more intensely Drydenian, both in thought and expression, than this, of which the whole thought, and almost the whole expression, are stolen.

As we are on this subject, we cannot refrain from observing that Mr. Courtenay has done Dryden injustice by inadvertently attributing to him some feeble lines which are in Tate's part of Absalom and Achitophel.

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