Saturday, February 11, 2012

Disappointed Revolutionaries

In Search of the Republic--35

John Locke finished his Two Treatises of Government too late to ignite a revolution against the Stuart dynasty.

The Glorious Revolution of 1688 erupted anyway. The revolution restored the balance between the King and Parliament and turned England into a limited monarchy. This balance seemed to be a mixed regime that offered the best of all governments. Monarchy was represented in the king, aristocracy in the  House of Lords, and democracy in the House of Commons. Long time Whig prime minister Robert Walpole reflected in 1734:

Ours is a mixt government, and the perfection of our constitution consists in this, that the monarchical, aristocratical, and democratical forms of government are mixt and interwoven in one, so as to give all the advantages of each without subjecting it to the dangers and inconveniences of either.”

The anti-Stuart Whig Party dominated politics for years to come. Some English Whigs, however, grew disenchanted with the way the new regime operated. Before the revolution, the King worked to secure the cooperation of Parliament through threats, arbitrary arrests, and courts set up at his own prerogative. After the revolution and the enactment of the English Bill of Right, the King used another means to secure support of Parliament: corruption.

The King, or his ministers, would “corrupt” the legislature by creating new peers and granting titles to would be Lords. They would offer military commissions and pensions to members of the House of Commons in return for support. Such means “greased the wheels” of the English political system. The man that came to symbolize this corruption was long time Prime Minister Robert Walpole.

Some Whig writers, who later became known as “radical Whigs” or “real Whigs” began publishing attacks on corruption. While always expressing fealty for their King and Queen, these Whigs warned of the new politics and the threat to English liberty. The most enduring of these writers were Robert Trenchard and Thomas Gordon.

Interestingly enough, considering our contemporary political climate, they began writing after a enormous scandal broke involving Parliamentary “crony capitalism” called the “South Sea Bubble” They published 144 essays in the London Journal between 1720-1723. These essays were later collected and published in a book entitled Essays on Liberty—Civil and Religious and became known as Cato's Letters. ( They took the name Cato from the Roman republican Senator who opposed Julius Caesar). Although not very popular in England, this collection of essays found its way on to the bookshelves of many, if not most, of the prominent founders of United States. Not only did the book popularize the ideas of John Locke, it also helped form a political ideology among the founders that moved them to react with hypersensitivity to the perceived threats posed by government power. One historian distilled the theme of these writings as “power vs. liberty.” When the British government began their attempt to reorganize their empire in the 1760s, their North American colonists feared the worst for their traditional English liberties. As British Parliamentarian described the Americans,

    They augur misgovernment at a distance, and snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze.”

Every “Tea Party” activist should own a copy. Some future posts will explore just what they wrote.

No comments: