1902 Encyclopedia > Henry St John Bolingbroke

1st Viscount Henry St John Bolingbroke
English Tory politician
(1678-1751)




VISCOUNT HENRY ST JOHN BOLINGBROKE was born in October 1678. His father, Sir Henry St John, the descendant of an old and noble family, was a noted rake of the Restoration period, who continued to live his life of pleasure and indolence for upwards of ninety years. Of his mother little is known, save that she was a daughter of the earl of Warwick. The education of her son was entrusted to the care of his grandmother, Lady St John, who was a professed Puritan and of a pious disposition. His tutor was a Dr Burgess, then renowned for his wit not less than for his piety, whose instructions in divinity seem to have been somewhat distasteful, if we are to accept the pupil's account of the dreary studies he was compelled to engage in. At an early age he was sent to Eton, where he appears to have been a school-fellow, though hardly a rival, of Walpole, and then proceeded to Christ Church, Oxford. The life he led at the university was typical of his later career. His brilliant talents and unusually retentive memory enabled him to amass an immense amount of information—more, indeed, than he was given credit for; while at the same time he began to acquire an equally high reputation for dissipation and licentiousness. He was the Rochester of the period, with more than Rochester's abilities. He sought and gained the fame of a modem Alcibiades or Petronius. Amidst all his excesses, however, he maintained a real interest in literature. He was intimate with Dryden, and prefixed a laudatory poem to the first edition of the translation of Virgil. The verses did not hold out high promise of poetic power; and his later efforts in the same direction did little for his literary reputation His most considerable production, Almahide, an Ode, is a miserable tawdry affair; the light ode to the equally light Clara is very much better, and has some vivacity and sparkle. He seems to have been conscious of his want of poetic genius, for his verse remains are not numerous.

For two years, from 1698 to 1700, he resided on the Continent, and during that time acquired the thorough mastery of the French language which was afterwards of so much service to him. On his return his friends, in the hope of withdrawing him to some extent from his loose mode of life, negotiated a marriage with the wealthy daughter of Sir Henry Winchescomb, a baronet of Berkshire. Marriage, however, effected little or no change in St John, and, though his wife never formally separated from him, and always retained a true affection for her husband, their married life was unhappy and divided. In February of the year following he entered Parliament as member for Wootton-Basset.

The Tory party, from a combination of circumstances, were then all-powerful in the House of Commons. The Partition Treaty, a measure for which, indeed, little can be said, had not met with popular favour, while William's large grants to foreigners, together with the general cold-ness and repulsiveness of his manners, had rendered him most unpopular. A perfect storm of discontent had arisen, and the Tories were nearly bewildered with the power which had been suddenly placed in their hands. Harley, perhaps, at that time, from his moderation, the most influential man of the party, led the House as speaker. St John enrolled himself among the Tories with the utmost enthusiasm, and from the first displayed such brilliant powers as placed him at once in the front rank, and gave him an almost unique position. His youth and high birth, his handsome and commanding presence, and his agreeable address, no doubt contributed largely to his rapid elevation ; but what above all secured for him an unequalled success was his wonderful eloquence. The powers he unexpectedly evinced as an orator and debater were unrivalled then, and, if we are to take contemporary reports as our authority, had never been equalled, and have seldom, if ever, been surpassed. Not a fragment of his many speeches has come down to us ; but from the criticisms of those who heard him speak, and from his published writings, some idea of their general quality may be gathered. The most pro-minent characteristics seem to have been copiousness and readiness, extreme fluency, and spontaneity, combined with a brilliant felicity of phrase, the right expression seeming to spring up naturally along with the thought to be expressed. His sentences are mostly massive and balanced, yet never heavy ; flowing, but rarely redundant. He is, perhaps, the first British statesman whose parlia-mentary oratory has been really a power ; and with such splendid qualifications it was little wonder that he readily became the protagonist of the Tory party. He was their mouthpiece ; he gave expression to their half-articulate wishes, hounded them on in their insane attacks on the great Whig leaders, and barbed their invectives with his own trenchant wit. But, as he has himself admitted, it would be difficult to discover what object the Tories really had in view. Their only desire seems to have been to revenge themselves upon their political opponents and indirectly to assail the king. A definite policy they had not either at that time or throughout the succeeding reign. The Whigs had so far a basis of operations ; they held by the Protestant succession, and were in favour of a war with France. The Tories, who, if thoroughgoing, were really Jacobites, were averse to the French war, because it indirectly weakened their party, and they did not favour the succession. But consistent adherence to principle is a thing one looks for in vain among the majority of statesmen iu the reign of Anne. There never was a time in British history when the movements of politicians were regulated by such petty causes, and when great talents had to be turned to such paltry purposes. Politics became but a grand game, in which success meant office, power, wealth, and dignity; and to secure such success few hesitated at the most dishonourable means. Treason was a thing of common occurrence, and many names among the highest in English history are tarnished by acts of grossest treachery. Bolingbroke participates to the full in the spirit of his time. Never throughout his whole career can one observe the operation of a consistent policy, or trace the action of any motive higher than personal ambition. Mentally and morally he was well qualified to take a pro-minent place in the political struggle of the time.





The rush of popular favour to the Tory party was checked by Louis's acknowledgment of the Pretender as legitimate king of England. There was no opposition made to the proposed war, which was not interrupted by the death of William and the accession of Anne. Godolphin and Marlborough, both moderate Tories, were strongly in favour of the war, and consequently found themselves gradually drawn into harmony with the Whigs rather than with the extreme members of their own party. Several of the latter were removed from the cabinet, and among the new officials were Harley, and, curiously enough, St John, the former being made Secretary of State, the latter Secre-tary at War. It has been doubted to what influence St John owed this singular promotion. Harley's power was hardly great enough to effect it, and it is more than probable that it was in great part, if not entirely, the work of Marlborough, who had a very considerable affection and respect for St John, and who doubtless desired a friend of his to fill the office with which he had so many transac-tions. As secretary St John discharged his duties with great efficiency, and manifested the most enthusiastic admiration for Marlborough's military genius and success. Meantime Harley had been tampering with the secret springs which moved so much of the political machinery. His relative Mrs Masham was supplanting the imperious duchess of Marlborough, and through her influence the queen was becoming convinced that the interests of the nation should be confided to Harley and the Tories. She was ready to dismiss Godolphin at the first opportunity, but the Whigs were as yet too strong, and Harley's schemes having been discovered, he was in 1708 compelled to resign. St John, who can hardly be thought tohavehad no cognizance of what was afoot, resigned along with him, and spent two years in philosophical retirement, studying diligently and living loosely as before. During these years a gradual undercurrent of feeling swelled up against the Whig party. The war was distasteful, and its prolongation was looked upon as altogether the work of Marlborough. Above all. the queen was thoroughly alienated from her old friend and under the influence of Mrs Masham. Yet the strength of the Whig party might have enabled.them to carry through their policy successfully had not an act of suicidal imprudence completely ruined them. The prosecution of Sacheverell was the signal for a perfect storm of insanely loyal feeling throughout the country. A Tory ministry would evidently meet with popular approval, and Anne had therefore no hesitation in dismissing Godolphin and the Whigs. Harley became Chancellor of the Exchequer and virtually premier; St John was made Secretary of State.

The political problem, how, under all contingencies, to retain power, was somewhat complicated. The queen's health made the succession the main question. Now, the accession of the Elector meant the restoration of the Whigs to power. It was hardly possible for the Tory leaders to oust the Whig party from the graces of the House of Hanover, with whom their policy was so knit up. Prudence, therefore, as well as principle, made them lean towards the exiled House of Stuart, and for a time extreme Tory was synonymous with Jacobite. But the hopes of James to a great extent depended on the assistance of France, and consequently peace with France became their primary object To attain it they were urged also by the loudly expressed wishes of a large section of the people, and by their hatred of the Whigs, with whom the war was identified. Active steps in the matter were taken mainly by St John, and in the beginning of 1712 he had at last brought affairs to such a pass that the duke of Ormond, who had superseded Marlborough, received secret orders not to attack the French, while private intimation of this order was sent to the French Government. Arrangements were then made with the French minister De Torcy, whereby the fundamental articles of the league with the allies were broken, Britain engaging to enter into a separate peace with France, receiving certain special advantages, and quietly abandoning some of the allies, as the Catalans. Nothing can possibly extenuate the baseness of these proceedings, and our judgment of them cannot be altered by our opinion as to the advisability of the peace. The Whig party were wholly unable to throw any obstacles in the way; their majority in the House of Lords had been swamped by the creation of twelve new peers; and Walpole had been impeached on a petty charge and committed to the Tower. Finally, St John, now Viscount Bolingbroke, visited Paris to push on negotiations so that peace might be announced to next Parliament. It has been said, though he himself denied it, that during this visit he had interviews with the Pretender. In April 1713 the famous treaty of Utrecht was signed, and the Parliament of that year had the articles read to them. This, however, had not the effect anticipated by Bolingbroke, There was a lurking feeling of discontent with regard to it, and the commercial articles, bearing on trade with France, excited great indigna-tion among the mercantile classes.

Bolingbroke and the Tories seemed, however, to be at the zenith of their power; but the foundations of that power were unstable, and there was dissension among the leaders. Harley had become earl of Oxford, and Bolingbroke was indignant at receiving only the rank of viscount. His anger was increased on failing to receive the garter vacant by the death of Godolphin. The disputes between the former allies became open and violent. By unscrupulous bribery Bolingbroke managed to secure the interest of Mrs Masham, and through her wrought upon the queen. In the Parliament of 1714 he dealt the death-blow to Oxford's power, by compelling him to vote upon the Schism Bill; and finally, on the 27th July, after a stormy discussion, which greatly excited the queen, Oxford was dismissed. Bolingbroke, however, had but a brief taste of power, for on the 30th the queen was seized with apoplexy. At the council held upon the emergency the dukes of Argyle and Somerset boldly presented themselves, and proposed and carried a resolution that the duke of Shrewsbury should be recommended as Lord Treasurer. Bolingbroke was obliged to yield. Anne was able to give assent; the Whig party had already made all their arrange-ments, and immediately on the queen's death (August 1) the Elector was proclaimed king, and special messengers were despatched to bring him over. Bolingbroke and his friends seemed bewildered ; they were, indeed, thoroughly taken by surprise, and their half-formed schemes discon-certed. Atterbury alone urged Bolingbroke boldly to proclaim James, but either the courage of the latter failed, or, as is more probable, his intentions were not sufficiently definite. It is not an unreasonable supposition that, had a fair time been granted to him, he would have endeavoured to make favour with the House of Hanover. Any such hope was then out of the question; the duties of his office were transferred temporarily to Addison, and within the month in which the queen died he was formally dismissed. It was soon known that the new Parliament, who were mainly Whigs, intended to impeach Oxford and Bolingbroke for their share in the recent peace. From what we now know of the actual accusation, it is plain that it did not amount to high treason. Had there been nothing further it would have been the best plan to have stayed and faced the trial. This, accordingly, was done by Oxford; but Bolingbroke, after showing himself ostentatiously in public, fled over to France in disguise, even before the impeachment had been made in the House. In the letter he left behind him for Lord Lansdowne he gives as his excuse that he had certain and repeated informations from some who were in the secret of affairs that a resolution was taken to pursue him to the scaffold. In the famous letter to Sir Wm. Windham he takes somewhat different ground, and accounts for his flight from his intense dislike of Oxford, and his resolution not to be associated with him in any way. It was not till the 10th June that he was formally impeached ; on 6th August he was attainted and summoned to appear-before the 10th September. On the 16th September, he not having made his appearance, his name was struck off the list of peers, and sentence of banishment was passed. Long before this, however, Bolingbroke had thrown in his lot with the Pretender. He had secret interviews with the duke of Berwick immediately after his arrival in Paris, while professing the most loyal sentiments to Lord Stair, the British ambassador, and in the month of July he was formally installed as Secretary of State to the prince. Whatever plans he might have hoped to carry through in this capacity were thoroughly thwarted by the numberless irregular agents and advisers who swarmed about the petty court, and by the impracticable disposition of the prince himself. The expedition to Scotland, undertaken against Bolingbroke's advice, proved a complete failure; and in February 1716 he was dismissed with scant ceremony from the prince's service, while a formal impeachment was drawn up, accusing him of dilatoriness and want of energy. Rumour was busy with his name, and every species of treachery was imputed to him. The celebrated letter to Sir Wm. Windham, in many respects the best of his writings, was drawn up in the following year, and contains an elaborate sketch of the events of his political career and a justification of his proceedings. The letter may have been circulated to a slight extent in print or in manuscript, but it was undoubtedly not made public till 1753, two years after Bolingbroke's death. It is a skilful piece of work, written with great apparent candour, but inconsistent with known facts, and throwing no satisfactory light on the complicated transactions in which the writer had been involved.

His efforts to ingratiate himself with the new dynasty in England were unavailing, and from this time onwards to his death he led a life of enforced inactivity. He was for ever debarred from the arena of political strife, and though he incessantly hovered round the outskirts, he was unable to effect an entrance. He plunged deeply into philosophical studies, and would fain have had his friends believe that he had thoroughly and voluntarily resigned himself to a life of studious retirement. He took up his abode at La Source, and in 1720, two years after the death of his first wife, married the Marquise de Yillette, for whom he seems to have had a sincere affection. In 1723, by bribing the duchess of Kendal, a removal of part of his sentence was attained ; he was permitted to return to England, and, by a special bill, passed two years later, was allowed to enjoy his first wife's property. He bought a magnificent estate at Dawley ; and, while keeping up the appearance of single-minded devotion to study, plunged eagerly into as much of political intrigue as was open to him. He had tried in vain to conciliate Walpole, and seems to have seen that during that minister's tenure of power he could never recover his position. He accordingly united himself to the dissatisfied section of the Whigs led by Pulteney, and tried to organize out of them and the remnant of the Tories an opposition to Walpole. His aid was lent not only in preparing speeches for Windham, Pulteney, and others, who for a time were little more than his mouthpieces, but in written attacks upon the minister. His papers in the Craftsman, which gave that journal a circulation exceeding even that of the Spectator, are masterpieces of vigorous English. In their collected form as the Dissertation on Parties and Oldcastle's Remarks on History, they are valuable contributions to our knowledge of the political movements of the period. At one time, indeed, it seemed that the opposition would succeed in driving Walpole from the field. The outcry against his Excise Bill was strong, and his majority in the House was seriously diminished, but he was too firmly rooted to be easily moved; and in 1735 he retaliated on Bolingbroke by a significant and threatening speech. So evident was it that he had obtained an insight into intrigues which could not stand investiga-tion, that Bolingbroke took alarm and a second time fled to France. Other motives, such as pecuniary embarrassments, may have contributed to force him to this step, and there can be little doubt that his reputation was of a nature seriously to damage any party with whom he united. He found that Pulteney was anxious to get rid of him, and felt with some bitterness that, like an old actor, he must retire from the political stage before being hissed off. After this second retreat he settled at Chanteloup, in Touraine, whence he paid two or three visits to England. Finally, in 1743, after the death of his father, he took up bis residence at Battersea, and, finding the new statesmen little disposed to hearken even to his counsels, endeavoured to devote himself entirely to philosophy. He died at Battersea on the 12th December 1751.





Of Bolingbroke as an author but little can be said. The question asked a very few years after his death, "Who now reads Bolingbroke ?" may be put with tenfold significance now. The influence of his writings on English literature has been quite inappreciable, and probably the works of few men of such ability have been so little read. Yet this neglect is in some respects undeserved. His writings may be regarded in two aspects,—as specimens of English prose, and as positive contributions to history, politics, and philosophy. In the latter aspect their worth is indeed small. His historical treatises, while containing much that is of interest and importance, are over-weighted by the constant reference to the peace of Utrecht, the defence of which is almost their sole object. It would be difficult to extract from the Dissertation on Parties, the Idea of a Patriot King, or the Letters on Patriotism anything like a consistent philosophy of government. No one has expounded better than Bolingbroke the fundamental principles of Whig policy, and yet his ideal of a king is a sovereign who, from various qualities, is able to retain nearly absolute power, and to govern without the intervention of party spirit. In philosophy he occupies but a subordinate place in the long line of English writers who drew their inspiration from Locke, and who gave the key-note to the religious enlightenment of the 18th century. He is a deist, and from the basis of the sensational theory of knowledge attacks revealed religion with force quite inferior to Toland or Tindal. Bolingbroke's philosophical works are indeed insufferably wearisome, and it is only in them that his style ever flags and grows cumbersome, for his other writings are in many respects the perfection of English prose style, and can stand comparison even with the finished compositions of Addison. For ease, grace, and oratorical vehemence and energy, the Letter to Sir Wm. Windham and the dedication of the Dissertation on Parties are nearly unsurpassed. Bolingbroke clearly was at his best when roused by strong feeling, and his most vigorous passages are those which would naturally have been spoken. That none of his parliamentary orations have come down to us is matter of deepest regret, even though our estimate of them be lower than Pitt's.

Bolingbroke's works were published in 5 vols. 4to, by David Mallet, 1753-54. Later editions have generally prefixed to them the Life by Goldsmith, a compilation of little value. Two volumes of Correspondence were published by Parke in 1798. Materials for Bolingbroke's life are to be found in the Stuart papers, Marchmont papers, Coxe's Life of Marlborough, Swift's Journal and History of the last Four Years of Queen Anne, Somerville's Queen Anne, and Stanhope's Reign of Queen Anne and History of 'England, particularly vols. i. and ii. Some special information will be found in De Torcy's Mémoires, and Mignet's Négociations relatifs à la Succession d'Espagne. See also G. W. Cooke, Memoirs of Bolingbroke, 2 vols., 1835; Rémusat, Angleterre au XVIII Siècle, vol. i.; Macknight, Life of Bolingbroke, 1863. (R. AD.)




Search the Encyclopedia:



About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Sitemaps
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us



© 2005-16 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries