The political theory and practice of the English Commonwealthsmen, 1695-1725
No-one could claim that the English Commonwealthsmen have been ignored by historians. John Toland, Robert Molesworth, the third earl of Shaftesbury, Matthew Tindal, John Trenchard, and Charles Davenant- to name the most prominent of them- have attracted a good deal of attention for their religious and political writings; the most important of these are well known to all serious students of the early 18th century. But, despite all this attention, few writers on politics have been more widely misinterpreted than this group. The traditional view is that these men were radicals, intent on subversion of the constitutional settlement of 1689 and its replacement by a republic. Such allegations can be found in the work of contemporaries as diverse as Defoe and Charles Leslie, and it has been restated in a modified form in the fullest existing work on the subject, Caroline Robbins' The Eighteenth Century Gommonwealthman (1959). In this thesis I have re-assessed these judgments on the basis of a more thorough examination of the Commonwealthsmen's writings than has previously been attempted. Although most of the evidence has come from their large corpus of books and pamphlets, I have also used important manuscript collections in London, Oxford, and America. My conclusion is that to portray the Commonwealthsmen as radicals is to misinterpret them grossly: they were men of their age, and the age was not sympathetic to radicalism. The misunderstanding has arisen for three principal reasons: firstly, the term Commonwealthsman- which these writers did not consistently apply to themselves- had fortuitous associations with the Rump; secondly, their heterodox religious opinions- with which this thesis is only incidentally concerned- made them many clerical enemies who attempted to blacken their reputations by presenting them as political subversives; and thirdly, some of them showed an interest in the work of such republicans as Machiavelli, Milton, and Harrington. After attempting to clear up these sources of confusion, I have given a brief account of who the Commonwealthsmen were, with particular emphasis on the questions of how they came to know each other and how close their links were. Few definite answers emerge, but there are some interesting indications: for instance, the hitherto unexplored role of Locke's 'College' in the origins of the group. Much of the thesis is concerned to put the Commonwealthsmen and their ideas into their political context: it shows that, so far from being republicans, they subscribed to the dominant view that the best constitution involved a balance between the one, the few, and the many, and that the English constitution was admirable because it depended on this principle. Their perception of the threats to which the constitution was subjected in their own time, which largely arose from the financial and military power of the monarchy, led them- as historians like Kramnick and Pocock have already noted- into sympathy with the ideals of the Country Party. Too often dismissed as anachronistic, these ideals and the ways in which they could be defended supplied some of the most important topics for political debate in Augustan England, and the Commonwealthsmen made a notable contribution to these arguments. I hope, therefore, that my conclusions will add- a little momentum to the already discernible reaction against the tendency to view the politics of the time purely as a two-party system. Yet, although the most famous and substantial political works of the Commonwealthsmen- Cato's Letters, the Account of Denmark, the Art of Governing by Partys, for instance- are strongly redolent of Country ideals, the matter cannot be left here. As soon as attention is directed to their more ephemeral works, or to their correspondence, it becomes clear that many of them both actively sought offices of various kinds (despite the traditional 'Country' distrust of placemen) and were heavily involved as Whigs in the struggle between the two great political parties. They had many connections among the most powerful politicians in the land: Sunderland, Godolphin, and Harley in particular play important parts in the manoeuvres which are reconstructed here. If- as I argue- the Commonwealthsmen were not merely opportunists, planning their courses with the sole view of maximising their chances of patronage, the question arises: what induced them at different times to play up their Whig credentials and to denounce all parties on principle in the approved 'Country' manner? The answer seems to lie in their fear of Jacobitism and of French power: the two were of course closely connected. When the internal and external threats to the achievements of 1689 seemed greatest, the Commonwealthsmen called for Whig solidarity since the Whigs were ultimately, in their view, the party of the Revolution. But when this danger was less urgent, they could focus attention on the corruption which had been left untouched by the Revolution, and in which the Whig grandees were as much involved as anyone. These problems are dealt with in the early chapters of the thesis, and they form its centrepiece. Other chapters explore different aspects of the political careers of the Commonwealthsmen, but they are also intended to reinforce the main conclusions of the work. One section discusses the anticlericalism which is such a striking feature of their writings, and it argues that this was not the manifestation of any deeply-laid plan to secularise society, but rather a natural reaction to the strength of the High Church party and its tendency to Jacobitism. Three areas in which the Commonwealthsmen were particularly interested- and in which their activities have hitherto been virtually ignored- are dealt with in separate chapters: foreign affairs, Ireland, and the financial politics of the City of London. All exhibit that combination of public and private interest, of bitter partisanship and of lofty contempt for party, which are so characteristic both of the Commonwealthsmen and of early eighteenth century politics as a whole. Another chapter analyses the social ideas of the Commonwealthsmen: it confirms the conclusion that, far from being proto-democratic radicals, they were thoroughly typical of their period in their respect for hierarchy and property. The last chapter surveys the intellectual influences on the Commonwealthsmen, who were uniformly well-read. Here I contend that it would be a mistake to read too much into their interest in Harrington, Milton, Spinoza, or Hobbes, for some of these authors were less of an influence, others more respectable, than has often been thought. If there was one thinker who moulded the Commonwealthsmen's outlooks more than any other, it was John Locke: yet in important respects they were less adventurous than him. All this may seem very negative: the Commonwealthsmen, who appeared to be so distinctive, have been placed in the mainstream of Augustan politics. Yet this has the advantage of making a study of them a kind of political anatomy of their time in microcosm. For this reason, if the Commonwealthsmen seem less exceptional than they did, this need not, I hope, make them less interesting.