Harold J. Laski.

Political Thought in England from Locke to Bentham online

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No. 103











It is impossible for me to publish this book without some expression of
the debt it owes to Leslie Stephen's _History of the English Thought in
the Eighteenth Century_. It is almost insolent to praise such work; but
I may be permitted to say that no one can fully appreciate either its
wisdom or its knowledge who has not had to dig among the original texts.

Were so small a volume worthy to bear a dedication, I should associate
it with the name of my friend Walter Lippmann. He and I have so often
discussed the substance of its problems that I am certain a good deal of
what I feel to be my own is, where it has merit, really his. This volume
is thus in great part a tribute to him; though there is little that can
repay such friendship as he gives.


Sept. 15, 1919














The eighteenth century may be said to begin with the Revolution of 1688;
for, with its completion, the dogma of Divine Right disappeared for ever
from English politics. Its place was but partially filled until Hume and
Burke supplied the outlines of a new philosophy. For the observer of
this age can hardly fail, as he notes its relative barrenness of
abstract ideas, to be impressed by the large part Divine Right must have
played in the politics of the succeeding century. Its very absoluteness
made for keen partisanship on the one side and the other. It could
produce at once the longwinded rhapsodies of Filmer and, by repulsion,
the wearisome reiterations of Algernon Sidney. Once the foundations of
Divine Right had been destroyed by Locke, the basis of passionate
controversy was absent. The theory of a social contract never produced
in England the enthusiasm it evoked in France, for the simple reason
that the main objective of Rousseau and his disciples had already been
secured there by other weapons. And this has perhaps given to the
eighteenth century an urbaneness from which its predecessor was largely
free. Sermons are perhaps the best test of such a change; and it is a
relief to move from the addresses bristling with Suarez and Bellarmine
to the noble exhortations of Bishop Butler. Not until the French
Revolution were ultimate dogmas again called into question; and it is
about them only that political speculation provokes deep feeling. The
urbanity, indeed, is not entirely new. The Restoration had heralded its
coming, and the tone of Halifax has more in common with Bolingbroke and
Hume than with Hobbes and Filmer. Nor has the eighteenth century an
historical profundity to compare with that of the zealous pamphleteers
in the seventeenth. Heroic archivists like Prynne find very different
substitutes in brilliant journalists like Defoe, and if Dalrymple and
Blackstone are respectable, they bear no comparison with masters like
Selden and Sir Henry Spelman.

Yet urbanity must not deceive us. The eighteenth century has an
importance in English politics which the comparative absence of
systematic speculation can not conceal. If its large constitutional
outlines had been traced by a preceding age, its administrative detail
had still to be secured. The process was very gradual; and the attempt
of George III to arrest it produced the splendid effort of Edmund Burke.
Locke's work may have been not seldom confused and stumbling; but it
gave to the principle of consent a permanent place in English politics.
It is the age which saw the crystallization of the party-system, and
therein it may perhaps lay claim to have recognized what Bagehot called
the vital principle of representative government. Few discussions of the
sphere of government have been so productive as that in which Adam Smith
gave a new basis to economic science. Few controversies have, despite
its dullness, so carefully investigated the eternal problem of Church
and State as that to which Hoadly's bishopric contributed its name. De
Lolme is the real parent of that interpretative analysis which has, in
Bagehot's hands, become not the least fruitful type of political method.
Blackstone, in a real sense, may be called the ancestor of Professor
Dicey. The very calmness of the atmosphere only the more surely paved
the way for the surprising novelties of Godwin and the revolutionists.

Nor must we neglect the relation between its ethics and its politics.
The eighteenth century school of British moralists has suffered somewhat
beside the greater glories of Berkeley and Hume. Yet it was a great work
to which they bent their effort, and they knew its greatness. The
deistic controversy involved a fresh investigation of the basis of
morals; and it is to the credit of the investigators that they attempted
to provide it in social terms. It is, indeed, one of the primary
characteristics of the British mind to be interested in problems of
conduct rather than of thought. The seventeenth century had, for the
most part, been interested in theology and government; and its
preoccupation, in both domains, with supernatural sanctions, made its
conclusions unfitted for a period dominated by rationalism. Locke
regarded his _Human Understanding_ as the preliminary to an ethical
enquiry; and Hume seems to have considered his _Principles of Morals_
the most vital of his works. It may be true, as the mordant insight of
Mark Pattison suggested, that "those periods in which morals have been
represented as the proper study of man, and his only business, have been
periods of spiritual abasement and poverty." Certainly no one will be
inclined to claim for the eighteenth century the spiritual idealism of
the seventeenth, though Law and Bishop Wilson and the Wesleyan revival
will make us generalize with caution. But the truth was that theological
ethics had become empty and inadequate, and the problem was therefore
urgent. That is why Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Hume and Adam Smith - to take
only men of the first eminence - were thinking not less for politics than
for ethics when they sought to justify the ways of man to man. For all
of them saw that a theory of society is impossible without the provision
of psychological foundations; and those must, above all, result in a
theory of conduct if the social bond is to be maintained. That sure
insight is, of course, one current only in a greater English stream
which reaches back to Hobbes at its source and forward to T.H. Green at
perhaps its fullest. Its value is its denial of politics as a science
distinct from other human relations; and that is why Adam Smith can
write of moral sentiments no less than of the wealth of nations. The
eighteenth century saw clearly that each aspect of social life must find
its place in the political equation.

Yet it is undoubtedly an age of methods rather than of principles; and,
as such its peaceful prosperity was well suited to its questions.
Problems of technique, such as the cabinet and the Bank of England
required the absence of passionate debate if they were in any fruitful
fashion to be solved. Nor must the achievement of the age in politics be
minimized. It was, of course, a complacent time; but we ought to note
that foreigners of distinction did not wonder at its complacency.
Voltaire and Montesquieu look back to England in the eighteenth century
for the substance of political truths. The American colonies took alike
their methods and their arguments from English ancestors; and Burke
provided them with the main elements of justification. The very
quietness, indeed, of the time was the natural outcome of a century of
storm; and England surely had some right to be contented when her
political system was compared with the governments of France and
Germany. Not, indeed, that the full fruit of the Revolution was
gathered. The principle of consent came, in practice and till 1760, to
mean the government of the Whig Oligarchy; and the _Extraordinary Black
Book_ remains to tell us what happened when George III gave the Tory
party a new lease of power. There is throughout the time an
over-emphasis upon the value of order, and a not unnatural tendency to
confound the private good of the governing class with the general
welfare of the state. It became the fixed policy of Walpole to make
prosperity the mask for political stagnation. He turned political debate
from principles to personalities, and a sterile generation was the
outcome of his cunning.

Not that this barrenness is without its compensations. The theories of
the Revolution had exhausted their fruitfulness within a generation. The
constitutional ideas of the seventeenth century had no substance for an
England where Anglicanism and agriculture were beginning to lose the
rigid outlines of overwhelming predominance. What was needed was the
assurance of safety for the Church that her virtue might be tested in
the light of nonconformist practice on the one hand, and the new
rationalism on the other. What was needed also was the expansion of
English commerce into the new channels opened for it by the victories of
Chatham. Mr. Chief Justice Holt had given it the legal categories it
would require; and Hume and Adam Smith were to explain that commerce
might grow with small danger to agricultural prosperity. Beneath the
apparent calm of Walpole's rule new forces were fast stirring. That can
be seen on every side. The sturdy morality of Johnson, the new literary
forms of Richardson and Fielding, the theatre which Garrick founded upon
the ruins produced by Collier's indignation, the revival of which Law
and Wesley are the great symbols, show that the stagnation was sleep
rather than death. The needed events of shock were close at hand. The
people of England would never have discovered the real meaning of 1688
if George III had not denied its principles. When he enforced the
resignation of the elder Pitt the theories at once of Edmund Burke and
English radicalism were born; for the _Present Discontents_ and the
_Society for the Support of the Bill of Rights_ are the dawn of a
splendid recovery. And they made possible the speculative ferment which
showed that England was at last awake to the meaning of Montesquieu and
Rousseau. Just as the shock of the Lancastrian wars produced the Tudor
despotism, so did the turmoil of civil strife produce the complacency of
the eighteenth century. But the peace of the Tudors was the death-bed of
the Stuarts; and it was the stagnant optimism of the early eighteenth
century which made possible the birth of democratic England.

The atmosphere of the time, in fact, is deep-rooted in the conditions of
the past. Locke could not have written had not Hobbes and Filmer
defended in set terms the ideal of despotic government. He announced the
advent of the modern system of parliamentary government; and from his
time the debate has been rather of the conditions under which it is to
work, than of the foundations upon which it is based. Burke, for
example, wrote what constitutes the supreme analysis of the statesman's
art. Adam Smith discussed in what fashion the prosperity of peoples
could be best advanced. From Locke, that is to say, the subject of
discussion is rather _politik_ than _staatslehre_. The great debate
inaugurated by the Reformation ceased when Locke had outlined an
intelligible basis for parliamentary government. Hume, Bolingbroke,
Burke, are all of them concerned with the detail of political
arrangement in a fashion which presupposes the acceptance of a basis
previously known. Burke, indeed, toward the latter part of his life,
awoke to the realization that men were dissatisfied with the traditional
substance of the State. But he met the new desires with hate instead of
understanding, and the Napoleonic wars drove the current of democratic
opinion underground. Hall and Owen and Hodgskin inherited the thoughts
of Ogilvie and Spence and Paine; and if they did not give them
substance, at least they gave them form for a later time.

Nor is the reason for this preoccupation far to seek. The advance of
English politics in the preceding two centuries was mainly an advance of
structure; yet relative at least to continental fact, it appeared
liberal enough to hide the disharmonies of its inner content. The King
was still a mighty influence. The power of the aristocracy was hardly
broken until the Reform Bill of 1867. The Church continued to dominate
the political aspect of English religious life until, after 1832, new
elements alien from her ideals were introduced into the House of
Commons. The conditions of change lay implicit in the Industrial
Revolution, when a new class of men attained control of the nation's
economic power. Only then was a realignment of political forces
essential. Only then, that is to say, had the time arrived for a new
theory of the State.

The political ideas of the eighteenth century are thus in some sort a
comment upon the system established by the Revolution; and that is, in
its turn, the product of the struggle between Parliament and Crown in
the preceding age. But we cannot understand the eighteenth century, or
its theories, unless we realize that its temper was still dominantly
aristocratic. From no accusation were its statesmen more anxious to be
free than from that of a belief in democratic government. Whether Whigs
or Tories were in power, it was always the great families who ruled. For
them the Church, at least in its higher branches, existed; and the
difference between nobleman and commoner at Oxford is as striking as it
is hideous to this generation. For them also literature and the theatre
made their display; and if Dr. Johnson could heap an immortal contumely
upon the name of patron, we all know of the reverence he felt in the
presence of the king. Divine Right and non-resistance were dead, but
they had not died without a struggle. Freedom of the press and legal
equality may have been obtained; but it was not until the passage of
Fox's Libel Act that the first became secure, and Mr. and Mrs. Hammond
have recently illumined for us the inward meaning of the second. The
populace might, on occasion, be strong enough to force the elder Pitt
upon an unwilling king, or to shout for Wilkes and liberty against the
unconstitutional usurpation of the monarch-ridden House of Commons. Such
outbursts are yet the exception to the prevailing temper. The
deliberations of Parliament were still, at least technically, a secret;
and membership therein, save for one or two anomalies like Westminster
and Bristol, was still the private possession of a privileged class. The
Revolution, in fact, meant less an abstract and general freedom, than a
special release from the arbitrary will of a stupid monarch who aroused
against himself every deep-seated prejudice of his generation. The
England which sent James II upon his travels may be, as Hume pointed
out, reduced to a pathetic fragment even of its electorate. The masses
were unknown and undiscovered, or, where they emerged, it was either to
protest against some wise reform like Walpole's Excise Scheme, or to
become, as in Goldsmith and Cowper and Crabbe, the object of
half-pitying poetic sentiment. How deep-rooted was the notion of
aristocratic control was to be shown when France turned into substantial
fact Rousseau's demand for freedom. The protest of Burke against its
supposed anarchy swept England like a flame; and only a courageous
handful could be found to protest against Pitt's prostitution of her

Such an age could make but little pretence to discovery; and, indeed, it
is most largely absent from its speculation. In its political ideas this
is necessarily and especially the case. For the State is at no time an
unchanging organization; it reflects with singular exactness the
dominating ideas of its environment. That division into government and
subjects which is its main characteristic is here noteworthy for the
narrowness of the class from which the government is derived, and the
consistent inertia of those over whom it rules. There is curiously
little controversy over the seat of sovereign power. That is with most
men acknowledged to reside in the king in Parliament. What balance of
forces is necessary to its most perfect equilibrium may arouse
dissension when George III forgets the result of half a century's
evolution. Junius may have to explain in invective what Burke
magistrally demonstrated in terms of political philosophy. But the
deeper problems of the state lay hidden until Bentham and the
revolutionists came to insist upon their presence. That did not mean
that the eighteenth century was a soulless failure. Rather did it mean
that a period of transition had been successfully bridged. The stage was
set for a new effort simply because the theories of the older philosophy
no longer represented the facts at issue.

It was thus Locke only in this period who confronted the general
problems of the modern State. Other thinkers assumed his structure and
dealt with the details he left undetermined. The main problems, the
Church apart, arose when a foreigner occupied the English throne and
left the methods of government to those who were acquainted with them.
That most happy of all the happy accidents in English history made
Walpole the fundamental statesman of the time. He used his opportunity
to the full. Inheriting the possibilities of the cabinet system he gave
it its modern expression by creating the office of Prime Minister. The
party-system was already inevitable; and with his advent to full power
in 1727 we have the characteristic outlines of English representative
government. Thenceforward, there are, on the whole, but three large
questions with which the age concerned itself. Toleration had already
been won by the persistent necessities of two generations, and the noble
determination of William III; but the place of the Church in the
Revolution State and the nature of that State were still undetermined.
Hoadly had one solution, Law another; and the genial rationalism of the
time, coupled with the political affiliations of the High Church party,
combined to give Hoadly the victory; but his opponents, and Law
especially, remained to be the parents of a movement for ecclesiastical
freedom of which it has been the good fortune of Oxford to supply in
each succeeding century the leaders. America presented again the problem
of consent in the special perspective of the imperial relation; and the
decision which grew out of the blundering obscurantism of the King
enabled Burke nobly to restate and amply to revivify the principles of
1688. Chatham meanwhile had stumbled upon a vaster empire; and the
industrial system which his effort quickened could not live under an
economic régime which still bore traces of the narrow nationalism of the
Tudors. No man was so emphatically representative of his epoch as Adam
Smith; and no thinker has ever stated in such generous terms the answer
of his time to the most vital of its questions. The answer, indeed, like
all good answers, revealed rather the difficulty of the problem than the
prospect of its solution; though nothing so clearly heralded the new age
that was coming than his repudiation of the past in terms of a real
appreciation of it. The American War and the two great revolutions
brought a new race of thinkers into being. The French seed at last
produced its harvest. Bentham absorbed the purpose of Rousseau even
while he rejected his methods. For a time, indeed, the heat and dust of
war obscured the issue that Bentham raised. But the certainties of the
future lay on his side.




The English Revolution was in the main a protest against the attempt of
James II to establish a despotism in alliance with France and Rome. It
was almost entirely a movement of the aristocracy, and, for the most
part, it was aristocratic opposition that it encountered. What it did
was to make for ever impossible the thought of reunion with Rome and the
theory that the throne could be established on any other basis than the
consent of Parliament. For no one could pretend that William of Orange
ruled by Divine Right. The scrupulous shrank from proclaiming the
deposition of James; and the fiction that he had abdicated was not
calculated to deceive even the warmest of William's adherents. An
unconstitutional Parliament thereupon declared the throne vacant; and
after much negotiation William and Mary were invited to occupy it. To
William the invitation was irresistible. It gave him the assistance of
the first maritime power in Europe against the imperialism of Louis XIV.
It ensured the survival of Protestantism against the encroachments of an
enemy who never slumbered. Nor did England find the new régime
unwelcome. Every widespread conviction of her people had been wantonly
outraged by the blundering stupidity of James. If a large fraction of
the English Church held aloof from the new order on technical grounds,
the commercial classes gave it their warm support; and many who doubted
in theory submitted in practice. All at least were conscious that a new
era had dawned.

For William had come over with a definite purpose in view. James had
wrought havoc with what the Civil Wars had made the essence of the
English constitution; and it had become important to define in set terms
the conditions upon which the life of kings must in the future be
regulated. The reign of William is nothing so much as the period of that
definition; and the fortunate discovery was made of the mechanisms
whereby its translation into practice might be secured. The Bill of
Rights (1689) and the Act of Settlement (1701) are the foundation-stones
of the modern constitutional system.

What, broadly, was established was the dependence of the crown upon
Parliament. Finance and the army were brought under Parliamentary
control by the simple expedient of making its annual summons essential.
The right of petition was re-affirmed; and the independence of the
judges and ministerial responsibility were secured by the same act which
forever excluded the legitimate heirs from their royal inheritance. It
is difficult not to be amazed at the almost casual fashion in which so
striking a revolution was effected. Not, indeed, that the solution
worked easily at the outset. William remained to the end a foreigner,
who could not understand the inwardness of English politics. It was the
necessities of foreign policy which drove him to admit the immense
possibilities of the party-system as also to accept his own best
safeguard in the foundation of the Bank of England. The Cabinet,
towards the close of his reign, had already become the fundamental
administrative instrument. Originally a committee of the Privy Council,
it had no party basis until the ingenious Sunderland atoned for a score
of dishonesties by insisting that the root of its efficiency would be
found in its selection from a single party. William acquiesced but
doubtfully; for, until the end of his life, he never understood why his
ministers should not be a group of able counsellors chosen without
reference to their political affiliations. Sunderland knew better for
the simple reason that he belonged to that period when the Whigs and
Tories had gambled against each other for their heads. He knew that no
council-board could with comfort contain both himself and Halifax; just
as William himself was to learn quite early that neither honor nor
confidence could win unswerving support from John Churchill. There is a
certain feverishness in the atmosphere of the reign which shows how many

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Online LibraryHarold J. LaskiPolitical Thought in England from Locke to Bentham → online text (page 1 of 15)