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extreme Tories, with whom he had been acting, overbore his moderate
intentions. They threatened to desert him unless he broke clearly and
definitely with the Whigs. In October accordingly the Whigs were all
turned out of the Administration, Tories put in their places, Parliament
dissolved, and writs issued for new elections. "So sudden and entire a
change of the Ministry," Bishop Burnet remarks, "is scarce to be found
in our history, especially where men of great abilities had served both
with zeal and success." That the Queen should dismiss one or all of her
Ministers in the face of a Parliamentary majority excited no surprise;
but that the whole Administration should be changed at a stroke from one
party to the other was a new and strange thing. The old Earl of
Sunderland's suggestion to William III. had not taken root in
constitutional practice; this was the fulfilment of it under the gradual
pressure of circumstances.

Defoe's conduct while the political balance was rocking, and after the
Whig side had decisively kicked the beam, is a curious study. One
hardly knows which to admire most, the loyalty with which he stuck to
the falling house till the moment of its collapse, or the adroitness
with which he escaped from the ruins. Censure of his shiftiness is
partly disarmed by the fact that there were so many in that troubled and
uncertain time who would have acted like him if they had had the skill.
Besides, he acted so steadily and with such sleepless vigilance and
energy on the principle that the appearance of honesty is the best
policy, that at this distance of time it is not easy to catch him
tripping, and if we refuse to be guided by the opinion of his
contemporaries, we almost inevitably fall victims to his incomparable
plausibility. Deviations in his political writings from the course of
the honest patriot are almost as difficult to detect as flaws in the
verisimilitude of _Robinson Crusoe_ or the _Journal of the Plague_.

During the two months' interval between the substitution of Dartmouth
for Sunderland and the fall of Godolphin, Defoe used all his powers of
eloquence and argument to avert the threatened changes in the Ministry,
and keep the Tories out. He had a personal motive for this, he
confessed. "My own share in the ravages they shall make upon our
liberties is like to be as severe as any man's, from the rage and fury
of a party who are in themselves implacable, and whom God has not been
pleased to bless me with a talent to flatter and submit to." Of the
dismissed minister Sunderland, with whom Defoe had been in personal
relations during the negotiations for the Union, he spoke in terms of
the warmest praise, always with a formal profession of not challenging
the Queen's judgment in discharging her servant. "My Lord Sunderland,"
he said, "leaves the Ministry with the most unblemished character that
ever I read of any statesman in the world." "I am making no court to my
Lord Sunderland. The unpolished author of this paper never had the
talent of making his court to the great men of the age." But where is
the objection against his conduct? Not a dog of the party can bark
against him. "They cannot show me a man of their party that ever did act
like him, or of whom they can say we should believe he would if he had
the opportunity." The Tories were clamouring for the dismissal of all
the other Whigs. High-Church addresses to the Queen were pouring in,
claiming to represent the sense of the nation, and hinting an absolute
want of confidence in the Administration. Defoe examined the conduct of
the ministers severally and collectively, and demanded where was the
charge against them, where the complaint, where the treasure misapplied?

As for the sense of the nation, there was one sure way of testing this
better than any got-up addresses, namely, the rise or fall of the public
credit. The public stocks fell immediately on the news of Sunderland's
dismissal, and were only partially revived upon Her Majesty's assurance
to the Directors of the Bank that she meant to keep the Ministry
otherwise unchanged. A rumour that Parliament was to be dissolved had
sent them down again. If the public credit is thus affected by the mere
apprehension of a turn of affairs in England, Defoe said, the thing
itself will be a fatal blow to it. The coy Lady Credit had been wavering
in her attachment to England; any sudden change would fright her away
altogether. As for the pooh-pooh cry of the Tories that the national
credit was of no consequence, that a nation could not be in debt to
itself, and that their moneyed men would come forward with nineteen
shillings in the pound for the support of the war, Defoe treated this
claptrap with proper ridicule.

But in spite of all Defoe's efforts, the crash came. On the 10th of
August the Queen sent to Godolphin for the Treasurer's staff, and Harley
became her Prime Minister. How did Defoe behave then? The first two
numbers of the _Review_ after the Lord Treasurer's fall are among the
most masterly of his writings. He was not a small, mean, timid
time-server and turncoat. He faced about with bold and steady caution,
on the alert to give the lie to anybody who dared to accuse him of
facing about at all. He frankly admitted that he was in a quandary what
to say about the change that had taken place. "If a man could be found
that could sail north and south, that could speak truth and falsehood,
that could turn to the right hand and the left, all at the same time, he
would be the man, he would be the only proper person that should now
speak." Of one thing only he was certain. "We are sure honest men go
out." As for their successors, "it is our business to hope, and time
must answer for those that come in. If Tories, if Jacobites, if
High-fliers, if madmen of any kind are to come in, I am against them; I
ask them no favour, I make no court to them, nor am I going about to
please them." But the question was, what was to be done in the
circumstances? Defoe stated plainly two courses, with their respective
dangers. To cry out about the new Ministry was to ruin public credit. To
profess cheerfulness was to encourage the change and strengthen the
hands of those that desired to push it farther. On the whole, for
himself he considered the first danger the most to be dreaded of the
two. Therefore he announced his intention of devoting his whole energy
to maintaining the public credit, and advised all true Whigs to do
likewise. "Though I don't like the crew, I won't sink the ship. I'll do
my best to save the ship. I'll pump and heave and haul, and do anything
I can, though he that pulls with me were my enemy. The reason is plain.
We are all in the ship, and must sink or swim together."

What could be more plausible? What conduct more truly patriotic? Indeed,
it would be difficult to find fault with Defoe's behaviour, were it not
for the rogue's protestations of inability to court the favour of great
men, and his own subsequent confessions in his _Appeal to Honour and
Justice_, as to what took place behind the scenes. Immediately on the
turn of affairs he took steps to secure that connexion with the
Government, the existence of which he was always denying. The day after
Godolphin's displacement, he tells us, he waited on him, and "humbly
asked his lordship's direction what course he should take." Godolphin at
once assured him, in very much the same words that Harley had used
before, that the change need make no difference to him; he was the
Queen's servant, and all that had been done for him was by Her Majesty's
special and particular direction; his business was to wait till he saw
things settled, and then apply himself to the Ministers of State to
receive Her Majesty's commands from them. Thereupon Defoe resolved to
guide himself by the following principle: -

"It occurred to me immediately, as a principle for my conduct,
that it was not material to me what ministers Her Majesty
was pleased to employ; my duty was to go along with
every Ministry, so far as they did not break in upon the Constitution,
and the laws and liberties of my country; my part
being only the duty of a subject, viz., to submit to all lawful
commands, and to enter into no service which was not justifiable
by the laws; to all which I have exactly obliged myself."

Defoe was thus, as he says, providentially cast back upon his original
benefactor. That he received any consideration, pension, gratification,
or reward for his services to Harley, "except that old appointment which
Her Majesty was pleased to make him," he strenuously denied. The denial
is possibly true, and it is extremely probable that he was within the
truth when he protested in the most solemn manner that he had never
"received any instructions, directions, orders, or let them call it what
they will, of that kind, for the writing of any part of what he had
written, or any materials for the putting together, for the forming any
book or pamphlet whatsoever, from the said Earl of Oxford, late Lord
Treasurer, or from any person by his order or direction, since the time
that the late Earl of Godolphin was Lord Treasurer." Defoe declared that
"in all his writing, he ever capitulated for his liberty to speak
according to his own judgment of things," and we may easily believe him.
He was much too clever a servant to need instructions.

His secret services to Harley in the new elections are probably buried
in oblivion. In the _Review_ he pursued a strain which to the reader who
does not take his articles in connexion with the politics of the time,
might appear to be thoroughly consistent with his advice to the electors
on previous occasions. He meant to confine himself, he said at starting,
rather to the manner of choosing than to the persons to be chosen, and
he never denounced bribery, intimidation, rioting, rabbling, and every
form of interference with the electors' freedom of choice, in more
energetic language. As regarded the persons to be chosen, his advice was
as before, to choose moderate men - men of sense and temper, not men of
fire and fury. But he no longer asserted, as he had done before, the
exclusive possession of good qualities by the Whigs. He now recognised
that there were hot Whigs as well as moderate Whigs, moderate Tories as
well as hot Tories. It was for the nation to avoid both extremes and
rally round the men of moderation, whether Whig or Tory. "If we have a
Tory High-flying Parliament, we Tories are undone. If we have a hot Whig
Parliament, we Whigs are undone."

The terms of Defoe's advice were unexceptionable, but the Whigs
perceived a change from the time when he declared that if ever we have a
Tory Parliament the nation is undone. It was as if a Republican writer,
after the _coup d'état_ of the 16th May, 1877, had warned the French
against electing extreme Republicans, and had echoed the
Marshal-President's advice to give their votes to moderate men of all
parties. Defoe did not increase the conviction of his party loyalty when
a Tory Parliament was returned, by trying to prove that whatever the new
members might call themselves, they must inevitably be Whigs. He
admitted in the most unqualified way that the elections had been
disgracefully riotous and disorderly, and lectured the constituencies
freely on their conduct. "It is not," he said, "a Free Parliament that
you have chosen. You have met, mobbed, rabbled, and thrown dirt at one
another, but election by mob is no more free election than Oliver's
election by a standing army. Parliaments and rabbles are contrary
things." Yet he had hopes of the gentlemen who had been thus chosen.

"I have it upon many good grounds, as I think I told you,
that there are some people who are shortly to come together,
of whose character, let the people that send them up think
what they will, when they come thither they will not run the
mad length that is expected of them; they will act upon the
Revolution principle, keep within the circle of the law, proceed
with temper, moderation, and justice, to support the
same interest we have all carried on - and this I call being
Whiggish, or acting as Whigs."

"I shall not trouble you with further examining why they will be so, or
why they will act thus; I think it is so plain from the necessity of the
Constitution and the circumstances of things before them, that it needs
no further demonstration - they will be Whigs, they must be Whigs; there
is no remedy, for the Constitution is a Whig."

The new members of Parliament must either be Whigs or traitors, for
everybody who favours the Protestant succession is a Whig, and everybody
who does not is a traitor. Defoe used the same ingenuity in playing upon
words in his arguments in support of the public credit. Every true Whig,
he argued, in the _Review_ and in separate essays, was bound to uphold
the public credit, for to permit it to be impaired was the surest way to
let in the Pretender. The Whigs were accused of withdrawing their money
from the public stocks, to mark their distrust of the Government.
"Nonsense!" Defoe said, "in that case they would not be Whigs."
Naturally enough, as the _Review_ now practically supported a Ministry
in which extreme Tories had the predominance, he was upbraided for
having gone over to that party. "Why, gentlemen," he retorted, "it
would be more natural for you to think I am turned Turk than High-flier;
and to make me a Mahometan would not be half so ridiculous as to make me
say the Whigs are running down credit, when, on the contrary, I am still
satisfied if there were no Whigs at this time, there would hardly be any
such thing as credit left among us." "If the credit of the nation is to
be maintained, we must all act as Whigs, because credit can be
maintained upon no other foot. Had the doctrine of non-resistance of
tyranny been voted, had the Prerogative been exalted above the Law, and
property subjected to absolute will, would Parliament have voted the
funds? Credit supposes Whigs lending and a Whig Government borrowing. It
is nonsense to talk of credit and passive submission."

Had Defoe confined himself to lecturing those hot Whigs who were so
afraid of the secret Jacobitism of Harley's colleagues that they were
tempted to withdraw their money from the public stocks, posterity,
unable to judge how far these fears were justified, and how far it was
due to a happy accident that they were not realized, might have given
him credit for sacrificing partisanship to patriotism. This plea could
hardly be used for another matter in which, with every show of
reasonable fairness, he gave a virtual support to the Ministry. We have
seen how he spoke of Marlborough, and Godolphin's management of the army
and the finances when the Whigs were in office. When the Tories came in,
they at once set about redeeming their pledges to inquire into the
malversation of their predecessors. Concerning this proceeding, Defoe
spoke with an approval which, though necessarily guarded in view of his
former professions of extreme satisfaction, was none the less calculated
to recommend.

"Inquiry into miscarriages in things so famous and so
fatal as war and battle is a thing so popular that no man
can argue against it; and had we paid well, and hanged
well, much sooner, as some men had not been less in a condition
to mistake, so some others might not have been here
to find fault. But it is better late than never; when the inquiry
is set about heartily, it may be useful on several accounts,
both to unravel past errors and to prevent new. For
my part, as we have for many years past groaned for want
of justice upon wilful mistakes, yet, in hopes some of the careful
and mischievous designing gentlemen may come in for a
share, I am glad the work is begun."

With equal good humour and skill in leaving open a double
interpretation, he commented on the fact that the new Parliament did
not, as had been customary, give a formal vote of thanks to Marlborough
for his conduct of his last campaign.

"We have had a mighty pother here in print about rewarding
of generals. Some think great men too much rewarded,
and some think them too little rewarded. The case
is so nice, neither side will bear me to speak my mind; but
I am persuaded of this, that there is no general has or ever
will merit great things of us, but he has received and will
receive all the grateful acknowledgments he OUGHT to expect."

But his readers would complain that he had not defined the word "ought."
That, he said, with audacious pleasantry, he left to them. And while
they were on the subject of mismanagement, he would give them a word of
advice which he had often given them before. "While you bite and devour
one another, you are all mismanagers. Put an end to your factions, your
tumults, your rabbles, or you will not be able to make war upon
anybody." Previously, however, his way of making peace at home was to
denounce the High-fliers. He was still pursuing the same object, though
by a different course, now that the leaders of the High-fliers were in
office, when he declared that "those Whigs who say that the new Ministry
is entirely composed of Tories and High-fliers are fool-Whigs." The
remark was no doubt perfectly true, but yet if Defoe had been thoroughly
consistent he ought at least, instead of supporting the Ministry on
account of the small moderate element it contained, to have urged its
purification from dangerous ingredients.

This, however, it must be admitted, he also did, though indirectly and
at a somewhat later stage, when Harley's tenure of the Premiership was
menaced by High-fliers who thought him much too lukewarm a leader. A
"cave," the famous October Club, was formed in the autumn of 1711, to
urge more extreme measures upon the ministry against Whig officials, and
to organize a High-Church agitation throughout the country. It consisted
chiefly of country squires, who wished to see members of the late
Ministry impeached, and the Duke of Marlborough dismissed from the
command of the army. At Harley's instigation Swift wrote an "advice" to
these hot partisans, beseeching them to have patience and trust the
Ministry, and everything that they wished would happen in due time.
Defoe sought to break their ranks by a direct onslaught in his most
vigorous style, denouncing them in the _Review_ as Jacobites in disguise
and an illicit importation from France, and writing their "secret
history," "with some friendly characters of the illustrious members of
that honourable society" in two separate tracts. This skirmish served
the double purpose of strengthening Harley against the reckless zealots
of his party, and keeping up Defoe's appearance of impartiality.
Throughout the fierce struggle of parties, never so intense in any
period of our history as during those years when the Constitution itself
hung in the balance, it was as a True-born Englishman first and a Whig
and Dissenter afterwards, that Defoe gave his support to the Tory
Ministry. It may not have been his fault; he may have been most unjustly
suspected; but nobody at the time would believe his protestations of
independence. When his former High-flying persecutor, the Earl of
Nottingham, went over to the Whigs, and with their acquiescence, or at
least without their active opposition, introduced another Bill to put
down Occasional Conformity, Defoe wrote trenchantly against it. But even
then the Dissenters, as he loudly lamented, repudiated his alliance. The
Whigs were not so much pleased on this occasion with his denunciations
of the persecuting spirit of the High-Churchmen, as they were enraged by
his stinging taunts levelled at themselves for abandoning the Dissenters
to their persecutors. The Dissenters must now see, Defoe said, that they
would not be any better off under a Low-Church ministry than under a
High-Church ministry. But the Dissenters, considering that the Whigs
were too much in a minority to prevent the passing of the Bill, however
willing to do so, would only see in their professed champion an artful
supporter of the men in power.

A curious instance has been preserved of the estimate of Defoe's
character at this time.[2] M. Mesnager, an agent sent by the French King
to sound the Ministry and the country as to terms of peace, wanted an
able pamphleteer to promote the French interest. The Swedish Resident
recommended Defoe, who had just issued a tract, entitled _Reasons why
this Nation ought to put an end to this expensive War_. Mesnager was
delighted with the tract, at once had it translated into French and
circulated through the Netherlands, employed the Swede to treat with
Defoe, and sent him a hundred pistoles by way of earnest. Defoe kept the
pistoles, but told the Queen, M. Mesnager recording that though "he
missed his aim in this person, the money perhaps was not wholly lost;
for I afterwards understood that the man was in the service of the
state, and that he had let the Queen know of the hundred pistoles he had
received; so I was obliged to sit still, and be very well satisfied that
I had not discovered myself to him, for it was not our season yet." The
anecdote at once shows the general opinion entertained of Defoe, and the
fact that he was less corruptible than was supposed. There can be little
doubt that our astute intriguer would have outwitted the French emissary
if he had not been warned in time, pocketed his bribes, and wormed his
secrets out of him for the information of the Government.

[Footnote 2: I doubt whether it adds to the credibility of the story in
all points that the minutes of M. Mesnager's Negotiations were
"translated," and probably composed by Defoe himself. See p. 136.]

During Godolphin's Ministry, Defoe's cue had been to reason with the
nation against too impatient a longing for peace. Let us have peace by
all means, had been his text, but not till honourable terms have been
secured, and mean-time the war is going on as prosperously as any but
madmen can desire. He repeatedly challenged adversaries who compared
what he wrote then with what he wrote under the new Ministry, to prove
him guilty of inconsistency. He stood on safe ground when he made this
challenge, for circumstances had changed sufficiently to justify any
change of opinion. The plans of the Confederates were disarranged by the
death of the Emperor, and the accession of his brother, the Archduke
Charles, to the vacant crown. To give the crown of Spain in these new
circumstances to the Archduke, as had been the object of the Allies when
they began the war, would have been as dangerous to the balance of power
as to let Spain pass to Louis's grandson, Philip of Anjou. It would be
more dangerous, Defoe argued; and by far the safest course would be to
give Spain to Philip and his posterity, who "would be as much Spaniards
in a very short time, as ever Philip II. was or any of his other
predecessors." This was the main argument which had been used in the
latter days of King William against going to war at all, and Defoe had
then refuted it scornfully; but circumstances had changed, and he not
only adopted it, but also issued an essay "proving that it was always
the sense both of King William and of all the Confederates, and even of
the Grand Alliance itself, that the Spanish monarchy should never be
united in the person of the Emperor." Partition the Spanish dominions in
Europe between France and Germany, and the West Indies between England
and Holland - such was Defoe's idea of a proper basis of peace.

But while Defoe expounded in various forms the conditions of a good
peace, he devoted his main energy to proving that peace under some
conditions was a necessity. He dilated on the enormous expense of the
war, and showed by convincing examples that it was ruining the trade of
the country. Much that he said was perfectly true, but if he had taken
M. Mesnager's bribes and loyally carried out his instructions, he could
not more effectually have served the French King's interests than by
writing as he did at that juncture. The proclaimed necessity under which
England lay to make peace, offered Louis an advantage which he was not
slow to take. The proposals which he made at the Congress of Utrecht,
and which he had ascertained would be accepted by the English Ministry
and the Queen, were not unjustly characterised by the indignant Whigs as
being such as he might have made at the close of a successful war. The
territorial concessions to England and Holland were insignificant; the
States were to have the right of garrisoning certain barrier towns in

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Online LibraryWilliam MintoDaniel Defoe → online text (page 7 of 13)