They were many and diverse. One group, still Jacobite, plotted with the Old Pretender, and would soon thrill with the romance of young Bonnie Prince Charlie. One coterie danced around Frederick Louis, Prince of Wales, foe and heir to the King. Against the minister were the greatest English writers of the age—Swift, Pope, Fielding, Arbuthnot, Thomson, Akenside, Gay; they ridiculed his manners, exposed his morals, censured his policies, and reproached him for discontinuing that lavish aid to authors which had distinguished the government under William III and Queen Anne. The Tories, thirsting for the ichor of office, pulled strings, manipulated poets, and roused the winds of Parliament in their resolve to replace the ministerial Falstaff at the national trough. William Pulteney, Chesterfield, and the upcoming Pitt voiced their cause, and Bolingbroke defended it unrelentingly with his lethal pen.
Bolingbroke had received a royal pardon in 1723, allowing his return to England and his estates; but, by Walpole’s influence, he was excluded from office and Parliament as a man of many treasons and dubious fidelity. He remained a power none the less. In his town house the intelligentsia of England gathered, fascinated by his handsome figure, his sophisticated wit, and the aura of his name. There and in his country home he traded barbs with Swift, heresies with Pope, and ballads with Gay; there he labored to weld hungry Tories and inadequately lubricated Whigs into a united opposition to Walpole; there he organized the staff and program of a magazine—called at first (1726) The Country Gentleman and then The Craftsman— which struck a blow, week after week for ten years, at everything that Walpole did or proposed to do. Bolingbroke himself wrote the most damaging articles, the most brilliant political prose of the age after the decline of Swift. A series of nineteen letters (1733–34)—! A Dissertation upon Parties—wasmockingly dedicated to Walpole. “Till I read [them],” Chesterfield wrote to his son, “I did not know all the extent and power of the English language.”36
Bolingbroke’s character was his defeat. His fine manners (which were his only code of morals) left him when his will was thwarted or his opinions were crossed. In June, 1735, he quarreled with Pulteney, nominal leader of the opposition, and returned in anger to France. There he settled with his Marquise near Fontainebleau, and salved his wounds with philosophy. His Letters on the Study and Use of History (written in 1735) described history as a vast laboratory in which events have made countless experiments with men, economics, and states; hence it is the best guide to the nature of man, and therefore to the interpretation of the present and the anticipation of the future. “History is philosophy teaching by examples.… We see men at their whole length in history.”37 We should “apply ourselves to it in a philosophical spirit,” aiming not merely to comprehend causes, effects, and uniform sequences, but to conduct ourselves in ways that have heretofore proved most propitious to human development and happiness.38 The difficulty in such studies is that “there are few histories without lies, and none without some mistakes.… The lying spirit has gone forth from ecclesiastical to other historians”;39 but the resolute student, by confronting liar with liar, may wriggle his way between them to the truth.
In 1736 Bolingbroke returned to the arena of politics with Letters on the Spirit of Patriotism, which attacked the corruption of Walpole’s administration, and called for a new spirit of selfless devotion in English politics.
Neither Montaigne in writing his Essays, nor Des Cartes in building new worlds, nor … Newton in discovering and establishing the true laws of nature on experiment and a sublime geometry, felt more intellectual joys than he feels who is a real patriot, who bends all the force of his understanding, and directs all his thoughts and actions, to the good of his country.40
His hope turned to the younger generation. Visiting England in 1738, he cultivated the friendship of Frederick Louis, Prince of Wales, who was now leading the opposition to Walpole. To Frederick’s private secretary Bolingbroke now addressed his most famous production, The Idea of a Patriot King. Frederick died in 1751, but his son, the future George III, derived from these pages some articles of his political creed.41 Essentially the essay was a plea for a benevolent monarchy, such as Voltaire and the philosopheswere to dream of in the next generation. England—Bolingbroke argued—was now so debased that no one could save it except a king who should rise above faction and party, even above Parliament, take power into his own hands, repel and punish bribery, and rule as well as reign. But the patriot king would view his power not as a divine right but as a public trust, not as absolute but as limited by natural law, the liberties of his subjects, the freedom of the press, and the customs of the realm: and he would judge all issues according as they affected the prosperity and happiness of the people.42 He would promote commerce as the chief source of a nation’s wealth. He would, in Britain, strengthen the navy as the guardian of national independence and of the Continental balance of power.
The Idea of a Patriot King was an attempt to build, with displaced Tories and discontented Whigs, a new party of Tories dressed in Whig principles, renouncing Jacobitism, and seeking to reconcile land with commerce, empire with liberty, public service with private wealth.I When the essay was published (1749) it became the rallying cry of young enthusiasts who, as “the King’s Friends,” looked to the monarchy to cleanse the government of England. It formed the political philosophy of Samuel Johnson and both the elder and the younger Pitt. It inspired the liberal conservatism of Benjamin Disraeli, whose Vindication of the English Constitution (1835) hailed Bolingbroke as the father of Tory democracy, as the man whose “complete reorganization of the public mind laid the foundation for the future accession of the Tory party to power.”44 It was the Bolingbroke and Disraeli influence that remolded the defeated Tories into the progressive “Conservatives” of England today.