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He and the king had now to meet the due punishment of their conduct, the just consequences of their conspiracies against the laws and constitution of their country; and their perplexities and anxieties can be no proper subject of the slightest sympathy or compassion.
But questions like those comprehended in the Exclusion Bill (whether the regular and presumptive heir shall or shall not ascend the throne), must always be considered as the greatest calamities that can befall a nation; and their very agitation is a complete proof of criminality having existed somewhere, either in those who have administered the government, or in those who are opposed to them, and generally in the former.
Nothing can be more easy, and nothing can be more true, than to say, that all government being intended for the good of the whole, the community have a right to deviate from the line of succession when the presumptive heir is a just subject of their apprehension. But what, in the mean time, are to be the sentiments of the existing government and of that presumptive heir? What sort of acquiescence or degree of patriotism is to be expected from them? It is in vain to suppose that questions of this tremendous nature can be decided by the mere reasonableness of the case, or either settled or discussed without the imminent hazard of the peace and prosperity of the country.
The popular leaders contended for the exercise of this great right of society, for entire exclusion; the king proposed the most reasonable limitations; the question was, therefore, rendered as fit a subject for debate as it could possibly become; and as there were men of the greatest ability in the houses, no proceedings in parliament can be more interesting than these must always be to every Englishman who has reflected upon the critical nature of our own mixed and of all mixed governments.
On whatever side the question could be viewed, the difficulties were very great. The popular part of the constitution was almost as much asserted by the limitations as by the exclusion, since the right of the community to interfere and control the executive power was acknowledged in either case. In argument, however, the exclusionists had the advantage
over those who were contented with limitations, because their measure was evidently in practice the only complete remedy for the evil supposed, and the only remedy which could provide, at the same time (a most material consideration) for the safety of those who were to administer it.
Still it was, on the whole, impossible that the exclusion could be carried while the king proposed limitations.
The character of the king led the exclusionists to suppose that, if they remained firm, he would give way. This was their great political mistake. For once in his life, as the point of duty was at least dubious, he was steady to his supposed principle; he kept his word. Had the exclusionists turned short, and accepted his limitations, he had been indeed embarrassed.
It is now clear, from Dalrymple and Macpherson, that not only the Duke of York reprobated the scheme of limitations, but that the king himself was not sincere in his offers; and this must indeed have been suspected by the popular leaders. But the truth is, that their cause (as it could not be carried without the full co-operation of the public) was from the first not a little hopeless. The nation had but just escaped from all the sufferings of civil war, from anarchy, usurpation, and military despotism; it is naturally, from the general sobriety of its habits both of speculation and conduct, dutiful and loyal; is always very properly attached to the hereditary nature of the monarchy; nor is it ever the natural turn of men, more especially of bodies of men, or of a whole nation, to provide against future evils by extraordinary expedients, in themselves a sort of evil, in themselves exposed to objection, and in every respect difficult and disagreeable. The conduct, therefore, to be pursued by the king was plain, and the result much what might have been expected. He kept at issue with his parliaments, making to them reasonable though not sincere offers, and addressing them with temper and dignity; till at last the public, as will always be the case when there is a proper exercise of skill and prudence on the part of the sovereign, sided with him, and left the constitution (as usual) to its fate, and the patriots to their fortunes.
This is a very curious part of our history, and should be attentively considered. The king, having dissolved two par
liaments rapidly, issued a declaration, which was made public and read in the churches. It contained the defence of his conduct, and his appeal to the people. It is given only in substance by the historians; in Kennet, however, the words of it appear. It is very improperly omitted by Cobbett. All the material parts are given, in the words of it, by the historian Ralph.
A very full and spirited reply was drawn up by the leaders of the House of Commons, chiefly by Sir William Jones, under whose name it was published, and who was one of the most distinguished lawyers and speakers at the time. The substance of this reply is in Ralph; but the whole of it is in the appendix of Cobbett. It is long, and some parts of it may be read more slightly than others; but it is in general highly deserving of attention, not only because it is necessary to the explanation of the great constitutional questions then before the public, but because it shows that the notions of intelligent men, with regard to the constitution itself, were very fully adjusted before the Revolution in 1688, and were, at that great epoch, rather confirmed than altered or improved.
But the reasonings of Sir William Jones were of no effect. "The king," says the historian Ralph, "had the advantage of the dispute (page 589). His condescending to appeal to his people softened their hearts, if it did not convince their understandings; he appeared to be an object of compassion; he appeared to have been all this while on the defensive. The offers he had made were thought more weighty than his adversaries' objections; and, in short, he was no sooner pitied than he was believed; and, above all, the artful turn given in his declaration to the commons' vote in favour of the nonconformists, drew in all the clergy and their followers to his side in a body. The cry of Church and king' was again renewed, was echoed from one end of the kingdom to the other; and, as if it were a charm to debase the spirit and cloud the understanding, produced," says the historian, "such a train of detestable flatteries to the throne, mingled with so many flagrant proofs of a sordid disposition to enter into a voluntary vassalage, as might very easily make an Englishman blush for his country while he read them, and
would have made a Roman or a Spartan exclaim, 'The gods created these barbarians to be slaves.'"
The address of our own university on this occasion may be seen in Ralph, and the anathemas of the sister university, two years afterwards, in Rapin or Kennet. At Cambridge they were tolerably satisfied, when they had laid down, with due earnestness, first, the merits of the king (i. e. of Charles II.), and then the doctrine of passive obedience. But at Oxford the tenets of loyalty were announced in a far more effectual manner; "a judgment and decree is passed against certain pernicious books and damnable doctrines, destructive to the sacred persons of princes, their state and government, and to all human society;" certain propositions are produced; some few of the twenty-seven, that are brought forward, no doubt, to be reprobated, and some few despised, but many of them the common political maxims of the Whigs; the compact, &c.; but all and every one of them were now pronounced to be false, seditious, impious, and most of them also heretical, blasphemous, &c. &c. The members of the university are to be interdicted from reading of the books containing them; the books themselves to be publicly burnt, &c. &c.
"The flood-gates of loyalty being opened," says Ralph (592), "the gazettes from the middle of May to the January following (that is, from the publication of the declaration) are little more than a collection of testimonies, that the people were weary of all those rights and privileges that make subjection safe and honourable."
Quotations to show the folly of some, the prostitution of all, would be endless, and at last it seems even Lord Halifax, the minister, turned squeamish, and grew sick of them.
Whatever difficulty may belong to the question of the Exclusion Bill, and whether it might or might not be necessary at the time, still if we consider what had long been the known characters of Charles and James, the licentiousness of the court, its connexion with France (which had been publicly proved in the course of Danby's impeachment), its measures through the whole of the reign, and the idea then entertained of the deadliness of the sin of popery, it must be confessed that the manner in which the community totally
deserted the leaders of the House of Commons on this occasion, was not very creditable to the national character. The result was, a new temptation to the political virtues of the king, in which, as usual, he failed. Instead of justifying the unbounded and headlong attachment of his people, by showing in his turn a due care and veneration for their constitutional rights, a dishonest advantage was taken of their blind partiality, and the administration of the government became, in every point, as arbitrary and unprincipled, as brutal judges, dishonourable magistrates, and wicked ministers, under the patronage and protection of the court, could possibly render it.
: And then commenced, in like manner, the temptation of the popular leaders; they had been defeated-what were they to do? The measures of the court were detestable; this must be allowed. The constitution of England seemed to be certainly for a season, perhaps for ever, at an end. Charles might live long, or, as James II. was to succeed, the violations of the law might by prescription become the law. All this was true, and might very naturally affect the popular leaders with sentiments of the deepest mortification and sorrow; more especially, as they saw, that the public had abandoned them, and, with some few exceptions, every where continued to abandon them. But what then was the effect produced on the minds of the patriotic leaders? Instead of reflecting how capricious a master they served, when the public was that master; how prone to run into extremes, how easily deceived, how little either able or disposed to take care of itself, how pardonable in its follies, because always honest in its intentions; instead of meditating on topics so obvious as these, most of the popular leaders, particularly Shaftesbury, seemed to have lost on this occasion all temper and prudence, and to have thought of nothing but an insurrection and force; an insurrection which was only called for by the rabble in London-force, which can never be justified, even with right, but under the strongest assurance of success.
And in this manner are we conducted to the last important transaction of the reign, known under the general name of the Ryehouse Plot; a plot, as it was supposed, of the patriotic leaders against the king.