« ZurückWeiter »
seems to have been their only virtue, liveliness their only merit; the manners of Chesterfield, and the morals of Rochefoucault.
An exhibition of tlie feelings and reasonings of the king and his courtiers on the graver subjects of national policy may be found in the poems of Dryden; the powerful advocate of any and of every cause, whose affluent mind and pregnant fancy were never without an argument and an image, whatever might be the topic either of his poetry or his prose ; worthy to be the assertor of the best interests of mankind, and sometimes enforcing them with the most enviable spirit and success; the master of a lyre, no doubt, whose song can never die; whose numbers are always easy, airy, and melodious; often breaking away into passages of the most striking vigour, and sometimes kindling into flashes of the most genuine sublimity; yet a poet, it must at the same time be confessed, whose compositions are often debased by coarseness, and disfigured by extravagance, and who was ready, when occasion required, to give plansibility and force to the most wretched common places of servility or licentiousness, of bigotry or superstition. He who reads his great poetical pamphlet, the Absalom and Achitophel, after having previously acquainted himself with the history and characters of the time, will perceive that, however he may have admired it before, he may still be said never before to have read it; and he will neither wonder at the great name which the poet has transmitted to posterity, nor deny him the highest prerogative of genius—the power of stamping on his works the impression of immortality, and of giving a value that shall never cease, to productions which originally served the fleeting purposes of the day.
To find contrasts for the Memoirs of Grammont, the compositions of the drama, and the writings of Dryden and the wits; to see the extremes of which human nature is capable, we may turn from these productions, and consult the notes to Grey's Hudibras, and Hudibras itself, with such sermons of the Presbyterian divines, and such public papers of Presbyterian statesmen as have reached us.
As a close to the whole of our inquiries, we may direct our attention to the History of Scotland by Laing, a work which will be found often contributing to explain and illustrate the reign of Charles I., but absolutely necessary in considering the reign of Charles II.
Laing is a writer who throws out his opinions so freely and so strongly, on subjects so various and so important, that, from the impossibility of all comment, they must be left by me entirely unnoticed. But it is necessary to observe that the style, which is at first somewhat repulsive, will be found materially to improve, as the work proceeds, and at length cease to remind us of the disagreeable, abstract manner, and of many of the faults of Gibbon. The narrative is necessarily encumbered not a little with church history; and as it places human nature in no new light on these occasions, may in these places be slightly perused.
Laing is not considered as a writer favourable to the Stuarts; but how could he (if fit to write at all) be favourable ? It is in the history which he details that the faults of these princes are most unequivocally displayed. Whatever be the excuses for their conduct, which may or may not be found while we read the history of England, they totally disappear when we turn to the annals of Scotland ; and from that moment their defence is hopeless.
CLAREN DON relates of Charles II., that he came to him one day when they were both together in exile, and asked him with some astonishment, whether the penal statutes against the Catholics in England could possibly be such, as they had been represented to him, in conversation. The chancellor was obliged to confess to him that they really were, and to endeavour to explain to him how and why penál statutes of this nature had been made. But it is probable that the humanity of the young king, not trained up under the discipline of polemical warfare, received an impression in favour of the Roman Catholics, careless as he was, which could never afterwards be removed. It is at the same time to be observed, that Charles was totally incapable of all severer virtue, and therefore that he recoiled from any description of religion which insisted on the purity of the heart and the triumphs of self-denial; yet was his understanding too penetrating to leave him undisturbed in the indulgence of his vices : he was therefore placed, as sometimes happens, within the reach of the two extremes of infidelity and superstition; and in his hours of gaiety believing nothing, and believing every thing on the contrary, during those cold visitations of melancholy to which men of pleasure are so peculiarly exposed, he was, from the first, a fit subject for the influence of the ceremonies and pretensions of the Roman Catholic church. And from these and other considerations it may be concluded that he came to England, and remained to his death, perfectly disposed to extend every kindness to the members of a church, with the sentiments, at least, of whose religion he could sympathize, and to whose communion, therefore (for religious inquiry into doctrines was out of the question), he must have appeared to himself to belong.
The king, therefore, and the Roman Catholics, saw with pleasure the Presbyterians totally excluded from the establishment, because they conceived that the greater were the numbers of those without the pale, the better would be their treatment; and that the Papists might thus come in with the rest to partake of the benefits of some general act of toleration.
The Presbyterians, on the contrary, intolerant to a degree that would be perfectly ludicrous if it were not for the serious nature of the subject, though they were extremely exasperated when they found themselves so abhorred by the church of England, could cordially unite with that church in at least equally abominating those of the Roman Catholic communion.
The church, in the mean time, had perfectly resolved to avoid all fellowship with either; as, however, beneath the lowest deep, there was yet a lower deep, they were always ready to accept the services of the Presbyterians against their common enemy, the Roman Catholics; so that in this respect the church and the Presbyterians were united. But still further to perplex the scene, the church of England had, like the church of Rome, adopted the tenet of passive obedience, and was thus politically united with the Roman Catholics; and therefore in this manner both were combined against the Presbyterians.
After all the contests, therefore, which had taken place between the Papists and Protestants, and between the different sects of the Protestants, and after so many years of civil and religious dispute, the prospect was still heavy with clouds; the civil and religious liberties of the country were still in a situation of trial and uncertainty; and they might have been for ever destroyed by the entire success of any one of the great parties of the state, or even of some of their particular combinations,
In the debates of the two houses, the secret history of the times cannot now be discovered, but the proceedings of parliament during the whole of this reign seldom cease to be important.
Among other of their acts may be mentioned the Habeas Corpus Act. The nature of it must be examined in Blackstone and our constitutional writers, and the conclusion to be drawn from the whole of the case seems to be, the extreme difficulty with which the liberty of the subject can be secured ; the endless train of impediments which they who administer the laws can, if they please, and will, if they are not prevented, throw in the way of the proper execution of them; and on the whole, a new instance to show how vain is the letter of the law, unless a proper sense of propriety and right is generated by the constitution through the great mass of the community,
It might have been thought that, before this celebrated act, enough had been done for the freedom of the subject; but not so: and an act like this, which only gives the subject, when thrown into prison, a power of asking the reason of his commitment, such an act was declared by the Duke of York to be inconsistent with the existence of all regular government; though the very contrary seems the fact, for without it the liberty of no man is secure; and the law is easily suspended whenever the critical situation of the country renders it necessary. “Nemo imprisonetur nisi," &c., said the barons in Magna Charta; but it was not till the time of this act that their great principle was ever perfectly exhibited in practice.
The very remarkable provision of law, called the Test Act, was the conse quence of the very singular times of Charles II.-- times when the reigning monarch was believed to be in a conspiracy against his subjects, and the immediate heir to the crown, an enemy to their religion. By this act all were excluded from civil offices who took not the sacrament “after the manner of the Church of England.” And this religious part of the test was contrived as the only expedient for incapacitating the Papists, against whom the act was directed. The intention of the legislature was considerably answered. The Duke of York and other conscientious Roman Catholics resigned their posts, though unprincipled men probably retained them. But another consequence followed, which was not within the intention of the legislature; the Dissenters as well as the Papists agreed not with the Church of England in their manner of taking the sacrament; and the act has ever since operated to their exclusion from offices as completely as if they had been the objects against whom it was originally levelled. “Great pains," says Burnet, “ were taken by the court to divert this bill; the court proposed that some regard might be had to Protestant Dissenters. By this means they hoped to have set them and the church party into new heats, for now all were united against Popery. Love, who served for the City of London, and was himself a Dissenter, saw what ill effects any such quarrels might have; so he moved that an effectual security might be found against Popery, and that nothing might interpose till that was done; when that was over, then they would try to deserve some favour; but at present they were willing to be under the severity of the laws, rather than clog a more necessary work with their concerns.”—(347, Burnet, vol. i.)
The conduct of the Dissenters seems to have got them great reputation. But whenever a penal statute is to be drawn up, its enactments should be very strictly limited, and the future consequences of it be well considered. The commons had provided by their Test Act for their own defence; but the bill which they afterwards brought in, and wbich they passed for the ease of the Dissenters, suffered amendments in the House of Lords; and the parliament was adjourned before these proposed alterations could be adjusted. In point of fact, it never afterwards became a law. The truth is, that the commons should have provided for the case of the Dissenters in their original bill; or, if that might have delayed its enactment, should at all events have insisted subsequently on justice being done. Wbat they themselves neglected to do, no subsequent legislature ever did for them; and the Dissenters at this moment find their feelings wounded, and the fair range of their talents confined, by an act of exclusion originally passed with the concurrence and co-operation of their own body.
It is not in matters of government, as in other concerns, that a law or any political regulation may be put aside when its object has been accomplished. Such are the passions of mankind, that laws are seldom, nor can they always with safety, be either repealed or improved on the mere suggestions (however convincing) of argument and philosophy. Legislators should be therefore very careful how they ever suspend, even for a moment, the great principles of policy and justice. Their successors are always more likely to acquiesce in their faults than to repair them. This has been shown but too clearly by all the subsequent events of our history.
When William III. came to the throne, it was impossible for him to overlook the religious prejudices of his new subjects, and this most remarkable specimen of their unfortunate influence. His first attempt appears to have been to emancipate the Dissenters from the Test Act. He took the earliest opportunity, in one of his speeches, to observe (184), “ that he was, with all