Home  »  Volume IX: English FROM STEELE AND ADDISON TO POPE AND SWIFT  »  § 10. Letter on the Spirit of Patriotism

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

VIII. Historical and Political Writers

§ 10. Letter on the Spirit of Patriotism

Of greater importance among Bolingbroke’s writings is A Letter on the Spirit of Patriotism, written by him in 1736, and subsequently addressed to Lord Lyttelton, a rising hope of the opposition. Its theme is one which was to occupy Bolingbroke’s mind during the remainder of his political life, and may be regarded as the final position which he had come to occupy, in consequence of the divisions between those with whom he had co-operated, and the failure of the adversaries of Walpole, among whom he was chief, to effect the minister’s overthrow. To merge factions in a great national or patriotic party, and, while steadfastly opposing the corrupt existing government, to reform the English system of government itself, was the object to which he now directed the endeavours of public men, and of the rising generation of them in particular. But, while the breadth of this plan gives a certain dignity to the pamphlet in which it is advanced, the praise which has been lavished on its execution has been overdone. If an example of Bolingbroke’s best manner is to be found in the last two of the Letters on the Study and Use of History, then A Letter on the Spirit of Patriotism must surely be regarded as exhibiting only his second-best, a compound of violent invective with more or less turgid declamation. The essay begins with a tirade against Walpole and the whigs, who had at last found out that they had prepared the sway not of a party but of a person, while the tories continued sour, waiting for a messiah that would never come. Then follows a tirade about the true spirit in which opposition should be conducted—the spirit of a patriotism in which there is a satisfaction comparable to that attending on the discoveries of a Newton or a Descartes. That spirit has, in England, been exchanged for a servility more abject than that to be found in France; yet, to check the growing evils in our public life was a task really so easy that it could have been accomplished but for the eagerness of the hunters, intent, lest they should miss their own reward, upon dividing the skin almost before they had taken the beast, and thus postponing the evil day. It is the next generation on whom it remains to set out hopes—a generation which must learn to despise the old differences between Big Endians and Little Endians, the dangers of the church and those of the protestant succession. Neither Demosthenes nor Cicero was an orator only; a definite plan of action has become the sacred duty of a patriotic opposition. All this is clever and acute; but who could describe it as the distilled wisdom of a life nobly devoted to the patriotic action which it approves?