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

V. Arbuthnot and Lesser Prose Writers

§ 3. His Tory pamphlets: The History of John Bull series; The Art of Political Lying

The History of John Bull will probably be found, nowadays, to be the most interesting of Arbuthnot’s works. To enjoy it, some knowledge of the history of the time is necessary; but the allegory, as the brief sketch that follows will show, is, for the most part, transparent, and the humour is well kept up. The book begins with an account of the quarrels since the death of Charles II of Spain (Lord Strutt), who settled his estate upon his cousin Philip Baboon, to the great disappointment of his cousin Esquire South (archduke Charles of Austria). John Bull and Nicholas Frog (the Dutch) were afraid that Lord Strutt would give all his custom to his grandfather Lewis Baboon, and they threatened Lord Strutt that, if he continued to deal with his grandfather, they would go to law with him; while there were other tradesmen who were glad to join against Lewis Baboon if Bull and Frog would bear the charges of the suit. The case was put into the hands of Hocus, the attorney (the duke of Marlborough), and the decision went in favour of John Bull and his friends; but repeated promises that the next verdict would be the final determination wre not fulfilled, and new trials and new difficulties continued to present themselves. Hocus proved himself superior to most of his profession:

  • He kept always good clerks, he loved money, was smooth tongued, gave good words, and seldom lost his temper; he was not worse than an infidel, for he provided plentifully for his family; but he loved himself better than them all. The neighbours reported that he was henpecked, which was most impossible with such a mild-spirited woman as his wife was.
  • John Bull was so pleased with his success that he thought of leaving off his trade and turning lawyer. John, in the main, was

  • an honest, plain-dealing fellow, choleric, bold, and of a very inconstant temper.… He was very apt to quarrel with his best friends, especially if they pretended to govern him. If you flattered him you might lead him like a child. John’s temper depended very much upon the air; his spirits rose and fell with the weather-glass. John was quick and understood his business very well: but no man alive was more careless in looking into his accounts, or more cheated by partners, apprentices and servants. This was occasioned by his being a boon companion, loving his bottle and his diversion; for, to say truth, no man kept a better house than John, nor spent his money more generously.
  • His mania for the law was checked by his discovery of an intrigue between Hocus and Mrs. Bull, his first wife (the late whig parliament). Violent scenes ensued and, at last, Mrs. Bull was maltreated and died, leaving three daughters, Polemia, Discordia and Usuria. John at once married again (the new tory parliament). This wife was a sober country gentlewoman, who gave him good advice, urging him to bring the litigation to an end. When he looked through his attorney’s bill, he was shocked at its length, and discovered that he had been egregiously cheated, and that the whole burden of the lawsuit had been thrown upon his shoulders. The other tradesmen abused Mrs. Bull, and said that their interests were sacrificed.

    The second of the series of pamphlets begins with the discovery of a paper by the first Mrs. Bull containing a vindication of the duty of unfaithfulness incumbent upon wives in cases of infidelity of their husbands. This, of course, is a satire on the disloyalty of whigs. Then, Diego (earl of Nottingham) had an interview with the second Mrs. Bull, in the hope of satisfying her that John must not desert his friends; but she showed that Nick Frog had been deceiving John and endeavouring to make a private arrangement with Lewis Baboon. The guardians of Bull’s three daughters (the whig leaders) came to John and urged that the lawsuit should be continued; but John told them that he knew when he was ill-used; that he was aware how his family were apt to throw away their money in their cups; but that it was an unfair thing to take advantage of his weakness and make him set his hand to papers when he could hardly hold his pen.

    The third pamphlet relates to John Bull’s mother (the church of England), and his sister Peg (the Scottish church) and her love affair with Jack (presbyterianism). The mother was of a meek spirit, and strictly virtuous. She always put the best construction on the words and actions of her neighbours; she was neither a prude nor a fantastic old belle. John’s sister was a poor girl who had been starved as nurse. John had all the good bits: his sister had only a little oatmeal or a dry crust; he had lain in the best apartments with his bedchamber towards the south; she had lodged in a garret exposed to the north wind; but she had life and spirit in abundance and knew when she was ill-used. The pamphlet ends with a letter from Nick Frog to John Bull urging him to mortgage his estate, and with an account of a conference between Bull, Frog, South and Lewis Baboon at the Salutation tavern (congress of Utrecht). The fourth part of John Bull is concerned, to some extent, with Jack and the bill against occasional conformity; and the fifth and last part refers to the meetings at the Salutation inn and the intrigues of the various tradesmen. John had interviews with Nick Frog and Lewis Baboon about Ecclesdown castle (Dunkirk) and other matters, and the lawsuit was brought to an end with John in possession of Ecclesdown, to his great satisfaction.

    Arbuthnot’s masterpiece owed something to Swift’s Tale of a Tub, published eight years earlier; but the plot in Swift’s book is very slight, and there was nothing in the past history of satire to correspond to the clearly drawn characters and the well developed story designed to promote certain views on public policy in the minds of the people, which are to be found in John Bull.

    The Art of Political Lying is a delightful skit, “like those pamphlets called ‘The Works of the Learned.’” Political lying is the “art of convincing the people of salutary falsehoods, for some good end.” A lie, it is suggested, is best contradicted by another lie; if it be said that a great person is dying, the answer should be, not that he is in perfect health, but that he is slowly recovering. One chapter of the promised treatise was to be an enquiry, which of the two parties are the greatest political liars. In both are to be found great geniuses; but they are prone to glut the market with lies. Heads of parties are warned against believing their own lies; all parties have been subject to this misfortune, due to too great a zeal in the practice of the art. There are many forms of political lies: the additory, the detractory, the translatory, which transfers the merit of a man’s good action, or the demerit of a man’s bad action, to another.

  • When one ascribes anything to a person which does not belong to him, the lie ought to be calculated not quite contradictory to his known quality. For example, one would not make the French king present at a Protestant conventicle, nor the Dutch paying more than their quota.
  • The wit of this jeu d’esprit is worthy of Swift at his best, and the method of gravely asserting impossible things and arguing from those assertions is often to be found in Swift’s work. The style, too, has the vigorous and idiomatic character of Swift’s, and there is abundance of humour.