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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.

VIII. Historical and Political Writers

§ 7. Bolingbroke’s Remarks upon the History of England

But the most elaborate of Bolingbroke’s invectives, though coupled, in this instance, with some historical comments not devoid of interest, is to be found in Remarks upon the History of England, which appeared between 5 September, 1730, and 22 May, 1731, with the signature “Humphry Oldcastle.” The argument of these letters is carried on in the conversational framework familiar to both Clarendon and Burnet, the main part in the discussion being taken by “an old gentleman,” whose views, of course, are Bolingbroke’s and who, equally of course, is moved by “the true old English spirit,” the direct reverse of “the blind and furious spirit of party.” Assuming the existence of a great danger to liberty, and insisting on the need of keeping up that “spirit of liberty” by losing which the Romans lost their freedom itself, the demonstration in the fourth letter reaches English ground. But, though the printer of The Craftsman—one can hardly see why—is said to have been arrested on account of the remarks on the later Plantagenets, it was only when dealing with the Lancastrian kings that the writer discovers his purpose by openly attacking those who advocate the dependence of parliament upon government. He has now found his footing. In Letter VIII, where he solemnly recalls the revival of the spirit of liberty as exemplified in the parliamentary call of Edward II to the throne, he also insinuates a comparison between queen Caroline and queen Elizabeth Woodville! His account of Henry VII (Letter IX) may not uncharitably be surmised to have been intended to reflect on George I; and Wolsey, who could not sustain his power save by force and corruption (Letter X), is, quite manifestly, put forward as the prototype of Walpole. Thus, Humphry Oldcastle’s public is gradually brought nearer to its own times, and, after being treated to an outburst of wrath against the wicked minister, is instructed how, under Elizabeth, the check on absolutism was the will of the people itself; how her encouragement of commerce and her prudent policy in the earlier part of her reign, together with her abstinence, throughout its course, from the conclusion of unnecessary treaties or unsafe alliances, brought the nation safe through a great crisis of its history (Letters XII–XVI). In all this there is some point—and a great deal of sting.

Then, however, there set in the lamentable change. Government itself may be turned into faction. James I, who has been wrongly blamed for not entangling himself more than he did, “and as is done now,” in European (German) affairs, yet, being “afraid where no fear was,” allowed the British flag, which had waved proudly in the days of queen Elizabeth (queen Anne), to be insulted with impunity. In the reign of Charles I, who came as a party man to the throne, the faction of the court tainted the nation. The claim of James I (like the pretender’s) to hereditary right was untenable; the corruption by means of which he tried to govern was unEnglish; and his patronage of popery did nobody good but the puritans (Letters XVII–XXII). Under James I, and, still more, under his son and the universally hated minister Buckingham, the policy of the crown was confronted by the spirit of liberty and broken by an unremitting struggle of almost twoscore years. If we look around us now, we see the whole posse of ministerial scribblers assembled in augmented numbers—perhaps with augmented pensions—and the insects, albeit they have been dispersed by every flap of The Craftsman’s pen, gathered again, after their kind, and renewing their din. But the objects of their attack—the gentleman who conscientiously left his friends and party (Pulteney), and another gentleman, who has been accused of ingratitude and of treachery (Bolingbroke)—need not fear the charges heaped upon their heads; and, with a spirited apologia for the political conduct of this “other gentleman,” this unique breviarium of English history comes to a close (Letters XXIII–XXIV).

In the autumn of 1732, Bolingbroke’s Remarks upon the History of England were followed by three papers of similar purport, discussing the policy of the Athenians with a view to the lessons to be drawn thence by a student of English history and politics. In the previous year (1731), in A Final Answer to the Remarks on The Craftsman’s Vindication—a pamphlet which may be regarded as the climax of the weekly efforts of the scribes in Walpole’s pay, though neither it nor Bolingbroke’s retort put an end to the inky war of which they formed part—he renewed his self-defence, on the lines followed in the last of his letters in the Remarks. So far as his own conduct is concerned, everything really turns on his far from ingenuous assertion, advanced already in the Letter to Sir William Wyndham, that neither before nor after his service with the pretender was he a Jacobite. But, as an exercise in the art of invective, delivered as from a high pinnacle of virtue, this diatribe against the “noble pair of brothers” (Robert and Horace Walpole), professing to come from one whose “ambition, whatever may have been said or thought about it, hath been long since dead,” must be allowed to have few superiors.

Before adverting to what Goldsmith describes as Bolingbroke’s “parting blow” against the object of his concentrated political and personal hatred, it may be convenient to notice the important additions made by Bolingbroke to the political writing by him actually contributed to The Craftsman, in the form of certain papers put forth, from January, 1727, onwards, under the title The Occasional Writer. Of these, which seem to be four in number, the first, written in a style of mock humility, is inscribed “to the PERSON, to whom alone it can belong,” and in whose service, inasmuch as great statesmen set no value upon high literary ability, its composition is professed to have been undertaken. In reality, it is an indictment of Walpole’s conduct of foreign affairs, and, more especially, of his alleged subservience to France. Against his wont, Walpole gratified his adversary by inspiring an angrily contemptuous reply, spurning “the Occasional Writer’s” “proffered services”; and this ministerial answer, already noted in a brief postscript to his second paper, is, in the third, disputed “with strict impartiality.” In a postscript to a fourth paper, which may or may not be by Bolingbroke, and which is addressed to “his Imperial Majesty” (to whom the writer tenders counsel in a very superior way), the author of the first paper pretends to disclaim the authorship of the third.