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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

§ 8. Dissertation upon Parties

The last and most important of the series belonging to this group of Bolingbroke’s writings is the celebrated Dissertation upon Parties, which appeared in The Craftsman in the autumn of 1733. In April of this year, Walpole’s virtual abandonment of the Excise bill had severely shaken his authority and encouraged the opposition to fresh efforts. A general election was at hand in 1734; but the prospect of accomplishing the overthrow of the minister was impeded by divisions among his adversaries. In particular, Pulteney and the malcontent whigs disliked the proposed repeal of the Septennial act—a measure on which Bolingbroke was intent and which, fully aware of his authorship of it, Walpole induced the expiring parliament to throw out, in March, 1734. Thus it was in order to bring the long struggle against Walpole to a successful issue, and, with this end, to conciliate the dissatisfied element in the opposition, that A Dissertation was composed. Although, beyond a doubt, one of the most notable of its author’s polemical efforts, it failed in its immediate purpose; and, instead of Walpole being overthrown, it was Bolingbroke who, early in 1735—the state of his private affairs helping to disconcert him—once more returned to France.

The nineteen letters to Caleb D’Anvers entitled A Dissertation upon Parties are preceded by a dedication to Walpole, which denounces the foremost councillor of the reigning sovereign (and of his predecessor) as having gained that position “by wriggling, intriguing, whispering, and bargaining himself into this dangerous post, to which he was not called by the general suffrage, nor perhaps”—here we find just the grain of truth without which no malicious insinuation is complete—“by the deliberate choice of his master himself.” Yet, with all the vehemence of the attack, and the wit that enlivens it, its audacity is cheap; for Bolingbroke knew that he was not running any serious personal risk. The interest of the letters into which the Dissertation is broken up, therefore, is substantially that of a brilliant dialectical and rhetorical display. The general argument in favour of the maintenance, by all the parties that agreed to it, of the constitution, as finally settled by the revolution of 1688, is skilfully brought home, so to speak, to the consciences of tories and whigs alike; “the chimæra of a prerogative has been removed,” and there is no danger of the House of Commons assuming a preponderance of power, unless the constituent nation co-operates in its own undoing. But liberty, as Machiavelli says, needs a constant renewal of safeguards; and there are new agencies of corruption at work, in the manipulation of the civil list and of the public funds; and it is the duty of all parties to work together against this abuse, directed as it is by the guiltiest of ministers.

Quite apart from the admirable skill with which these letters handle their text, from their lively personal digressions against Walpole and from the historical insight of which, in particular passages, they give proof, the Dissertation has the great merit of inner veracity. Whatever we may think of the motive of its composition, or of the effect which it produced or which it failed to produce, Bolingbroke had come to know, by means of an experience the reverse of deceptive, how much was rotten in the party system, in which his own political life had its being. This system he was afterwards, though without any real success, to seek to remedy; but his present diagnosis was not devoid of an essential element of truth, and a sense of this pervades the fervour and the flow of his hortatory eloquence.