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II. Executive Monarchy and the Challenge of Parties, 1689–1832: Two Concepts of Government and Two Historiographical Interpretations*

  • B. W. Hill (a1)

Anyone who studies eighteenth-century British politics soon becomes aware of a lack of definite form in the major institutions of government. Contemporaries, although equally aware of this imprecision, did not consider that it detracted from the utility of the constitution. On the contrary the vagaries of the system were often cited as its chief asset, permitting such apparently irreconcilable elements as parliamentary supremacy and a royal executive to exist together in balanced harmony. Burke, the constitution's most eloquent defender, called this quality of comprehensiveness a ‘unity in so great a diversity of its parts’, and believed that such unity was capable of sheltering both prescriptive rights and necessary adaptations in society. But the quality which men of the eighteenth century were agreed to admire has been viewed less sympathetically by later writers, intent on clarifying points which contemporaries preferred to leave open. The whig historians of the nineteenth century attempted to cut through difficulties by treating as unworthy of consideration in the eighteenth-century scene those features which did not survive in the era of reform. The misinterpretations which thereby arose brought about a necessary reaction in the present century, especially from the late Sir Lewis Namier whose research revealed the Georgian scene as having a more traditional structure of politics and society than was previously supposed. But Namier's own work too paid disproportionate attention to parts of the scene at the expense of others, though he undoubtedly did so because the difficulty of dislodging a well-established whig orthodoxy led him to overstate his case.

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1 Burke, Edmund, Reflections on the Revolution in France…in Works (Bohn, ed.), II, 306.

2 Namier, Sir Lewis, The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III (London, 1929), and England in the Age of the American Revolution (London, 1930).

3 Although I make or endorse several emendations to Namier's judgements, it should be clear below that I am aware of the overwhelming debt of eighteenth-century studies to him.

4 Butterfield, Herbert, ‘George III and the Constitution’, History, XLIII (1958). Cf. George III and the Historians (London, 1957).

5 Owen, John B., The Rise of the Pelhams (London, 1957), pp. 3440.

6 See Holmes, Geoffrey, British Politics in the Age of Anne (London, 1967) and Plumb, J.H., The Growth of Political Stability in England, 1675–1725 (London, 1967) for the early eighteenth century, and O'Gorman, F., The Whig Party and the French Revolution (London, 1967) and Mitchell, Austin, The Whigs in Opposition 1815–1830 (Oxford, 1967) for the later periods. Cf. the commentary and selected documents in Holmes, G.S. and Speck, W.A., The Divided Society, Parties and Politics in England 1694–1716 (London, 1967), and Ginter, Donald E., Whig Organization in the General Election of 1790 (California, 1967).

7 England in the Age of the American Revolution (second edition, London 1961, the edition to which subsequent references are made), p. 113.

8 Pares, Richard, King George III and the Politicians (Oxford, 1953), p. 183. Cf. Fryer, W.R., ‘King George III: his political character and conduct, 1760–1784, a new whig interpretation’, Renaissance and Modern Studies, VI (1962), 68101.

9 The two features most often associated with country outbursts against the court were opposition to taxes and sponsorship of ‘place’ legislation to cut down the government's patronage in the Commons. Even minor symptoms of country discontent, such as xenophobia, were often connected with agitation over taxes and ‘places’; foreign favourites at court, a frequent target for country orators under both Stuarts and Hanoverians, were a particularly obnoxious, because foreign, species of court caterpillar.

10 A recent historian of the Commons in the last phase before Danby's mangement of the court party in the 1670s has professed himself to have ‘sought in vain for formal parties’ whether of court or country: Witcombe, D.T., Charles II and the Cavalier House of Commons 1663–1674 (Manchester, 1966), p. 180. For accounts of the country outlook see Rubini, Dennis, Court and Country 1688–1702 (London, 1967), especially pp. 2330;Holmes, Geoffrey, op. cit. chapter 4, and ‘The Attack on “The Influence of the Crown”, 1702–16’, B[ulletin of the]I[nstitute of]H[istorical]R[esearch], XXXIX (1966), 4768; and Muir, Sir Lewis Namier's EnidLecture on Country Gentlemen in Parliament, 1750–84 (1954) reprinted in Crossroads of Power, Essays on Eighteenth-Century England (London, 1962), pp. 3045.

11 SeeJones, J.R., The First Whigs, the Politics of the Exclusion Crisis 1678–1683 (Oxford, 1961). ‘The first Whigs’, writes Professor Jones (p. 2), ‘were, and had to be, a party, something more highly organized and disciplined than a mere alliance or coalition of small and autonomous groups. They possessed, and required, organization in both Parliament and country, effective discipline, and wide popular appeal, stimulated and maintained by a large-scale propaganda machine’.

12 In addition to the books by Plumb, Holmes and Rubini already cited, reference should be made to Roberts, Clayton, The Growth of Responsible Government in Stuart England (Cambridge, 1966) and to the articles cited in note 20 below.

13 The Spencer House ‘Journals’, August 8, 1689, in Foxcroft, H.C., The Life and Letters of Sir George Saville, Bart., first Marquis of Halifax (London, 1898), II, 229.

14 Most estimates of the number of placemen in William's reign put the figure around 100, Rubini, op. cit. pp. 32–3. For the process by which William was induced to relinquish his attempts at non-party ministry, see Kenyon, J.P., ‘The Earl of Sunderland and the King's administration, 1693–1695’, E[nglish] H[istorical] R[eview], LXXI (1956), 576602.

15 Only about one-quarter of the Whigs remained voting with the country party after 1695, Rubini, p. 62. The original members of the ‘Junto’, not commonly so called in William's reign, were John Somers, Baron Somers; Charles Montagu, Earl of Halifax; Thomas Wharton, Marquis of Wharton; and Edward Russell. Earl of Orford. To these was added, in Anne's reign, Charles Spencer, third Earl of Sunderland. The best account of their activities is a dissertation by DrEllis, E.L., ‘The Whig Junto’ (Oxford, 1962).

16 To Godolphin, 30 August [1706], H[istorical] M[anuscripts] C[ommission], 9th Report, part 11,.pp. 471–2.

17 Later (1711) first Earl of Oxford. A good account of Harley's political ideas is that by Mclnnes, Angus, ‘The Political Ideas of Robert Harley’, History, L (1965), 309–22.

18 The difficulties encountered in court management in Anne's reign are discussed by Dr Holmes, who estimates that fewer than half the placemen could be relied upon to act as a court party when Whig-Tory issues conflicted with government policy, op. cit. pp. 354, 364.

19 Holmes and Speck, op. cit., title page and passim.

20 See the analyses of division lists in Holmes, G.S., ‘The Commons’ Division on “No Peace without Spain”, 7 December 1711', B.I.H.R. XXXIII (1960), 223–34;Sperling, J.G., ‘The Division of 25 May 1711, on an Amendment to the South Sea Bill: a note on the reality of parties in the age of Anne’, H[istorical] J[ournal], IV (1961), 191202;Speck, W.A., ‘The Choice of a Speaker in 1705’, B.I.H.R. XXXVII (1964), 2046; Holmes, British Politics, pp. 33– 41 and passim.

21 That Godolphin foresaw this development without pleasure, though he acceded to it, may be seen from his comment to the Duchess of Marlborough: ‘As to what you say of the Whigs, I am to learn that till they have the power in their hands they will be against every thing that may be an assistance to the Queen and the government…’, 14 January [misprinted June]1706/7, The Private Correspondence of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (1838), I, 53. For the stages of this process see Trevelyan, G.M., England under Queen Anne, 11, Ramillies and the Union with Scotland (London, 1932), pp. 167–71, 388–91. Cf. , Holmes and Speck, ,‘The Fall of Harley in 1708 Reconsidered’, E.H.R. LXXX (1965), 673–98.

22 The notoriously effective organization of Queen Anne's Whigs, both in and out of Parliament, was closely connected, like that of Shaftesbury's and Rockingham's Whigs, with the support and leadership they received from the aristocracy and greater landed gentry; Queen Anne's Tories did not enjoy this advantage to the same extent. Holmes pp. 317 ff.

23 Walcott, Robert, ‘English Party Politics (1688–1714)’ in Essays in Modern English History in Honor of Wilbur Cortez Abbott (Harvard, 1941) pp. 84, 131.

24 Boyer, Abel, the annalist, wrote in the Preface to The Political State of Great Britain for 1711 ‘That he wished he could spare the invidious names of Whig and Tory, High and Low Church, and other discriminating appelations’ but ‘As long as different parties subsist, there will be names to distinguish 'em‘. Similarly Oldmixon, John wrote in The History of England during the reigns of William and Mary, Anne and George I (1735) ‘I am sensible that Party-Names are below the Dignity of History, and I have affected to avoid them, but in some Cases they are unavoidable’ (p. 15).

25 Thus the first Earl of Rochester, a Tory from Charles II's reign to Queen Anne's, affected impartiality in his Preface to Clarendon's History of the Rebellion (1702): ‘There hath been, within the compass of a few years, much Talk, and, God knows, too many ill Effects too, of Factions in this Kingdom; and We have lived, in our days, to see the Two great Parties, of late known by the Names of Whig and Tory, directly change their ground; and those [sc. Whigs], who were formerly the Anti-Courtiers, become as pliant and obsequious, as every They [i.e. the Tories]were who had been most found fault with on that score’ (p. viii in the 1705 edition). Bishop Gilbert Burnet, an ardent Whig partisan, took the same tone in writing, around 1705, of ‘ …the high party, whom for distinction sake I will hereafter call tories, and the other whigs: terms that I have spoken much against, and have ever hated: but to avoid making always a longer description, I must use them; they being now become as common as if they had been words of our language’, History of my Own Time (1838 ed.), IV, 6.

26 This tendency was accentuated at election time, when opponents of the government hesitated to defend their action to their constituents in party terms. At the time of the 1698 election Secretary of State James Vernon wrote to his patron the third Earl of Shrewsbury ‘There seems to arise a strange spirit of distinguishing between the court and country party, and visibly discovers itself in several elections’, 2 August, 1698, Letters Illustrative of the Reign of William III, ed. James, G.P.R. (London, 1841), II, 143. Another commentator noticed the same phenomenon at the time of the 1708 election: ‘The notion of extinguishing the names of Whig and Tory and assuming the distinctions of Court and Country party, which the great men were once themselves fond of, seems now to be taken up by their adversaries, for I have heard several persons mention it since you went out of town…’, Erasmus Lewis to Robert Harley, 22 May 1708, H.M.C. Portland, IV, 490. For John Oldmixon, a Whig, the New Country Party consisting of Tories and a minority of ‘Old’ Whigs in the later 1690s was ‘this unnatural Coalition of Men of so different Principles’, op. cit. p. 170.

27 Plumb, op. cit. p. xiv. Dr Rubini regards Walcott's factions as ‘somewhat superfluous’ for William's reign, op. cit. p. 259; Dr Holmes rejects the factions as political entities in Anne's reign, British Politics, pp. 6–9. For detailed analyses of Walcott's method of attribution of ‘members’ to groups see Holmes, ibid. pp. 329–35, and Horwitz, Henry, ‘Parties, Connections and Parliamentary Politics, 1689–1714: Review and Revision’, J[ournal of] B[ritish] S[tudies], VI (1966), especially pp. 4952.

28 British Politics, pp. 322, 414. But if references to connexion were few, the same cannot be said in the case of parties, for as Professor Walcott himself points out: ‘There are so many references in the letters and recorded conversations of political figures all the way from Queen Anne on down to the meanest political hack, references to “the Whig party,” “the Tory party,” “both parties,” and “either party” that specific quotations hardly seem necessary’—quoted from‘The Idea of Party in the Writing of Later Stuart History’, J.B.S. 1 (1962), 55. For Professor Walcott's main statement see his English Politics in the Early Eighteenth Century (Oxford, 1956).

29 This subject still needs investigation, but the general pattern seems clear and important: see J. H. Plumb, op. cit. especially chapter 4.

30 Dr Owen classifies 152 members of the Old Corps as dependent on the administration, and a further 134 as independent, and therefore less reliable supporters, op. cit. pp. 45–62; he makes clear, however, that even the dependent members were not completely reliable voters for the government.

31 England in the Age of the American Revolution, p. 8.

32 Some reasons for this social development are outlined by Habakkuk, H.J., ‘English Landownership, 1680–1740’, in Economic History Review, X (1940), 217, and Marriage Settlements in the Eighteenth Century’,T[ransactions of the] R[oyal] H[istorical] S[ociety], 4th series, XXXII (1950), 1530; cf. Mingay, G.E., English Landed Society in the Eighteenth Century (London, 1963).

33 Op. cit. p. 84.

34 Mr Lewis M. Wiggin in his study of the Grenville connexion writes that ‘the particular data under observation indicate that no family parties existed, any more than other forms of political parties existed. The chief reason is clear enough: the individual found too many ways to satisfy his political ambitions without the assistance of an all-embracing organization’, The Faction of Cousins, A Political Account of the Grenvilles, 1733–1763 (New Haven, 1958), p. 298.

35 Brooke, John, ‘Introductory Survey’ to The History of Parliament, The House of Commons 1754–1790, eds. Namier, Sir Lewis and Brooke, John (London, 1964), I, 198.

36 One of their ablest and longest-lived rivals, Lord Carteret, was particularly susceptible to this line pf attack. He had entered politics in Anne's reign as a ‘Hanoverian Tory’. Walpole constantly countered, and advised Pelham to counter, the favour Carteret found under the first two Georges by bringing to light any slight evidence of Carteret's continued sympathy for the Tories. See Walpole to Townshend, 23 July, 1723, in Coxe, W., Memoirs of the Life and Administration of Walpole (London 1798), II, 263–5, and Orford (Walpole) to Pelham, 20 October 1743, in Coxe, W., Memoirs of the Administration of Henry Pelham (London, 1829), I, 103–6. Lord Bute was another who suffered from the imputation of being less than a pure Whig, for although his own career was impeccably Whig, his father had been a Jacobite and had even, in 1708, been arrested as a potential supporter of an invasion by the Old Pretender; see Riley, P.W.J., The English Ministers and Scotland 1707–1727 (London, 1964), pp. 104 note 1, 106 note 2.

37 The relations between the Tories and opposition Whigs under Walpole and the Pelhams are traced by Archibald Foord, S., His Majesty's Opposition 1714–1830 (Oxford, 1964).

38 In the elections of 1715, the first after Anne's death, the Tories were reduced from their huge majorities in her last two parliaments to about 200 (Plumb, , Growth of Political Stability, appendix II, p. 194) with an effective voting strength of about 160; see ‘Feiling, [Sir]Keith Grahame, The Second Tory Party 1714–1832 (London, 1938), pp. 2 and 15. In the 1761 election, by Namier's computation, the number of Tories returned was at least 113, England in the Age of the American Revolution, p. 197. In the intervening period the number of Tories fluctuated around these figures: in 1742 Dr Owen finds at least 136 Tories (op. cit. p. 66), and in the 1754 election Mr Brooke finds that about 109 Tories were returned (op. cit. I, 184–5)

39 Dr Owen finds that the Tories numbered fewer than half the country gentry in the Commons in 1742, and that the Tories' distinguishing feature was their Tory ancestry, op. cit. pp. 67, 70. Cf. Foord, op. cit. passim.

40 Perry, Thomas W., Public Opinion, Propaganda, and Politics in Eighteenth-Century England, a Study of the Jew Bill of 1753 (Harvard, 1962), p. 3. The two-party nature of the immigration issue in 1709 is described by Dickinson, H.T., ‘The poor Palatines and the parties’, E.H.R. LXXXII (1967), 464–85.

41 Perry, op. cit. chapter IX. Robson, R.J., The Oxfordshire Election of 1754…(Oxford, 1949), chapter VI. Cranfield, G.A., ‘The “ London Evening Post” and the Jew Bill of 1753’, H.J. VIII (1965), 1630.

42 England in the Age of the American Revolution, p. 79.

43 Ibid. pp. 47–51.

44 Owen, op. cit. pp. 238, 296.

45 Ibid. pp. 295–6. Namier, op. cit. pp. 45–7.

46 Ibid. pp. 134–56.

47 Newcastle to Hardwicke, 7 December 1760, quoted ibid. p. 136.

48 Newcastle's distress at the ‘most extraordinary phaenomenon’ of the appointment without his knowledge of five Tories to the Bedchamber, including ‘Lord Oxford’ (Newcastle's underlining), in December 1760 was not, after all, without reason, given the nature of politics as he knew it. In his experience, events small in themselves, especially if connected with royal authority, could have great consequences. The presentation of George I's back to the first Earl of Oxford at a levée in 1714 had opened the way for the latter's impeachment by his opponents. What might be the effect of the restoration of the inheritor of Oxford's title, the fourth Earl, to royal favour? Newcastle had himself seen, at close hand, many a court intrigue which produced widespread political results. When he heard of a manoeuvre in which he had no part he trembled, and with reason. See Newcastle to Joseph Yorke, 5 December 1760, quoted ibid. p. 135.

49 Thus when Pitt told the king in 1763 that Grenville's Ministry ‘was not founded on true Revolution principles; that it was a Tory Administration’ he was not saying that his brotherin-law and, until recently, collaborator George Grenville was an Old Tory; he was using the term Tory in the context of‘true Revolution principles’ (quoted by Pares, op. cit. p. 56 note 1, from The Grenville Papers, ed. Smith, W.J., II, 199).

50 Brooke, op. cit. p. 188.

51 Thus Professor I. R. Christie writes: ‘The feature most distinguishing the general election of 1780 from those which had taken place during the middle of the century was the clear, abrupt division which sundered two groups of parties in Parliament’, The End of North's Ministry 1780–1782 (London, 1958), p. 116.

52 By the decade after Waterloo, Dr Austin Mitchell finds: ‘There remained but three factions, and the open opportunism and place-hunting of one, the Grenvilles, was subject to widespread condemnation, while the breakdown of parties from 1827 to 1829 produced such a volume of comment as clearly indicated its exceptional nature’, The Whigs in Opposition, p. 4.

53 England in the Age of the American Revolution, p. 418.

54 Brooke, op. cit. p. 198.

55 England in the Age of the American Revolution, p. 185.

56 Present Discontents, in Works (Bohn, ed.), I, 376.

57 See, for instance, George III's account of his conversation with Portland on 21 March 1783:‘…I had declared that I must see and examine the whole Plan of Arrangements before I could give any opinion on particular parts of it, He, to my astonishment said this was want of confidence in him for that the Cabinet once laid before Me, he expected that on his coming to the head of the Treasury, I should rely on his making no propositions but such as He thought necessary for my affairs and consequently that I should acquiesce in them’, Correspondence of King George the Third, 1760–1783, ed. Fortescue, Sir John (London, 19271928), VI, 325.

58 George, Mrs E., ‘ “ Fox's Martyrs”; the General Election of 1784’, T.R.H.S. 4th series, XXI (1939), 133–68. The role in this election of a general reaction against the conception of government by aristocratic leadership is discussed by Phillips, N.C., Yorkshire and English National Politics, 1783–1784 (University of Canterbury, N.Z., 1961).

59 O'Gorman, op. cit. pp. 14–21. Ginter, Donald E., Introduction to Whig Organization in the General Election of 1790, XXI, and The Financing of the Whig Party Organization, 1783–1793’, American Historical Review, LXXI (19651966), 421–40.

60 O'Gorman, op. cit. p. 19. Cf. Aspinall, A., Politics and the Press, 1780–1850 (London, 1949).

61 Ginter, Introduction, op. cit. p. xliii. Cf. Aspinall, A.,‘ English Party Organization in the Early Nineteenth Century’, E.H.R. XLI (1926), 389411, and Austin Mitchell, The Whigs in Opposition, chapter II.

62 Even as George III's chosen minister, as Pares pointed out, North was capable of preaching to the king a constitutional doctrine which many people would have considered ‘ the pure milk of the Revolution gospel’, op. cit. p. 34.

63 This is not to dispute Professor Barnes' demonstration that Pitt by no means dominated George III in the making of policy: see Barnes, Donald G., George III and William Pitt, 1783–1806 (Stanford, 1939).

64 Foord, Archibald S., ‘The Waning of “The Influence of the Crown”’, E.H.R. LXII (1947), 484507, reprinted in Essays in Eighteenth-Century History (London, 1966), ed. Rosalind Mitchison. Cf. Large, D.,‘ The Decline of “ the Party of the Crown ” and the Rise of Parties in the House of Lords, 1783–1837’, E.H.R. LXXVIII (1963), 669–95.

65 At first, indeed, they continued to claim to negotiate with Pitt as a group within the government, but this tendency was broken down as they realized the need to widen their party loyalty to include the whole government, O'Gorman, op. cit. pp. 195, 223–31.

66 Foord, His Majesty's Opposition, pp. 434–8.

67 Dr Austin Mitchell points out: ‘ As king and prince regent, George's own powers were negative rather than positive: he could obstruct but not initiate, and even his obstruction could be overcome by a united cabinet’, op. cit. p. 58. Cf. Pares, op. cit. pp. 185, 191, and Brock, W.R., Lord Liverpool and Liberal Toryism 1820–1827 (London, 2nd ed. 1967), pp. 60–2.

68 The figures are estimated by Roberts, Michael, The Whig Party, 1807–1812 (London, 1965 edition), p. 333.

69 Foord, op. cit. pp. 443–4. Mitchell, op. cit. p. 13.

70 His conclusion from an analysis of the voting record of members in the three parliaments between these years is: ‘ Here is a picture of a house with a two-party system modified by the existence of unreliable groups on the fringes of both sides, and by a cushion group between the two, whose voting record indicates no attachment to either party’, op. cit. pp. 64–7.

71 This process was noticeable from the 1780s. Professor Christie calculates that of about 220 independents returned in 1780 only about 130 were entirely unconnected, op. cit. p. 194. There was a gradual change in the connotation of the term‘ Independent’ from its eighteenthcentury sense of a member independent of government or other patronage to its nineteenth-century sense of independence of one or other of the parties. The prestige still attached to the term in its older sense in the earlier part of the nineteenth century probably accounts for a phenomenon remarked by Dr Mitchell in the period 1815–30, that‘ The independence claimed by so many amounted to real neutrality only in a few cases. For the most part the members inthe central zone of the house were ultimately subject to the attracting or repelling power of one of the two political poles’, op. cit. p. 4. A similar view to that of Dr Mitchell is expressed by Beales, D.E.D., ‘Parliamentary Parties and the “Independent” Member 1810–1860’, in Ideas and Institutions of Victorian Britain, Essays in honour of George Kitson Clark, ed. Robson, Robert (London, 1967), especially pp. 1316.

72 Gash, N., ‘F. R. Bonham: Conservative “Political Secretary”, 1832–1847’, E.H.R. LXIII (1948), 502–22, and Politics in the Age of Peel (London, 1952), chapter 15.

73 Bagehot, Walter, The English Constitution, no. III, ‘The Monarchy (continued)’ (Oxford Classics ed.), pp. 5178.

74 Foord, op. cit. pp. 411–15.

* I am grateful to Professor J. R. Jones for reading this article in draft and offering helpful suggestions.

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