The History of Conservatism, Liberalism & Libertarianism (Part 3 – Conservatism in 17th & 18th Century Great Britain)

In Part 1, I laid out a bird’s eye view of how natural law translated into its common law protections in England and in Part 2, I attempted to share how the terms conservatism and liberalism can be defined. So does that make 17th century Great Britain notably liberal (given liberalism affinity with liberty) or conservative (given conservative affinity with tradition)? As noted in Part 2, you could argue both ways. But let’s get into the details and you can decide for yourself. That takes us back to the English Civil War. In this part, I’ll take you from this event to the mid-1800s, specifically looking at the early Whig and Tory parties and the development of conservatism in British politics.

But first, why is this important to modern readers? Because many modern American Conservative values are rooted in the writings and ideas of the British conservatives of this time period.

Charles I (1600-1649)

The Whigs and the Tories

Before we get to the 18th Century, let’s expand on a few details alluded to in Part 1. The English Civil War broke out in 1642 and would finally be settled with the execution of King Charles I in 1649 at the hands of Parliament and its military commander, Oliver Cromwell. To oversimplify the matter, Charles ended up at war with Parliament for his numerous attempts to dissolve Parliament and rule in absolutist fashion as his neighbor, King Louis XIV (the “Sun King”) of France when they restricted Charles’ access to taxation and other elements of power as laid out in the Magna Carta and later documents. The war, more about power than political theory, was nevertheless embodied a sort of symbolic conflict between the king and his supporters and country and their political representatives—absolutism vs. representative government. (It should be noted that only the land-owing aristocracy of England both paid national taxes and voted, as it was understood that tax-paying citizens should be responsible for the representatives using those taxes.)

Puritan leader and Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell ruled in the British Commonwealth until his death in 1658. His son was unable to keep the loyalty of Parliament and the army, and Parliament, disenchanted with the Cromwells, invited Charles II (the son of executed Charles I) back from exile in France (where he also admired the absolute rule of Louis XIV). To most of Parliament, Charles II was the same disappointment as his father.

James II (1633-1701)

Charles II (1630-1685)

This is where we see the earliest development of what would later become distinct political parties in the English Parliament: the Whigs and the Tories. Though these groups were not formalized until much later, the question that would start to divide them was: Who should succeed Charles II, who did not have a son of his own? Charles had a brother, James, a Catholic, who was in line to rule upon Charles’ death. Members of Parliament who began to unify against the ascension of James to the throne became known as Whigs, and those who generally supported James as king were known as Tories. The Whig argument centered around fears of a recurrence of the days of England’s notorious “Bloody” Mary, the Catholic queen who had attempted to return England to Catholicism through often violent means. Tories, on the other hand, notwithstanding their own concerns of a Catholic King in a country where it was culturally-expected to be anti-Catholic, were inclined to grant royal prerogative. This was the idea that the succession of kings is a matter outside the hands of Parliament.

Whigs won the electoral debate in Parliament, which passed the Exclusion Bill, barring James from the throne. The bill was expectedly vetoed by King Charles, and when he died in 1685, James came to the throne as James II despite Parliamentary efforts. However, within three short years, James had managed to isolate both Whigs and Tories, and 1688 marked the astonishingly peaceful transition of power as James’s sister Mary and her Dutch husband William came to the throne and James himself quietly slipped out of London.  This was the Glorious Revolution discussed in Part 1.

The English Bill of Rights and similar measures passed in the immediate wake of the Glorious Revolution and agreed to by King William and Mary solidified parliamentary sovereignty in England. This would put the bulk of future policy debates primarily in the hands of the members of Parliament, and though the issues would change, the Whigs and the Tories would persist and eventually formalize into more distinct political sides.

The Development of Conservative Thinking

Amidst these significant changes in English politics and the ultimate ascendancy of Parliament in the political process, the Whigs and the Tories would increasingly become more aligned with liberalism and conservatism, respectively. In this part, we’re focusing on the latter.

Henry St. John Vincent Bolingbroke (1678-1751)

Two key people must be discussed as particularly influential in conservative thought: Henry St. John Vincent Bolingbroke and the more well-known Edmund Burke.

Bolingbroke’s period of influence came about shortly after yet another short but turbulent political episode. After the death of William and Mary, Mary’s younger sister, Anne, also died  after a short period as queen (in 1714) without an heir. When Whigs in Parliament decided to invite the German Hanoverian King George to be the British King George I, a plot emerged to place James III, son of James II, on the throne. Those supporting this measure were known as Jacobites (named for the Latin word for James: Jacob), who twice tried to accomplish their goal (known as the “Jacobite Uprisings”). Tories, having their political beginnings in support of the royal prerogative of the very much disliked James II, were naturally suspected of sympathy toward the Jacobites, resulting in Whig dominance of Parliament during the period. Bolingbroke, a Tory, was also implicated and spent some time in exile before regaining favor and returning to England.

A key early conservative thinker, Bolingbroke (1678-1751) is one of the first to clearly lay out what would become known as conservative values. First, he argued that the primary unit of society is the family, and all law should be centered around the family unit rather than the individual. Second, though deistic himself, he supported the established and government-sponsored Church of England. Third, he believed that politics could only affect limited influence on society. And finally, he favored the land-owning aristocracy and looked down on the growing merchant and middle class. All four of these would, to one extent or another, come to be key elements of conservative principles.

Edmund Burke (c.1729-1797)

The second key figure in the development of these principles was Edmund Burke (1729-1797), considered by many to be the father of modern conservatism in both England and the United States. Ironically, and as a further demonstration of the nebulous nature of terms, ideas and labels, Burke was a Whig and is also often cited as a key thinker in the liberal tradition. In and out of Parliament, Burke never produced a clear political treatise (there is some debate over the only one he did produce as a young man, but most of his political theory is drawn from his later political career and bits and pieces of his writing). Conservative in his approach to politics, Burke nevertheless favored some political reform, such as Catholic Emancipation. If enacted, this would free Catholics to meet publicly in England and open up further opportunities to Catholics, an idea shunned by many, if not most, outspoken voices in Parliament and England. The measure was rejected. Burke also supported the American Revolutionaries. None of these approaches would seem particularly conservative to many observers.

If Burke wasn’t strictly conservative in these regards, what gains him the title “Father of Modern Conservatism”? Specifically, his conservatism comes through in his writings, primarily in his essay Reflections on the Revolution in France in 1790 (the French Revolution began in 1789). First of all, he makes the very conservative case that the structure, traditions and relations of society are organic and develop over time through unique human interaction, not as some mechanical, impersonal or forced process. He is here arguing broadly against a growing humanistic culture, a worldview glorifying the ability of people to guide and orchestrate society toward some form of perfection (we will later call this progressivism). He is more specifically countering French philosophers who argue that society can be “reset.” Second, he argues that political change must be made very gradually; not through revolution or radical uprisings. Keep this second point in mind going forward.

William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806)

Conservatism in English Politics

Far more involved in British politics from the mid-18th to mid-17th centuries were a a few key characters instrumental in transforming conservatism from a vague ideology to a semi-organized political approach. The first, William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806), a Tory, would serve as Prime Minister (the youngest in English history) during the French Revolution of 1789. Like Burke, he favored some reformist policies, but was conservative in his belief that change should be limited, gradual and organic. Particularly, he feared the spread of revolution to England, and took measures to repress free press and free speech in his Sedition Laws, suspended habeas corpus, and banned trade unions, which he believed fostered discontent in the working classes. This particular fear of an overflow of the revolution into Great Britain from France was reflected in the writing and words of many conservatives during the era, and conservatives saw it as crucial to avoid any chance that this could happen.

Overall, Pitt’s actions characterized political conservatism: a premium put on keeping order at the expense of individual liberty. (Many Americans will recall this is during the same time that American President John Adams would sign the Alien and Sedition Acts into law.)

Robert Peel (1788-1850)

The Duke of Wellington (1769-1852)

Tories would dominate Parliament for the first part of the 19th century. Key figures among them, especially after the resignation and death of Pitt, would be George Canning and Arthur Wellesley (the Duke of Wellington), both of whom followed in the politically conservative stream of Burke and Pitt, working to maintain order, but also pursuing the more liberal Catholic Emancipation.  Still, it wasn’t until Robert Peel (1788-1850) that Tories began to consider themselves conservatives in a self-conscious fashion and in the sense that we understand Bolingbroke and Burke retrospectively. Peel would serve as a leader in the House of Commons and had a few stints as Prime Minister, during this time creating the first modern municipal police force in London and finally managing to work with the Duke of Wellington to pass Catholic Emancipation in 1829. A later policy position ended up with a split in the Conservative Party, but the fundamental points of conservatism had been laid. We’ll look at this split in a later post.

What Did Conservatism Look Like in Great Britain?

In addition to Tory/Conservative dominance in the Parliament during the early 1800s, conservative authors and poets were representative of the cultural phenomenon of conservative. Names such as Sir Walter Scott are familiar to some readers, among others like William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The latter, Coleridge, wrote specifically in 1830 on how the integral union between the church and state formed a backbone of English society (On the Constitution of Church and State); a church was the unifying center of every community across England, he argued. Many of these writers were influenced by the Romantic Movement, a cultural and artistic emphasis on emotion, beauty and the subjectivity of feeling (and a pendulum swing away from the rationalism of the 18th century Enlightenment).

So, despite its varieties, what commonalities bound conservatives together in the 18th and 19th Centuries in Great Britain? I’ll conclude with a concise list. (Obviously, some of these will overlap with current emphases of American Conservatism and some will not.)

  • Support for established institutions, particularly the Anglican Church (and its status as government-sponsored)
  • An emphasis on slow, organic political and social reform, if any, with an acute skepticism of government as an agent of change
  • A praise and support for tradition
  • Recognition of society as an organic, naturally occurring organism rather than being mechanical and systematic
  • A prime importance put on maintaining order, using government restrictions on liberty to maintain it, if necessary, and to ensure that revolutionary fervor not spread

Thanks for sticking with me this far! In the next post, we’ll look further and the development of liberalism in Great Britain, and then move to America in the founding era after that. Subscribe to know when the next one is posted (and to get my enjoyable emails)! See you then.

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