Henry St. John, 1st Vicount Bolingbroke
Image by lisby1
Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke (16 September 1678 – 12 December 1751), was an English politician and philosopher. He identified predominantly with the Tory faction, of which he was a prominent member for many years.
He was born at Battersea, the son of Sir Henry St John (later 1st Viscount St John) and Lady Mary Rich, daughter of the 2nd Earl of Warwick. He was baptised on 10 October 1678, and educated at Eton College.
He travelled abroad during 1698 and 1699 and acquired an exceptional knowledge of French, but also led an exceptionally dissipated and extravagant youth. Oliver Goldsmith reported that he had been seen to "run naked through the park in a state of intoxication". Swift, his intimate friend, said that he wanted to be thought the Alcibiades or Petronius of his age, and to mix licentious orgies with the highest political responsibilities. In 1700, he married Frances, daughter of Sir Henry Winchcombe of Bucklebury, Berkshire, but this made little difference to his lifestyle.
He was returned to Parliament in 1701 for the family borough of Wootton Bassett in Wiltshire, as a Tory. His seat was Lydiard Park at Lydiard Tregoze, now in the Borough of Swindon. He attached himself to Robert Harley (afterwards Lord Oxford), then speaker, and distinguished himself by his eloquence in debate, eclipsing his schoolfellow, Robert Walpole, and gaining an extraordinary ascendancy over the House of Commons. In May, he had charge of the bill for securing the Protestant succession; he took part in the impeachment of the Whig lords for their conduct concerning the Partition treaties, and opposed the oath of loyalty against the "Old Pretender". In March 1702, he was chosen commissioner for taking the public accounts.
After Queen Anne’s accession, St John supported the bills in 1702 and 1704 against occasional conformity, and took a leading part in the disputes which arose between the two Houses. In 1704, St John took office with Harley as secretary at war, thus being brought into intimate relations with John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, by whom he was treated with favour. In 1708, he left office with Harley on the failure of the latter’s intrigue, and retired to the country till 1710, when he became a privy counsellor and secretary of state in Harley’s new ministry, representing Berkshire in parliament. He supported the bill for requiring a real property qualification for a seat in parliament. In 1711 he founded the Brothers’ Club, a society of Tory politicians and men of letters, and the same year witnessed the failure of the two expeditions to the West Indies and to Canada promoted by him. In 1712, he was the author of the bill taxing newspapers.
The refusal of the Whigs to make peace with France in 1706, and again in 1709 when Louis XIV offered to yield every point for which the allies professed to be fighting, showed that the war was not being continued in the national interest, and the ministry was supported by the queen, Parliament and the people in wishing to terminate hostilities. Because of the diversity of aims among the allies, St John was induced to enter into separate and secret negotiations with France for the security of English interests. In May 1712, he ordered the Duke of Ormonde, who had succeeded Marlborough in command, to refrain from any further engagement. These instructions were communicated to the French, though not to the allies, Louis putting Dunkirk as security into possession of England, and the English troops deserted their allies almost on the battlefield. Subsequently St John received the congratulations of the French foreign minister, Torcy, on the French victory over Prince Eugene at Denain.
In August 1712, St John, who had been created Viscount Bolingbroke went to France and signed an armistice between England and France for four months. Finally, the Treaty of Utrecht was signed in March 1713 by all the allies except the emperor. The first production of Addison’s Cato was made by the Whigs the occasion of a great demonstration of indignation against the peace, and by Bolingbroke for presenting the actor Barton Booth with a purse of fifty guineas for "defending the cause of liberty against a perpetual dictator" (Marlborough).
In June, Bolingbroke’s commercial treaty with France, establishing free trade with that country, was rejected. Meanwhile, the friendship between Bolingbroke and Harley, the basis of the whole Tory administration, had been gradually dissolved. In March 1711, by Guiscard’s attempt on his life, Harley got the wound which had been intended for St John, with all the credit. In May, Harley obtained the earldom of Oxford and was made lord treasurer, while in July, St John was greatly disappointed at receiving only his viscountcy instead of the earldom lately extinct in his family, and at being passed over for the Order of the Garter.
In September 1713, Swift came to London, and made a final vain attempt to reconcile his two friends. But now a further cause of difference had arisen. The queen’s health was visibly breaking, and the Tory ministers anticipated their downfall on the accession of the Elector of Hanover. During Bolingbroke’s diplomatic mission to France he had incurred blame for remaining at the opera while the Pretender was present, and according to the Mackintosh transcripts he had several secret interviews with him. Regular communications were kept up subsequently.
In March 1714, Herville, the French envoy in London, sent to Torcy, the French foreign minister, the substance of two long conversations with Bolingbroke in which the latter advised patience till after the accession of George I, when a great reaction was to be expected in favour of the Pretender. At the same time, he spoke of the treachery of Marlborough and Berwick, and of one Other, presumably Oxford, whom he refused to name, all of whom were in communication with Hanover. Both Oxford and Bolingbroke warned James that he could have little chance of success unless he changed his religion, but the latter’s refusal does not appear to have stopped the communications. Bolingbroke gradually superseded Oxford in the leadership. Lady Masham, the queen’s favourite, quarrelled with Oxford and identified herself with Bolingbroke’s interests. The harsh treatment of the Hanoverian demands was inspired by him, and won favour with the queen, while Oxford’s influence declined; and by his support of the Schism Bill in May 1714, a violent Tory measure forbidding all education by dissenters by making an episcopal licence obligatory for schoolmasters, he probably intended to compel Oxford to give up the game. Finally, a charge of corruption brought by Oxford in July against Bolingbroke and Lady Masham, in connexion with the commercial treaty with Spain, failed, and the lord treasurer was dismissed or retired on 27 July 1714.
Bolingbroke was now supreme, and everything appeared tending inevitably to a Jacobite restoration. The Jacobite Sir William Wyndham had been made chancellor of the exchequer, important military posts were placed in the hands of the faction, and a new ministry of Jacobites was projected. But now the queen’s sudden death in August, and the appointment of Shrewsbury to the lord treasurership, instantly changed the whole scene and ruined Bolingbroke. "The earl of Oxford was removed on Tuesday", he wrote to Swift, "the queen died on Sunday! What a world is this and how does fortune banter us!"
According to Herville, the French envoy, Bolingbroke declared to him that in six weeks he could have secured everything. Nevertheless the exact nature of his projects remains obscure. On the accession of George I the illuminations and bonfire at Lord Bolingbroke’s house in Golden Square were "particularly fine and remarkable," but he was immediately dismissed from office. He retired to Bucklebury and is said to have now written the answer to the Secret History of the White Staff accusing him of being a Jacobite. In March 1715, he in vain attempted to defend the late ministry in the new parliament; and on the announcement of Walpole’s intended attack upon the authors of the Treaty of Utrecht he fled in disguise to Paris, where he was well received, after having addressed a letter to Lord Lansdowne protesting his innocence and challenging "the most inveterate of his enemies to produce any instance of his criminal correspondence". He turned to the British government in hopes of pardon. In March 1716, he declared his final abandonment of the Pretender and promised to use his influence to secure the withdrawal of his friends; but he refused to betray any secrets or any individuals.
He wrote his Reflexions upon Exile, and in 1717, his letter to Sir William Wyndham in explanation of his position, generally considered one of his finest compositions, but not published till 1753 after his death. The same year, he formed a liaison with Marie Claire Deschamps de Marcilly, widow of the marquis de Villette, whom he married in 1720, two years after his first wife’s death. He bought and resided at the estate of La Source near Orléans, studied philosophy, criticized the chronology of the Bible, and was visited amongst others by Voltaire, who expressed unbounded admiration for his learning and politeness. In 1723, through the medium of the king’s mistress, Ehrengard Melusine von der Schulenburg, Duchess of Kendal and Munster, he received a pardon, returned to London in June or July, and placed his services at the disposal of Walpole, by whom, however, his offers to procure the accession of several Tories to the administration were received very coldly.
During the following winter, he made himself useful in France in gaining information for the government. In 1725, an act was passed enabling him to hold real estate but without power of alienating it. But this had been effected in consequence of a peremptory order of the king, against Walpole’s wishes, who succeeded in maintaining his exclusion from the House of Lords. He now bought an estate at Dawley, near Uxbridge, where he renewed his intimacy with Pope, Swift and Voltaire, took part in Pope’s literary squabbles, and wrote the philosophy for the Essay on Man. On the first occasion which offered itself, that of Pulteney’s rupture with Walpole in 1726, he endeavoured to organize an opposition in conjunction with the former and Wyndham; and in 1727, began his celebrated series of letters to the Craftsman, attacking the Walpoles, signed "an Occasional Writer". He gained over the Duchess of Kendal with a bribe of £11,000 from his wife’s estates, and with Walpole’s approval obtained an audience with George. His success was imminent, and it was thought his appointment as chief minister was assured. In Walpole’s own words, "as St John had the duchess entirely on his side I need not add what must or might in time have been the consequence," and he prepared for his dismissal. But once more Bolingbroke’s "fortune turned rotten at the very moment it grew ripe," and his projects and hopes were ruined by the king’s death in June.
Further papers from his pen signed "John Trot" appeared in the Craftsman in 1728, and in 1730 followed Remarks on the History of England by Humphrey Oldcastle, attacking the Walpoles’ policy. Comment prompted by Bolingbroke was continued in the House of Commons by Windham, and great efforts were made to establish the alliance between the Tories and the Opposition Whigs. The Excise Bill in 1733 and the Septennial Bill in the following year offered opportunities for further attacks on the government, which Bolingbroke supported by a new series of papers in the Craftsman styled "A Dissertation on Parties"; but the whole movement collapsed after the new elections, which returned Walpole to power in 1735 with a large majority.
Bolingbroke retired baffled and disappointed from the fray to France in June, residing principally at the château of Argeville near Fontainebleau. He now wrote his Letters on the Study of History (printed privately before his death and published in 1752), and the True Use of Retirement. In 1738, he visited England, became one of the leading friends and advisers of Frederick, Prince of Wales, who now headed the opposition, and wrote for the occasion The Patriot King, which together with a previous essay, The Spirit of Patriotism, and The State of Parties at the Accession of George I, were entrusted to Pope and not published. Having failed, however, to obtain any share in politics, he returned to France in 1739, and subsequently sold Dawley. In 1742 and 1743, he again visited England and quarrelled with Warburton. In 1744, he settled finally at Battersea with his friend Hugh Hume, 3rd Earl of Marchmont, and was present at Pope’s death in May. The discovery that the poet had printed secretly 1500 copies of The Patriot King, caused him to publish a correct version in 1749, and stirred up a further altercation with Warburton, who defended his friend against Bolingbroke’s bitter aspersions, the latter, whose conduct was generally reprehended, publishing a Familiar Epistle to the most Impudent Man Living.
In 1744, he had been very busy assisting in the negotiations for the establishment of the new "broad bottom" administration, and showed no sympathy for the Jacobite expedition in 1745. He recommended the tutor for Prince George, afterwards George III. About 1749, he wrote the Present State of the Nation, an unfinished pamphlet. Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield records the last words heard from him: "God who placed me here will do what He pleases with me hereafter and He knows best what to do". He died on 12 December 1751, aged 73, his second wife having predeceased him by one year. They were both buried in the parish church at Battersea, where a monument with medallions and inscriptions composed by Bolingbroke was erected to their memory.
4 Responses to Henry St. John, 1st Vicount Bolingbroke