Bolingbroke, Henry St. John, Viscount

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Bolingbroke, Henry St. John, Viscount (1678-1751): English Statesman and Writer.

Born on 16 September 1678 at Lydiard Tregoze, Wiltshire, St. John was educated at Eton and received an honorary Oxford degree in 1702. A hard drinker with a series of mistresses, he married Frances, daughter of Sir Henry Winchcombe of Bucklebury, Berkshire in 1700. She brought him considerable wealth and supported him in his political difficulties, but because of his unfaithfulness, she left him nothing at her death in 1718.

In 1701 St. John was elected from Wootton Bassett, Wiltshire to the House of Commons. He became a Tory leader, supported Robert Harley, befriended the duke of Marlborough, helped to pass the Act of Settlement in 1701, and was secretary of war from 1704 to 1708. When Marlborough and Sidney Godolphin moved closer to the Whigs and forced Harley out of office, St. John resigned. He returned as secretary of state in 1710, when Harley became Chancellor of the Exchequer, and helped him to bring down Marlborough. He opposed the War of the Spanish Succession, defended the Church of England, and attacked the moneyed interests, such as the Bank of England and the East India Company. When Harley became earl of Oxford in 1711, St. John assumed leadership of the Commons. Sitting for Berkshire, he backed the Landed Qualification Act and the Occasional Conformity Act in 1711. He collaborated with Jonathan Swift on The Examiner and in 1711 founded the Brothers Club, which included Gay, John, Pope, Alexander, and Swift, Jonathan. On 7 July 1712 Queen Anne created him Viscount Bolingbroke. He played the leading role in negotiating the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713, though the Whigs condemned its concessions to the French and abandonment of Britain’s allies, and parliament rejected his commercial agreement with France, an early attempt at free trade. In 1714 Bolingbroke broke with Harley and was briefly chief minister, but Anne replaced him before dying, and the pro-Whig George I dismissed him from office altogether. In 1715 he fled to France, joined the Jacobites who supported a Stuart restoration, and became secretary of state to the Catholic James Edward “the Old Pretender.” Parliament impeached him, exiled him, and took away his title, estate, and seat in the Lords. He became disillusioned with Jacobitism, and James dismissed him in 1716, but he never recovered his reputation. He settled at La Source, frequented the Club de l’Entresol, became acquainted with Montesquieu, Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de, Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de, and other luminaries, and in 1718 married the widow Madame de Villette. His Letter to Sir William Wyndham in 1717 sought permission to return home, which he received in 1725, though excluded from the Lords. In 1726 he began publishing The Craftsman, which articulated Opposition criticisms of Robert Walpole’s “Robinocracy.” It serialized two of his major works. Remarks on the History of England (1730-31) discusses English history to 1640 as a struggle between “liberty” (based on the mixed constitution and best exemplified by Elizabeth I) and “faction” (the work of evil monarchs and ministers, with allusions to Walpole). A Dissertation upon Parties (1733-34) continues to the 1730s, arguing that the Glorious Revolution destroyed distinctions between Tories and Whigs and that there was now a country party (Bolingbroke’s) that supported the constitution restored in 1688 and an anti-constitutional court party (Walpole’s). In 1733 he helped defeat Walpole’s Excise Bill, but in 1734 Walpole derided him in the Commons as the “anti-minister,” and in 1735 he returned to France. In 1736 Bolingbroke wrote A Letter on the Spirit of Patriotism, calling on English nobles to oppose the “new” England. Back home in 1738, he wrote The Idea of a Patriot King, now focusing hope for reform on Prince Frederick. In 1739 he returned to France. In 1742 he inherited his father’s house at Battersea, Surrey, where he settled in 1744. He published both aforementioned works in 1749. His second wife died in 1750, and he followed in 1751. His writings influenced Benjamin Disraeli and still have a conservative following. Many scholars discount his political thought, but others credit him with articulating the ideas of nonparty government, legitimate opposition, separation of powers, and an anti-Machiavellian morality. He is at the heart of disputes about political stability and an ideologically coherent Opposition in Augustan England.

Further Reading:

Isaac Kramnick, Bolingbroke and His Circle: The Politics of Nostalgia in the Age of Walpole, 1992.

Alexander Pettit, Illusory Consensus: Bolingbroke and the Polemical Response to Walpole, 1730-1737, 1997.

William B. Robison

Southeastern Louisiana University

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