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Essay

Bolingbroke’s Conservative Freedom

Portrait of Henry St. John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke (ca. 1735) by Charles Jervas, Government Art Collection, London.

However mainstream left-wing ideologies may seem, they are not universally accepted. Conservatism, commonly associated with Christianity, and not unreasonably so, remains a chief rival. Indeed, one of the most prominent schools of conservatism, that of Edmund Burke, relies heavily on Christian doctrine, arguing that it is wrong for a man to alter society according to abstract theories, and thus go against his nature whose particularity has emerged by the hand of Providence. In turn, it is often assumed that one must be religious to be a conservative, but this is not necessarily true.

Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke is, perhaps, the most obvious figure to represent secular conservatism. He was a statesman, an historian, and a philosopher; he was also a libertine, and no stranger to intrigues he denounced. A freedom-loving deist, he would later be described by Benjamin Disraeli as “a firm and uncompromising Tory.” Extremely knowledgeable, eloquent, and witty, he possessed the most exquisite style that gained him early recognition—and still never managed to achieve his political goals.

Since the late 17th century, English and later British Parliament was divided between traditionalist Tories, supporters of the monarchy and the established Church, and Whigs, who had strong ties with Protestant Dissenters and were instrumental to the Glorious Revolution. Bolingbroke sided with the former and quickly rose to prominence due to his brilliant speeches. As his fame grew, he joined forces with Robert Harley, Speaker of the House of Commons, and—after Queen Anne’s ascension to the throne—they went on to form a government.

In 1704, Bolingbroke became the secretary at war, working closely with the Duke of Marlborough during the War of the Spanish Succession. Yet, by 1707, Harley had alienated both Marlborough and Godolphin, which caused his retirement in February next year. Bolingbroke followed him into the opposition. However, Harley’s intrigues allowed them to return two years later. They capitalised on the war’s growing unpopularity and supported the renewal of trade with France, signing the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. This was a recurring theme for Bolingbroke. “By trade and commerce we grow a rich and powerful nation, and by their decay we are growing poor and impotent,” he later wrote, and “as trade and commerce enrich, so they fortify, our country.” By this point, his alliance with Harley began to deteriorate. The latter had fallen out of the Queen’s favour, and Bolingbroke used the opportunity to take control of the country into his own hands. This seemed to be the peak of his career, but it turned out that direct leadership was not his forte. He was incapable of encouraging cohesion within the party, and his prospects began to worsen after Queen Anne’s death. The newly crowned King George did not appreciate his views, having much more in common with the Whigs.

In 1715, Harley was accused of high treason and misconduct during the peace negotiations, impeached and imprisoned, while Bolingbroke, unwilling to risk undergoing the same treatment, fled to France. There he joined the Jacobites, which, naturally, did not endear him to the government at home. This new venture ended in a disaster, continuing his exile. There, he bought an estate and devoted his days to history, philosophy, and letters; he also maintained relationships with several prominent thinkers, including Voltaire. Given the company he kept, it is no wonder that popular ideas of the time concerning liberty and reason were close to his heart. But Bolingbroke remained a Tory; for him, all the answers were in the past, not the future. There was no need to change the society—at least, not in England, where every solution already existed.

Eight years passed before he could return home—and into politics, providing constant resistance to the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole. Bolingbroke spent his free time organising a literary circle and writing for a Tory journal called The Craftsman, using both to win over the public. Despite his best efforts, he had no lasting success and finally gave up after the 1735 election. His last futile attempt to defeat Walpole’s Whig administration took place in 1738; his most famous work, The Idea of a Patriot King, he wrote for Frederick, Prince of Wales, who supported Bolingbroke and the opposition. Frederick died before getting a chance to put its principles into practice. 

From the very beginning of the text, Bolingbroke established himself as a monarchist but not a flatterer. “I am not one of those oriental slaves, who deem it unlawful presumption to look their kings in the face,” he wrote before proceeding to point out that “notions concerning the divine institution and right of kings, as well as the absolute power belonging to their office, have no foundation in fact or reason, but have risen from an old alliance between ecclesiastical and civil policy.” A king is just as fallible as any other man, and his power is derived from his nation’s strength and traditions. However, this does not make the monarch any less important or the hereditary monarchy any less desirable. In fact, Bolingbroke stated that he esteemed it above any other form of government. “When monarchy is the essential form, it may be more easily and more usefully tempered with aristocracy, or democracy, or both, than either of them, when they are the essential forms, can be tempered with monarchy.” By so arguing, he emphasised the balance necessary to ensure the stability of a state and the liberties of its people.

The king’s power should always be limited by the constitution; these boundaries restrain a bad king from doing any real damage while enabling a good king to act in his country’s best interests. Laws are paramount, and nobody’s will should be above them precisely because this is the best way to guarantee everyone’s freedoms, as well as provide a firm basis for the monarchy itself.

“Our constitution is brought, or almost brought, to such a point, a point of perfection I think it, that no king, who is not, in the true meaning of the word, a patriot, can govern Britain with ease, security, honour, dignity, or indeed with sufficient power and strength,” Bolingbroke declared. And a patriot king remembers that his first duty is to his nation, not to any particular party or faction within it. He must be neutral and serve as a keystone upon which the entire structure rests; he must surround himself with the statesmen who would serve the country and the Crown, not him as an individual; he must be a keeper of principles and traditions, resisting the urge to speed up even those changes he finds beneficial. As a man, he should remember that he is not immune to mistakes, and as a sovereign, he should maintain his dignity and proper distance from those who surround him.

Throughout his treatise, Bolingbroke repeatedly pointed out the importance of liberty. The state, he thought, should be strong but not tyrannical; it should stay within the boundaries of its duties, allowing its citizens to live their lives as they see fit. This translates well into the modern concept of a small government that engages in international relations, keeps order in the streets, protects private property—and leaves the individual to mind his own business. At the same time, it should serve as a source of inspiration, boost national pride and cohesion, provide moral guidance to those willing to listen, and preserve the legacy of the past generations, much like Bolingbroke’s patriot king.

Bolingbroke’s reflections may seem far too idealistic, especially coming from an experienced politician. But he knew human nature well and did not hope that even the best of monarchs could change it, turning his country into a utopia, or even pass his qualities to his successor:

The utmost he can do, and that which deserves the utmost gratitude from his subjects, is to restore good government, to revive the spirit of it, and to maintain and confirm both, during the whole course of his reign. The rest his people must do for themselves. … In all events, they will have been free men one reign the longer by his means, and perhaps more; since he will leave them much better prepared and disposed to defend their liberties, than he found them.

Despite the many historical examples that Bolingbroke used to illustrate his points, The Idea of a Patriot King is not a description of reality and was never intended as such. It is insightful advice from a man who had seen the inside of both the court and the Parliament, a man of vice and a man of wisdom; it is a set of principles worthy of passing on to future generations.

He spent his last years at Battersea, no longer a person of consequence, and died in December 1751. But three years later, his name was relevant again, as his works were published and widely discussed. They survived the test of time; if nothing else, old Henry St. John left us the idea of conservative freedom, built on reason, experience, and refined taste.

Daria Fedotova is a lawyer and writer based in Ukraine.

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