The Spirit of Whiggism, by Benjamin Disraeli

Chapter 1.

Object of the Whigs

England has become great by her institutions. Her hereditary Crown has in a great degree insured us from the distracting evils of a contested succession; her Peerage, interested, from the vast property and the national honours of its members, in the good government of the country, has offered a compact bulwark against the temporary violence of popular passion; her House of Commons, representing the conflicting sentiments of an estate of the realm not less privileged than that of the Peers, though far more numerous, has enlisted the great mass of the lesser proprietors of the country in favour of a political system which offers them a constitutional means of defence and a legitimate method of redress; her Ecclesiastical Establishment, preserved by its munificent endowment from the fatal necessity of pandering to the erratic fancies of its communicants, has maintained the sacred cause of learning and religion, and preserved orthodoxy while it secured toleration; her law of primogeniture has supplied the country with a band of natural and independent leaders, trustees of those legal institutions which pervade the land, and which are the origin of our political constitution. That great body corporate, styled a nation-a vast assemblage of human beings knit together by laws and arts and customs, by the necessities of the present and the memory of the past — offers in this country, through these its vigorous and enduring members, a more substantial and healthy framework than falls to the lot of other nations. Our stout-built constitution throws off with more facility and safety those crude and dangerous humours which must at times arise in all human communities. The march of revolution must here at least be orderly. We are preserved from those reckless and tempestuous sallies that in other countries, like a whirlwind, topple down in an instant an ancient crown, or sweep away an illustrious aristocracy. This constitution, which has secured order, has consequently promoted civilisation; and the almost unbroken tide of progressive amelioration has made us the freest, the wealthiest, and the most refined society of modern ages. Our commerce is unrivalled, our manufacturers supply the world, our agriculture is the most skilful in Christendom. So national are our institutions, so completely have they arisen from the temper and adapted themselves to the character of the people, that when for a season they were apparently annihilated, the people of England voluntarily returned to them, and established them with renewed strength and renovated vigour.

The constitution of England is again threatened, and at a moment when the nation is more prosperous, more free, and more famous than at any period of its momentous and memorable career. Why is this? What has occasioned these distempered times, which make the loyal tremble and the traitor smile? Why has this dark cloud suddenly gathered in a sky so serene and so splendid? Is there any analogy between this age and that of the first Charles? Are the same causes at work, or is the apparent similarity produced only by designing men, who make use of the perverted past as a passport to present mischief? These are great questions, which it may be profitable to discuss and wise to study.

Rapin, a foreigner who wrote our history, in the course of his frigid yet accurate pages, indulged in one philosophical observation. Struck at the same time by our greatness and by the fury of our factions, the Huguenot exclaimed: ‘It appears to me that this great society can only be dissolved by the violence of its political parties.’ What are these parties? Why are they violent? Why should they exist? In resolving these questions, we may obtain an accurate idea of our present political position, and by pondering over the past we may make that past not a prophecy, as the disaffected intend, but a salutary lesson by which the loyal may profit.

The two great parties into which England has during the last century and a half been divided originated in the ancient struggle between the Crown and the aristocracy. As long as the Crown possessed or aspired to despotic power, the feeling of the nation supported the aristocracy in their struggles to establish a free government. The aristocracy of England formed the constitution of the Plantagenets; the Wars of the Roses destroyed that aristocracy, and the despotism of the Tudors succeeded. Renovated by more than a century of peace and the spoils of the Papacy, the aristocracy of England attacked the first Stuarts, who succeeded to a despotism which they did not create. When Charles the First, after a series of great concessions which ultimately obtained for him the support of the most illustrious of his early opponents, raised the royal standard, the constitution of the Plantagenets, and more than the constitution of the Plantagenets, had been restored and secured. But a portion of the able party which had succeeded in effecting such a vast and beneficial revolution was not content to part with the extraordinary powers which they had obtained in this memorable struggle. This section of the aristocracy were the origin of the English Whigs, though that title was not invented until the next reign. The primitive Whigs-‘Parliament-men,’ as they liked to call themselves, ‘Roundheads,’ as they were in time dubbed — aspired to an oligarchy. For a moment they obtained one; but unable to maintain themselves in power against the returning sense and rising spirit of a generous and indignant people, they called to their aid that domestic revolutionary party which exists in all countries, and an anti-national enemy in addition. These were the English Radicals, or Root-and-Branch men, and the Scotch Covenanters. To conciliate the first they sacrificed the Crown; to secure the second they abolished the Church. The constitution of England in Church and State was destroyed, and the Whig oligarchy, in spite of their machinations, were soon merged in the common ruin.

The ignoble tyranny to which this great nation was consequently subject produced that reaction which is in the nature of human affairs. The ancient constitution was in time restored, and the Church and the Crown were invested with greater powers than they had enjoyed previously to their overthrow. So hateful had been the consequences of Whig rule, that the people were inclined rather to trust the talons of arbitrary power than to take refuge under the wing of these pretended advocates of popular rights. A worthless monarch and a corrupted court availed themselves of the offered opportunity; and when James the Second ascended the throne, the nation was again prepared to second the aristocracy in a struggle for their liberties. But the Whigs had profited by their previous experiment: they resolved upon a revolution, but they determined that that revolution should be brought about by as slight an appeal to popular sympathies as possible. They studiously confined that appeal to the religious feelings of the nation. They hired a foreign prince and enlisted a foreign army in their service. They dethroned James, they established themselves in power without the aid of the mass; and had William the Third been a man of ordinary capacity, the constitution of Venice would have been established in England in 1688. William the Third told the Whigs that he would never consent to be a Doge. Resembling Louis Philippe in his character as well as in his position, that extraordinary prince baffled the Whigs by his skilful balance of parties; and had Providence accorded him an heir, it is probable that the oligarchical faction would never have revived in England. The Whigs have ever been opposed to the national institutions because they are adverse to the establishment of an oligarchy. Local institutions, supported by a landed gentry, check them; hence their love of centralisation and their hatred of unpaid magistrates.

An independent hierarchy checks them; hence their affected advocacy of toleration and their patronage of the Dissenters. The power of the Crown checks them; therefore they always labour to reduce the sovereign to a nonentity, and by the establishment of the Cabinet they have virtually banished the King from his own councils. But, above all, the Parliament of England checks them, and therefore it may be observed that the Whigs at all times are quarrelling with some portion of those august estates. They despair of destroying the Parliament; by it, and by it alone, can they succeed in their objects. Corruption for one part, force for the other, then, is their motto. In 1640 they attempted to govern the country by the House of Commons, because the aristocracy was then more powerful in the House of Commons than in the House of Lords, where a Peerage, exhausted by civil wars, had been too liberally recruited from the courtiers of the Tudors and the Stuarts. At the next revolution which the Whigs occasioned, they attempted to govern the country by the House of Lords, in which they were predominant; and, in order to guarantee their power for ever, they introduced a Bill to deprive the King of his prerogative of making further Peers. The revolution of 1640 led to the abolition of the House of Lords because the Lords opposed the oligarchy. Having a majority in the House of Lords, the Whigs introduced the Peerage Bill, by which the House of Lords would have been rendered independent of the sovereign; unpopular with the country, the Whigs attacked the influence of popular election, and the moment that, by the aid of the most infamous corruption, they had obtained a temporary majority in the Lower House, they passed the Septennial Act.

The Whigs of the eighteenth century ‘swamped’ the House of Commons; the Whigs of the nineteenth would ‘swamp’ the House of Lords. The Whigs of the eighteenth century would have rendered the House of Lords unchangeable; the Whigs of the nineteenth remodel the House of Commons.

I conclude here the first chapter of the ‘Spirit of Whiggism’-a little book which I hope may be easily read and easily remembered. The Whig party have always adopted popular cries. In one age it is Liberty, in another reform; at one period they sound the tocsin against popery, in another they ally themselves with papists. They have many cries, and various modes of conduct; but they have only one object — the establishment of an oligarchy in this free and equal land. I do not wish this country to be governed by a small knot of great families, and therefore I oppose the Whigs.

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:20