Of the Parties of Great Britain


David Hume

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Of the Parties of Great Britain

Were the British government proposed as a subject of speculation, one would immediately perceive in it a source of division and party, which it would be almost impossible for it, under any administration, to avoid. The just balance between the republican and monarchical part of our constitution is really in itself so extremely delicate and uncertain, that, when joined to men’s passions and prejudices, it is impossible but different opinions must arise concerning it, even among persons of the best understanding. Those of mild tempers, who love peace and order, and detest sedition and civil wars, will always entertain more favourable sentiments of monarchy than men of bold and generous spirits, who are passionate lovers of liberty, and think no evil comparable to subjection and slavery. And though all reasonable men agree in general to preserve our mixed government, yet, when they come to particulars, some will incline to trust greater powers to the crown, to bestow on it more influence, and to guard against its encroachments with less caution, than others who are terrified at the most distant approaches of tyranny and despotic power. Thus are there parties of PRINCIPLE involved in the very nature of our constitution, which may properly enough he denominated those of COURT and COUNTRY.1 The strength and violence of each of these parties will much depend upon the particular administration. An administration may be so bad, as to throw a great majority into the opposition; as a good administration will reconcile to the court many of the most passionate lovers of liberty. But however the nation may fluctuate between them, the parties themselves will always subsist, so long as we are governed by a limited monarchy.

But, besides this difference of Principle, those parties are very much fomented by a difference of INTEREST, without which they could scarcely ever be dangerous or violent. The crown will naturally bestow all trust and power upon those whose principles, real or pretended, are most favourable to monarchical government; and this temptation will naturally engage them to go greater lengths than their principles would otherwise carry them. Their antagonists, who are disappointed in their ambitious aims, throw themselves into the party whose sentiments incline them to be most jealous of royal power, and naturally carry those sentiments to a greater height than sound politics will justify. Thus Court and Country, which are the genuine offspring of the British government, are a kind of mixed parties, and are influenced both by principle and by interest. The heads of the factions are commonly most governed by the latter motive; the inferior members of them by the former.2

As to ecclesiastical parties, we may observe, that, in all ages of the world, priests have been enemies to liberty;3 and, it is certain, that this steady conduct of theirs must have been founded on fixed reasons of interest and ambition. Liberty of thinking, and of expressing our thoughts, is always fatal to priestly power, and to those pious frauds on which it is commonly founded; and, by an infallible connection, which prevails among all kinds of liberty, this privilege can never be enjoyed, at least has never yet been enjoyed, but in a free government. Hence it must happen, in such a constitution as that of Great Britain, that the established clergy, while things are in their natural situation, will always be of the Court party; as, on the contrary, dissenters of all kinds will be of the Country party; since they can never hope for that toleration which they stand in need of, but by means of our free government. All princes that have aimed at despotic power have known of what importance it was to gain the established clergy; as the clergy, on their part, have shown a great facility in entering into the views of such princes. Gustavus Vasa was, perhaps, the only ambitious monarch that ever depressed the church, at the same time that he discouraged liberty. But the exorbitant power of the bishops in Sweden, who at that time overtopped the crown itself, together with their attachment to a foreign family, was the reason of his embracing such an unusual system of politics.

This observation, concerning propensity of priests to the government of a single person, is not true with regard to one sect only. The Presbyterian and Calvinistic clergy in Holland, were professed friends to the family of Orange; as the Arminians, who were esteemed heretics, were of the Louvestein faction, and zealous for liberty. But if a prince have the choice of both, it is easy to see that he will prefer the Episcopal to the Presbyterian form of government, both because of the greater affinity between monarchy and episcopacy, and because of the facility which he will find, in such a government, of ruling the clergy by means of their ecclesiastical superiors.

If we consider the first rise of parties in England, during the great rebellion, we shall observe that it was conformable to this general theory, and that the species of government gave birth to them by a regular and infallible operation. The English constitution, before that period, had lain in a kind of confusion, yet so as that the subjects possessed many noble privileges, which, though not exactly bounded and secured by law, were universally deemed, from long possession, to belong to them as their birthright. An ambitious, or rather a misguided, prince arose, who deemed all these privileges to be concessions of his predecessors, revocable at pleasure; and, in prosecution of this principle, he openly acted in violation of liberty during the course of several years. Necessity, at last, constrained him to call a parliament; the spirit of liberty arose and spread itself; the prince, being without any support, was obliged to grant every thing required of him; and his enemies, jealous and implacable, set no bounds to their pretensions. Here, then, began those contests in which it was no wonder that men of that age were divided into different parties; since, even at this day, the impartial are at a loss to decide concerning the justice of the quarrel. The pretensions of the parliament, if yielded to, broke the balance of the constitution, by rendering the government almost entirely republican. If not yielded to, the nation was, perhaps, still in danger of absolute power, from the settled principles and inveterate habits of the king, which had plainly appeared in every concession that he had been constrained to make to his people. In this question, so delicate and uncertain, men naturally fell to the side which was most conformable to their usual principles; and the more passionate favourers of monarchy declared for the king, as the zealous friends of liberty sided with the parliament. The hopes of success being nearly equal on both sides, interest had no general influence in this contest; so that ROUNDHEAD and CAVALIER were merely parties of principle, neither of which disowned either monarchy or liberty; but the former party inclined most to the republican part of our government, the latter to the monarchical. In this respect, they may be considered as court and country party, inflamed into a civil war, by an unhappy concurrence of circumstances, and by the turbulent spirit of the age. The commonwealth’s men, and the partisans of absolute power, lay concealed in both parties, and formed but an inconsiderable part of them.

The clergy had concurred with the king’s arbitrary designs; and, in return, were allowed to persecute their adversaries, whom they called heretics and schismatics. The established clergy were Episcopal, the nonconformists Presbyterian; so that all things concurred to throw the former, without reserve, into the king’s party, and the latter into that of the parliament.4

Every one knows the event of this quarrel; fatal to the king first, to the parliament afterwards. After many confusions and revolutions, the royal family was at last restored, and the ancient government reestablished. Charles II was not made wiser by the example of his father, but prosecuted the same measures, though, at first, with more secrecy and caution. New parties arose, under the appellation of Whig and Tory, which have continued ever since to confound and distract our government. To determine the nature of these parties is perhaps one of the most difficult problems that can be met with, and is a proof that history may contain questions as uncertain as any to be found in the most abstract sciences. We have seen the conduct of the two parties, during the course of seventy years, in a vast variety of circumstances, possessed of power, and deprived of it, during peace, and during war: persons, who profess themselves of one side or other, we meet with every hour, in company, in our pleasures, in our serious occupations we ourselves are constrained, in a manner, to take party; and, living in a country of the highest liberty, every one may openly declare all the sentiments and opinions: yet are we at a loss to tell the nature, pretensions, and principles, of the different factions.5

When we compare the parties of WHIG and TORY with those of ROUNDHEAD and CAVALIER, the most obvious difference that appears between them consists in the principles of passive obedience, and indefeasible right, which were but little heard of among the Cavaliers, but became the universal doctrine, and were esteemed the true characteristic of a Tory. Were these principles pushed into their most obvious consequences, they imply a formal renunciation of all our liberties, and an avowal of absolute monarchy; since nothing can be greater absurdity than a limited power, which must not be resisted, even when it exceeds its limitations. But, as the most rational principles are often but a weak counterpoise to passion, it is no wonder that these absurd principles were found too weak for that effect. The Tories, as men, were enemies to oppression; and also as Englishmen, they were enemies to arbitrary power. Their zeal for liberty was, perhaps, less fervent than that of their antagonists, but was sufficient to make them forget all their general principles, when they saw themselves openly threatened with a subversion of the ancient government. From these sentiments arose the Revolution, an event of mighty consequence, and the firmest foundation of British liberty. The conduct of the Tories during that event, and after it, will afford us a true insight into the nature of that party.

In the first place, they appear to have had the genuine sentiments of Britons in their affection for liberty, and in their determined resolution not to sacrifice it to any abstract principle whatsoever, or to any imaginary rights of princes. This part of their character might justly have been doubted of before the Revolution, from the obvious tendency of their avowed principles, and from their compliances with a court, which seemed to make little secret of its arbitrary designs. The Revolution showed them to have been, in this respect, nothing but a genuine court party, such as might be expected in a British government; that is, lovers of liberty, but greater lovers of monarchy. It must, however, be confessed, that they carried their monarchical principles further even in practice, but more so in theory, than was in any degree ¦consistent with a limited government.

Secondly, Neither their principles nor affections concurred, entirely or heartily, with the settlement made at the Revolution, or with that which has since taken place. This part of their character may seem opposite to the former, since any other settlement, in those circumstances of the nation, must probably have been dangerous, if not fatal, to liberty. But the heart of man is made to reconcile contradictions; and this contradiction is not greater than that between passive obedience and the resistance employed at the Revolution. A TORY, therefore, since the Revolution, may be defined, in a few words, to be a lover of monarchy, though without abandoning liberty, and a partisan of the family of Stuart: as a WHIG may be defined to be a lover of liberty, though without renouncing monarchy, and a friend to the settlement in the Protestant line.6

These different views, with regard to the settlement of the crown, were accidental, but natural, additions, to the principles of the Court and Country parties, which are the genuine divisions in the British Government. A passionate lover of monarchy is apt to be displeased at any change of the succession, as savouring too much of a commonwealth: a passionate lover of liberty is apt to think that every part of the government ought to be subordinate to the interests of liberty.

Some, who will not venture to assert that the real difference between Whig and Tory was lost at the Revolution, seem inclined to think, that the difference is now abolished, and that affairs are so far returned to their natural state, that there are at present no other parties among us but Court and Country; that is, men who, by interest or principle, are attached either to monarchy or liberty. The Tories have been so long obliged to talk in the republican style, that they seem to have made converts of themselves by their hypocrisy, and to have embraced the sentiments, as well as language of their adversaries. There are, however, very considerable remains of that party in England, with all their old prejudices; and a proof that Court and Country are not our only parties, is that almost all the dissenters side with the court, and the lower clergy, at least of the church or England, with the opposition. This may convince us, that some bias still hangs upon our constitution, some extrinsic weight, which turns it from its natural course, and causes a confusion in our parties.7

1 These words have become of general use, and therefore I shall employ them without intending to express by them an universal blame of the one party, or approbation of the other. The Court party may no doubt, on some occasions, consult best the interest of the country, and the Country party oppose it. In like manner, the Roman parties were denominated Optimates and Populares; and Cicero, like a true party man, defines the Optimates to be such as, in all their public conduct, regulated themselves by the sentiments of the best and worthiest Romans; pro Sextio. The term of Country party may afford a favourable definition or etymology of the same kind; but it would be folly to draw any argument from that head, and I have no regard to it in employing these terms.

2 I must be understood to mean this of persons who have any motive for taking party on any side. For, to tell the truth, the greatest part are commonly men who associate themselves they know not why; from example, from passion, from idleness. But still it is requisite there be some source of division, either in principle or interest; otherwise such persons would not find parties to which they could associate themselves.

3 This proposition is true, notwithstanding that, in the early times of the English government, the clergy were the great and principal opposers of the crown; but at that time their possessions were so immensely great, that they composed a considerable part of the proprietors of England, and in many contests were direct rivals of the crown.

4 The clergy had concurred in a shameless manner with the King’s arbitrary designs, according to their usual maxims in such cases, and, in return, were allowed to persecute their adversaries, whom they called heretics and schismatics. The established clergy were Episcopal, the nonconformists Presbyterians; so that all things concurred to throw the former, without reserve, into the King’s party, and the latter into that of the Parliament. The Cavaliers being the Court party, and the Roundheads the Country party, the union was infallible betwixt the former and the established prelacy, and betwixt the latter and Presbyterian nonconformists. This union is so natural, according to the general principles of politics, that it requires some very extraordinary situation of affairs to break it.

5 The question is perhaps in itself somewhat difficult, but has been rendered more so by the prejudices and violence of party.

6 The celebrated writer above cited has asserted, that the real distinction betwixt Whig and Tory was lost at the Revolution, and that ever since they have continued to be mere personal parties, like the Guelfs and Ghibellines, after the Emperors had lost all authority in Italy. Such an opinion, were it received, would turn our whole history into an enigma.

I shall first mention, as a proof of a real distinction betwixt these parties, what every one may have observed or heard concerning the conduct and conversation of all his friends and acquaintance on both sides. Have not the Tories always borne an avowed affection to the family of Stuart, and have not their adversaries always opposed with vigour the succession of that family?

The Tory principles are confessedly the most favourable to monarchy. Yet the Tories have almost always opposed the court these fifty years; nor were they cordial friends to King William, even when employed by him. Their quarrel, therefore, cannot be supposed to have lain with the throne, but with the person who sat on it.

They concurred heartily with the court during the four last years of Queen Anne. But is any one at a loss to find the reason?

The succession of the crown in the British government is a point of too great consequence to be absolutely indifferent to persons who concern themselves, in any degree, about the fortune of the public; much less can it be supposed that the Tory party, who never valued themselves upon moderation, could maintain a stoical indifference in a point of so great importance. Were they, therefore, zealous for the house of Hanover? or was there any thing that kept an opposite zeal from openly appearing, if it did not openly appear, but prudence, and a sense of decency?

It is monstrous to see an established Episcopal clergy in declared opposition to the court, and a nonconformist Presbyterian clergy in conjunction with it. What can produce such an unnatural conduct in both? Nothing, but that the former have espoused monarchical principles too high for the present settlement, which is founded on the principles of liberty, and the latter, being afraid of the prevalence of those high principles, adhere to that party from whom they have reason to expect liberty and toleration.

The different conduct of the two parties, with regard to foreign politics, is also a proof to the same purpose. Holland has always been most favoured by one, and France by the other. In short, the proofs of this kind seem so palpable and evident, that it is almost needless to collect them.

It is however remarkable, that though the principles of Whig and Tory be both of them of a compound nature, yet the ingredients which predominated in both were not correspondent to each other. A Tory loved monarchy, and bore an affection to the family of Stuart; but the latter affection was the predominant inclination of the party. A Whig loved liberty, and was a friend to the settlement in the Protestant line; but the love of liberty was professedly his predominant inclination. The Tories have frequently acted as republicans, where either policy or revenge has engaged them to that conduct; and there was none of the party who, upon the supposition that they were to be disappointed in their views with regard to the succession, would not have desired to impose the strictest limitations on the crown, and to bring our form of government as near republican as possible, in order to depress the family, that, according to their apprehension, succeeded without any just title. The Whigs, it is true, have also taken steps dangerous to liberty, under pretext of securing the succession and settlement of the crown according to their views; but, as the body of the party had no passion for that succession, otherwise than as the means of securing liberty, they have been betrayed into these steps by ignorance or frailty, or the interest of their leaders. The succession of the crown was, therefore, the chief point with the Tories; the security of our liberties with the Whigs.

It is difficult to penetrate into the thoughts and sentiments of any particular man; but it is almost impossible to distinguish those of a whole party, where it often happens that no two persons agree precisely in the same way of thinking. Yet I will venture to affirm, that it was not so much principle, or an opinion of indefeasible right, that attached the Tories to the ancient family, as affection, or a certain love and esteem for their persons. The same cause divided England formerly betwixt the houses of York and Lancaster, and Scotland betwixt the families of Bruce and Baliol, in an age when political disputes were but little in fashion, and when political principles must of course have had but little influence on mankind. The doctrine of passive obedience is so absurd in itself, and so opposite to our liberties, that it seems to have been chiefly left to pulpit declaimers, and to their deluded followers among the mob Men of better sense were guided by affection, and as to the leaders of this party, it is probable that interest was their sole motive, and that they acted more contrary to their private sentiments than the leaders of the opposite party.

Some who will not venture to assert, that the real difference between Whig and Tory, was lost at the Revolution, seem inclined to think that the difference is now abolished, and that affairs are so far returned to their natural state, that there are at present no other parties amongst us but Court and Country; that is, men who, by interest or principle, are attached either to Monarchy or to Liberty. It must indeed be confessed, that the Tory party seem of late to have decayed much in their numbers, still more in their zeal, and I may venture to say, still more in their credit and authority. There are few men of knowledge or learning, at least few philosophers since Mr. Locke has wrote, who would not be ashamed to be thought of that party; and in almost all companies, the name of Old Whig is mentioned as an incontestable appellation of honour and dignity. Accordingly, the enemies of the ministry, as a reproach, call the courtiers the true Tories and, as an honour, denominate the gentlemen in the Opposition the true Whigs.

I shall conclude this subject with observing, that we never had any Tories in Scotland, according to the proper signification of the word, and that the division of parties in this country was really into Whigs and Jacobites. A Jacobite seems to be a Tory, who has no regard to the constitution, but is either a zealous partisan of absolute monarchy, or at least willing to sacrifice our liberties to the obtaining the succession in that family to which he is attached. The reason of the difference betwixt England and Scotland I take to be this. Our political and religious divisions in this country have been, since the Revolution, regularly correspondent to each other. The Presbyterians were all Whigs, without exception; the Episcopalians of the opposite party. And as the clergy of the latter sect were turned out of their churches at the Revolution, they had no motive to make any compliances with the government in their oaths or forms of prayer, but openly avowed the highest principles of their party; which is the cause why their followers have been more barefaced and violent than their brethren of the Tory party in England.

7 Some of the opinions delivered in these Essays, with regard to the public transactions in the last century, the Author, on a more accurate examination, found reason to retract in his History of Great Britain. And as he would not enslave himself to the systems of either party, neither would he fetter his judgment by his own preconceived opinions and principles; nor is he ashamed to acknowledge his mistakes. These mistakes were indeed, at that time almost universal in this kingdom.

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