Toryism’s Trials

The War of the Spanish Succession exacerbated factional conflict within the British nation. In so doing, it laid bare the festering social differences that separated Whig from Tory. These differences manifested themselves in the opposing interpretations that the two parties placed upon the Glorious Revolution and in Tory distaste for the changes that had attended post-1694 Whig reforms. By 1714, this partisan chasm had calcified, setting the stage for Robert Walpole’s Whig Ascendancy and the Tory Party’s prolonged exclusion from power. Thus the War of the Spanish Succession imposed an axis along which British politics would coalesce until the rise of William Pitt.

Those Englishmen who believed that Queen Anne’s accession to the throne heralded a new era of political stability can be forgiven their civic daydreaming. Ministerial intentions during the first five years of the eighteenth century sought to fulfill these hopes. John Churchill,[1] whose continental exploits would soon garner the title Duke of Marlborough, assumed responsibility for the conduct of England’s military portfolio. His colleague the Earl of Godolphin assumed a similar position re domestic affairs. These two men, holding power between 1702 and 1710, thought of themselves as ‘statesmen’ unbound by the parochial concerns of party politics. Accordingly, their cabinet consisted of a mixture of moderate Whigs and Tories. In this they augmented the administrative outlook of their Queen, who yearned to rule ‘above party.’

The prospects for this policy of enlightened moderation would not outlast the Battle of Blenheim. On August 13th, 1704 the combined forces of the Grand Alliance brought the French to heel in Bavaria. Churchill, whose ducal title stemmed from this victory, had at this point achieved the minimalist war aims of the Tory party. We see in these aims the kernel of the Tories’ ‘blue water’ isolationism. They conceived of the war as an attempt to contain Louis XIV’s pretensions to ‘universal monarchy,’ aiding the Austrian Habsburgs in turning aside the imposition of a Bourbon on the vacated Spanish throne. The French king’s defeat at Blenheim had stymied his quest for continental hegemony, instituting what Tory gentlemen would have considered a favo(u)rable balance of power amongst the European powers.

That the Tories pursued this minimalist policy bears some explanation. Though Anne financed the conflict in large part via the interest-bearing loans that merchants and manufactures granted the Bank of England, Parliament had to earmark future revenues in order to fund the permanent debt thus created. These revenues derived from the parliamentary land tax, that odious apparatus which had rankled Charles I’s ministers so. The electorate, encompassing as it did one-tenth of the adult male population, restricted its franchise to the landed classes, viz. the aristocracy and gentry. With the notable exception of the fabulously wealthy aristocrats whose mercantile interests entitled them to leadership of the Whig party, Tories constituted the overwhelming majority of the two groups. In this sense the land tax was inherently irksome to Tory gentlemen.

On a deeper level, however, the Tories distinguished in this system of wartime finance a fundamental realignment of social power. Monod rightly emphasizes the degree to which the landed classes engaged in the purchase of government loans; he even takes note of the fluctuation of land prices in accordance with the interest rate on the national debt. Notwithstanding this tacit participation in the post-Revolution settlement, Tory gentlemen saw in Anne’s reliance upon commercial and manufacturing society a disenfranchisement of the landed classes in favo(u)r of ‘monied men.’ Jonathan Swift gave voice to this sentiment in his Examiner article and in his pamphlet The Conduct of the Allies, a scathing critique of the Whigs’ resistance to accepting peace with France without the deposition of Louis XIV’s grandson. In light of this post-Blenheim criticism, Anne came to depend upon the remnants of the Whig Junto to the exclusion of moderate Tories, hoping to facilitate the maximalist war aims of her beloved Duke. Yet after sensing the traditional Whig insistence upon religious toleration and parliamentary supremacy, the Queen pivoted toward Robert Harley, a consummate politician and blue-blooded moderate. When the directors of the Bank of England, led by Gilbert Heathcote, demanded the Junto’s restitution, Anne and her Tory subjects detected the closet republicanism that afflicted one-third of the Whiggish ranks. It seemed a fitting example of the degree to which monied influence had expanded after the Glorious Revolution.

Tory dissatisfaction would culminate in the popular reaction to Henry Sacheverell’s trial and the regressive policies of the Harley-Bolingbroke ministry (1710-1714). In 1709 Sacheverell, a High Church Tory and professed abjurer of Jacobitism,[2] preached a sermon praising the doctrine of ‘passive resistance’ that his party had abandoned with their complicity in the Glorious Revolution. Sacheverell’s decision to deliver his ideological eulogy in the pulpit of St. Paul’s at the height of Whig power testified to the Tory’s nostalgia for the deferential parliament that had reigned during the Stuart Resoration. After Sachererell’s botched show trial and his perfunctory conviction, Tory rioters ransacked Dissenting chapels, Whig merchants, and Jewish synagogues, assaulting the most vivid manifestations of the social changes that had transpired since 1689. In 1710 Anne assented to the popular will by shifting her support to Robert Harley, who subsequently enlisted Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke in his ruling coalition. While Harley would lead the moderate (Hanoverian) Tories, his colleague would head the Tory radicals who had not foresworn Jacobitism.

It was at this point that Harley and Bolingbroke undertook to turn the social and political clock back to 1694. The significance of this chronological nuance should not be overlooked. By and large, the Tories who reigned from 1710 to 1714 thought the Glorious Revolution had ended with James II’s expulsion, viewing post-1694 Whig innovations as pernicious bastardizations of its legacy. In this they differed little from their assumption that the War of the Spanish Succession had concluded with Marlborough’s victory at Blenheim. They sought to transfer the national debt to the nascent South Sea Company, undermining their bete noire in the Bank of England. They revivified the persecutory powers of the Anglican Church, attacking head on the occasional conformity by which many Dissenters had assumed public office under the Whigs. Most importantly, they concluded the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) with their Gallic enemy. Though the peace granted to Britain[3] the asiento, or the right to trade North African slaves with Spanish America, it also recognized the House of Bourbon as rightful heirs to the Spanish throne. In a dress rehearsal for John Wilkes’ objections to Prussia’s exclusion from the Treaty of Paris (1763), Whigs asserted that this concession amounted to the abandonment of Britain’s Hanoverian allies, who would have to grapple with a resurgent France. George, Elector of Hanover and future King of England upon Anne’s[4] demise in 1714, agreed.

The stage was set for the Tory’s sojourn in the political wilderness. George, bitter over the Tories’ disconcern for his Germanic homeland, systematically eliminated Tories from political office, enlisting the Earls of Stanhope and Sunderland before settling on Robert Walpole in 1722. Bolingbroke’s correspondence with the exiled Stuart court and the Earl of Mar’s decision to lead a Jacobite rebellion in 1715 did little to counteract the administrative onslaught. The Tory prohibition would last until the accession of George I’s great-grandson George III in 1760, though Robert Walpole’s Whig Ascendancy would seek to placate Tories by shifting the tax burden from the landed classes to urban merchants. Yet the proverbial line had been drawn. Toryism, having conceded to the necessity of parliamentary supremacy, would throughout the 18th and 19th centuries stand united against the enfranchisement of commercial and manufacturing society, championing the cause of parliamentary supremacy without its Whiggish corollary, popular sovereignty. Though the War of the Spanish Succession did not cause this political polarization, it did perpetuate the partisan differences that originated with the Whig reforms of 1694-1702. Its examination is therefore critical.


[1] A figure whose character Thomas Macaulay impugned most unfairly in his History of England. For a more disinterested account of Churchill’s behavior during this time period, cf. Winston Churchill’s John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough

[2] I would be remiss were I to glaze over the fact that fully one-third of the Tory party were at this time closet Jacobites.

[3] In 1706-07, Marlborough and Godolphin had brought about the union of Scotland and England, creating a single political entity of the two kingdoms. From England’s perspective, the Act of Union represented an opportunity to alleviate the Jacobite threat from its northern border. The Scots gained access to the largest contiguous area of free trade in Europe, stretching from Inverness to Dover. The arrangement was fair, practical, and beneficial. Thus its 21st-century submission to Scottish nationalism was more or less inevitable from its inception.

[4] Anne had seen eighteen children expire prior to reaching adulthood. This necessitated the settlement of the British crown in the Hanoverian line, encompassing as it did Anne’s closest Protestant male relatives. It also lends rather an unsporting air to the popular outpouring that greeted the birth of Will and Kate’s son. 


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  1. Pingback: Roger Mickelson’s History Today 5.24.14 | Sandia Tea Party

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