Thursday, November 17, 2005

Whigs and Tories

For the next two years the political nation was bitterly split on the question of exclusion. Underlying this question were the deep religious and political divisions that had existed since the Restoration: between those who were friendly to Protestant dissenters and intensely critical of the intolerant policies of the bishops, and those who were driven by a desire to protect the Church. In effect, this was a rerun of the crisis of 1641 which caused the civil war – a fact much noted by contemporaries.

By the spring of 1681 the terms Whigs and Tories were becoming widely used. Both were first used as insults. Tory derived from the Irish Toraidhe (bandit, cattle thief, outlaw). Although firmly Anglican, Tories were committed to upholding James’s right to succeed because they believed that if his claim were blocked by Parliament, then no-one’s property rights would be safe and that England would have become a republic in all but name. The Tories called their opponents ‘Whigs’ after the Scottish rebels. The Whigs were supported by many Dissenters though their leadership was Anglican and aristocratic. As well as backing exclusion, they were also prepared to grant a greater religious toleration to Dissenters (though not to Catholics).

From 1679 to 1681 the opposition to the crown appeared to be very strong and in the parliaments of October 1679 to January 1681 the Whigs secured Commons majorities for bills excluding James from the throne. The driving force behind the Whigs was the earl of Shaftesbury. In spite of Dryden’s famous caricature, he had certain fixed principles: toleration for Protestant dissenters, though not for Catholics; government by the king in parliament not by the king alone or by the masses. He was an aristocratic ‘republican’ rather than a democrat and believed that a strong aristocracy was one of the best safeguards against arbitrary power. In support of these principles he was prepared to patronize charlatans like Oates and Tonge and encouraged other people to believe in them. He even tried (June 1680) to get the Middlesex grand jury to present James as a recusant and the duchess of Portsmouth as a prostitute and a popish agent. The attempt failed because of intervention by Lord Chief Justice Scroggs, but it was a blatant insult to the Crown and caused something of a backlash.

Should the Whigs be seen as a party? In the two general elections of August-September 1679 and the early months of 1681 Shaftesbury and his supporters developed a political organization that became increasingly sophisticated and effective. They used the press to disseminate pamphlet literature and in London and the provinces they set up political dining clubs (like the London Green Ribbon Club) to set up and distribute Whig propaganda. Over the three year period of the Exclusion Crisis, between 5 and 10 million printed pamphlets were generated. In the election of 1681 many MPs were presented apparently spontaneous instructions, with remarkably similar wording, purporting to be from their constituents and insisting that they grant no parliamentary supply unless the king conceded exclusion and guaranteed frequent parliaments.

During the long prorogation of parliament from May 1679 to October 1680 anti-Catholic hysteria dwindled but the Whigs initiated a sustained campaign of bombarding the king with petitions for the early recall of parliament. Printed petition forms were distributed in London and the counties, and Whig supporters collected signatures, showing that though they were not democrats, they were prepared to use the common people for propaganda purposes. They also organized mass pope-burning demonstrations on 5 and 17 November 1679 and 1680. In January 1680 Charles was presented with two petitions from London and Wiltshire signed by a total of 90,000 people. He brusquely denied the validity of such private petitions, and at the end of the month he invited James back from Edinburgh (temporarily). As a tactic, the petitioning worked both ways. Shaftesbury’s campaign kept alive the fears of popery and arbitrary government, but at the same time resurrected fears of a populist assault on the monarchy: ‘’41 is come again’.

Both sides produced their own propaganda. In 1680 Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha was published for the first time, and John Locke began work on his Two Treatises of Government.