England under James II by John Greenleaf Whittier

Story type: Essay

A review of the first two volumes of Macaulay’s History of England from the Accession of James II.

In accordance with the labor-saving spirit of the age, we have in these volumes an admirable example of history made easy. Had they been published in his time, they might have found favor in the eyes of the poet Gray, who declared that his ideal of happiness was “to lie on a sofa and read eternal new romances.”

The style is that which lends such a charm to the author’s essays,– brilliant, epigrammatic, vigorous. Indeed, herein lies the fault of the work, when viewed as a mere detail of historical facts. Its sparkling rhetoric is not the safest medium of truth to the simple-minded inquirer. A discriminating and able critic has done the author no injustice in saying that, in attempting to give effect and vividness to his thoughts and diction, he is often overstrained and extravagant, and that his epigrammatic style seems better fitted for the glitter of paradox than the sober guise of truth. The intelligent and well-informed reader of the volume before us will find himself at times compelled to reverse the decisions of the author, and deliver some unfortunate personage, sect, or class from the pillory of his rhetoric and the merciless pelting of his ridicule. There is a want of the repose and quiet which we look for in a narrative of events long passed away; we rise from the perusal of the book pleased and excited, but with not so clear a conception of the actual realities of which it treats as would be desirable. We cannot help feeling that the author has been somewhat over-scrupulous in avoiding the dulness of plain detail, and the dryness of dates, names, and statistics. The freedom, flowing diction, and sweeping generality of the reviewer and essayist are maintained throughout; and, with one remarkable exception, the History of England might be divided into papers of magazine length, and published, without any violence to propriety, as a continuation of the author’s labors in that department of literature in which he confessedly stands without a rival,–historical review.

That exception is, however, no unimportant one. In our view, it is the crowning excellence of the first volume,–its distinctive feature and principal attraction. We refer to the third chapter of the volume, from page 260 to page 398,–the description of the condition of England at the period of the accession of James II. We know of nothing like it in the entire range of historical literature. The veil is lifted up from the England of a century and a half ago; its geographical, industrial, social, and moral condition is revealed; and, as the panorama passes before us of lonely heaths, fortified farm-houses, bands of robbers, rude country squires doling out the odds and ends of their coarse fare to clerical dependents,–rough roads, serviceable only for horseback travelling,–towns with unlighted streets, reeking with filth and offal, –and prisons, damp, loathsome, infected with disease, and swarming with vermin,–we are filled with wonder at the contrast which it presents to the England of our day. We no longer sigh for “the good old days.” The most confirmed grumbler is compelled to admit that, bad as things now are, they were far worse a few generations back. Macaulay, in this elaborate and carefully prepared chapter, has done a good service to humanity in disabusing well-intentioned ignorance of the melancholy notion that the world is growing worse, and in putting to silence the cant of blind, unreasoning conservatism.

In 1685 the entire population of England our author estimates at from five millions to five millions five hundred thousand. Of the eight hundred thousand families at that period, one half had animal food twice a week. The other half ate it not at all, or at most not oftener than once a week. Wheaten, loaves were only seen at the tables of the comparatively wealthy. Rye, barley, and oats were the food of the vast majority. The average wages of workingmen was at least one half less than is paid in England for the same service at the present day. One fifth of the people were paupers, or recipients of parish relief. Clothing and bedding were scarce and dear. Education was almost unknown to the vast majority. The houses and shops were not numbered in the cities, for porters, coachmen, and errand-runners could not read. The shopkeeper distinguished his place of business by painted signs and graven images. Oxford and Cambridge Universities were little better than modern grammar and Latin school in a provincial village. The country magistrate used on the bench language too coarse, brutal, and vulgar for a modern tap-room. Fine gentlemen in London vied with each other in the lowest ribaldry and the grossest profanity. The poets of the time, from Dryden to Durfey, ministered to the popular licentiousness. The most shameless indecency polluted their pages. The theatre and the brothel were in strict unison. The Church winked at the vice which opposed itself to the austere morality or hypocrisy of Puritanism. The superior clergy, with a few noble exceptions, were self-seekers and courtiers; the inferior were idle, ignorant hangerson upon blaspheming squires and knights of the shire. The domestic chaplain, of all men living, held the most unenviable position. “If he was permitted to dine with the family, he was expected to content himself with the plainest fare. He might fill himself with the corned beef and carrots; but as soon as the tarts and cheese-cakes made their appearance he quitted his seat, and stood aloof till he was summoned to return thanks for the repast, from a great part of which he had been excluded.”

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Beyond the Trent the country seems at this period to have been in a state of barbarism. The parishes kept bloodhounds for the purpose of hunting freebooters. The farm-houses were fortified and guarded. So dangerous was the country that persons about travelling thither made their wills. Judges and lawyers only ventured therein, escorted by a strong guard of armed men.

The natural resources of the island were undeveloped. The tin mines of Cornwall, which two thousand years before attracted the ships of the merchant princes of Tyre beyond the Pillars of Hercules, were indeed worked to a considerable extent; but the copper mines, which now yield annually fifteen thousand tons, were entirely neglected. Rock salt was known to exist, but was not used to any considerable extent; and only a partial supply of salt by evaporation was obtained. The coal and iron of England are at this time the stable foundations of her industrial and commercial greatness. But in 1685 the great part of the iron used was imported. Only about ten thousand tons were annually cast. Now eight hundred thousand is the average annual production. Equally great has been the increase in coal mining. “Coal,” says Macaulay, “though very little used in any species of manufacture, was already the ordinary fuel in some districts which were fortunate enough to possess large beds, and in the capital, which could easily be supplied by water carriage. It seems reasonable to believe that at least one half of the quantity then extracted from the pits was consumed in London. The consumption of London seemed to the writers of that age enormous, and was often mentioned by them as a proof of the greatness of the imperial city. They scarcely hoped to be believed when they affirmed that two hundred and eighty thousand chaldrons–that is to say, about three hundred and fifty thousand tons-were, in the last year of the reign of Charles II., brought to the Thames. At present near three millions and a half of tons are required yearly by the metropolis; and the whole annual produce cannot, on the most moderate computation, be estimated at less than twenty millions of tons.”

After thus passing in survey the England of our ancestors five or six generations back, the author closes his chapter with some eloquent remarks upon the progress of society. Contrasting the hardness and coarseness of the age of which he treats with the softer and more humane features of our own, he says: “Nowhere could be found that sensitive and restless compassion which has in our time extended powerful protection to the factory child, the Hindoo widow, to the negro slave; which pries into the stores and water-casks of every emigrant ship; which winces at every lash laid on the back of a drunken soldier; which will not suffer the thief in the hulks to be ill fed or overworked; and which has repeatedly endeavored to save the life even of the murderer. The more we study the annals of the past, the more shall we rejoice that we live in a merciful age, in an age in which cruelty is abhorred, and in which pain, even when deserved, is inflicted reluctantly and from a sense of duty. Every class, doubtless, has gained largely by this great moral change; but the class which has gained most is the poorest, the most dependent, and the most defenceless.”

The history itself properly commences at the close of this chapter. Opening with the deathscene of the dissolute Charles II., it presents a series of brilliant pictures of the events succeeding: The miserable fate of Oates and Dangerfield, the perjured inventors of the Popish Plot; the trial of Baxter by the infamous Jeffreys; the ill-starred attempt of the Duke of Monmouth; the battle of Sedgemoor, and the dreadful atrocities of the king’s soldiers, and the horrible perversion of justice by the king’s chief judge in the “Bloody Assizes;” the barbarous hunting of the Scotch Dissenters by Claverbouse; the melancholy fate of the brave and noble Duke of Argyle,–are described with graphic power unknown to Smollett or Hume. Personal portraits are sketched with a bold freedom which at times startles us. The “old familiar faces,” as we have seen them through the dust of a century and a half, start before us with lifelike distinctness of outline and coloring. Some of them disappoint us; like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, they come in a “questionable shape.” Thus, for instance, in his sketch of William Penn, the historian takes issue with the world on his character, and labors through many pages of disingenuous innuendoes and distortion of facts to transform the saint of history into a pliant courtier.

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The second volume details the follies and misfortunes, the decline and fall, of the last of the Stuarts. All the art of the author’s splendid rhetoric is employed in awakening, by turns, the indignation and contempt of the reader in contemplating the character of the wrong-headed king. In portraying that character, he has brought into exercise all those powers of invective and merciless ridicule which give such a savage relish to his delineation of Barrere. To preserve the consistency of this character, he denies the king any credit for whatever was really beneficent and praiseworthy in his government. He holds up the royal delinquent in only two lights: the one representing him as a tyrant towards his people; the other as the abject slave of foreign priests,– a man at once hateful and ludicrous, of whom it is difficult to speak without an execration or a sneer.

The events which preceded the revolution of 1688; the undisguised adherence of the king to the Church of Rome; the partial toleration of the despised Quakers and Anabaptists; the gradual relaxation of the severity of the penal laws against Papists and Dissenters, preparing the way for the royal proclamation of entire liberty of conscience throughout the British realm, allowing the crop-eared Puritan and the Papist priest to build conventicles and mass houses under the very eaves of the palaces of Oxford and Canterbury; the mining and countermining of Jesuits and prelates, are detailed with impartial minuteness. The secret springs of the great movements of the time are laid bare; the mean and paltry instrumentalities are seen at work in the under world of corruption, prejudice, and falsehood. No one, save a blind, unreasoning partisan of Catholicism or Episcopacy, can contemplate this chapter in English history without a feeling of disgust. However it may have been overruled for good by that Providence which takes the wise in their own craftiness, the revolution of 1688, in itself considered, affords just as little cause for self-congratulation on the part of Protestants as the substitution of the supremacy of the crowned Bluebeard, Henry VIII., for that of the Pope, in the English Church. It had little in common with the revolution of 1642. The field of its action was the closet of selfish intrigue,–the stalls of discontented prelates,–the chambers of the wanton and adulteress,–the confessional of a weak prince, whose mind, originally narrow, had been cramped closer still by the strait- jacket of religious bigotry and superstition. The age of nobility and heroism had well-nigh passed away. The pious fervor, the self-denial, and the strict morality of the Puritanism of the days of Cromwell, and the blunt honesty and chivalrous loyalty of the Cavaliers, had both measurably given place to the corrupting influences of the licentious and infidel court of Charles II.; and to the arrogance, intolerance, and shameless self-seeking of a prelacy which, in its day of triumph and revenge, had more than justified the terrible denunciations and scathing gibes of Milton.

Both Catholic and Protestant writers have misrepresented James II. He deserves neither the execrations of the one nor the eulogies of the other. The candid historian must admit that he was, after all, a better man than his brother Charles II. He was a sincere and bigoted Catholic, and was undoubtedly honest in the declaration, which he made in that unlucky letter which Burnet ferreted out on the Continent, that he was prepared to make large steps to build up the Catholic Church in England, and, if necessary, to become a martyr in her cause. He was proud, austere, and self-willed. In the treatment of his enemies he partook of the cruel temper of his time. He was at once ascetic and sensual, alternating between the hair-shirt of penance and the embraces of Catharine Sedley. His situation was one of the most difficult and embarrassing which can be conceived of. He was at once a bigoted Papist and a Protestant pope. He hated the French domination to which his brother had submitted; yet his pride as sovereign was subordinated to his allegiance to Rome and a superstitious veneration for the wily priests with which Louis XIV. surrounded him. As the head of Anglican heretics, he was compelled to submit to conditions galling alike to the sovereign and the man. He found, on his accession, the terrible penal laws against the Papists in full force; the hangman’s knife was yet warm with its ghastly butcher-work of quartering and disembowelling suspected Jesuits and victims of the lie of Titus Oates; the Tower of London had scarcely ceased to echo the groans of Catholic confessors stretched on the rack by Protestant inquisitors. He was torn by conflicting interests and spiritual and political contradictions. The prelates of the Established Church must share the responsibility of many of the worst acts of the early part of his reign. Oxford sent up its lawned deputations to mingle the voice of adulation with the groans of tortured Covenanters, and fawning ecclesiastics burned the incense of irreverent flattery under the nostrils of the Lord’s anointed, while the blessed air of England was tainted by the carcasses of the ill-fated followers of Monmouth, rotting on a thousand gibbets. While Jeffreys was threatening Baxter and his Presbyterian friends with the pillory and whipping-post; while Quakers and Baptists were only spared from extermination as game preserves for the sport of clerical hunters; while the prisons were thronged with the heads of some fifteen thousand beggared families, and Dissenters of every name and degree were chased from one hiding-place to another, like David among the cliffs of Ziph and the rocks of the wild goats,–the thanksgivings and congratulations of prelacy arose in an unbroken strain of laudation from all the episcopal palaces of England. What mattered it to men, in whose hearts, to use the language of John Milton, “the sour leaven of human traditions, mixed with the poisonous dregs of hypocrisy, lay basking in the sunny warmth of wealth and promotion, hatching Antichrist,” that the privileges of Englishmen and the rights secured by the great charter were violated and trodden under foot, so long as usurpation enured to their own benefit? But when King James issued his Declaration of Indulgence, and stretched his prerogative on the side of tolerance and charity, the zeal of the prelates for preserving the integrity of the British constitution and the limiting of the royal power flamed up into rebellion. They forswore themselves without scruple: the disciples of Laud, the asserters of kingly infallibility and divine right, talked of usurped power and English rights in the strain of the very schismatics whom they had persecuted to the death. There is no reason to believe that James supposed that, in issuing his declaration suspending the penal laws, he had transcended the rightful prerogative of his throne. The power which he exercised had been used by his predecessors for far less worthy purposes, and with the approbation of many of the very men who now opposed him. His ostensible object, expressed in language which even those who condemn his policy cannot but admire, was a laudable and noble one. “We trust,” said he, “that it will not be vain that we have resolved to use our utmost endeavors to establish liberty of conscience on such just and equal foundations as will render it unalterable, and secure to all people the free exercise of their religion, by which future ages may reap the benefit of what is so undoubtedly the general good of the whole kingdom.” Whatever may have been the motive of this declaration,–even admitting the suspicions of his enemies to have been true, that he advocated universal toleration as the only means of restoring Roman Catholics to all the rights and privileges of which the penal laws deprived them,–it would seem that there could have been no very serious objection on the part of real friends of religious toleration to the taking of him at his word and placing Englishmen of every sect on an equality before the law. The Catholics were in a very small minority,
scarcely at that time as numerous as the Quakers and Anabaptists. The army, the navy, and nine tenths of the people of England were Protestants. Real danger, therefore, from a simple act of justice towards their Catholic fellow- citizens, the people of England had no ground for apprehending. But the great truth, which is even now but imperfectly recognized throughout Christendom, that religious opinions rest between man and his Maker, and not between man and the magistrate, and that the domain of conscience is sacred, was almost unknown to the statesmen and schoolmen of the seventeenth century. Milton–ultra liberal as he was–excepted the Catholics from his plan of toleration. Locke, yielding to the prejudices of the time, took the same ground. The enlightened latitudinarian ministers of the Established Church–men whose talents and Christian charity redeem in some measure the character of that Church in the day of its greatest power and basest apostasy–stopped short of universal toleration. The Presbyterians excluded Quakers, Baptists, and Papists from the pale of their charity. With the single exception of the sect of which William Penn was a conspicuous member, the idea of complete and impartial toleration was novel and unwelcome to all sects and classes of the English people. Hence it was that the very men whose liberties and estates had been secured by the declaration, and who were thereby permitted to hold their meetings in peace and quietness, used their newly acquired freedom in denouncing the king, because the same key which had opened their prison doors had also liberated the Papists and the Quakers. Baxter’s severe and painful spirit could not rejoice in an act which had, indeed, restored him to personal freedom, but which had, in his view, also offended Heaven, and strengthened the powers of Antichrist by extending the same favor to Jesuits and Ranters. Bunyan disliked the Quakers next to the Papists; and it greatly lessened his satisfaction at his release from Bedford jail that it had been brought about by the influence of the former at the court of a Catholic prince. Dissenters forgot the wrongs and persecutions which they had experienced at the hands of the prelacy, and joined the bishops in opposition to the declaration. They almost magnified into Christian confessors the prelates who remonstrated against the indulgence, and actually plotted against the king for restoring them to liberty of person and conscience. The nightmare fear of Popery overcame their love of religious liberty; and they meekly offered their necks to the yoke of prelacy as the only security against the heavier one of Papist supremacy. In a far different manner the cleareyed and plain-spoken John Milton met the claims and demands of the hierarchy in his time. “They entreat us,” said he, “that we be not weary of the insupportable grievances that our shoulders have hitherto cracked under; they beseech us that we think them fit to be our justices of peace, our lords, our highest officers of state. They pray us that it would please us to let them still haul us and wrong us with their bandogs and pursuivants; and that it would please the Parliament that they may yet have the whipping, fleecing, and flaying of us in their diabolical courts, to tear the flesh from our bones, and into our wide wounds, instead of balm, to pour in the oil of tartar, vitriol, and mercury. Surely a right, reasonable, innocent, and soft-hearted petition! O the relenting bowels of the fathers!”

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Considering the prominent part acted by William Penn in the reign of James II., and his active and influential support of the obnoxious declaration which precipitated the revolution of 1688, it could hardly have been otherwise than that his character should suffer from the unworthy suspicions and prejudices of his contemporaries. His views of religious toleration were too far in advance of the age to be received with favor. They were of necessity misunderstood and misrepresented. All his life he had been urging them with the earnestness of one whose convictions were the result, not so much of human reason as of what he regarded as divine illumination. What the council of James yielded upon grounds of state policy he defended on those of religious obligation. He had suffered in person and estate for the exercise of his religion. He had travelled over Holland and Germany, pleading with those in authority for universal toleration and charity. On a sudden, on the accession of James, the friend of himself and his family, he found himself the most influential untitled citizen in the British realm. He had free access to the royal ear. Asking nothing for himself or his relatives, he demanded only that the good people of England should be no longer despoiled of liberty and estate for their religious opinions. James, as a Catholic, had in some sort a common interest with his dissenting subjects, and the declaration was for their common relief. Penn, conscious of the rectitude of his own motives and thoroughly convinced of the Christian duty of toleration, welcomed that declaration as the precursor of the golden age of liberty and love and good-will to men. He was not the man to distrust the motives of an act so fully in accordance with his lifelong aspirations and prayers. He was charitable to a fault: his faith in his fellow-men was often stronger than a clearer insight of their characters would have justified. He saw the errors of the king, and deplored them; he denounced Jeffreys as a butcher who had been let loose by the priests; and pitied the king, who was, he thought, swayed by evil counsels. He remonstrated against the interference of the king with Magdalen College; and reproved and rebuked the hopes and aims of the more zealous and hot-headed Catholics, advising them to be content with simple toleration. But the constitution of his mind fitted him rather for the commendation of the good than the denunciation of the bad. He had little in common with the bold and austere spirit of the Puritan reformers. He disliked their violence and harshness; while, on the other hand, he was attracted and pleased by the gentle disposition and mild counsels of Locke, and Tillotson, and the latitudinarians of the English Church. He was the intimate personal and political friend of Algernon Sydney; sympathized with his republican theories, and shared his abhorrence of tyranny, civil and ecclesiastical. He found in him a man after his own heart,–genial, generous, and loving; faithful to duty and the instincts of humanity; a true Christian gentleman. His sense of gratitude was strong, and his personal friendships sometimes clouded his judgment. In giving his support to the measures of James in behalf of liberty of conscience, it must be admitted that he acted in consistency with his principles and professions. To have taken ground against them, he must have given the lie to his declarations from his youth upward. He could not disown and deny his own favorite doctrine because it came from the lips of a Catholic king and his Jesuit advisers; and in thus rising above the prejudices of his time, and appealing to the reason and humanity of the people of England in favor of a cordial indorsement on the part of Parliament of the principles of the declaration, he believed that he was subserving the best interests of his beloved country and fulfilling the solemn obligations of religious duty. The downfall of James exposed Penn to peril and obloquy. Perjured informers endeavored to swear away his life; and, although nothing could be proved against him beyond the fact that he had steadily supported the great measure of toleration, he was compelled to live secluded in his private lodgings in London for two or three years, with a proclamation for his arrest hanging over his head. At length, the principal informer against him having been found guilty of perjury, the government warrant was withdrawn; and Lords Sidney, Rochester, and Somers, and the Duke of Buckingham, publicly bore testimony that nothing had been urged against him save by impostors, and that “they had known him, some of them, for thirty years, and had never known him to do an ill thing, but many good offices.” It is a matter of regret that one professing to hold the impartial pen of history should have given the sanction of his authority to the slanderous and false imputations of such a man as Burnet, who has never been regarded as an authentic chronicler. The pantheon of history should not be lightly disturbed. A good man’s character is the world’s common legacy; and humanity is not so rich in models of purity and goodness as to be able to sacrifice such a reputation as that of William Penn to the point of an antithesis or the effect of a paradox.

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Gilbert Burnet, in liberality as a politician and tolerance as a Churchman, was far in advance of his order and time. It is true that he shut out the Catholics from the pale of his charity and barely tolerated the Dissenters. The idea of entire religious liberty and equality shocked even his moderate degree of sensitiveness. He met Penn at the court of the Prince of Orange, and, after a long and fruitless effort to convince the Dissenter that the penal laws against the Catholics should be enforced, and allegiance to the Established Church continue the condition of qualification for offices of trust and honor, and that he and his friends should rest contented with simple toleration, he became irritated by the inflexible adherence of Penn to the principle of entire religious freedom. One of the most worthy sons of the Episcopal Church, Thomas Clarkson, alluding to this discussion, says “Burnet never mentioned him (Penn) afterwards but coldly or sneeringly, or in a way to lower him in the estimation of the reader, whenever he had occasion to speak of him in his History of his Own Times.”

He was a man of strong prejudices; he lived in the midst of revolutions, plots, and intrigues; he saw much of the worst side of human nature; and he candidly admits, in the preface to his great work, that he was inclined to think generally the worst of men and parties, and that the reader should make allowance for this inclination, although he had honestly tried to give the truth. Dr. King, of Oxford, in his Anecdotes of his Own Times, p. 185, says: “I knew Burnet: he was a furious party-man, and easily imposed upon by any lying spirit of his faction; but he was a better pastor than any man who is now seated on the bishops’ bench.” The Tory writers –Swift, Pope, Arbuthnot, and others–have undoubtedly exaggerated the defects of Burnet’s narrative; while, on the other hand, his Whig commentators have excused them on the ground of his avowed and fierce partisanship. Dr. Johnson, in his blunt way, says: “I do not believe Burnet intentionally lied; but he was so much prejudiced that he took no pains to find out the truth.” On the contrary, Sir James Mackintosh, in the Edinburgh Review, speaks of the Bishop as an honest writer, seldom substantially erroneous, though often inaccurate in points of detail; and Macaulay, who has quite too closely followed him in his history, defends him as at least quite as accurate as his contemporary writers, and says that, “in his moral character, as in his intellectual, great blemishes were more than compensated by great excellences.”

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