Viscount Bolingbroke

The English statesman and political writer Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke (1678-1751), was head of the Tory opposition to Robert Walpole's Whig government and was also an early conservative political theorist.

Henry St. John was born in London on Oct. 1, 1678. He was educated at Eton and became a member of Parliament in 1701, rising to be secretary of war in 1704 and secretary of state in 1710. He was created Viscount Bolingbroke two years later. His major achievement as minister of Queen Anne's government was his negotiation of the Treaty of Utrecht, which in 1713 brought to an end the longest and last of the great European wars of Louis XIV of France.

Tradition has it that because Queen Anne, a devout churchgoer, considered Bolingbroke deceitful, irreligious, immoral, and conniving (all of which were true) she refused on her deathbed to name him first minister. This rejection, in addition to the arrival of the new king George I from Hanover, who was close to the Whigs, prompted Bolingbroke to flee to France in 1715, where he joined the forces of the Stuart Pretender. He soon abandoned the Jacobite cause but remained an exile in France for 10 years. During this period he began his studies in earnest and became a political and philosophical thinker of the first order.

Bolingbroke's major philosophical work, a set of essays entitled Philosophical Fragments, was written during these years in France (1726-1734). It contained essays critical of John Locke's notion of the social contract and important essays on religion which place Bolingbroke as an important figure in the deist movement. Many of Bolingbroke's philosophical ideas were the inspiration for Essay on Man (1734) by his friend Alexander Pope.

In 1726 Bolingbroke returned to England and became the center of a political and literary circle in opposition to Walpole's Whig government. Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, John Gay's Beggar's Opera, and Pope's Dunciad were all written as part of this politicocultural assault on Robert Walpole. Bolingbroke edited for 10 years a weekly journal, the Craftsmen, in which appeared in 1730 his "Remarks on the History of England" and in 1734 his "Dissertation upon Parties." Both these works were thinly veiled attacks on Walpole's rule.

The culmination of Bolingbroke's opposition to Walpole and Whig hegemony was his essay "The Patriot King," written in 1739 and published in 1749. It was a fervent plea for Frederick the Prince of Wales to strengthen the monarchy and to end the corrupt practices of Walpole's parliamentary management. With its cry for a return to the strong monarch represented by Elizabeth, this essay would influence George III and the young Benjamin Disraeli in the next century.

Bolingbroke lived to see Walpole out of power but never to see his Tory party in office. He died on Dec. 12, 1751, ending a career of politics and letters which saw him consistently the champion of the aristocracy and gentry classes against the new order of financial capitalism and commercialism represented and championed by the Whig party, Walpole, and the Bank of England.


Further Reading on Viscount Bolingbroke

David Mallet edited Bolingbroke's Works (5 vols., 1754), and Gilbert Parke edited his Letters and Correspondence, Public and Private (4 vols., 1798), written during 1710-1714, when Bolingbroke was secretary of state. The best treatment of Bolingbroke's political thought is Isaac Kramnick, Bolingbroke and His Circle (1968). Another perspective is given by Jeffrey Hart, Viscount Bolingbroke: Tory Humanist (1965).

Recommended for general historical background are Thomas Babington Macaulay, History of England (5 vols., 1849-1861; new ed. 1953), for the reigns of James II and William III, and George Macaulay Trevelyan, England under Queen Anne (3 vols., 1930-1934). The party politics of the period are treated in Keith Feiling, History of the Tory Party, 1640-1714 (1924); Robert Walcott, English Politics in the Early Eighteenth Century (1956); and Geoffrey Holmes, British Politics in the Age of Anne (1967).


Additional Biography Sources

Barrell, Rex A., Bolingbroke and France, Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1988.

Biddle, Sheila, Bolingbroke and Harle, New York, Knopf; distributed by Random House 1974.

Bolingbroke's political writings: the conservative enlightenment, New York, N.Y.: St. Martin's Press, 1995.

Hammond, Brean S., Pope and Bolingbroke: a study of friendship and influence, Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1984.

Kramnick, Isaac, Bolingbroke and his circle: the politics of nostalgia in the age of Walpole, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992.

Varey, Simon, Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984.

Warburton, William, A view of Lord Bolingbroke's philosophy, New York: Garland Pub., 1977.