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Manus haec inimica tyrannis.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Lord Clarendon's Toryism

Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon (1609-1679)

Back in September I took part in what has become a yearly ritual: a trip to Queen’s Park for Toronto’s annual The Word on the Street Literary Festival. To be honest, the Festival itself holds few charms for me. There are never any academic presses represented, and there are far too many religious publishers hawking their dubious wares for my tastes. And there are children, many, many children. I like the idea of children, just not the reality of them.

You may justifiably ask why I put myself through this ritual. Well, for one thing, we go with friends, and we usually have brunch and some drinks with them beforehand (sometimes afterhand as well). It’s a social occasion, and the warming buzz of alcohol means that I can float from booth to booth on a lovely cloud of benevolent toleration, heedless of the reminders of humanity’s addiction to theological fairy stories and overprocreation saturating my surroundings.

In truth, there is another reason I go: it usually coincides with Victoria College’s annual used book sale across the street. And that is where the real action is. This year’s find was a six-volume folio set of Lord Clarendon’s History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England, supplemented by another two volumes comprising a continuation of the History and Clarendon’s Life (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1816, frontispiece pictured). All eight volumes were tightly bound in utilitarian burgundy-coloured buckram, the text blocks all neat and crisp and white. As I first beheld them, my heart began racing. Unfortunately, the price was a little too rich for my blood. However, the flyer for the sale noted that the following day was the last day of the sale, and that everything would be half price. This discount would make it affordable, a bargain even. Unfortunately, the next day being a Monday, I would have to go to work, and would therefore be unable to claim my booty. I was sure someone else would snatch it up.

But not to fear. My wife kindly offered to make the trip down there on my behalf the next day and pick it up. Kind indeed, since lugging a large box containing eight thickish folio volumes on bus and subway was certainly going above and beyond. It triggered her asthma, but I now have my Clarendon.

I have finished the first volume, and I must say that my Lord’s prose style is very much an acquired taste: luxuriant and seemingly never-ending sentences, baroque festoons of nested clauses and intertwined digressions. His language isn’t the only thing that takes some getting used to, for his politics were more Tory than Tory. He left no doubt about whose side he was on during the Civil War. He plainly thought the King was in the right and that the Parliamentary side was full of men who were perverse, factious, and unreasonable (although he also has a few personal scores to settle on the royalist side as well). It’s not just that Clarendon was prepared to defend the King’s policies and conduct at every turn, even when they were patently indefensible — his Toryism wasn’t just a conservative attitude akin to a conditioned reflex. Rather, here and there, he offers arguments posing as obiter dicta that betray a reasonably worked-out theory of political conservatism.

I came across a very instructive example of this in the first volume, in the course of a discussion of Parliament’s attempts to eliminate certain royal offices, on the pretext that they had been subject to abuse by the King’s men. These included

“an act, that no Clerk of the Market of his Majesty’s Horse should execute his office in any part of the kingdom…. And let no man say, that this was but an act of justice, for the redress of visible misdemeanors which his own officers were guilty of; and that his Majesty parted with nothing of profit to himself, by that act: for the misdemeanors of any office may be prevented, and punished, and redressed, without the taking away, or suppressing, the office itself; which is an instance of power, and prerogative.” (pp. 377-378)

The general drift of Clarendon’s argument here is that although the abuse of office is a good reason to punish the person responsible, it is no justification for eliminating the office altogether. To do so is to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water. For one thing, the office, when not abused, may perform a valid and necessary function. And to be seen to reform the office gives the people an opportunity to view the King's solicitousness on their behalf. But of greater concern to Clarendon is that the elimination of such offices amounts to lese-majesty, a violation of the King’s dignity, a violation of his “power and prerogative”.

As a stand-alone claim, the appeal to the dignity of the King would be pretty weak. Certainly a radical parliamentarian or commonwealthsman is not apt to be impressed by it. Instead, he would reply that such offices ought to be eliminated because they cost too much and do too little good. Clarendon will have to do better to convince the reader, which is why he then immediately follows up with this argument:

“And the other was used as an argument heretofore (which few men have since approved) for the passing away most of the old rents of the Crown, being always swallowed by the many officers incumbent upon that service; without considering, that even those many officers are of the essential honour and greatness of princes… and he, that thinks the King gives away nothing that is worth the keeping, when he suffers an office, which keeps and maintains many officers, to be abolished and taken away, does not consider, that so much of his train is abated, and that he is less spoken of, and consequently, less esteemed, in those places where that power formerly extended; nor observes how private men value themselves upon those lesser franchises and royalties, which especially keep up the power, distinction, and degrees of men.” (p. 378)

Now this is a little more interesting. Although there is quite a bit packed into this deceptively brief paragraph, we can paraphrase Clarendon’s argumentative drift this way. Where some might see prodigality and waste in the proliferation of offices in the King’s gift, we ought instead to see the cement which binds the civil polity together. First, it provides livings for many of the King’s subjects, and in that sense it is not entirely waste. Second, besides the financial support for families such expenditure provides, we are encouraged to see it as a means by which subjects, from the very high to the very low, can be bound by ties of loyalty to the King, essentially by a relationship of employment. Citizens are more likely to be good subjects of the state when their very livelihood depends upon the survival and flourishing of that state.

However, again, the commonwealthsman is not likely to be bowled over by this argument. A James Harrington or an Algernon Sidney would note that for the state to flourish through the dependency of its citizens is to have a kingdom whose subjects are slaves rather than free men. Slaves too are dependent on a master for their bread; this is not a state of affairs to which we should aspire. Instead, a free commonwealth flourishes from the independence of its freeholders, citizens who themselves control the basis of their own well-being (land) and who therefore have a greater stake in defending it. It might also be added that rather than display greater loyalty to the state, subjects in dependent offices are just as likely to milk them for all they’re worth, leading to abuse and to the bankruptcy of the state, just as slaves are apt to pilfer their master’s belongings when they can get away with it.

To this Clarendon has a response, implicit in the previously quoted passage. It is all well and good to have a society of prosperous freeholders, says Clarendon, but such “leveling” is a sure recipe for Civil War. A society of freeholders without a strong sovereign to rule over them amounts to little more than a “kingdom” ruled by so many little kings who will naturally try to exert sovereignty over their peers. The ultimate fate of such a Whiggish commonwealth will be faction, strife, disorder, and ruin. A recurrent theme in Clarendon is that England’s woes were partly attributable to the decline of the traditional military aristocracy and the rising power of the commons, as represented by the lesser gentry. The latter would eventually seize power, and once they did so, they would immediately fight each other. Indeed, it was the inability of the Parliamentary side to settle things after they had defeated the monarch that led to the need for a military strongman like Oliver Cromwell — a king in all but name.

Clarendon’s Tory alternative rests upon the foundation of subordination. Now look at that word; try to get a feel for its etymology, its implications. Bundled within it is the very notion of order, but an order that is underneath (“sub-"). The vision here is of an intricate compound structure — a chain — of relations between superior and inferior, linked the one to the other by ties of tradition, loyalty, duty, a sense of common enterprise and a common way of life. These special social relations form the basis of legitimacy for that other relationship upon which social peace hangs, the relation of command and obedience implicit in those particular relations between master and servant, husband and wife (it’s the 17th century, after all), parent and child, magistrate and citizen, and so on, right up to the relation between King and subject. And of course, in High Tory doctrine, the King is ultimately answerable to God and acts as surety for the good behavior of his subjects, a relationship that provides legitimacy for a national form of worship.

Instead of being a mere collection of freeholding sovereign atoms colliding into one another in a political free-for-all (pardon the pun), subjects in a society based on subordination are tied to one another in such a way as to make common action and common purpose possible. But this bond of mutual ties based on subordination is only possible where precisely who is subordinate to whom is made clear to both. The various great and petty offices in the gift of the King are so many ways of creating the distinctions necessary to structure the Tory kingdom. To repeat Clarendon’s phrase, “private men value themselves upon those lesser franchises and royalties, which especially keep up the power, distinction, and degrees of men.”

I should point out that in a Tory society there is not a very direct correspondence between social distinctions and the amount of wealth one possesses. Rank is as dependent on personal relations, on duties and deference owed and received, as it is on relative wealth. A small office or distinction bestowed by the Crown could in many cases be worth much more to its beneficiary in terms of social capital than the bare salary attached to it, which could be meager indeed. In short, Tory society was much more complex than we can realize today in a quasi-democratic wealth-based society, where social distinctions more closely track income brackets. The Tory mode of social ordering was certainly more complex than Whiggish caricatures of mindless passive obedience would have us believe.

None of this is to say that I agree with or condone Clarendon’s variety of High Toryism. For one thing, it is too reliant upon shared patterns of belief and shared ways of life. It cannot function well in a modern plural society. In fact, it could not cope with the social, economic, and religious changes that erupted in 17th-century English society.

Also, unlike Clarendon, I have more faith in the commonwealthsmen’s vision of a society of republican freeholders. Such a society needn’t sink into strife and ruin. Instead, freedom’s social friction can have improving effects that contribute to social peace. As Lord Shaftesbury put it in 1711, after the commonwealthsmen had become Whigs, “All Politeness is owing to Liberty. We polish one another, and rub off our Corners and rough Sides by a sort of amicable Collision” (Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, Vol. I, p. 64).

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