Page images


Character of Shaftesbury.

. In order to form a just estimate of the character of Shaftesbury, we must at once put aside all the opinions of his contemporaries. We must judge him only by the facts of his life which they have transmitted to us. The former invariably take their colour from the bias of the writer's mind; his friends indulging in exaggerated eulogy, and his enemies pursuing him with equally indiscrimi. nating abuse. The latter form a surer standard : facts may be in some degree distorted, but they cannot be entirely deprived of their identity; and from the variety of the channels through which they descend to us, we are enabled to abstract the colouring from each, and to view them in their original character. .iii. ..14

Judging Shaftesbury by the standard I have proposed, he appears to have been possessed of those two indispensable qualifications, without which no superiority of talent can form a statesman, — patriotism and ambition. Shaftesbury's genius, nursed amid the turmoils of a civil war, seemed to take its character from the scenes by which he was surrounded. He first appears a sanguine and somewhat visionary youth, whose advocacy contributed only to sow dissension among the party whose cause he had espoused. But the ill success of his first endeavours, and the danger he had escaped, wrought in him an immediate change. It requires caution and courage of no ordinary character to preserve a man who contends for eminence throughout a period of successive revolutions; yet, Shaftesbury, who entered this scene of intrigue and violence a mere boy, passed through it with unvaried success. Whatever was the form of government, his talents always procured for him an eminent position in it: whether the tyranny of the day was wielded by a committee or a council, by lords commissioners or a lord protector, it was always found necessary to court the young baronet; and it affords a remarkable proof either of his penetration or his power, that the parties whom he abandoned seldom remained long in possession of the govern

ment, and that those whom he joined seldom failed to displace and succeed them.

This continual success could not be obtained without some sacrifice of principle. Shaftesbury can never be looked upon as a consistent or an upright man; he was at this time evidently guided chiefly by ambition, and impelled by that restlessness of spirit which always possessed him, and never allowed him either privacy or repose. He was, doubtless, not altogether uninfluenced by a desire of preserving his country through these troubled times, but his conduct forbids us to rank this higher than a secondary motive. It is doubtful whether any form of government, however apparently excellent, would have received his support, or escaped his hostility, if he had been excluded from an active share of it. Viewing the conduct of Cooper during the supremacy of Cromwell, and the involved and intricate intrigues which preceded and followed, we cannot but admire it as a master-piece of policy; but our admiration is excited by the energy, the talent, and the skill, not by the patriotism of the statesman,

The account given in the preceding pages of the conduct of Sir Anthony at the commence


ment of the Revolution entirely absolves him from those accusations of treachery which all Tory writers advance when they speak of this part of his life. Shaftesbury was the foremost among those who astonished the nation by a formal declaration of that right of resistance, which had already been acted upon in extraordinary cases, but had never before been asserted as a principle of the constitution. He was afterwards the leader of the Whig party, and the chief of that opposition, without whose efforts it is more than probable that Charles would have triumphed over the liberties of his subjects, and that his brother would have consolidated his conquests. It would indeed be an inconsistency which scarcely any superiority of talent or any after services could induce us to forget, had such a man, even in his youth, espoused the party of the first Charles. That party was formed to support the most violent measures by the most violent means; to defend with the sword usurpations which had been gained by fraud and force; to extinguish for ever all popular rights, and to establish in their place prerogative. Those who joined this party must have been influenced by mere instinctive loyalty, (a motive which was

then considered so noble, and which is in reality so contemptible,) or they must have sought private advantage at the sacrifice of all public virtue. Shaftesbury's is a faulty character, but it would not have led him to herd with these. In him ambition was a powerful passion, but it was not so reckless as to lead him, like Eratostratus, to covet an immortality of infamy. Every action of his after-life, and every passage of his speeches and writings, show that he could never have cordially joined the party of the king, and that his natural and proper place was among the forces of the parliament. His conduct upon this occasion betrays the inexperience as well as the confidence of extreme youth, but it affords no ground for a charge of treachery.

The capacity of the future earl, so apparent during the eventful period of the Commonwealth, was conspicuous at the Restoration. The particular account given in this work of his management of Monk, and of the extraordinary penetration which enabled him to comprehend and govern that extraordinary man, depends certainly upon his own authority; but it is corroborated by all the circumstances of the time. His intimacy with Monk is shown by the fact that he was


« PreviousContinue »