Monday 19 October 2009

The Dorsetshire Eel

Anthony Ashley Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury, the founder of English Whigism, better known to his enemies as 'little sincerity' or the 'Dorsetshire eel'! I have lived with this man for so long that I feel that I have a closer understanding of him and his motives than I could ever wish. Who can possible forget John Dryden's sketch of the restless little nobleman in "Absalom and Achitophel";

Of these false Achitophel was first;
A name to all succeeding ages curst:
For close designs, and crooked counsels fit;
Sagacious, bold and turbulent of wit;
Restless, unfixed in principles or place;
In power unpleased, impatient if disgrace;
A fiery soul, which, worked out its way,
Fretted the pygmy-body to decay,
And o'er-informed the tenement of clay.
A daring pilot in extremity,
Pleased with the danger, when the waves went high,
He sought the storms; but, for the calm unfit,
Would steer to nigh the sands, to boast his wit.
Great wits are to madness near allied,
And thin partitions do their bonds divide...
In friendship false, implacable in hate,
Resolved to ruin, or to rule the state.

Sad to say, it is almost impossible to provide a counter-balance to all this hostility, to see the world through Shaftesbury's eyes; for, fearful of prosecution by the government of Charles II, he destroyed most of his papers prior to his exile and death in 1683. Even Whig historians like Gilbert Burnet and T. B. Macaulay could think of few good things to say about him. For Macaulay he was "first a member of the most corrupt administration, then the leader of the most violent opposition of the century."

Can any defence be made of him? Well, yes, it can. He was extraordinarily able, dedicated, single-minded and hard-working. These qualities can be seen both in his work as a government minister and in his conduct throughout the Exclusion Crisis. He was also to be the first true 'party' leader in English history, the man who virtually called the Whigs into being. It was he, in this regard, who might be said to have turned politics away from the practice of elites into the arena of public debate. Yes, he was unscrupulous; yes, he was prepared to use disreputable methods and rely on disreputable people, like the truly loathsome Titus Oates.

But, you see, Shaftesbury believed that England was faced with a terrible threat, and that desperate times demanded desperate remedies. For him Catholicism was a political rather than a religious danger; a faith that rested in the forms of despotism practiced on the Continent by the likes of Louis XIV. If he was unscrupulous he had learned the technique from the Stuarts; from Charles II, a king who effectively 'sold' England in the secret Treaty of Dover, and James his Catholic brother and designated successor, rigid and doctrinaire to a quite unacceptable degree. Shaftesbury's anger was born of just frustration: that the People, that Parliament itself, had no effective say over the supreme governance of the realm. His Whigs were violent, but their violence was born of political and constitutional imbalance.

So, what is Shaftesbury's case, his final defence? It's the defence of history, the defence, it might even be said, of liberty itself; that there should be an effective challenge to absolutism; that the people have a right to decide on their forms of government; that all power should not be concentrated by sacred and received right alone; that politics is a public act, not a private conspiracy. His best epitaph was that penned by John Locke, his friend and associate. For him Shaftesbury was a "Vigorous and indefatigable champion of civil and ecclesiastical liberty." And who can say better than that?


  1. Hi Ana. Well, um ... so Shaftsbury ' was unscrupulous; yes, he was prepared to use disreputable methods and rely on disreputable people, like the truly loathsome Titus Oates...'

    But, you say ... 'He was [also] extraordinarily able, dedicated, single-minded and hard-working...'

    Well, that puts him in the same league as Henry VIII, Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin et al ; so that's all right then. That makes him a goody.

    But wait! I do have certain shadowy Whiggish tendencies myself, so I have some sympathy for the noble earl. He lived in perilous times, just as did Cardinal Cisneros. Perilous and fateful ; for the future peace and prosperity of the people were at stake in a world that was being re-shaped by powerful new modes of thinking. And at times like these, the judgement of even the wise is oft awry.

  2. Thanks, Jamie; a great comment. I'm a Tory through and through but I still cannot but admire Shaftesbury as the first great political operator in English history. He had, if you like, a kind of Churchillian quality. His talents could have been used to much better effect if only he had a less trecherous, double-dealing monarch. :-)

  3. I thought it was very unDryden-like for the first line of your quote not to scan. The line actually reads 'Of these the false Achitophel was first,' but it's just a common forgiveable typo found so abundfantly in my own works. t's not our responsibility to correct such-like but that of our subsequent editors long after we're rot! Aaanyway, thanks for this enlightening blog. Now to look up whether this is the same Shaftesbury that Pope writes about in his works.

  4. Oops, I should have noticed that. :-))