Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke

English politician and Viscount (1678-1751)
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Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke (September 16, 1678December 12, 1751) was an English statesman and philosopher.

It is the modest, not the presumptuous, inquirer who makes a real and safe progress in the discovery of divine truths.
Truth lies within a little and certain compass, but error is immense.


  • We have been twenty years engaged in the two most expensive wars that Europe ever saw. The whole burthen of this charge has lain upon the landed interest during the whole time. The men of estates have, generally speaking, neither served in the fleets nor armies, nor meddled in the public funds, and management of the treasure.
    A new interest has been created out of their fortunes, and a sort of property, which was not known twenty years ago, is now encreased to be almost equal to the terra firma of our island. The consequences of all this is, that the landed men are become poor and dispirited. They either abandon all thoughts of the publick, turn arrant farmers, and improve the estates they have left: or else they seek to repair their shattered fortunes by listing at court, or under the heads of partys. In the mean while those men are become their masters, who formerly would with joy have been their servants.
    • Letter to Lord Orrery (9 July 1709), quoted in 'The Letters of Henry St. John to the Earl of Orrery, 1709–1711', ed. H. T. Dickinson, Camden Miscellany, Vol. XXVI (1975), p. 146
  • Though the condition of France by evident tokens appears to be miserable, yet their ill circumstances are certainly exaggerated in our accounts. I doubt, we may add that our own state is not much better than our enemy's, and that an unseasonable harvest would reduce our people to the same misery as we triumph over.
    Peace is as much our interest as theirs. I am so firmly persuaded of this, that I will continue to hope the winter may ripen this glorious fruit, which the summer could not.
    As to the conditions of this peace, it is melancholy to reflect, that those articles you speak of, which will in their consequence devolve so prodigious a power on Holland, seem to be agreed on all sides; whilst the single principle on which we engaged in the war, remaines the only point in dispute.
    • Letter to Lord Orrery (1 September 1709), quoted in 'The Letters of Henry St. John to the Earl of Orrery, 1709–1711', ed. H. T. Dickinson, Camden Miscellany, Vol. XXVI (1975), p. 147
  • You may observe yourself...what a difference there is between the true strength of this nation and the fictitious one of the Whigs. How much time, how many lucky incidents, how many strains of power, how much money must go to create a majority of the latter; on the other hand, take but off the opinion that the Crown is another way inclined, the church interest rises with redoubled force, and by its natural genuine strength.
    • Letter to Mr. Drummond (10 November 1710), quoted in Gilbert Parke, Letters and Correspondence, Public and Private, of The Right Honourable Henry St. John, Lord Visc. Bolingbroke; during the Time he was Secretary of State to Queen Anne; with State Papers, Explanatory Notes, and a Translation of the Foreign Letters, &c.: Vol. I (1798), pp. 16–17
  • A peace must be had; and all mankind sees plainly now, in how vile a manner former opportunities were neglected of making a better than at this hour we have reason to expect.
    • Letter to Lord Orrery (30 March 1711), quoted in 'The Letters of Henry St. John to the Earl of Orrery, 1709–1711', ed. H. T. Dickinson, Camden Miscellany, Vol. XXVI (1975), p. 163
  • [I]t is a pretty shocking observation that the Queen is to be the guarantee for a loan of this extraordinary nature made by the Dutch, and especially at a time, when under pretence of disability they directly refuse to furnish their quotas for the sea service, in spight of the obligations of all sorts, which lye upon them to do otherwise.
    • Letter to Lord Orrery (6 April 1711), quoted in 'The Letters of Henry St. John to the Earl of Orrery, 1709–1711', ed. H. T. Dickinson, Camden Miscellany, Vol. XXVI (1975), p. 164
  • Truth lies within a little and certain compass, but error is immense.
    • Reflections upon Exile (1716)
  • We are born too late to see the beginning, and we die too soon to see the end of many things.
    • On the Study and Use of History
  • I have read somewhere or other, — in Dionysius of Halicarnassus, I think, — that history is philosophy teaching by examples.
    • On the Study and Use of History, letter 2; in fact this relates to a third-century AD treatise on rhetoric, wrongly attributed to Dionysius of Halicarnassus, which says (xi. 2): "The contact with manners then is education; and this Thucydides appears to assert when he says history is philosophy learned from examples". The line is not found in Thucydides.
  • Nations, like men, have their infancy.
    • On the Study and Use of History, letter 4 (1752)
  • The landed men are the true owners of our political vessel, the moneyed men are no more than passengers in it.
    • Some Reflections on the Present State of the Nation (1753)
  • Our world seems to be, in many respects, the bedlam of every other system of intelligent creatures.
    • The Philosophical Works Of the Late Right Honorable Henry St. John, Lord Viscount Bolinbroke (1754), Vol. II, Essay IV, Sect. XIII, p. 381 [1]
  • The second proposition admits and encourages the very practice we censure so justly, for which the saint [ Augustine of Hippo ] was so famous, and by which he contributed so much to promote contentions in his own days, and to perpetuate them to ours. The practice of deducing doctrines from the scriptures that are not evidently contained in them... Who does not see that the direct tendency of this practice is exactly the same as the event has proved it to be? It composes and propagates a religion, seemingly under the authority of God, but really under that of man. The principles of revelation are lost in theology, or disfigured by it: and whilst some men are impudent enough to pretend, others are silly enough to believe, that they adhere to the gospel, and maintain the cause of God against infidels and heretics, when they do nothing better, nor more, than espouse the conceits of men, whom enthusiasm, or the ambition of forming sects, or of making a great figure in them, has inspired. If you ask now what the practice of the christian fathers, and of other divines, should have been, in order to preserve the purity of faith, and to promote peace and charity, the answer is obvious... They should have adhered to the word of God: they should have paid no regard to heathen philosophy, jewish cabala, the sallies of enthusiasm, or the refinements of human ingenuity: they should have embraced, and held fast the articles of faith and doctrine, that were delivered in plain terms, or in unequivocal figures: they should not have been dogmatical where the sense was doubtful, nor have presumed even to guess where the Holy Ghost left the veil of mystery undrawn.
  • It is the modest, not the presumptuous, inquirer who makes a real and safe progress in the discovery of divine truths. One follows Nature and Nature's God; that is, he follows God in his works and in his word.
    • Letter to Alexander Pope; compare: "Slave to no sect, who takes no private road, But looks through Nature up to Nature’s God", Alexander Pope, Essay on Man, epistle iv. line 331.
  • The shortest and surest way of arriving at real knowledge is to unlearn the lessons we have been taught, to mount the first principles, and take nobody's word about them.
    • As quoted in Treasury of Wisdom, Wit and Humor, Odd Comparisons and Proverbs (1891) by Adam Woolever

On the Spirit of Patriotism (1736)

Letters, on the Spirit of Patriotism: On the Idea of a Patriot King: And On the State of Parties, at the Accession of King George the First (1749)
  • The manners of our fore-fathers were, I believe, in many respects better: they had more probity perhaps, they had certainly more show of honour, and greater industry.
    • p. 18
  • One party [the Whigs] had given their whole attention, during several years, to the project of enriching themselves, and impoverishing the rest of the nation; and, by these and other means, of establishing their dominion under the government and with the favour of a family, who were foreigners, and therefore might believe, that they were established on the throne by the good will and strength of this party alone. This party in general were so intent on these views, and many of them, I fear, are so still, that they did not advert in time to the necessary consequences of the measures they abetted: nor did they consider, that the power they raised, and by which they hoped to govern their country, would govern them with the very rod of iron they forged, and would be the power of a prince or minister, not that of a party long.
    • pp. 20-21
  • Another party [the Tories] continued sour, sullen, and inactive, with judgments so weak, and passions so strong, that even experience, and a severe one surely, was lost upon them. They waited, like the Jews, for a Messiah, that may never come; and under whom, if he did come, they would be strangely disappointed in their expectations of glory and triumph, and universal dominion. Whilst they waited, they were marked out like the Jews, a distinct race, hewers of wood and drawers of water, scarce members of the community, tho born in the country.
    • pp. 21-22
  • The service of our country is no chimerical, but a real duty. He who admits the proofs of any other moral duty, drawn from the constitution of human nature, or from the moral fitness and unfitness of things, must admit them in favour of this duty, or be reduced to the most absurd inconsistency.
    • pp. 27-28
  • To what higher station, to what greater glory can any mortal aspire, than to be, during the whole course of his life, the support of good, the controul of bad government, and the guardian of public liberty?
    • p. 29
  • Neither Montaigne in writing his essays, nor DesCartes in building new worlds, nor Burnet in framing an antedeluvian earth, no nor Newton in discovering and establishing the true laws of nature on experiment and a sublimer geometry, felt more intellectual joys; than he feels who is a real patriot, who bends all the force of his understanding, and directs all his thoughts and actions, to the good of his country.
    • p. 31
  • My Lord, I have insisted the more on this duty which men owe to their country, because I came out of England, and continue still, strongly affected with what I saw when I was there. Our government has approached, nearer than ever before, to the true principles of it, since the revolution of one thousand six hundred and eighty eight: and the accession of the present family to the throne, has given the fairest opportunities, as well as the justest reasons, for compleating the scheme of liberty, and improving it to perfection.
    • pp. 36-37
  • [N]o human institution can arrive at perfection, and the most that human wisdom can do, is to procure the same or greater good, at the expence of less evil.
    • p. 45
  • There have been periods when our government continued free, with strong appearances of becoming absolute. Let it be your glory, my Lord, and that of the new generation springing up with you, that this government do not become absolute at any future period, with the appearances of being free.
    • p. 46

The Idea of a Patriot King (1738)

Letters, on the Spirit of Patriotism: On the Idea of a Patriot King: And On the State of Parties, at the Accession of King George the First (1749)
  • I think, and every wise and honest man in generations yet unborn will think, if the history of [thi]s administration descends to blacken our annals, that the greatest iniquity of the minister [Robert Walpole], on whom the whole iniquity ought to be charged, since he has been so long in possession of the whole power, is the constant endeavour he has employed to corrupt the morals of men.
    • pp. 68-69
  • The minister [Robert Walpole] preaches corruption aloud and constantly, like an impudent missionary of vice.
    • p. 72
  • It seems to me, upon the whole matter, that to save or redeem a nation under such circumstances from perdition, nothing less is necessary than some great, some extraordinary conjuncture of ill fortune, or of good, which may purge, yet so as by fire. Distress from abroad, bankruptcy at home, and other circumstances of like nature and tendency, may beget universal confusion. Out of confusion order may arise: but it may be the order of a wicked tyranny, instead of the order of a just monarchy. Either may happen: and such an alternative, at the disposition of fortune, is sufficient to make a stoic tremble! We may be saved indeed by means of a very different kind; but these means will not offer themselves, this way of salvation will not be opened to us, without the concurrence, and the influence of a PATRIOT KING, the most uncommon of all phænomena in the physical or moral world. Nothing can so surely and so effectually restore the virtue and public spirit, essential to the preservation of liberty, and national prosperity, as the reign of such a prince.
    • pp. 72-73
  • I esteem monarchy above any other form of government, and hereditary monarchy above elective. I reverence kings, their office, their rights, their persons; and it will never be owing to the principles I am going to establish, because the character and government of a patriot king can be established on no other, if their office and their right are not always held divine, and their persons always sacred.
    • pp. 83-84
  • The obligation of submission to both, is discoverable by so clear and so simple an use of our intellectual faculties, that it may be said properly enough to be revealed to us by God; and tho both these laws cannot be said properly to be given by Him, yet our obligation to submit to the civil law is a principal paragraph in the natural law, which he has most manifestly given us.
    • pp. 84-85
  • It follows, therefore, that he who breaks the laws of his country resists the ordinance of God, that is, the law of his nature. God has instituted neither monarchy, nor aristocracy, nor democracy, nor mixed government: but tho God has instituted no particular form of government among men, yet by the general laws of his kingdom, he exacts our obedience to the laws of those communities to which each of us is attached by birth, or to which we may be attached by a subsequent and lawful engagement.
    • pp. 85-86
  • Nothing can be more absurd, in pure speculation, than an hereditary right in any mortal to govern other men: and yet, in practice, nothing can be more absurd than to have a king to choose at every vacancy of a throne. We draw at a lottery indeed in one case, where there are many chances to lose, and few to gain. But have we much more advantage of this kind in the other? I think not. Upon these, and upon most occasions, the multitude would do at least as well to trust to chance as choice, and to their fortune as to their judgment.
    • pp. 89-90
  • To conclude this head therefore, as I think a limited monarchy the best of governments, so I think an hereditary monarchy the best of monarchies. I said a limited monarchy; for an unlimited monarchy, wherein arbitrary will, which is in truth no rule, is however the sole rule, or stands instead of all rule of government, is so great an absurdity, both in reason informed or uninformed by experience, that it seems a government fitter for savages than for civilized people.
    • pp. 91-92
  • Among many reasons which determine me to prefer monarchy to every form of government, this is a principal one. When monarchy is the essential form, it may be more easily and more usefully tempered with aristocracy or democracy, or both, than either of them, when they are the essential forms, can be tempered with monarchy. It seems to me, that the introduction of a real permanent monarchical power, or any thing more than the pageantry of it, into either of these, must destroy them and extinguish them, as a great light extinguishes a less. Where it may easily be shewn, and the true form of our government will demonstrate, without seeking any other example, that very considerable aristocratical and democratical powers may be grafted on a monarchical stock, without diminishing the lustre, or restraining the power and authority of the prince, enough to alter in any degree the essential form.
    • pp. 92-93
  • There must be an absolute, unlimited, and uncontroulable power lodged somewhere in every government; but to constitute monarchy, or the government of a single person, it is not necessary that this power should be lodged in the monarch alone.
    • p. 93
  • There are limitations indeed that would destroy the essential form of monarchy: or, in other words, a monarchical constitution may be changed, under pretence of limiting the monarch. This happened among us in the last century, when the vilest usurpation, and the most infamous tyranny, were established over our nation, by some of the worst and some of the meanest men in it. I will not say, that the essential form of monarchy should be preserved, tho the preservation of it were to cause the loss of liberty. Salus reipsuprema lex esto, is a fundamental law: and sure I am, the safety of a commonwealth is ill provided for, if the liberty be given up. But this I presume to say, and can demonstrate, that all the limitations necessary to preserve liberty, as long as the spirit of it subsists, and longer than that, no limitations of monarchy, nor any other form of government, can preserve it, are compatible with monarchy.
    • p. 96
  • My aim is to fix this principle, that limitations on a crown ought to be carried as far as it is necessary to secure the liberties of a people; and that all such limitations may subsist, without weakening or endangering monarchy.
    • p. 97
  • As soon as corruption ceases to be an expedient of government, and it will cease to be such as soon as a patriot king is raised to the throne, the panacea is applied: the spirit of the constitution revives of course; and as fast as it revives, the orders and forms of the constitution are restored to their primitive integrity, and become what they were intended to be; real barriers against arbitrary power, not blinds nor masks under which tyranny may lie concealed. Depravation of manners exposed the constitution to ruin; reformation will secure it.
    • p. 134
  • A patriot king is the most powerful of all reformers; for he is himself a sort of standing miracle, so rarely seen and so little understood, that the sure effects of his appearance will be admiration and love in every honest breast, confusion and terror to every guilty conscience, but submission and resignation in all. A new people will seem to arise with a new king. In numerable metamorphoses, like those which poets feign, will happen in very deed: and while men are conscious that they are the same individuals, the difference of their sentiments will almost persuade them that they are changed into different beings.
    • p. 135
  • By the principles of the Revolution, a subject may resist, no doubt, the prince who endeavours to ruin and enslave his people, and may push this resistance to the dethronement and exclusion of him and his race: but will it follow, that, because we may justly take arms against a prince whose right to govern we once acknowledged, and who by subsequent acts has forfeited that right, we may swear to a right we do not acknowledge, and resist a prince whose conduct has not forfeited the right we swore to, nor given any just dispensation from our oaths?
    • p. 171
  • The situation of Great Britain, the character of her people, and the nature of her government fit her for trade and commerce. Her climate and her soil make them necessary to her well being. By trade and commerce we grew a rich and powerful nation, and by their decay we are growing poor and impotent. As trade and commerce enrich, so they fortify our country. The sea is our barrier, ships are our fortresses, and the mariners, that trade and commerce alone can furnish, are the garrisons to defend them.
    • pp. 184-185
  • The French may improve their natural wealth and power by the improvement of trade and commerce. We can have no wealth, nor power by consequence, as Europe is now constituted, without the improvement of them, nor in any degree but proportionably to this improvement.
    • p. 186
  • The result of what has been said is, in general, that the wealth and power of all nations depending so much on their trade and commerce, and every nation being...in such different circumstances of advantage or disadvantage in the pursuit of this common interest; a good government, and therefore the government of a patriot king, will be directed constantly to make the most of every advantage that nature has given, or art can procure towards the improvement of trade and commerce. And this is one of the principal criterions, by which we are to judge whether governors are in the true interest of the people, or not.
    It results, in particular, that Great Britain might improve her wealth and power in a proportion superior to that of any nation who can be deemed her rival, if the advantages she has were as wisely cultivated, as they will be in the reign of a patriot king.
    • pp. 186-187
  • A patriot king will neither neglect, nor sacrifice his country's interest. No other interest, neither a foreign nor a domestic, neither a public nor a private, will influence his conduct in government... To give ease and encouragement to manufactory at home, to assist and protect trade abroad, to improve and keep in heart the national colonies, like so many farms of the mother-country, will be principal and constant parts of the attention of such a prince.
    • pp. 190-191
  • By a continual attention to improve her natural, that is her maritime strength, by collecting all her forces with in herself, and reserving them to be laid out on great occasions, such as regard her immediate interests and her honour, or such as are truly important to the general system of power in Europe; she may be the arbitrator of differences, the guardian of liberty, and the preserver of that Balance, which has been so much talked of, and is so little understood.
    • pp. 193-194
  • Like other amphibious animals, we must come occasionally on shore: but the water is more properly our element, and in it, like them, as we find our greatest security, so we exert our greatest force.
    • p. 195
  • In his place, concord will appear, brooding peace and prosperity on the happy land; joy fitting in every face, content in every heart; a people unoppressed, undisturbed, unalarmed; busy to improve their private property and the public stock; fleets covering the ocean; bringing home wealth by the returns of industry; carrying assistance or terror abroad by the direction of wisdom; and asserting triumphantly the right and the honour of Great Britain, as far as waters roll and as winds can waft them.
    Those who live to see such happy days, and to act in so glorious a scene, will perhaps call to mind with some tenderness of sentiment, when he is no more, a man, who contributed his mite to carry on so good a work, and who desired life for nothing so much, as to see a king of Great Britain the most popular man in his country, and a patriot king at the head of an united people.
    • pp. 225-226

Quotes about Bolingbroke

  • Who now reads Bolingbroke? Who ever read him through? ... I do not often quote Bolingbroke, nor have his works in general, left any permanent impression on my mind. He is a presumptuousness and a superficial writer. But he has one observation, which in my opinion, is not without depth and solidity. He says, that he prefers a monarchy to other governments; because you can better ingraft any description of republic on a monarchy than any thing of monarchy upon the republican forms. I think him perfectly in the right.
  • He engaged young, and distinguished himself in business; and his penetration was almost intuition. I am old enough to have heard him speak in parliament. And I remember that, though prejudiced against him by party, I felt all the force and charms of his eloquence. Like Belial in Milton, “he made the worse appear the better cause.” All the internal and external advantages and talents of an orator are undoubtedly his. Figure, voice, elocution, knowledge, and, above all, the purest and most florid diction, with the justest metaphors and happiest images, had raised him to the post of Secretary at War, at four-and-twenty years old, an age at which others are hardly thought fit for the smallest employments.
    • Earl of Chesterfield to his son (12 December 1749) quoted in Letters Written By The Late Right Honourable Philip Dormer Stanhope, Earl Of Chesterfield, To His Son, Philip Stanhope, Esq. Late Envoy-Extraordinary At The Court Of Dresden: Together with Several Other Pieces On Various Subjects: In Four Volumes, Volume II (1792), p. 292
  • Lord Bolingbroke, one of the ablest men who ever lived, was a firm and uncompromising Tory, and he advocated triennial Parliaments. He said that without this there was no security for the people, no integrity for the constitution.
    • Benjamin Disraeli, speech in High Wycombe (27 November 1832), quoted in Selected Speeches of the late Right Honourable the Earl of Beaconsfield: Volume II, ed. T. E. Kebbel (1882), p. 7
  • Bolingbroke was typical not only in his attempt to define the true interests of the state but also in his use of the analogy between the political society and the family to assert that not unity but discord was the natural relationship between states. The personal needs of men were met by the development of society out of the family. Self-love, which originally assisted this development and produced separate societies, then ensured that the development would spread no further. "The great commonwealth of mankind cannot be brought under one government, nor subsist without any." As Bolingbroke used these views to make himself an early advocate of a maritime, insular, colonial Great Britain, intervening in European affairs only when her interest in the balance of power required it, so the continental writers of his time completely abandoned the traditional belief in Christendom or Europe as a structure above or at least additional to its component states.
    • F. H. Hinsley, Power and the Pursuit of Peace: Theory and Practice in the History of Relations between States (1963), p. 161
  • He was called indeed a tory; but his writings prove him a stronger advocate for liberty than any of his countrymen, the whigs of the present day. Irritated by his exile, he committed one act unworthy of him, in connecting himself momentarily with a prince rejected by his country. But he redeemed that single act by his establishment of the principles which proved it to be wrong... Lord Bolingbroke's...is a style of the highest order. The lofty, rhythmical, full-flowing eloquence of Cicero. Periods of just measure, their members proportioned, their close full and round. His conceptions, too, are bold and strong, his diction copious, polished and commanding as his subject. His writings are certainly the finest samples in the English language, of the eloquence proper for the Senate. His political tracts are safe reading for the most timid religionist, his philosophical, for those who are not afraid to trust their reason with discussions of right and wrong.
    • Thomas Jefferson to Francis Eppes (19 January 1821), quoted in Thomas Jefferson, Writings, ed. Merrill D. Peterson (1984), p. 1451
  • Awake, my St. John, leave all meaner things
    To low ambition, and the pride of kings.
    Laugh when we must, be candid when you can,
    And vindicate the ways of God to man.
    • Alexander Pope, quoted in Ancient and Modern Celebrated Freethinkers (Half-Hours with the Freethinkers) by Charles Bradlaugh, A. Collins, and J. Watts (1877)
  • I think Mr. secretary St. John the greatest young man I ever knew: wit, capacity, beauty, quickness of apprehension, good learning, and an excellent taste; the best orator in the house of commons, admirable conversation, good nature, and good manners; generous, and a despiser of money. His only fault is, talking to his friends in way of complaint of too great load of business, which looks a little like affectation; and he endeavours too much to mix the fine gentleman, and the man of pleasure, with the man of business. What truth and sincerity he may have, I know not.
    • Jonathan Swift, Letter XXXIII (23 October 1711), A Journal to Stella, quoted in The Works of Jonathan Swift, containing additional letters, tracts, and poems, with notes, and a life of the author, by W. Scott, Volume II (1824), pp. 405–406
  • [T]he accomplishments of his mind, which was adorned with the choicest gifts that God has yet thought fit to bestow upon the children of men; a strong memory, a clear judgment, a vast range of wit and fancy, a thorough comprehension, an invincible eloquence, with a most agreeable elocution.
    • Jonathan Swift, An Inquiry into the Behaviour of the Queen's last Ministry, &c. (June 1715), quoted The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift, Volume 4, ed. Thomas Sheridan (1801), in p. 310
  • With the signing of the Treaties of Utrecht, Bolingbroke's one great achievement in the world of action was accomplished. The rest of his political career, after a Niagara leap into rebellion, was to be lost in shallows and in miseries. But he stands in history as the man who, by courses however devious and questionable, negotiated a Peace which proved in the working more satisfactory than any other that has ended a general European conflict in modern times.
    • G. M. Trevelyan, England Under Queen Anne: The Peace and the Protestant Succession (1934), p. 230
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