HISTORY - ENGLAND - 17TH CENTURY
WHY DID THE WHIGS FAIL TO FORCE EXCLUSION ON CHARLES II?
In August of 1678, Israel Tonge and Titus Oates revealed a plot to kill Charles II and eradicate Protestantism from the kingdom. London was reputedly to be put to the torch, and the throats of Protestants in the city were to be slit by a mass of secret Catholics. These accusations dipped into the kingdoms collective memory of the "terror" under Mary I and the suspicions of Catholic culpability in the Great Fire of 1666, and thus fed on the traditional fears of popery in England. However, more importantly, the Popish Plot -- as this event came to be called -- brought, "into the open the issues raised by the Jamess conversion," to Catholicism.
Why? Although Oates himself did not claim that James was part of the plot, he did confess under interrogation that Edward Coleman, former secretary to the duke of York, was a "principal conspirator" in the plot. Upon arrest, Coleman was discovered to, "possess some highly incriminating papers concerning the enhancement of Catholic interests." Jamess association with Coleman proved problematic for the duke, first by virtue of the dukes conversion to Catholicism, and secondly because he would be the greatest beneficiary of his brothers early demise. In the minds of many members of the English political nation, these two conditions dove-tailed due to the common English vision of Catholicism as a religion of despots and absolutists who would subvert any liberty in order to gain and maintain power. Louis XIV personified such a ruler, and so would James -- according to the above viewpoint -- if he rose to the throne. In fact, in one popular doggerel, the duke is described as the heir:
That wears a Roman Nose.
What ere pretences can there be
Sure something is contriving,
And he is blind that cannot see
The Plott is still a driving.
Accordingly, in the minds of many of the kingdom s subjects, the, "tyranny of the monarchy [of a catholic] was ... reinforced," by the Catholic church. Further, the church itself was apparently just as, "as authoritarian and predatory," as was the regime of Louis XIV, and in the end, "just as dedicated to keeping the people subservient and ignorant."
Therefore, Catholicism could be construed -- especially in a time of crisis like the Popish Plot -- by this caricature, as a threat to traditional English liberties, to the post-Reformation church of England, as well as to the lives and property of Protestants. It is in this context that the attempt to exclude the duke of York from the line of succession arose. Fears of his Catholicism had been on the rise because of his refusal to abide by the first Test Act (1673), since it forced the dukes resignation from the office of the Lord High Admiral and thus revealed to the nation that James, "was a follower of Rome." Further, the first Test Act was to prove to be a severe blow to the regime of Charles II, since it undermined his brothers case for succession, and lead to the loss of trusted court politicians like Thomas Clifford, the Lord Treasurer before 1673. However, more importantly, the loss of York and Clifford increased the already rampant (and sometimes rabid) suspicions of papist influences at court. These suspicions were brought into political reality in 1679 when the earl of Shaftesbury and his allies presented a bill in the now Whig dominated Commons to exclude James from the line of succession. What followed was the eventual dismissal of the first Exclusion Parliament, and the election and dismissal of two successive Whig dominated Parliaments which also presented exclusion bills.
Given what has been said above about anti-papist sentiments in England, why did these three succesive Parliaments fail to exclude a known Catholic from the line of succession? Beyond Charless, "skilful use of his prerogative powers for determining the calling, sitting and dissolution of parliaments," the answer lies in the twin definitions of despotism in England and the adept use of this double-edged weapon in Tory propaganda during the "rapid crumbling" of the Whig position once the "atmosphere of crisis" had ended in 1681-1682. Without exploiting these elements of popular discontent and opinion, the kings skills and his powers would have been wasted, "especially since the whigs had tried to excite mass support for their cause," and therefore hoped to pressure the king from as much outside Parliament as inside it. In other words, the king had not only to fight his opponents in Parliament, but also -- for perhaps the first time in English politics -- a masses-directed media campaign which centered in London.
First, as a matter of background, it must be admitted that the restoration of the Stuarts had from its earliest days been frought with plots to oust the restored monarchy. For example, exiled dissenters and parliamentarians like Algernon Sidney preached from the continent the need to overthrow the "monster" and enemy of "reason and justice" known as Charles II. Therefore, from early on in the kings reign, some measure of uncertainty and anxiety was to be found around his legitmacy and his ability to maintain his crown. These fears would never fully subside.
However, more significant than this problem (and related to it) was the split in the political nation on royalist and "country" lines that had emerged out of the interregnum. Although this split did not in general spark open rebellion, at the local level it often led to disaccord between local officials, especially on the all important issue of religion. For example, many local government officials, at least in the "west" (Dorset, Wiltshire, and Somerset) country, were often sympathetic to the cause of dissenters, despite the central governments wishes. This condition was only exacerbated by the muddled and "conflicting messages" which justices received from the central government on the "problem of nonconformity." When the magistracy did react and punish dissenters, it did so under heavy pressure from the central government and those justices like John Eyre who were allied with the royalist-Anglican cause. This sort of cyclical persecution is perhaps best illustrated by the flurry of suppression which followed the conventicle bill of 1670, that later waned by the summer of 1671, and was touched off again by the Declaration of Indulgence in 1673. Over time, the Stuart regime in the west was "bedeviled with problems" on the issue of religious conformity. That they were never truly alleviated to any great extent is demonstrated by the inability of the crowns measures (which fluctuated between soft and hard polices on dissenters) to readily pass a crisis like the Popish Plot.
The undecided nature of local religious policy of course extended beyond these western regions. For example, in 1674, "Yorkshire grand juries were reluctant to accept presentments [against recusants] and the judges levied only the one shilling fine." Further, during the Exclusion Crisis itself, justices often balked at, "tendering the oaths of allegiance and supremecy to suspected recusants," particularly in Herefordshire, Lancashire, and Monmouthshire. This pattern was repeated throughout much of England, but it often depended -- as explicated above for the west -- on the sympathies of the local justices, who were frequently at odds with each other depending on their political outlook. That is, whether they were supporters of the country or royalist cause.
Although these conditions may not have been indicative of every area of the kingdom, they do show how divisive local politics were in many regions, how these could boil over onto the national scene when those in Parliament were concerned about the state of their "country" and its inhabitants, and how crown policies (or the future bearer of that crown) might impact these local affairs. Further, the fact that issues of religion and religious tolerance -- which were so prominent and divisive during the 1640s and 1650s -- were still unsettled in any practical sense, allowed for the old divisions of the Civil War and interregnum to chafe over time, causing problems for Charles II throughout his reign.
If one accepts then that this royalist/country split was building over time, what then was the agenda of the country party by 1679? First, the leader of this group -- who would later be called the Whigs -- was one Anthony Ahsley Cooper, the earl of Shaftesbury. What Shaftesbury and his highly diversified allies -- they stretched all the way from "Old Presbyterians" like Sir Nicholas Carew, who had fought the Clarendon Code, to radicals of the leveller and republican persuasion -- were united in, as this paper intimated above, was a, "common insistance on Exclusion as the sole practicable means of self-preservation, as the sovereign remedy and security for their lives, liberties, properties, and religion." This derived from a fear of Catholicism that was at times near paranoid in its manifestations. It was a fear with deep roots that were founded in the "terror" of Mary I, and which grew with the excommunication of Elizabeth I, the Armada of 1588, and the Gundpowder Plot of 1605. Further, these fears for life, liberty, property, and religion -- along with a dogmatic viewpoint of Louis XIVs absolutist and Catholic reign -- were not only the justification for the various exclusion bills between 1679-1681, they were also the centerpiece of Whig mass propaganda and popular politics in London during the Exclusion Crisis.
Accordingly, the Whigs sought to gain and profit by, "the fears aroused by the revelations of the Popish Plot in order to win mass support for exclusion," as well as to win support in the Parliament. Therefore, the, "major aim of whig propaganda was to keep alive the anxieties aroused by the Popish Plot." Indicative of this campaign were the vivid and bloody written and oral descriptions of the dead body of Sir Edmundbury Godfrey, believed by the Whigs to have been brutally murdered by Catholics. Medals were cast with Godfreys name, and "pope-burning processions always started with a man ringing a bell and crying Remember Justice Godfrey." Plays were also performed to carry the Whig agenda, and these plays were often based on protestant heroes like Elizabeth I and their struggles with the Catholic church. Also, Whig propaganda was typically quite negative and bitter in its approach, which served Whig interests in keeping papist fears alive and well. Further, the fact that the focus of, "the debate over the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis ... took place in newspapers, pamphlets, books, ballads, and broadsides," indicates not only the advanced political culture of London, but also the political importance to the Whigs of what was called for the first time the "mob" .
However, if there was a fear of popery as the spearhead for absolutism in England that was readily available for the propaganda purposes of the nascent Whigs, there was also an opposite fear that the court and its allies (those soon to be called Tories) in the Parliament could exploit as well. "The crucial starting-point for the tories was the indentification of the whigs as nonconformist subservives," which was much in line with those royalist justices who might single out nonconformists for punishment in their localities. Accordingly, what constituted "tyranny" to the Tories was not neccesarily the Marian "terror" or the Gunpower Plot, but the regime of Cromwell and his army which had been aided in their rise by nonconformist subversives. Therefore, if the Whigs had a deep resevoir of animosity towards Catholicism to draw upon, the Tories had a more recent one which was still fresh in the minds of many of the kingdoms citizens. As these budding Tories saw it, what the Whigs would bring about by their attempt to upset the order (that is by excluding James from the line of succession) of the traditional hierarchy was the same sort of social anarchy which occurred during the Civil War. After all, had not the "Fanatiks" killed the king in 1649?
As the following poem fully demonstrates, Whigs were seen by their Tory enemies as, "rebels who would foment chaos in an otherwise healthy body politic," and as preservers of the old religious prejudices which had brought on the Civil War:
Come on ye Scribling Rebels of the
Come on I say, advance upon the Stage;
Armd with Phanatik Malice Zeal and Rage.
Accordingly, the Tories, just like the Whigs, had a very powerful historical tool to use as a source of propaganda. They would use this tool, much as the Whigs, to rally those members of London (and perhaps country society) who were their natural or possible allies. Accordingly, the Tories were less in the business of winning converts, as claiming their portion of the political turf inside the mass politics of London which they had failed to exploit early on in the Exclusion Crisis. How then could the Whigs transmit their propaganda to a body politic which was seemingly enthralled by the anti-papist processions and effigy burnings that made up the political atmosphere of London in 1679-1681? Although the Tories, "produced nothing to match the elaborate pope burnings," of the Whigs, they were able to turn the tide against the Whigs by a counter-attack that was, "well conceived and carefully coordinated," as opposed to the more uncoordinated campaign (and camp) of the Whigs. If the Exclusion Crisis, "had reopened divisions in the political nation similar to those left after the Civil War," which had been heightened by fears of Yorks Catholicism, the Tories were bent on closing these divisions on a popular level and otherwise.
The Tories cast themselves as the conservative upholders and defenders of the traditional state of affairs and of the true reformed church which had emerged from the Reformation. Most notably they attacked those Whig heroes (or at least the Whig vision of those heroes) which had been the basis for much Whig propaganda. This was especially true of Queen Elizabeth. Hailed by Whigs as a defender of Protestant values and as the gloriana, the Tories turned the Whig rhetoric against them, smearing them by describing Elizabeth as an enemy of nonconformity once Whigs like Shaftesbury had become firmly associated with dissenters by supporters of the Tory cause.
Further, throughout the Exclusion Crisis, "there were attempts to lay charges of seditious words against leading whigs." These first charges were laid against Oates in October of 1679, and these were followed by charges against several Green Ribbon Club members, including Slingsby Bethel in 1680. The mosts serious charges came on the heels of the Exclusion Crisis, when the earl of Shaftesbury and Sir John Rouse were indicted, "for a supposed plot to seize the king when the parliament met at Oxford, to force through the policy of exclusion and religious toleration, and to convert England into a republic." The fact the charges were brought was probably enough to besmirch the character of the accused to some degree, and confirmed to at least those who were in the royalist camp that the Whigs were in fact plotting to upset the traditional order of the state as they had in the 1640s. The key to this propaganda was in labelling the Whigs as nonconformists and as republicans. Once this was done, Tory propaganda could move forward in discrediting the motives of those who were pushing for the exclusion of York from the line of succession.
Why would the message of the Tories appeal to the lower orders of London? Although from a traditional Marxist or neo-Marxist viewpoint it may seem that the heritage and hierarchy bound Tories would have little in their agenda to appeal to the lower orders of London society (and to the lower orders of country society as well). Nevertheless, they could in fact appeal to this portion of the population of London as long as the exploited the same inclinations and desires which brought the, "reaction against the sects of late 1659-1660," and the restoration of the Stuarts. This popular sentiment against dissenters was displayed early on in the kings reign when crowds, "of commoners attacked Quaker gatherings ... [and] many of the new justices ... set about locking up Quaker leaders and preachers faster than the King could free them." Although Charless efforts to free them are the first, "unequivocable sign that his principal realm was not wholly amenable to his will," it also indicates how deep the animosity against dissenters ran in the kingdom, and how appealing the propaganda against dissenters could be to the masses that the Tories and Whigs were vying for.
How effective was the dissemination of printed proaganda for either side? Although one author describes the attempt to measure this variable as "impressionistic," one can come to the conclusion that the propagandists were quite effective at getting their message across, even to those who were illiterate, since the pamphlets were often read to assembled crowds. In fact, one contemporary author claimed, "that pamphlets had become so intermingled with daily life that contemporaries were in danger of eating them at bottom of their pies," and using them, "to light tabacco." Another measure of its effectiveness can be seen in the reaction of social conservatives to the "violent paper shuffle" that occurred during the Exclusion Crisis. Many, "were astonished by the sheer volume of political propaganda that the party presses managed to turn out." It seems only an aggressive and effective press could raise the ire of social conservatives so, as these same social conservatives recognized the dangers of a press that catered to the needs and wants of the "mob."
How successful was the Tory propaganda cause and why did Whig propaganda wane? Whereas, prima facie, it may seem as if the prerogative powers of the king alone were enough to win the day, it is this authors view that the Exclusion Crisis was in fact a popular political cause that had to be one not only in the Parliament, but on the streets of London as well. The success of the Tory cause can be measured by the events after the Oxford Parliament of 1681. First, the fact that by end of 1682 the burnings of the Pope in effigy had ceased on the spectacular levels of the period 1679-1682, speaks at least partially to the effectiveness and the vigor of the Tory campaign. Second, and most importantly, was the loss of the city of London to the Tories. "The loss of the City was the decisive stage in the slow but effective grinding down of the Whigs," after 1682. Whig petitions for exclusion most often came too the common council of the city, and, "because deliberations of this body were so crucial, exclusionist crowds," often flocked to the proceedings in order to discover what was being decided.
In taking the city in the elections of 1682, the Tories had levelled a death blow against the Whig cause, since the city could no longer work as an organ of Whig propaganda or as a base for the launching of exlcusionist rhetoric against the crown. The Tories still retained such a base, that is the Crown and now London, which was all-important in the months before the Rye House plot in 1683. Tory propaganda on its own had not won the city for the Tory cause, but it had gained support for the crown in the city and had checked the all-important Whig crowds and campaign. This is indicated by the last demonstration of the Exclusion Crisis in the city on November 5th, 1682, when a group appeared shouting en masse, "a York, a York," while putting out the bonfires of the Tory crowd that had assembled to celebrate Gunpowder Treason day. Royal birthdays also became events for the burning of effigies of leading Whigs, as well as for toasting the kings health. Further, in many ways, the Tories had beaten the Whigs at their own game, a game which the Whigs should seemingly have won given the more immediate popular sentiment against Catholicism.
It was Whig propaganda spawned by the Popish Plot (which turned out to be a form of propaganda in and of itself) which had spawned the Whig campaign against James. In the end, it was not only the effectiveness of the Tory campaign against the Whigs which won the day, but a waning Whig campaign as well. Without the added element of mass politics for exclusion, the strength of the Whigs in Parliament after any election
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original piece by Stono