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Bolingbroke, The Captain Of The Reactionary Radicals

That Bolingbroke and his Opposition appeared to later radicals with a radical face is neither surprising nor difficult to reconcile with his basic conservatism.  Part of the ideological dynamic of his politics was “populist,” even though an early and most aristocratic populist manifestation, and inherent in populism is a force at once intensely radical and reactionary.  It is always “the people,” be they yeoman farmers, urban small traders, or failing gentry who are being victimized by the small conspiratorial financial interests.  In Bolingbroke’s view, these conspirators had captured the government; the King, ministers, and legislature spoke at their bidding.  Bolingbroke’s Opposition inevitably took on a popular tone in its perpetual plaint that the government and its ministers and legislature were alienated from the people, the true source of power.  There was, of course, much more to Bolingbroke’s Opposition than this.  What concerned him particularly was that the conspiracy of government and vested interest had removed “the people’s” natural leadership from power.  In defending the one, however, he often had to defend the other; for “the people” and the aristocratic leadership faced the same enemy. ~Isaac Kramnick, Bolingbroke & His Circle

Bolingbroke’s conservatism stands not only as the fons et origo of Country-Jeffersonian-Republican agrarian resistance to the new Court of the Federalists and Whigs, but perhaps even as the core of the entire Anglo-American populist tradition.  I will go so far as to say that, as good as Burke can be, it is the Viscount Bolingbroke and not the Irish Whig who represents the real source of Anglo-American conservatism.  It is especially to him that we should look as “the reactionary imperative” becomes ever more imperative. 

Conservatism as such did indeed become an articulated position only in response to the French Revolution, but Bolingbroke’s Opposition laid the groundwork for the arguments of the American tradition far more and defined an anti-liberalism that was also anti-Lockean but which appropriated the Whig mythology of 1688 as a moment of constitutional renewal–in spite of the historical falsehood of this claim–so that the “modern Whigs” might be defeated.  As Jefferson did with the Constitution, and as American conservatives have attempted to do with the entire liberal project, Bolingbroke sought to recast the usurpation of 1688 as a return to political moderation, the restoration of the mixed constitution that Walpole was then perverting and destroying.  He sought to make the best of the political settlement at hand and guard English liberties against the corruption that was now ruining them.  To better fight Walpole, he did not attach himself to embittered Jacobitism, and instead embraced the commonwealth vision of Harrington and passed it on to the English Tories and American patriots who embraced it equally. 

The unification of the interests of aristocrats and the people against consolidation and moneyed interest finds strong parallels in early Jeffersonianism, the alliance of Southern aristocrats and “plain republicans” of the North and the alliance of planters and yeomen in the Southern Democracy.  Bolingbroke, Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Stonewall Jackson, Bryan all fought some different form of the moneyed interest and “bank rule”; all fought in their different ways the corruption and consolidation of government.  The same themes of defense of the small town, small firm and small farm against the encroachments of concentrated wealth and power and the confluence of the two in government circles recur again in the history of American Populism in the 19th century and even find echoes in the career of the Insurgent Progressive, Bob La Follette.   

Bolingbroke’s reactionary radical combination of defending the people and their liberties against the usurpations of the government and the moneyed interest, the Opposition’s rejection of the standing army, and its aversion to war and foreign entanglements all anticipate many of the themes developed by American agrarians in their arguments and taken up again by their latter-day populist inheritors.  Look homewards, America–and look to Bolingbroke.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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