The Whigs have made regular appearances in this blog, most notably in the posts on Lady Holland and on the Canovas at Chatsworth House.
From their fine palaces the great Whig families could look down on the detested Hanoverian Monarchy,
their placemen who swelled the ranks and costs of Government,
and on the Tories, "the stupid party", who had led the country into costly wars against France and America that the Whigs considered unnecessary.
For their part the Whigs had a not unjustified reputation among their Tory opponents as being great admirers of Napoleon.
Napoleon was "the most extraordinary man of his age" (Caroline Fox), "certainly has surpassed .. Alexander and Caesar" (Charles James Fox) and was "the greatest man that ever liv'd" (Lady Bessborough)
".. everything I hear of this most extraordinary man, increases my desire to see him, Rely on it, he will again be numbered on the great scene of history" - Duke of Bedford (1814)
So Who were the Whigs and What did they Stand For? (1)
The Whigs were socially exclusive wealthy aristocrats, proud descendants of those who had resisted the absolutist tendencies of the Stuart Kings in the C17, had engineered the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and had in 1714 put the Hanoverians on the throne. For most of the period 1760-1830 they were out of office.
Supporters of the French Revolution in its early stages, the Foxite Whigs adopted the buff and blue of George Washington's army for their political colours.
Unlike the Tories,who feared any sign of weakness on the part of the rulers would lead to revolution in England, the Whigs believed in the inevitability of change and of social progress. They saw the greatest threat to the British constitution as coming not from the lower orders but from the Monarchy.
In his L'Esprit des lois (1748) Montesquieu described England as “a nation that may be justly called a republic, disguised under the form of a monarchy”. This corresponded closely to the view of the Whigs, who saw the King as the servant of the people.
The Hanoverians, and George III in particular, had other ideas. Lord John Russell,reflecting exasperation with them, was quoted in the 1820's as saying, "we must come to American institutions, that will be the end of it." (2)
Advocates of parliamentary reform as a counter to the perceived threat from the monarchy, and above all strong believers in the rights of property, the Whigs resisted any idea that those who had no property should be allowed to vote. They believed that all should be equal before the law, but not that reform would inevitably end in democracy. They had perhaps much in common with the creators of the American Constitution, who believed that rule should be kept in the hands of "the better sort of people."
Admirers of French culture and mores,"the bedroom and the dining room were French", adherents of classical architecture and of Augustan poetry, they had no time for the Gothic, the Romantic, the Medieval, or the works of Sir Walter Scott.(3)
Intellectually they were devotees of the Scottish Enlightenment, of David Hume and Adam Smith, of the Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, and of the quarterly Edinburgh Review .
Secularists, there were few Whig clergy, they rarely attended church and had little expectation of life after death. Supporters of religious tolerance, they were scathing about Catholicism and Methodism: "superstition" and "enthusiasm".
Believers in the importance of extending education, they were sceptical of the fashion for physical games which characterized English public schools in the early nineteenth century.
The Whigs and Napoleon
As already indicated, the Whigs had a reputation for admiring Napoleon. Certainly they did not join in the deprecation and belittling of him as "Boney" or "the "Corsican Ogre", common in other circles and in the Tory press, which has since become a staple of the English memory of Napoleon.
But, as Leslie Mitchell points out, the Whigs had a rather more nuanced view than their political opponents appeared to believe. They admired some of Napoleon's achievements, in education, religious and administrative reform for example, but they deplored the extinquishing of representative government, his apparent liking for titles and flattery, his suppression of press freedom and his persecution of his critics.
Lord Holland in 1815 drew up a balance sheet:
pro - freedom of worship, financial probity in public life, magnificence of public works, openness to office based on merit alone
con - "enormous evil" of conscription, persecution of critics and curtailment of personal liberties. (4)
On balance Holland felt that the people of France had benefited from the Revolutionary and Napoleonic period, and in addition no Whig could countenance replacing Bonaparte by the Bourbons.
In the period after Waterloo many Whigs were involved in campaigns to save Marshall Ney and General Lavalette from execution, in lobbies for passports, and in unremitting efforts, particularly from Holland House, to make Napolon's stay on St. Helena a little less uncomfortable.(5)
Above all, like the Radicals, the Whigs detested the Bourbons, who resembled the hated Stuarts whom the Whigs' ancestors had defeated in the seventeenth century. In a letter in 1814 in which he expressed strong criticism of Napoleon Lord Holland said
"I am not sure if he were to fall that the legitimate sovereign would not be restored and that in my mind is the last of misfortunes = bad for France, for liberty and for Mankind and in a narrow view bad for England" (6)
For all his faults then they preferred Napoleon to the Bourbons, and they were particularly opposed to the restoration of the Bourbons by foreign arms, against the wishes of a sizeable portion of the French people. Such a move ran counter to their view of historical progress, and would therefore inevitably meet with disaster. They felt vindicated when Charles X was removed by revolution in 1830.
The arrival of the Orléanist monarchy at last gave France a regime in which the Whigs could believe and unequivocally support: Louis Philippe had dined at Holland House as early as 1802, and was as near as you could get to a French Whig!
Postscript: The Fate of Holland House
The great Whig Mansions at Chatsworth, Woburn and elsewhere remain, stuffed with treasures which attest to the wealth and cosmpopolitan tastes of the great Whig families, but Holland House, the seat of Lord Holland, nephew of Charles James Fox, and the centre of Whig politics for much of the early nineteenth century, was irreparably damaged
in the blitz, in a world in which it was hard to believe in the progress which the Scottish Enlightenment and the Whigs had so confidently espoused a century earlier.
Like the Whigs themselves, little of the original house now remains.
1. The best source I have come across is a delightful, slim, witty, perhaps slightly tongue in cheek volume, "The Whig World" by Leslie Mitchell,useful for anyone interested in what the Annales school refer to as the mentalités.
2. p. 163, Leslie Mitchell, The Whig World (London, paperback edition 2007)
3. Quotation from Mitchell p. 96.
4. Mitchell pp 89-90.
5. Lord Spencer and Thomas Grenville begged Louis XVIII to spare the life of Marshall Ney, and when he refused to do so expressed the wish that the King himself would be hanged. Mitchell p. 93
6. Lord Holland to Caroline Fox, April 1814, Mitchell p. 90.