Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 3. Patriotic Pride in a well-ordered monarchy as reflected in English Literature; suspicion of the pursuit of private interests, as inimical to public welfare

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XV. Early Writings on Politics and Economics

§ 3. Patriotic Pride in a well-ordered monarchy as reflected in English Literature; suspicion of the pursuit of private interests, as inimical to public welfare

This view as to the exceptional merit of the English régime was strengthened by the religious sentiment, and the belief that England was called by God to a high destiny. In looking out on the nations of the world, and on the tyrannies and internecine struggles in Spain and in France, Englishmen of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods felt as if there had been direct divine intervention on behalf of England and, hence, divine approval of the English type of polity. The success of England, in holding her own against the power of Spain and against the dangers which beset the realm from foreign plots, was referred to by archbishop Sandys and others as a token that the course which England had pursued was divinely sanctioned. Such historical writings as Camden’s Annales are full of patriotic sentiment; and this faith also inspired many of the efforts for expansion which were made by Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Ralegh. In reading the journal in which the first of these empire builders recorded his adventures in sailing round the world, we see how keenly he felt that it would be a crime against God and man to leave the newly discovered lands to be dominated by Spanish influence, and that there was a positive duty in striving to bring about the expansion of England.

So far as internal political problems are concerned, discussion in Tudor times turned almost exclusively on the conflict between public and private interests. The doctrines of Mandeville, that private vices were public virtues, and of Bastiat, that private interests necessarily co-operated for public good, were unknown, and would have been wholly repugnant, to Elizabethan writers. Private interest appeared to be diametrically opposed to patriotic sentiment. The writers of the first half of the sixteenth century who describe the social evils of that period of rapid economic transition are constantly inveighing against the mischief wrought by private men who disregarded public welfare. They had little sympathy with the spirit of competition, since the efforts of individuals to get on in the world might easily come to be inconsistent with the maintenance of each man’s proper degree, and of the whole social order. This idea appears to have taken hold of the mind of Edward VI; it found expression in the prologue of Fitzherbert’s Husbandry and in Caxton’s Game and playe of the Chesse as well as in Starkey’s Dialogue between Cardinal Pole and Thomas Lupset and in More’s Utopia. The anarchy which Shakespeare describes as arising from Cade’s rebellion is a picture of the disorder which ensues when private interest has free play and the maintenance of social order is neglected.

In the latter part of the sixteenth century, there was increasing difficulty in seeing what classes or persons were to be trusted to act for the public good in the present and in the future, and as willing to leave in the background private tastes and personal interests which conflicted with public duty. There are frequent complaints as to the neglect of country gentlemen to play their part in the work of local government; the new type of non-resident proprietors was regarded with special suspicion, and depopulating and enclosing, which continued to be denounced from time to time, seemed to be a survival of the ruthless evictions which had moved the indignation of bishop Latimer, and of John Hales in his Discourse of the Commonweal. While the gentry were thus negligent, the mercantile classes and the burghers in the towns appeared to need direction and guidance, if the reputation of our manufactures was to be maintained and the commerce of the country to develop. So far as old traditions survived among the industrial classes, they favoured a narrow civic patriotism rather than the good of the realm; while the merchants concentrated in London were affected by the new commercial morality, and inclined to commercial enterprises, from which political trouble might easily ensue. Every class needed to be kept up to the sense of public duty; the clergy and ecclesiastical corporations were not above diminishing the future value of their livings with a view to immediate gain. The council, inspired by the ceaseless activity of Burghley, was continually engaged in putting down abuses at which men, who ought to have been public-spirited citizens, were accustomed to connive. Under these circumstances, it was plausible to look to the crown as the one hope of public-spirited conduct throughout the realm, and to regard the king as being not only the source of honour, the fount of justice and the arm of military power, but as supreme trustee for the public good in all the affairs of life. This, in substance, is the claim which was put forward by king James in The True Law of Free Monarchies, and it would probably have been admitted as sound by men who were repelled by the arguments with which his adherents endeavoured to support it. The real refutation was a practical one; and it was the misfortune of James and Charles that many of the undertakings in which they endeavoured to execute this trusteeship miscarried disastrously, and not only interfered with private interests, but proved detrimental to the realm as a whole.

As a consequence, under the early Stewarts, the legitimacy of giving free play to private interests was advocated in a way in which it had never been done before; and an attempt was made to treat as merely private many matters which had hitherto been regarded as of public concern. It is, of course, true that, in a body politic, no action can be exclusively private; the interconnection between individuals in the body politic is so close that wrong done by an individual may be at least a bad example and injurious to the community. Religion, which many to-day regard as a merely personal affair, was generally thought of in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods as of supreme importance to the state. Christianity, as understood and practised by Englishmen, was held to be the foundation of Christian morality; and, hence, was a matter of public concern in which the king might be bound to interfere. The extreme Erastianism of men like Cranmer, or, for that matter, of Luther, is a surprise to many in the present day; but among Englishmen generally in Elizabeth’s time, there was little sympathy with the scruples of a private conscience which set itself up against the established order, though sympathy was growing. While freedom, within limits, for conscientious conviction was coming to be regarded as not unreasonable, the freedom of the individual to carry on his business as he liked, and where he liked, apart from all moral restrictions or considerations of what was expedient for the public good, asserted itself more and more. Under Elizabeth and Burghley, it had been taken as an axiom that the direction of commercial intercourse between this country and foreign nations was a matter of public concern, and that even the internal trade of the country, so far as regards the necessaries of life, ought to be a matter of public regulation. It may be doubted whether the Elizabethan monarchy, as organised by Burghley, could have maintained itself in all its activities against the invading agitations for freedom of conscience and freedom of enterprise; but king James and king Charles completely failed to justify their position as trustees for the public welfare. Under the Council of State, the machinery for control fell into desuetude; and individual freedom, both as regards conviction and enterprise, asserted itself as it had never done before. In this era, there was a new type of patriotic sentiment, which contained no element of loyalty to the crown.