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Statesmanship and Party Government: A Study of Burke and Bolingbroke

Statesmanship and Party Government: A Study of Burke and Bolingbroke

by Harvey C. Mansfield

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In this incisive look at early modern views of party politics, Harvey C. Mansfield examines the pamphlet war between Edmund Burke and the followers of Henry St. John, First Viscount Bolingbroke during the mid-eighteenth century. In response to works by Bolingbroke published posthumously, Burke created his most eloquent advocacy of the party system. Taking an


In this incisive look at early modern views of party politics, Harvey C. Mansfield examines the pamphlet war between Edmund Burke and the followers of Henry St. John, First Viscount Bolingbroke during the mid-eighteenth century. In response to works by Bolingbroke published posthumously, Burke created his most eloquent advocacy of the party system. Taking an interdisciplinary approach to the material, Mansfield shows that present-day parties must be understood in the light of the history of party government. The complicated organization and the public actions of modern parties are the result, he contends, and not the cause of a great change in opinion about parties.

Mansfield points out that while parties have always existed, the party government that we know today is possible only because parties are now considered respectable. In Burke’s day, however, they were thought by detractors to be a cancer in a free polity. Even many supporters of the parties viewed them as a dangerous instrument, only to be used cautiously by statesmen in dire times. Burke, however, was an early champion of the party system in Britain and made his arguments with a clear-eyed realism. In Statesmanship and Party Government, Mansfield provides a skillful evaluation of Burke’s writings and sheds light present-day party politics through a profound understanding of the historical background of the their inception.

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 “Harvey C. Mansfield’s analysis is thorough, precise, clearly and often movingly written: it is an example of what is best in the academic tradition.”

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Statesmanship and Party Government

A study of Burke and Bolingbroke
By Harvey C. Mansfield


Copyright © 1965 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-02217-8

Chapter One

The Origins of Party Government

In considering the origins of party government, we face this problem: parties are universal, but party government is recent. Parties are universal because in politics men act for motives which can be and are stated in opinions. Opinions are disputable, especially opinions about the most important topics, opinions on which citizens and regimes stake their lives. Being disputable, such opinions attract and repel: they create partisans. Politics seems to be essentially partisan. There have been many regimes without visible parties and perhaps some entirely without parties. But partyless regimes are not non-partisan. They may suppress the parties which might dispute the opinions they have established, but they cannot suppress the disputability of their opinions. Parties are potential in every regime where they are not actual; and where they are actual, there are also potential parties lurking beneath every opinion taken for granted by the actual parties. The secret records of all regimes reveal private parties of politicians or courtiers not visible to the citizens or subjects, and historians have exposed the disputable assumptions of regimes which believed themselves to be founded on rock.

Since politics is essentially partisan, and since the essence of politics is clear to any unbiased observer, it is not surprising that party government is now almost ubiquitous. There is almost no regime which does not claim to have party government—which does not use, avow its use, and praise its use of a party or parties. There is almost no regime which is not proud of having a party or parties. Party is understood to be the birthright of new regimes, and the conflict of our times between Western liberalism and communism seems not to involve the existence of party government, but only the practice of essentially different party regimes. Thus assured that party government is accepted almost everywhere, political scientists have studied those problems of party which presuppose the existence of party government: the selection of leaders by a party, the representativeness of different kinds of parties, the functions of party, the nature of a "party system," and so forth. These complex and sophisticated problems arise because the simple reason for partisanship—the holding of disputable opinions—seems to be sufficient justification for party government.

Yet if party government seems inevitable, it is perplexing that it should be so recent. Two centuries ago there was no party government, and the few early examples of party government have been widely imitated only recently. The origins of party government are not coeval with Western civilization, nor with modern political philosophy, nor even with the founding of contemporary regimes. In America, party was begun by a founder of the regime, Jefferson, in opposition to other founders and as a modification of their work. In Britain, party was first praised by a statesman, Burke, who claimed to be defending the regime of the Whig revolution, but who defended it by modifying it. Burke and Jefferson, as founders of party government, were at first alone in their praise of party. Famous men—the Federalists in America, the Old Whigs in Britain—men whom we rightly regard as the founders of our contemporary regimes, men who are not otherwise so remote from contemporary beliefs, opposed party government with a vehemence equal to the energy with which they upheld the cause of liberty. If it is perplexing that party government is so recent, it is startling that earlier advocates of liberty and founders of free constitutions opposed party government. Indeed, it is too mild to say that they opposed party government; they would have been astounded to see it taken for granted by sober men living under free constitutions. We must appraise the near-ubiquity of party government today in the light of its complete absence in the past.

On this evidence it seems necessary to distinguish parties from party government. Parties are universal, but party government is the result of the recent discovery that parties can be respectable. Because the reason for partisanship is so simple and compelling, the respectability, not the existence, of party is the distinguishing mark of party government. In 1769, the year before Burke published his "Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents," he wrote that "party divisions whether on the whole operating for good or evil, are things inseparable from free government." By contrast, in the "Thoughts" he presented a defense of party, as a worthy and necessary instrument of free government under certain conditions. If Burke thought in 1769 that parties were inseparable from free government, why did he make so long an argument in 1770 to recommend them? By "party divisions," Burke in 1769 meant the small groups contending in Parliament, within view of the people; in 1770, he defended these groups as "on the whole operating for good." It was one thing for Burke to identify an institution as inseparable from free government, whether or not it was a deformity, and another thing for him to argue that an institution long considered a deformity was really a beauty of free government.

The respectability of party can be better understood if one distinguishes between the public and the private constitutions of a country. The public constitution is the arrangement of rule which appears to the public and is taught in the schools; the private constitution is the way in which the regime "really works" behind the scenes. Honest men often find a perplexing discrepancy between the two, for the distinction between the public and private constitutions does not quite correspond to the distinction between public and private ends. Honest men wrongly believe that what cannot be avowed in public cannot be for the good of the public. Those who seek only private advantage can be plausible in public, however; and unpublicized action may be necessary to prevent the success of private association for private advantage. Parties have perhaps always existed in the private constitutions of countries, more openly in free constitutions; and some have acted for private advantage and some for the public good. Only very recently have parties been awarded status in the public constitution by a change in the public estimation of party. It is true that no party, not even the Communist party of the Soviet Union, has full status in the public constitution. However much the law may recognize and regulate party activity, no party has the legal status of a legislature or an executive, by which its program would count as law or decree. Nevertheless, a party or parties are now held everywhere to be essential to the law and thus allowed to reflect some of the majesty of the law. It is certainly no longer public decorum to deplore parties to the point of wishing for their disappearance.

Party government has spread everywhere as a result of the revolution of opinion regarding party. This striking change must impress the student of politics. When he reflects upon it, he will seek its origin, for the origin is a possible source of understanding which he cannot overlook. Some changes occur inadvertently and may be understood best by those who can use hindsight. Other changes are intentional, and may be understood better by their makers than by those who live with the result but do not reflect on the original alternative. The "founders of party," if we use the term precisely, would be the makers of this striking change, but we cannot decide whether they merit the title unless we know who they were and what their intentions were.

The purpose of this study is to explain the reasons why Edmund Burke undertook to present the first argument in Britain for the respectability of party. Burke's "Thoughts" contains the first such argument anywhere since Machiavelli's Discourses on Livy. We do not intend to make a psychological analysis of Burke's argument or to seek out reasons for his argument other than those he gave or implied. If Burke's reasons are inadequate, their inadequacy should appear after full consideration, and they should be replaced by a better argument. Nor do we intend to trace the influence of his argument in British politics from its appearance to its adoption by the Foxite Whigs and the successors of Pitt. Since this study is about Burke's political philosophy and the origins of party government, its premise must be that these two topics are connected. The premise is that party government is chiefly a matter of opinion regarding party, and that being a matter of opinion, it is a cause of argument. It follows that in order to understand the origins of party government in Britain, one must give the most studious attention to Burke's argument in favor of party.

Previous studies of the origins of party government in Britain have not accepted this premise and have not adequately considered Burke's argument. They have sought the origins of party government in the origins of the Whigs and Tories or in the coming of democracy to Britain or in the first toleration of opposition. Although these opinions will be treated in the interpretation of Burke's argument, it is proper to introduce them here as challenges to the premise of this study.

Whigs and Tories

The names "Whig" and "Tory" date from the Exclusion Bill crisis of 1680–81. In the attempt to exclude the Duke of York from the throne, the Earl of Shaftesbury gathered his adherents in Parliament and led them in the elections fought on this issue. The King organized his forces in defense of his prerogative, and the two parties collided in full view of the public. "Never before had political clubs existed with so elaborate an organization or so formidable an influence," says Macaulay; and henceforth "Whig" and "Tory" "spread as widely as the English race," to "last as long as the English literature." Churchill says, more explicitly, "There had been sides in the Great Rebellion; henceforward there would be parties, less picturesque, but no less fierce." The careful organization, the demagogic tactics, and the discipline of the first Whigs under Shaftesbury have recently been described by J. R. Jones, and the Whigs' anticipation of modern methods made clear. But these first Whig partisans were too eager and their Tory opponents too reluctant for the settled impermanence and comfortable oscillation of party government. Neither party was willing to accept the right of the other party; and no party leader, Shaftesbury included, meant to sustain permanently the organization and the discipline required for the success of the event. The Whigs brought forth the Exclusion Bill to meet an emergency, and always meant their party to die when success had been achieved. Charles II copied the Whigs in their methods and in this intention. For both sides, party was an emergency resource never intended as a fixture in the public constitution.

Moreover, this issue was resolved in 1689, when a bill excluding Catholics from the throne was passed as part of the Revolution Settlement. The issue had been lost to the King's party in 1682, but it was not then resolved. James II, using his prerogative to advance the cause of Catholicism, strained the loyalty of the Tories and made the Whigs rebellious. After three years of such rule, having disgusted his friends and emboldened his enemies, he quit the throne and left the makers of the Revolution a rare opportunity—the opportunity of resolving the issue on which the Whigs and Tories had first arisen instead of securing a partisan victory for the Whigs. It is generally recognized by historians that the Revolution Settlement was not a victory for Shaftesbury: for Macaulay, the hero of the Revolution is William of Orange, while, for Trevelyan, the spirit of the Revolution is the spirit of the "Trimmer"—of Lord Halifax, the celebrated antipartisan. Indeed, the Whig historians are disinclined to give credit to the makers of the Revolution for their artful use of this opportunity, and they do not sufficiently explain the secular principles which made possible a non-partisan resolution of the religious issues between the parties.

In his "Thoughts" Burke presented the first argument in Britain for party government, but at the beginning of this pamphlet he alluded to the welcome fact that "the great parties which formerly divided and agitated the kingdom are known to be in a manner entirely dissolved." The great parties to which he refers are the seventeenth-century parties which were divided on the issues of the divine right of kings, and of papacy and episcopacy. Burke implies that the dissolution of these great parties was necessary to the respectability of parties. It could not be respectable for gentlemen to join a party, much less to join different parties, until the parties had resolved these crucial issues. For Burke, respectable party government meant government by parties which were not great. Party government was based on the disappearance of the great parties. Although the party names and some of their practices continued, their essence was new: they were now, in some sense, small parties. To the extent that the Whigs and Tories accepted the Revolution Settlement, as they did increasingly through the first half of the eighteenth century, they disowned their inheritance from the Exclusion Bill crisis and became small parties.

The Revolution Settlement was the foundation of party government in Britain because it destroyed the basis of the great parties. The great parties did not just subside to the size and temper of the parties which are factors in party government; they did not become small merely because British statesmen were exhausted and disgusted by civil war and had decided to dispute over lesser matters for lesser prizes. They were made small by the settling of religious controversy and the plain rejection of the divine right of kings. The Sacheverell trial in 1710 showed that the issues resolved in 1688–89 could be raised again, and that if they were raised, they would be as hot as ever. The eighteenth-century parties were not lukewarm seventeenth-century parties; they were made on a new foundation.

But only the foundation of party government was made by the Revolution Settlement. Although the eighteenth-century parties were small parties, they were not said to be respectable until the publication of Burke's pamphlet, some eighty years after the Revolution. Nor did this pamphlet immediately succeed in giving a better reputation to party. For a time the Rockingham party (and not all of its members at that) stood alone as the party whose doctrine was partisanship, making a record to show that parties can be lacking in greatness. It was not enough to destroy the basis of the great parties; it was necessary also to demonstrate two further points: that small parties would not become great by heating up the issues they raised; and that there was no harm in small parties—indeed, that there was even positive good in them. Burke's "Thoughts" is based on the Revolution Settlement, and on this basis he argues the two further points necessary to justify and to begin party government.

The Coining of Democracy

Another opinion sees the origin of party government in the coming of democracy to Britain. This is the opinion of M. Ostrogorski, a pioneer student of the history of party government, and of Max Weber. They argue that the ancien régime in Britain was destroyed neither in 1688 nor in 1746 (the last defeat of the Stuart Pretender); it was destroyed in 1832, when the middle class first made its separate power felt in the passage of the Reform Act. Before 1832 there were parties of aristocratic groups (Weber calls them parties of notables), which were so restrained that their divisions did not disturb the harmony of society. These aristocratic parties were sometimes annoyed by maverick Radicals in Parliament, but from 1750 to 1850 they were challenged by extra-Parliamentary reform movements such as the Wilkesite Society for the Defence of the Bill of Rights, the Protestant Association, the Catholic Association, Dr. Price's Revolution Society, the Anti-Corn-Law League, and many others. Historians have produced many studies of these movements, taking them to be precursors of democratic and socialist parties or early substitutes for such parties. Democracy and socialism were not willingly embraced by the aristocratic parties in Parliament, but had to be forced upon them. For some reason, however, the aristocratic parties did not resist to the point of civil war, as had the seventeenth-century parties. Instead, they accepted the opportunity to reach for votes from among those who had agitated against them, and they accepted the necessity of extra-Parliamentary organization to effect this purpose. According to Ostrogorski and Weber, the origin of party government is not to be found in the origin of the parties themselves but in the origin of extra-Parliamentary organization in the parties. They consider the origin of party government in the light of democracy and socialism and hence place emphasis on the organization of parties. Ostrogorski's book is entitled Democracy and the Organization of Political Parties.


Excerpted from Statesmanship and Party Government by Harvey C. Mansfield Copyright © 1965 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Harvey C. Mansfield is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Government at Harvard University. He is the author of Machiavelli's Virtue and has translated The Prince, Discourses on Livy (with Nathan Tarcov), and Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America (with Delba Winthrop), all published by the University of Chicago Press.

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