Henry St. John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke and his Famous Works

Henry St John, first Viscount Bolingbroke (1678-1751) was a Politician. There is no documentary record of his education, though Eton College, Christ Church, Oxford, and the dissenting Sheriffhales Academy are the usual candidates. He was elected to the House of Commons in 1701 for the family’s seat, the riding of Wootton Basset, Wiltshire. He soon became a leading figure in the Tory party, defending the interests of country gentlemen in opposition to the financial interests associated with the Whigs.

He was appointed secretary of war in 1704 and secretary of state in 1710; his efforts as a minister were supported by his friend Jonathan Swift in The Conduct of the Allies (1711) and other works. St John was made Viscount Bolingbroke in 1712 and took part in negotiating the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. After the death of Queen Anne, Bolingbroke fled to France and declared his allegiance to the Pretender, James Stuart; convicted of high treason, his peer-age was withdrawn. He wrote A Letter to Sir William Wyndham in 1717 to justify his conduct; it was widely circulated, but not published until 1753.

In 1723 Bolingbroke received a qualified pardon, returning to England in 1725 to a life of political journalism in the company of Alexander Pope, Swift, John Gay, and George Lyttelton. In the Craftsman, Bolingbroke attacked the policies and practices of the Walpole administration, in particular, the ‘corruption’ which allowed the administration to maintain power in Parliament by awarding offices, honors, and salaries to supporters. These articles were later collected as A Dissertation upon Parties (1735) and Remarks on the History of England (1743).

Bolingbroke’s heavy influence on Pope, in such works as the Essay on Man, was as much personal and political as philosophical; the poet idolized him. He returned to France in 1735 but continued to produce works on the need for active and united opposition to corruption (A Letter on the Spirit of Patriotism, written in 1736) and on the role of a monarch in a free government (The Idea of a Patriot King, written in 1738). This classical republican or civic humanist perspective also appears in Letters on the Study and Use of History (written 1736-8, published 1752); here he exhorted readers to find in history illustrations and examples that would inspire men to higher standards of public and private virtue. These writings were circulated among his friends on the understanding they would not be published.

He returned to England in 1743, and after Pope’s death he found Pope had printed an edition of The Idea of a Patriot King; in 1749 he brought out an official edition, with an ‘advertisement’ denouncing Pope’s perfidious conduct. William Warburton’s response prompted Bolingbroke’s Familiar Epistle to the Most Impudent Man Living (1749).

His works were collected by David Mallet (1754); his many posthumous publications excited intense hostility (from Warburton and Samuel Johnson, among others) because of their skepticism towards revealed religion. The political essays had a lasting influence on movements for reform in England and America.

Also read: William Wycherley and his Famous Works