Abstract of thesis



Abstract of unpublished PhD thesis,

University of Odense (May 2000)

Robert Molesworth (1656-1725), was William III’s Envoy Extraordinary to the Danish court from 1689 to 1692. His book An Account of Denmark as it was in the year 1692 was first published anonymously late in 1693 and by 1752 some twenty-two editions had been published. The starting point of this study was the incompatibility of the two traditions about him and investigating them has resulted in two series of discoveries. The Danish tradition has been shown to lack foundation and have been based on a politically motivated smear campaign but despite this to have gained a life of its own as one of the shared historical memories of the Danish culture community. Since the publication of Caroline Robbins’s work, the English language tradition has recognised his position in the development of radical Whig thought in Britain and North America. This research, in line with Pocock’s suggestion about the possible potential of investigating Irish Whiggism, has revealed further details of the significance of Molesworth’s contribution to the development of these distinctive and influential beliefs.
The Danish Tradition In the Danish tradition his book has been taken as being in two distinct parts, one a description of Denmark, the other an attack on the political conditions in England at the time. He has been described as the republican son of an old Cromwellian, uneducated, irreligious, psychologically unbalanced, boorish, immature and a complete failure as a diplomat. The first part of this approach can be traced back to the arguments made by Skeel, the Danish envoy to king William III immediately after the book’s publication. Skeel’s motives were clearly political, though based on Danish law, in that he saw An Account as an attempt to spread unwelcome rumours about Denmark, something that he had received instructions to counter. When his attempts to have it banned by William failed, his material, together with information provided by the court in Copenhagen and assistance from the pastor of the Danish church in London, provided the basis of William King’s Animadversions. Other answers to the book were published, but they clearly did not suit this political agenda and King began the smear campaign on the then superficially anonymous author of An Account. King’s book was translated into French by La Fouleresse to form the basis of his Deffense du Danemark. This appeared in two French editions both of which maintained King’s text, with supplements added to various chapters. More and longer supplements and a new introduction make the second edition more comprehensive, both in its attacks on Molesworth, and in its defence of the members of the Danish court.
Brasch’s role In the 1870s, Brasch, the parish priest attached to a religious foundation at Vemmetofte, 80 kilometres from Copenhagen, combined this information with his own rather hagiographic research into the group of aristocrats who had had connections with his parish at that time, to create the lengthiest study of Molesworth and An Account. His book not only reflects, but has also affected the Danish tradition about Molesworth. By his surmises, conjectures, misunderstandings and mistranslations he amplified the myths which had existed previously and added to their number. The basis of many of these was King’s seemingly innocuous insinuation that Molesworth was very welcome at first, but became at last to be very disagreeable. A suggestion which carefully ignores all the Francophile, Jacobite, subsidy hunting proclivities of most of the Danish court at this time. As in the case of Molesworth’s reception, Brasch ascribed solely to Molesworth, actions and views which he clearly shared with other of the foreign envoys. Brasch’s surmises about his argument with Haxthausen before his departure from Denmark are clearly contradicted by other contemporary material. Overall his book is confusing because of the inconsistencies which he appears to have been able to accept in his explanations and in his religious, political and philosophical beliefs. It is a useful book though for the source material that he actually quotes, often at great length. Otherwise its main use must be as the most comprehensive anthology of the myths about Molesworth.
The myths survive In Denmark these myths have been adopted unquestioned and with the notable exception of Sven Clausen, (who in 1945 asked when the Danes would accept the legacies of their absolutism), An Account has only been interpreted in the light of these views. Their survival could be interpreted as the result of failing to apply the theoretical methods advocated by Danish historical scholarship. These have included the lack of any form of source analysis to the answers that were written to An Account, and the failure to consider the entity of An Account as a relic which can provide knowledge about the conditions in which it originated rather than as solely a source of written information. Nor has anyone ever regarded it as a very early example of a problem-based historical analysis following Harrington’s even earlier lead in the development of his theory to explain the events of the 1640s in England by the change in the pattern of land ownership. The reasons for all this would seem to be the success of the original attack on Molesworth with the implicit message that he was an author who deserved to be ignored. However, despite this, the story has always contained a highly chauvinistic element, with the Danes appearing to triumph over perfidious Albion, and this has undoubtedly made it very popular. With the exception of Bøggild Andersen, although it has been quoted by many academic historians, much of the detailed writing about it has been by retired journalists and clerics rather than active professional historians.
English language
These traditions have had relatively little impact in the English speaking world, except among students of Scandinavian affairs. The approach of Caroline Robbins who included a detailed study of Molesworth in her book The Eighteenth-century Commonwealthman, was different, being through her study of the development of radical Whig thought in Britain and North America. For her An Account marked the appearance of the first generation of her Commonwealthmen, and Molesworth was the one who impressed and influenced the third earl of Shaftesbury, Swift and Hutcheson and whose works inspired the American drafters of the Declaration of Independence as well as the federal and many state constitutions. However Robbins only really described his life after he returned from Denmark. She acknowledged Brasch’s book as the most comprehensive study of Molesworth and suggested that the Whig canon of writers that included Milton, Harrington, Sidney, Neville and Locke had been his main inspiration.
Family background With little direct evidence about Molesworth’s early life, his whole circle of family and friends has been investigated for clues about his circumstances and the extent of ideas and political views similar to his. From this it is clear that all members of his family supported the King during the Civil War in England or as “49ers” in Ireland. After the Restoration, he was brought up in a circle at the very top of the governing hierarchy in Ireland and close to the family of the arch-Tory royalist duke of Ormond. He was well educated, attending both Trinity College in Dublin and Lincoln’s Inn in London. Many parallels can be drawn between his interests and those of his friend William Molyneux who was a disciple of Bacon, a distinguished scientist who corresponded with Locke and the author of a study of the nature of England’s rule of Ireland. Several of his circle, like Molyneux, were members of the Dublin Philosophical Society which was the only scientific society to flourish in Britain outside the Royal Society in London. While Molesworth was not a member, he was obviously greatly influenced by Sir William Petty who was one of the leading lights in this field in both Dublin and London.
John Bysse’s role From his birth his maternal grand-father John Bysse was legally responsible for his upbringing and appears to have been a strong influence on him. He was far from being the grey figure he has been portrayed as. Recent research by Egan and Perceval-Maxwell has shown that as Chief Baron of the Exchequer he will have witnessed great shifts in the centre of effective power within the administration in post-Restoration Ireland close up, and that he was one of the leading members of Irish parliament before the rebellion of 1641. His was a multi-faceted and highly principled person who shared many of the later interests and attitudes of his grand-son. In religion he was low church though highly tolerant of those with different views including Catholics; as a leading parliamentarian he believed in the preeminence of the law and constitution and it is obvious that he attached very great importance to the value of education and to the highest standards of personal and public morality. Molesworth’s range of interests encompassed all of these areas and the rather Irish allusions in An Account to the Earl of Strafford, Sir John Davies’s Discovery of the True Causes . ., Edmund Spenser’s Present State of Ireland as well as to the selection of parliamentary papers included in the collection of family manuscripts, suggest that he was well versed in the events that his grand-father had experienced. Starting in the 1620s, with his roots firmly in the traditions of the Pale, Bysse had witnessed the excesses of the Duke of Buckingham, Archbishop Laud and the Earl of Strafford and after the Restoration he had experienced the battles with Ranelagh and the corrupter elements of the English court for control of the Irish treasury, at very close quarters.
Molesworth’s own experience must have included aspects of the Popish Plot and the Exclusion crisis followed by James II’s reign and Tyrconnell’s expulsion of Protestants from their offices in Ireland during the 1680s. With his large estates he was independent of any office, but in his search for patrons it appears that connections with Ormond’s family may have preceded his visits to the Prince of Orange’s court at The Hague and have kept him detached from Shaftesbury’s brand of Whiggism. This would help account for his political views, which were not republican as he has been branded. All his life he wrote in support of royalty, provided they acted within the law. He supported this with his belief in the Gothic polity. In An Account he displayed a rather idiosyncratic belief in this, placing its occurrence in pre- as well as post-Roman times and extending its influence to Ireland. His ideas also parallel those of the Modus Tenendi Parliamentum, the guide to parliamentary practice with its alleged pre-Norman origins, and also of its derivative Hooker’s Order and Usage which his grand-father will have used as a guide to parliamentary procedures while a member of the Irish parliament. It seems extremely likely that Bysse will have included at least one of these works in Molesworth’s educational curriculum, because his estates gave him interests in two parliamentary seats. This seems especially significant when one considers that a copy of the parallel Irish Modus Tenendi was in the hands of the family of his friend Molyneux and was an important element in his Case of Ireland stated.
 The New
The influence of the Modus also explains Molesworth’s lifelong enthusiasm for education, which he shared with his grand-father and Molyneux who was involved in persuading Locke to have his Thoughts on Education published. It was an important theme in An Account, as in almost all his later works and in his upbringing of his own family. Like the Modus, he wanted to improve the capabilities of those who made the law and represented others in parliament. The ‘new learning’ was also very important to him. All his critics, especially the High-churchmen, noted how he was affected by it and he obviously admired and was influenced by the ideas of Francis Bacon, James Harrington and Sir William Petty. Later in life he attached great value to owning a paper by Petty and An Account contains significant parallels to a number of Petty’s writings, especially his Treatise on Taxes, his Method of Enquiring into the State of any Country and furthermore it includes a direct reference to Graunt’s Observations which Molesworth like many others at the time attributed to Petty.
Economic affairs Molesworth’s obvious admiration for Petty coupled with Hutcheson’s acknowledgement of Molesworth’s assistance and Hutcheson’s role as Adam Smith’s teacher can be the basis of much speculation about possible influence. However the coincidence of very similar views about the principles of taxation in the writings of Petty, Molesworth, Hutcheson and Smith, though it cannot prove a direct line of influence, supports the idea that it did exist. Vivid accounts of the effects of the heavy taxation in Denmark certainly added weight to the views on this subject which he clearly had from Petty. To this might be added the anti-mercantilism, which Caroline Robbins described as such a trait of her Commonwealthmen. Some of Molesworth’s aversion to monopoly, (in both divinity and trade), combined with his dislike of other mercantilist restrictions on trade appears to have stemmed from his, his family’s and his circle’s opposition to colonial legislation like the Irish Cattle Acts which dated back to the 1660s. These were first designed to protect English cattle breeders by restricting the import of live cattle from Ireland. His interests in agriculture and economic affairs continued throughout his life and are underlined by his service as one of the commissioners of the Council of Trade and Plantations and his tract Considerations for promoting agriculture.
The enigma of Col. John
One of the more enigmatic results of this research has been the discovery of the role of the colourful Colonel John Scott of Long Island. Most famous for his hounding by Pepys, it is clear that he did not write An Account as has been suggested, but previously he had been more responsible than anyone else for the taking of Nieuw Amsterdam from the Dutch and was the first President of anywhere in North America. Exactly how much he influenced Molesworth, or his friends Molyneux and Hutcheson, in the longer term is impossible to tell. However, it is a fascinating coincidence in the development of colonial thought, that Molesworth, who must have acquired so much knowledge about the governance of Ireland under the later Stuart kings, would have been able to discuss his ideas with an astonishingly similarly minded enthusiast who had gained remarkably complementary experience on the field, on the seas and in the council chambers of the New World as well in many of the courts of Europe.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s