The (Anglo-) Irishness of
Robert Molesworth’s Commonwealthsman views.(1)
(Paper given at The Molesworth Circle Session, part of the 10th International
|The phrase Citizen of the world has been taken as reflecting the cosmopolitan aspects of the Enlightenment. Im Hof for example quotes it as being used by Pierre Bayle and also by Schiller.(2)
Molesworth used the expression in the Preface to his translation of Franco-Gallia, (but elsewhere in the same piece he also referred to Bayle’s Historical Dictionary).
However the same expression had been used by two earlier
Molesworth followed his use of the phrase with a paragraph
Caroline Robbins has provided the most significant study of Molesworth’s first book An Account of Denmark as it was in the year 1692. (4) She saw it as pivotal in the development of Commonwealthman, radical Whig, thought. According to her he inherited his ideas from the Whig Canon (that includes Milton, Harrington, Sidney, Neville and Locke) and they were passed down through two following generations who were represented in the Scottish Enlightenment and amongst the founders of the American republic. For her An Account was:(5)
In fact it became a best-seller of the time. Paul Ries uncovered the details of its success both in Britain and on the continent.(6) Five editions were published during the first year – 1694. (One was in French). Thirteen had been published by 1697 (including Dutch more French and German), and by 1752, twenty-two editions had been published. At 1s 6d, it was three times the price of Locke’s Two Treatises which only sold four editions before 1700.
There were two independent, contemporary responses. One was by Jodacus Crull MD, an impoverished German emigre doctor and a member of the Royal Society. He described it as “a panegyrick of liberty, his native country and the ancient Greeks and Romans.” Both he and an Oxford clergyman, called Rogers, who had rather Filmeresque views, highlighted its author’s “new learning,” but clearly their approaches did not fit with the Danish authorities ideas of how to counter such a book.(7)
Two responses sponsored by the Danish authorities were more the work of committees. They used ridicule to attack his character and claimed the book fell into two distinct parts; British politics and the description of Denmark. They downplayed its criticism of absolute rule and claimed his views derived from the Civil War and the regicides.(8)
More modern assessments have classified him as the epitome of post-revolutionary (English) Whiggism.
Pocock introduced the term the “neo-Harringtonians” to describe those ascribed to a modified form of Harrington’s ideas. In contrast to Robbins, Pocock scarcely mentions Molesworth, seeing him presumably as semi-detached from his friends Toland, Gordon and particularly Trenchard who he describes as a key figure among the neo-Harringtonians. However in his paper The Varieties of Whiggism, Pocock after mentioning Robbins descriptions of Trenchard, Toland, Molesworth and Molyneux, suggested that “the character of Irish Whiggism might repay study at even greater length.”(9)
Paul Ries investigated especially An Account’s influence on continental writers like Pierre Bayle. He laid great stress on the contemporary comment that Molesworth represented l’esprit anglois. (which he contrasted with the High-Church l’esprit d’Oxford ), and especially by the comment of Bayle’s pupil, Raabus who saw An Account as representing the ideals of liberty and toleration “riding on the pen of an Englishman”!(10)
For all this Englishness, I would like to highlight a number of Irish allusions in An Account – which others have paid little attention to, even though a number of his contemporaries did make comments on his Irishness: A Danish critic described “His savage sense of humour which he had from Ireland.” – and Stepney, who was the legation secretary in Berlin, wrote that “Mr Molesworth is an impertinent Zealot, . . . . none but Irishmen would give credit to his . . . information:(11)
One of his very few explicit references is to one of Petty’s writings – he registered his disagreement with Sir William Petty – a rather obscure reference, about the medicating properties of smog. There are also several implicit references to other of Petty’s works – Petty was a founding member of the Dublin Philosophical Society together with several of Molesworth’s friends and relatives.
In summarising the effects of the introduction of arbitrary government in Denmark, Molesworth used a biblical quotation about “the little finger of an absolute prince. . . .” – a direct allusion to one of the charges against Strafford at his trial in 1641.(12)
He described the Danish language as “very ungrateful, and not unlike the Irish in its whining complaining tone.” This has led to comments about which particular Danish dialect he might have heard. However as a description of the Irish language this is a parallel to one made by Sir John Davies in his Discovery of the True Causes . . . (1612) of which Molesworth definitely had a copy.(13)
In a chapter on which his critics had a real field-day, he described the origins of the Gothic constitution and had it apply to Ireland. His ideas about the development of the Gothic Polity are rather idiosyncratic and he appears to have melded the ideas of tanistry and the selection of captains from Spenser’s A View of the Present State of Ireland with the ideas of the Swedish Magnus brothers in their writings of the Goths in Sweden and information from Pitt’s English Atlas. The overall result is an anthropological conjectural history as used by later members of the Scottish Enlightenment. Dugald Stewart and David Hume.
He also compared the size of Denmark with the size of Ireland and displayed an interesting awareness of the role of peripheral areas in reflecting the style of government. –
Here he was referring to Jutland as being remote from Copenhagen but implicitly I would suggest the comparisons of Ireland as opposed to England, and the Pale in relation to Dublin. The Danes objected to his conclusion, though the observation possibly comes from Tacitus.
His family on both his father’s and his mother’s sides had not been Parliamentarians in the Civil War, as several writers have claimed, but were supporters of the King. (His father died days before his birth.) Later there were very few links between his family and the Shaftesbury Whigs, but major links to the arch Tory Duke of Ormond.
His grandfather Chief Baron of the Exchequer Judge Bysse, who had some responsibility for his upbringing, was (as we shall see) not as grey and insignificant a person as has been portrayed.
Caroline Robbins put him as distinct from Molyneux and his more Irish tradition. Like other writers she suggests his inspiration came from (English) writers from the period after the death of Charles I. Nor does she integrate his ideas on education with his politics.
In histhesis Finance and the Government of Ireland, 1660-85, Sean Egan refocused attention away from being centred on the role and actions of the lords lieutenant, who become little more than figureheads – to viewing events through a financial perspective.(14) As a by-product, this places Chief Baron Bysse in a very prominent position on the Irish political stage – as he will have been one of the most senior members of the Irish administration in the dealings with the increasingly important English treasury officials.
Perceval-Maxwell’s study of the Irish Parliament of 1641 also alters our view of John Bysse.(15)
John and Robert Bysse both attended Lincoln’s Inn in London during the period of the first parliaments of Charles I’s reign (the ones which focussed so much against Buckingham’s misuse of power) and some of the key speeches from the 1628 sitting were included amongst the family manuscripts.
What is indicative for the effect of this on Molesworth is not just the way these ideas were transmitted to him through his grandfather, but also the parallel of the way in which his friend William Molyneux adopted similar ideas in his book The Case of Ireland , without acknowledging their origin. Caldicott has suggested that Darcy’s royalist-Catholic attitudes would not have been acceptable in the Ireland of William III. They would have been considered Jacobite and it would have created difficulties for Protestant advocates of Irish constitutional issues like Molyneux to allude explicitly to his work.(17)
There are other parallels between An Account and Molyneux’s Case of Ireland. Both refer to the Gothic constitution and there is also the Modus Tenendi Parliamentum. Molyneux used a copy of the Irish version of this, which was in his family’s possession, to underline some of his argument. Molesworth’s use of it is more implicit and indirect. However its legacy seems to tie together the pieces of his and his grandfather’s views. When John Bysse first sat in the Irish parliament in 1634 copies of John Hooker’s Order and Usage were issued as the guide to parliamentary practice. Hooker had written it in 1572 basing it on an English edition of the Modus, (which has now been dated to 1321, even though it refers to conditions before the conquest in its preamble.(18))
The Modus and the Order and Usage reflect the constitutional role of the king, and the revisionary role of parliament. Indeed considering The Modus’s purported age and contents it seems possible that he regarded it as an embodiment of the ancient constitution. Both books also emphasise the importance of educated representatives and focus on the government of the Athenians, Romans and Spartans. Molesworth too laid much stress on the civic humanist goals of classical education and the practical aspects of learning. “what place is there for punies, rash heddes and yung men, who have no learning, and lesse experience, . . . . . nor having any regarde at all to the publique weale?”(19)
Grand-father Bysse also had distinct views about education. He was one of the original trustees of Erasmus Smith’s schools in Ireland which were founded in 1657. Erasmus Smith was one of the most successful of the Adventurers in the draw for Irish Land, but used some of the income to improve Protestant education in England, Ireland and N America. He believed that the rebellion had been due to the lack of education, manners and the fear of God. Bysse also left money in his will to the Blue Coats School in Dublin – which stood for the practical application of education.
His and his family’s financial interests and background were founded on those of The Pale and the Dublin Administration. His maternal grandfather was a third generation English in the Irish administration married into a similar family. They had little interest in aggressive plantations and colonisation.
It is difficult to fit him into the normal Anglo-Irish colonial / religious agenda. He did want to recruit Huguenot settlers to his estates at Philipstown, but then he wanted them on his estate near Doncaster too! And then we have his iconoclastic ideas of setting up agricultural schools without distinctions of religion where only good manners and husbandry (and not religion) would be taught and his proposal that the public should pay the salaries of the catholic priests.
He once wrote “I cannot accuse my self of any dishonest action during my whole life”. How much salt you choose to add to this and his other views must be a matter of taste. But Dr Jodacus Crull wasn’t too far off the mark when he described An Account as “a panegyrick of liberty, his native country and the ancient Greeks and Romans.”
Politically Molesworth described himself variously as a “True,” “Genuine,” “Old,” “Real,” “Right,” “High,” Whig, or a Commonwealthsman. He accepted that the latter term had come to be understood as meaning a “Hater of Kingly government;” but he emphasised an older – the Elizabethan understanding of the word Commonwealth and he constantly referred to maintaining, preserving, conserving, and recovering Liberty and the Ancient Constitution – The Gothic Polity – government under the law.
He was certainly a patriot – “Duty to ones country” is mentioned 5 times in the Preface alone and he chose “Vincit amor patriæ” [The love of country will be victorious ] both for the title page of An Account and years later as his motto on his coat of arms.
Education was an integral part of his political ideas and was referred to in virtually all his writings. As an approach this seems highly compatible with his anthropological approach to the development of society.
He was clearly against excessive taxation, standing armies,
He was in favour of promoting the arts of peace rather than those of war. In other words economic development – he was for free trade and was against monopolies (both in trade and divinity)!!
There are definite Irish roots in his writing, the parallels with his grandfather’s ideas are quite striking and he clearly looked back to a golden period of liberty and good government.
One of the problems here is the tendency of historians to divide their explanations up into tidy periods with distinct watersheds and often their own terminology. Or to confuse matters, even to use same term in different periods with different understandings. For example in the 1720s Molesworth complained about the New English, but he was clearly not referring to the Elizabethan New English . They were to be distinguished from the Old English, but themselves later became the Old Protestants!
But what is most relevant for categorising Molesworth’s and Bysse’s views is that Beckett has suggested that during their metamorphosis from New English to Old Protestants, some of them (and it would seem especially the lawyers) adopted the attitudes of the Old English of the Pale becoming Perceval-Maxwell’s Constitutionalists. The parallels with the ideas which developed within Brady’s “Community of the Pale” are considerable. Brendan Bradshaw has also described the humanism and the commonwealth liberalism which was the legacy of the Sixteenth Century Constitutional Revolution in Ireland:(20)
To conclude, we can compare his ideas and ideal with some of the characteristic elements of late sixteenth and early seventeenth century Palesman beliefs:
To put this last characteristic in some perspective, James I
|1. Paper given at “The Molesworth Circle” Session, part of the Tenth International Congress on the Enlightenment,
University College Dublin, 25-31 July 1999. Of the four papers presented at this session James G. O’Hara’s paper entitled Leibniz on the Liberty of the English is also available online. Abstracts of most of the papers given at the conference are available online at the conference website.
3. Hotoman, Francis Franco-Gallia; An Account of the ancien free State of France and most other Parts of Europe before of the loss of their liberties. Translated and with preface attributed to Molesworth, London, (1721), pp 14-15
6. Ries, Paul “Robert Molesworth’s ‘Account of Denmark’ – A study in the art of political publishing and bookselling in England and on the Continent before 1700.” Scandinavica (Vol. 7, no. 2 – Nov 1968).
11. “manieres rustiques, aux emportements, et à l’humeur farouche qu’il a apporté d’Irlande.” Deffense, p 244. PRO SP 105/82 (Stepney’s letterbook) f.98 29 Dec
12. Acct. p 73. Article 2 of the bill of impeachment in May 1641, charged Strafford with having said ‘that the king’s little finger should be thicker than the loins of the law’. – quoted in Peck, Court Patronage and Corruption in Early Stuart England, (1990)
20. Brady, Ciaran The Chief Governors – The rise and fall of reform government in Tudor Ireland 1536-1588, Cambridge, (1994). Bradshaw, Brendan The Irish Constitutional Revolution of the Sixteenth Century,