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The Exclusion Crisis, 1678-81, and the Earl of Shaftesbury

Joshua Shotton defends a much-maligned statesman.

Anthony Ashley Cooper, the first Earl of Shaftesbury, is an atypical figure in our history, and for this reason his true character, personality and motivations have eluded almost all those who have written about him. He has remained an enigma, perhaps because of that reserve and impenetrability which Richelieu describes as the most valuable gift for a politician. If he is remembered at all as an individual, it is through Dryden’s masterfully executed character assassination of him, as ‘In friendship false, implacable in hate,/ Resolved to ruin or to rule the state’. A more reasoned, though still deeply hostile, sketch was written by Lord Peterborough in Succint Genealogies: ‘he was as proud as Lucifer, and Ambitious beyond whatever entered the designs of any Man; impatient of every Power but his own, of any Man’s reputation’. Such is the typicality of this analysis, that, as Timothy Eustace has written, ‘few politicians have aroused as much venomous hatred as ... Shaftesbury’.

An Evil Reputation

One reason for Shaftesbury’s ongoing reputation as inconsistent, ruthlessly ambitious and unprincipled is the unfortunate destruction of most of hispapers (lest Charles II’s government use them to secure his conviction), which might have balanced the derision he received from others. Unlike Strafford and Cromwell, Clarendon and Danby, Halifax and Walpole, Shaftesbury did not leave enough evidence after his wretched death, in exile in the Netherlands, for historians to see events through his eyes. Thus he has been seen through the observations of others, in prose or in doggerel, primarily the Tory satirists, hack-writers and pamphleteers who so relished scorning the tube in his side which let his abscess, supposedly the result of fornication, drain (‘a silver tap, through which ... doth strain ... both excrements and brain’).

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